By Gabrielle Gardiner
“To us?” he offered with a heartwarming smile that complimented his deeply tanned wrinkles. “To us,” I replied definitively, grinning as I lifted my narrow champagne glass to clink his ever so gracefully. As we sipped and gazed out at the glistening bay, listening to the subtle chatter of people nearby enjoying their meals, I couldn’t help but think of how lucky I was to be celebrating the achievement of my lifelong dream with my best friend.
You see, a decade ago, I would have thought you were crazy if you told me that my father and I would ever have such a close relationship. Because to be honest, before my father sent me away, I never really knew him. Throughout my childhood, my mom had always been my hero. Back then I had only seen my dad as a workaholic; the picture-perfect businessman straight from the offices of Wall Street who cared more about his career than his family. I remember constantly wondering why my mother had fallen in love with such a boring, serious man when she was his polar opposite.
I’ll always remember the time my mother and I built a tree house together when I was just seven years old. It’s still at the edge of the property where I grew up, weathered from years of Pennsylvania precipitation. As an adventurous second grader with a sky wide imagination, I had begged my parents for my own hideaway among the canopy of branches in our cherry blossom tree. My father originally said he would install one, but the weeks passed and his excuses only became more pathetic. So one weekend when my father was away, my mother and I set to work ourselves, piecing the tree house together, plank by plank. As simple as it sounds, it’s one of my fondest remembrances. To this day, my father still lives in our large house on that property, which is so rich with memories of her.
My mother had been everything to me, so when I heard the news of her death as a vulnerable teenager, my life shattered before me like the broken glass from the car accident that killed her. It had happened two days after finishing my junior year- a traumatizing start to the summer. Without my mom, I was lost. The vacancy in my heart couldn’t be restored, not with any amount of flowers, hugs or sympathy cards. After her passing I grew more and more distant from the rest of the world. I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone anymore, not even my best friend, Lila. I was succumbed to the anguish and resentment that I struggled to express. Well that is, until I picked up my guitar.
You see, song writing had become a secret pleasure of mine ever since I learned how to play the guitar. Music came easily to me, and I thrilled at being able to create my own melodies. But at that point I lacked the confidence to share my songs, so I hid my passion and talent. Not even my mother had known of my burning desire to someday release my own album. The only place I would write my music was in the tree house, in complete solitude.
Once I had found the outlet for my emotions, I completely immersed myself. I wrote a collection of fifteen songs over the course of the six days after my mother died. My severe depression and all the time I spent alone in the tree house concerned my grieving father, and caused him to bring up the idea of having me stay with Mimi for the summer. According to my father, Mimi LaFonte was an old friend who my parents had stayed in touch with throughout the years. Apparently before my mother passed away, she had invited the three of us to stay at her vineyard for some time during the summer. Of course our plans of going as a family changed due to my mother’s unexpected death, but my father thought I could at least take up her offer and go by myself. You’d think I would have been reluctant, but to be honest I was at the point where I just wanted to escape all the remnants of the trauma. So when he said I’d be travelling to the South of France to spend the summer, it seemed like the perfect way for me to get away. At the time it had almost seemed like he was just trying to get rid of me, but in hindsight I can see he had my best interest in mind.
Now, I hope you don’t get the wrong idea here. I certainly wasn’t enthusiastic about taking a plane to another continent in my darkest hour. In fact, I was still so upset, I felt as if I was sleepwalking through life- going through the motions with no real purpose. The loneliness of traveling solo was unbearable. And the fact that I hadn’t brought my guitar along haunted me- how was I supposed to get by without it? I’ll never forget the intense isolation I felt on that flight across the vast Atlantic. It made me start to second-guess everything. After all, I had never been out of the country, I only knew a little French and I had no idea who Mimi really was. What was I getting myself into?
“Bonjour mon amie! Tu es Caitlyn, n’est-ce pas?” cried Mimi as I headed towards the Air France conveyor belt to pick up the rest of my luggage.
“Oui, et bonjour- you must be Mimi,” I replied tentatively, surprised that this Mimi stranger recognized me right away. “You bet, Hon” said Mimi, effortlessly transitioning into a perfectly American accent. She was a burst of vibrance with her unruly corkscrew curls and bubbly, easy-going personality. Without warning, she embraced me in a tight hug.
“It’s so wonderful to finally meet you! How are you holding up?” Her genuine concern was conspicuous.
“Hanging in there, I guess,” I said quietly, silently begging that she wouldn’t hound me with any more questions at the moment. I knew she was only being kind, but I was already drained and in no mood to discuss any of the recent happenings. As if reading my mind, Mimi dropped the subject, making friendly conversation instead. She started giving me tidbits about where she lived, reminding me of some common French expressions I should know, and rambling on about how excited she was to have me visit. Immediately I thought of my mother when I picked up on her caring, maternal vibe. Before I knew it, we were approaching her place, where I’d be spending my time for the next month or so.
“Alors, allons-y dans la maison!” cried Mimi, delighted as we made our way up the stone path to the front door. The exterior of the house was breathtaking, a Spanish-style façade enhanced by exquisite French statues, and an arch entranceway which was intertwined with tangled budding lavender vines.
“Wow,” I said, incredulous. I was accustomed to a high quality of living because of my father’s income, but never before in my life had I been exposed to such European flavor.>
“So, what do you think?” She asked me after she finished leading me through. It was a pretty big house, which included a wine tasting hall and lounge, a huge old-fashioned kitchen, four bedrooms, four bathrooms, and an extravagant wine cellar. Then just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, she showed me the outdoor courtyard. Standing under the cool shade of an antique style awning, I silently marveled at the expansive rows of plump grapes and spidery vines that shone under the European sun.
“It’s amazing,” I finally said. And for just one moment, I let myself put my worries aside and relax, inhaling the sweetness of the sparkling afternoon. Gently awakening me from my daze, Mimi added, “Oh and I almost forgot- I have a few people for you to meet,” and she graciously introduced me to the laborers of the vineyard, and her housekeeper Anne. I was so overwhelmed by the kindness and the beauty of it all, I began to sob. I hated crying in front of people I barely knew, especially for no apparent reason, but I couldn’t stop. Mimi took one look at my tear-stained face and without asking any questions, sat down beside me and cradled me in her arms. I kept apologizing for breaking down, but she just smiled sagely and told me to let it all out.
Mimi and I talked for hours that night, and it felt so good just to have someone to hear me out. Looking back, I find it hard to believe how quickly I connected with Mimi once I arrived. You see, as a teenager I was pretty reserved. But I guess when you mix someone who’s an emotional wreck with a soulful, compassionate mother-like figure, miracles are possible.
Anyway, that night had been the first of many midnight chats Mimi and I would have together. About a week or so passed, and I was pretty used to my surroundings. Often I’d spend my days helping out around the vineyard, going on excursions to the historic city nearby, or to the beautiful forest and lake at the end of the road. Everything was so picturesque, and without the constant reminders of my deceased mother and mourning father, I felt like I could almost enjoy myself.
My relationship with Mimi only became stronger the more we talked. One of the most memorable conversations we had was towards the end of my stay. Full-bellied and sleepy after a delicious meal in the darkening courtyard, I started to get up to get ready for bed, when Mimi asked me if I had a moment to spare.
“Of course,” I answered, curious about what she had to say. She seemed like such a dynamic person, but up until that point I hadn’t heard any specifics about her personal life or her relationship with my parents before. Mimi ushered me indoors, to her bedroom, where she leaned down to pull out a dusty, tan leather guitar case from under her bed. I watched as she carefully unsheathed a gorgeous mahogany acoustic guitar, complete with a bright floral guitar strap that someone might have seen at Woodstock. Mimi stroked its slightly roughed up exterior, and sighed wistfully.
“So, you must be wondering why I’m showing this to you,” she asked with a nostalgic gleam in her eye. I nodded, intrigued.
“Well this may be hard to believe, but this guitar really belongs to all three of us. That is, your mother, your father and I.” I gave her a dubious look. Did she say my father? The same guy who hunched over Stock Market statistics 24/7 used to play the guitar? I mean, my mother, I could understand- she had always been a lover of the arts, and naturally gifted at them. But she had never mentioned this guitar before. Thinking of her pulled my most vulnerable heartstring. Before I could think it over any longer, Mimi continued her story with a smile.
“You see your parents were high school love birds, and being your mother’s best friend, I was always the third wheel. So, the three of us spent countless afternoons together hanging out during our senior year, and since we were all music fanatics we came up with an idea to start our own little band,” Mimi paused, fondly recollecting.
“So wait, my parents met in high school? I’m so surprised they never told me! I always assumed they met after college,” I rambled on.
“Oh no, dear, they were a steady couple at eighteen. Even through college they made their relationship work. There was no stopping them, I tell ya. They really were soul mates,” Mimi said. Suddenly I felt like I barely knew the people who gave me life. Soul mates? There were lists of questions swirling around in my head- but I couldn’t get one word in before Mimi started speaking again.
“But anyhoo, this guitar here, we all chipped in to buy for me to play in our little ensemble. Your mother sang, your father played the drums. We played tons of Beatles songs and even wrote a few of our own. Oh, and let me see if it’s still in there…” Mimi said as she squeezed her hand between the strings into the hollow body of the guitar, feeling around of something.
“Yes, got it!” She said as she pulled out a tattered, sepia tone Polaroid photo with what looked like writing covering every square inch of space on the back.
“That was us,” she explained, chuckling. I examined the picture in wonder. It was of a young, barely recognizable mom and dad playing air guitars, while Mimi stuck out her tongue and imitated the Rolling Stones right next to them. The background was what looked like a garage with a stereo system, drum set and the same guitar case that was next to me now, scattered across the room. The writing on the back was fading and slightly smudged, but I could still make out lyrics of what must have been their favorite song, “Let It Be”, and each of their names signed in blue pen on the bottom.
“Wow,” was all I could say. My mind was having a hard time digesting it all. It was like Mimi was reintroducing me to my parents- especially my father. You see, looking at my dad acting crazy and carefree in the past made me realize that I never gave my father a chance. I had automatically assumed he was strictly a businessman who wanted little to do with me, and I didn’t take a close look at the other side of him. I rarely initiated conversation with him, and the times we did talk I was always preoccupied. All these sudden revelations I was having started making me feel guilty for not being a good daughter. All along I had blamed him for our distant relationship. But now I was starting to see how wrong of me that was. Any relationship is a two-way street. Why didn’t I realize that earlier?? I continued to study the photo, deep in thought. Then suddenly I felt hot wet tears streaming down my face, and I saw Mimi grabbing a tissue box.
Honey, I’m sorry. I should have known better than to get into all this right now. I really didn’t mean to make you upset,” Mimi gave me a supportive hug and started putting the guitar away.
“Hold on,” I choked out the words. “Please. Keep it out,” I said through broken sobs. Mimi kept it out, giving me a sympathetic look. Pull yourself together! I thought to myself. After taking a cleansing deep breath, I continued.
“Mimi, trust me, it’s not you or the guitar that’s making me cry. It’s just I have so much to sort out in my mind now… but really, you have no idea how much you’ve just helped me. Through that one sweet story- which you probably just told me to be sentimental- you’ve completely changed my life. Not to be dramatic or anything,” I finished with a sweet half-smile. “Of course, not dramatic at all,” Mimi said smiling back in a slightly sarcastic way, to be comical.
“You see Mimi,” I said in a matter-of-fact way. “I’m finally piecing it all together. My passion for song writing and music makes sense now, and my father- he really isn’t the person I thought he was. You might think I’m just going crazy but-”
“Oh Caitlyn, I’d never think you were crazy,” Mimi said gently.” “I’m just so proud of you for being so receptive. Personally I don’t think I could have handled it all as well as you did.”
I smiled at the ground, shy about the compliment. “Thanks,” I replied. I was just about to head to bed when Mimi stopped me again in my tracks.
“Caitlyn, I’ve decided I’m going to give this to you,” said Mimi, and I could detect sureness about her decision in her voice.
“No, but Mimi that’s your special-”
“Please Caitlyn, take it, for me.” Perplexed, I took the guitar case reluctantly. It felt right, holding it in my hands. DRRIIIING! DRRIIIING!! The phone rang obnoxiously in the next room, interrupting our intimate moment.
“It has to be my sister; she’s flying back from Tokyo today- sorry to be so abrupt,” Giving me one last quick hug she rushed for the phone. With a mind filled to the brim with ideas and a new guitar, I immediately went to my room and plopped down on the bed, legs crossed, and picked up the pad and pen laying there. Within seconds I was immersed in my song writing- a slur of poetic words and melodies telling my story. Strumming my guitar hour after hour, I wrote until midnight, until I collapsed on the bed and fell into a deep slumber.
A lot of the songs on my CD were ones that I wrote that final week I stayed with Mimi. She helped me get the notes on paper and showed me tons of new chords. Well, it turns out all the time spent paid off- you see after I came home, everything started happening so fast. It all started after my dad picked me up from the airport.
When my father, patiently waiting by the airport gate, saw me with the old familiar guitar as a carry-on, his expression slowly shifted into a sincere smile.
“Dad!” I called to him, as I spotted him amongst the crowd of eagerly leaving passengers, and rushed towards him. I have to admit that was the first time I had ever felt excited to see my father. Right away I dropped my carry-ons and gave him a huge hug. Thanks to spending three and a half weeks with Mimi, giving hugs were second nature to me now, instead of them being some awkward gesture I never bothered with.
He hugged me back, surprised, and without hesitation said, “Oh Caitlyn, you can’t imagine how much I missed you,” he said earnestly. “How was it?”
“Fantastic!! I don’t know where to begin!” I was teeming with happiness and tons of stories to tell. Usually I’d want to tell my mom or best friends all the details and limit the conversation with my father, but something had changed within me over the course of my foreign excursion. You see, Mimi had opened my eyes to see the real man who I called dad. I know that it must sound excessively corny- but it’s the truth. Because after another slew of lengthy talks, I got to know my dad on a new level- and my respect and appreciation for him sky rocketed.
It was shocking how we built on our relationship so rapidly, but soon enough we nearly forgot what it had been like to be strangers. Now I’m twenty-six and living on my own, calling my dad up every day is about as routine for me as brushing my teeth. It had been through our common love of music that we really bonded, and he helped me nurture our shared passion throughout my senior year. I give my father and Mimi tons of credit for allowing me to come out of my shell and unleash my inner ability. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been able to make the record deal with one of the biggest music producers in the industry, and live my dream. Ever since my first hit album came out, called “Holding On”, I’ve had this insatiable desire to keep writing songs, which still thrives today. In between composing new songs, I travel as often as I can, and I’m really looking forward to my tour in France this May. No doubt I’m making a surprise pit stop at Mimi’s.
Even though I still harbor the pain from my mother’s sudden death, I feel like I can rest assured that she’s looking over me with pride. And while Mimi and my dad have played huge roles in my success, I can’t help but think my mom had quite a lot to do with it, too.