I didn’t really get into Joni Mitchell until recently. She and Bob Dylan always occupied the same place in my brain, the one reserved for artists whom everyone likes so much that it would become uncomfortable to say anything bad about them. If there’s anything I love a lot of, it’s comfort. So I would go along, say “Blue” is brilliant, because no one likes you as much as when you are validating their own opinion about something. But I never really got it.
I gave “Blue” a relisten after many years and found it incredibly moving. This was a big change for me because I love music that is extremely loud and full of rage. Listening to “Blue” felt more circumspect. It was like looking out the back window of a departing car at something, trying to fix it in your mind in case you don’t return.
Seeing my grandma Jeanette gives me similar feelings. She has Alzheimer’s, so she doesn’t remember me. It’s also hard to communicate because she mostly speaks only French now, peppered with some northern Thai dialect. It’s like she’s a locked box and I don’t have the key. She is occasionally happy to let me sit next to her in the living room. I am happy to spend time with her in any way that makes her happy.
I prefer to think of her as the elegant, intelligent woman who spoke three languages and loved diamonds, Thai silk suits and good French food. All the same, everything I know about my grandmother is stuff I remember from many years ago and information from other people. What I do know for sure is that my grandmother was born Jeanette Thibault in Luang Prabang, to a French government official and a Laotian woman. Her mother died soon after she was born and she was raised by relatives. A photo of her still sits by my grandmother’s bed. I have never seen a picture of her father.
In her late teens, my grandmother moved to Thailand to be a Christian missionary. That is where she met my grandfather, Tongdee Duangnet, one of 10 children in a family that had been Christian for two generations and in Chiang Rai for far longer.
My grandparents were together for many decades — nuer koo, the Thai phrase for “soul mate”, is what I think of when I think of them. My grandfather Tongdee passed away of cancer far too soon, but he always stayed in my grandmother’s thoughts. One of the last conversations I remember having with her was when she let out a little exclamation as I was clearing something away and grabbed my hand. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she said when I asked her if there was something wrong. “It’s just that your hands look just like your grandfather’s, with the rounded palms.” I never knew my grandfather, or that my hands were any different from anyone else’s, but when I look at my hands now, I always think of him. That was a gift from her.
Another gift was a love of French food. As irritating, as pretentious, as cliched as French culinary experiences can be, I remain an unrepentant Francophile. After all, I spent a year in Paris in cooking school for my honeymoon. (Not a fun Cordon Bleu one, either, but a full-on French one with much-younger French students and instructors who get really mad when you throw away butter). How much of that love was nurtured by my grandmother, grew out of my own pretensions, or was borne by the blood of my own French ancestors, I can’t say.
I can say it started with an omelet. It’s the only thing my grandmother ever cooked for me, and it came at a typically terrible time, when I was 10 years old and desired nothing more than to be fully American. All I wanted were some eggs. But she made me a perfect oval of an unblemished, uniform yellow, pinched at both ends and garnished at the top with snipped chives, crossed like tiny swords. I ate it with ketchup.
When I got older and was living in Thailand, I discovered that my grandmother was only too happy to sit with me in a French restaurant, any time I wished. It was a two-way street — I was the only person, she said, who wanted to eat French food as much as she did. From then on, I would scan the city for promising French restaurants, planning when and where to take my grandmother the next time she came to town. Would it make her happy? Would the food here be up to scratch? It’s something I still do today.
Writing this now, I realize it was simply her way of spending time with me, in any way that made me happy.