The first time I visited Paris, I sat in a pew inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame on the day I turned seventeen and let a few tears fall, my gratitude made substance for being in this impossible place at this remarkable time.
The second time I visited Paris, I was newly divorced, reclaiming the rubble of my life and rebuilding it on my own terms. While Our Lady watched from across the city, a Frenchman in Montmartre held my hand for a moment and reminded me that, well, all of me, was still alive.
The third time I visited Paris, I wasn’t sure who I was anymore, and I was desperate to find some shred of myself, a particle left drifting on the wind through those sky-grazing stone towers, anything to reassure myself that something of what I was before was still there.
I’d become a mother rather unexpectedly a little more than a year before, and as many mothers find, while I was desperately in love with my child, the diapers and middle-of-the-night wakings and whirring of the breast pump I hooked up to in order to feed him crushed my sense of identity. I lived to help my son live, and I wasn’t sure what else there was anymore.
But then my sister left to study abroad in the city where my soul resides, and nothing but my burning jealousy could have convinced me to leave my 15-month-old son for a week’s jaunt to a foreign country.
And so here I was, in La Belle Paris once more. Would the city remember me? I certainly remembered the city, and my tongue even remembered enough of the language to get by. And yet I found my eyes catching things they hadn’t before. That’s another thing about motherhood—different things matter afterward. In any case, the thing I kept noticing this time was the pigeons.
I took note of the two most common reactions to the congregations swarming the square in front of the cathedral (or really any other place in Paris). Amusement mingled with amazement at their sheer audacity is one of them, and it is usually reserved for tourists. The other is indignant annoyance, usually combined with a vigorous shooing hand motion or the harsh thwap of a menu or a book or a newspaper. This is best observed in outdoor cafés, where waiters have perfected the form.
A third category, much smaller in both number and stature, is the fascinated child, who sees the pigeons as an odd sort of temporary pet meant to be chased around whilst giggling.
These are the three largest divisions of pigeon interaction, but there is a fourth, and it is the true rare bird of pigeon-related behavior: the elderly man or woman who insists on feeding these avian creatures, considered by many to be nothing more than rats with wings. These folks are content to sit amongst hordes of them, while in fact encouraging the birds to come closer. They remain nearly motionless, living statues, save the occasional toss of a handful of seed onto the ground.
On my third trip, perhaps this time because I was seeing things differently, my eyes settled on one such woman as I looked down upon the square from one of the towers of Notre Dame. Admittedly, I’d never given these eccentrics much thought. But from the gargoyle’s eye view, I was suddenly stricken with curiosity. What possesses any given person to adopt such behavior? I myself fall into the Amused Tourist category when it comes to pigeons, but admittedly, when more than three approach I start imagining Hitchcock-esque scenes and quickly add space between myself and the feathered beasts.
But this woman had to have been keeping company with at least fifty if not a hundred, in front, behind, and some even sitting on the bench right next to her. I was a little baffled, and no small part of me was rather frightened for her safety.
I went to tap my sister’s shoulder to show her the spectacle, but she was engrossed in taking pictures of a particularly gruesome stone monster. I turned back only to see something even more bizarre. A mass of pigeons was hovering in a column of sorts, only a few paces from the woman. I peered at the strange pillar, annoyed that I was too high up to see clearly, and for the first time I pitied the chimerae who surrounded me, always watching from this dead space between heaven and earth.
But then the mass began to change before my eyes. Whether it was some sort of cognitive process catching up to reality or—I’m not ashamed to suggest—a bit of magic happening on the ground, I cannot say with any certainty, but I know what I choose to believe. The pillar of pigeons somehow broke apart and came together at the same time, until it was no longer pigeons but a man, matched in age to the woman on the bench. He wore a Bogey-style hat, and a pigeon sat on top of it. His arms were outstretched, and there were three pigeons on each. The woman did not run away frightened or jump up with excitement. She simply remained on the bench, her face turned toward the man, as if she expected nothing less and nothing more. I could not see her expression from my position, but it must have been welcoming, as the man sat down beside her, displacing some of his avian companions, though they did not seem to mind. On the contrary, they seemed to make room for him, as if they accepted him as an equal, just as deserving of the woman’s attention as they were.
Before I could make sense of what I was seeing, we were siphoned into another stairwell leading to the very top of the tower. From there, I could see all of Paris, but the woman, her pigeons, and her mysterious companion were gone. The bench was empty, and whatever I’d just witnessed (the French word rendezvous seems to fit) remained only in my memory.
I have no proof of what I saw, no proof it was real, no proof it wasn’t. But I didn’t need any of that. What I’d needed was to remember that magic and whimsy live not only in the majestic, but also in the mundane—maybe especially there. Notre Dame is of course much more the former than the latter, but she represents a mother herself. Mothers know the mundane all too well and better than most. And that day, Notre Dame did remember me. She recognized me for who I’d been and who I had become and I dare say who I might yet be. And from one mother to another, she imparted this knowledge: that the luckiest of us never give up the search to find a little magic in our ordinary, monotonous, mundane and miraculous lives, and that it’s usually the search itself, the leap of faith in the midst of despair, that delivers exactly the gifts we need. The ring of centuries-old bells. The touch of a handsome stranger’s hand on yours. And yes, from time to time, even the flight of a mere pigeon.
ELIZABETH DITTY lives in Kansas City, where she is attempting to raise two children with good hearts and strong minds with the help of their father and Daniel Tiger. Her work can also be found in Vol. 7 of Memoir Mixtapes. Additionally, her set of children’s stories, “My Sister the Werewolf,” is available in the Bedtime Stories app. Her family often debates whether she loves coffee or wine more, as if she could ever choose between them.