In the summer of 2004, and for the next six years, we lived in a loft apartment in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. It was our first purchase of property anywhere and we were very proud. Not that there was anything particularly extravagant about the building itself. It was book-ended on both sides by apartment buildings sculpted in pierre de taille — elegant facades made from large blocks of homogenous stone, tailored, perfected and then etched above the doorway with the year of construction and the name of the architect. Our building was more modest : a five-floor facade covered in simple white plaster and built, most-likely, around the beginning of the 20th century (the only name or date I ever saw on the entranceway was in graffiti).
But the real-estate agent used the magic word in his description of the apartment : atypique. Unlike a cosy apartment — which can only mean “shoebox” — an atypical apartment can mean many things. In Parisian house-hunting lingo, the word often hints at originality. Something worth a visit. And indeed it was. One of three apartments on the fifth and top floor, ours pushed into the rafters, creating an angled, under-the-eaves second floor well suited for a master bedroom and office. Downstairs was a second bedroom and a large, sunny living room that looked onto a canopy of tall trees bordering the western edge of Père Lachaise cemetery.
After renovations and moving in, I became obsessed with the history of our apartment. Now that I was a homeowner, I wanted to know the genealogy of our home — who had come before, how long had they stayed, and whether, perhaps, they had been happy here.
I didn’t really know where to begin my research. The answers, however — all of them — came to me in the person of Edith Amiot, via the elevator from the first floor.
Madame Amiot was the first to respond to the house-warming invitations we had left in the mailboxes of our new neighbors. She was 84-years-old, very spry, and very determined to see our downstairs bedroom. She stood in the bedroom’s doorway and wrung her hands. “This used to be my room,” she said.
Mme. Amiot didn’t stay long that night. But I barely remember the other guests. All I remember is sitting with her and listening as she told me the outline of her life. She was born in 1920 in the industrial Norman port city of Le Havre. Her parents moved to Paris when she was just 11 months old and rented an apartment — this one — in the 20th arrondissement. She lived here for the next 71 years, through different iterations of family composition (first with her mother, father and brother; then with her husband and her own son, Claude, born in 1952 and who attended the same maternelle school as our daughter, some 50 years prior).
We became friends. And when I learned I was sick I cherished even more my time with Mme. Amiot. I understood that as a homeowner I didn’t really own anything. And in the vulnerability of illness, I realized that my time living in this apartment might be short — just a fraction of the seven-plus decades Mme. Amiot had lived here.
Over the next few years, I occasionally took Mme. Amiot to lunch. And when our daughter was born, she and I were often invited to Mme. Amiot’s apartment for an after-school snack. We talked most often about the weather and neighborhood life. But we also talked about her. I loved hearing what the arc of a full life sounded like. And I wondered if I would be granted the time to have the same.
She told me of the Occupation; how the building shook when a squadron of German tanks rumbled past. She spoke of the paranoia of rationing during the War and remembered desperate lines at the butcher when someone spread the false rumor that a side of beef had arrived in the neighborhood. She reminded me that her family bathed using the kitchen sink. There was no in-house plumbing, and any coal for heating — or food for eating — had to be hefted up the five flights of stairs. But she also spoke of beautiful sunsets behind the Sacré Coeur church, visible from the window of the apartment’s downstairs bedroom. She smiled while telling me about trying on the dresses made by her mother, a seamstress, and the content, 53-year marriage to her husband, a stoic, kind man who had been a prisoner of war for five years.
I learned that he died in 2001 and that Mme. Amiot was convinced that the decline in his health was precipitated by what was essentially a forced eviction from their — now our — apartment. In 1992 a developer bought the building, renovated the whole lot of 15 apartments and parceled them out to new buyers. Priced out of the top floor, Mr. and Mme. Amiot begrudgingly scaled down, buying on the first floor.
It was just a four-floor shift, but the differences were colossal. Instead of an airy view onto Père Lachaise, they now had a traffic-stained street and hot-yeast blasts from the kitchen of the street-level Pizza Hut franchise. But Mme. Amiot always seemed — and I think she was — happy.
Her apartment had a treasure trove of framed pictures. She loaned some to me, so I could study the past-to-present evolution of our apartment. I returned them all and — I don’t know why — I never in those years thought to take her picture. I recently sent her son an e-mail, hoping to fill a long gap in communication. I asked about his mother, but I haven’t heard back from him yet. I fear that she may be gone. And if that’s the case, I regret that I missed her end. That I didn’t say goodbye.
The last time I was in Mme. Amiot’s apartment, I saw a calendar tacked to the kitchen wall. Marked in shaky writing on the box for November 11 was “anniversaire de la petite Taber.”
I was already fascinated by, and a little envious of, Mme. Amiot’s story. And I was very proud to see our daughter’s birthday written into her calendar — proud that I had become a part of this long and very full life.