After I inherited a few precious objects, including a Russian icon about which I knew nothing, my Paris pied-à-terre became a museum, and I turned into a curator. Since my real home was on the other side of the pond, and the apartment was often the victim of floods and other calamities, I had to fly over all too often. One day, my son Thibault prodded me about my priorities.
“Didn’t you rent your apartment a while back?”
“Yes, I did, but renters could steal the rare books, damage the antiques.”
“You could replace them with cool Ikea furniture!”
Thibault wasn’t raised in France, a country held together through millennia of trauma by the resilience of its monuments, castles and precious artifacts.
Indecision enfolded me like a cocoon. Finally, on a grey January day, I flew one more time to Paris with my partner, Kathlyn, to check if my ceiling was properly fixed.
“My goodness, this is Herculaneum! Pompei!” I screamed as we inhaled the dust and the musty smell of construction rubble.
I was suddenly determined to transform my apartment into a bland, but practical, rental space. More problems—and battalions of painters, plumbers and electricians—followed, while Kathlyn and I worked like maniacs to get rid of 30 years of accumulated stuff.
An auctioneer recommended by a friend gave us an appraisal. My father’s volume of a Diderot comedy published in 1757 had a damaged spine, the Limoges china wasn’t worth un sou, the silverware was plated, and the market for my mother’s exquisite silk Iranian carpet was ruined by the American embargo.
“One last thing!” I pointed to my father’s Russian icon, a letter-size piece of wood with reds, black and gold geometric shapes recessed inside a cream-colored crackled frame.
“Ah! That’s authentic. Eighteenth century. Could bring several hundred euros.”
I agreed with Kathlyn: a second opinion was needed. I typed “Russian Icon” on Google and submitted a description of the icon to a store in Palm Beach, Florida. Two days later, the proprietor wanted back pictures, details and hallmarks.
My Android pictures, magnified on a computer screen, showed the intricacy of dozens of stylized apostles, saints and front and angels assembled around Christ rising. A lone corpse lying near the edge of the painting contrasted with the other figures, all vertical, all interacting with each other. The Resurrection story.
I thought of my mother’s funeral, when my family had experienced both the agony of confronting death, and the elation of our being so present to each other. My mind jumped to my teenage years when I made replicas of Russian icons, probably inspired by my father’s love of icons. I recalled a photo of my parents lounging on a ship’s deck chairs circa 1935, long before I was born. My father with chic rimless glasses, a tweed vest and a tie, holds my mother’s forearm as if to tell her “Cécile, look, isn’t this incredible?” Wrapped in a plaid afghan, Maman stares in the same direction, with a gentle, happy smile.
Now Vladimir is kneeling in my North Carolina bungalow, peering at the icon with a flashlight, studying the back inscriptions with a magnifying lens.
“We had to make sure your icon wasn’t stolen from its last owner, the Tretyakov Gallery.”
I imagine my parents entering the Tretyakov Gallery a summer day circa 1935, my father holding my mother’s forearm, my mother staring at the icons with a gentle, happy smile.
When Vladimir offers me 10 times the French auctioneer’s appraisal, I feel the familiar pain of a farewell and the mysterious joy of a new beginning.
Fabienne André Worth is writing a memoir titled, Don’t Worry. She taught film studies at Duke and Brown universities and lives in Durham, N.C.