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The Kiss


















I first saw the photograph, Kiss by the Hotel de Ville by Robert Doisneau, when I was fourteen years old. I was slumped in an uncomfortable plastic chair in a hospital waiting room, flipping through an old Life magazine, and wishing the doctors would bring the news that my beloved grandfather would defy the odds and recover from the lung cancer that was ravaging his body. I was a typical fourteen year old girl: angry, rebellious, childish, romantic, hopeful, and a bit confused by life. I couldn’t understand why a great man like my grandfather was being made to suffer, and, more importantly, why he would be taken from those he loved after having lived a heroic, generous life.

My grandfather had been one of six children born to a poor, hard-drinking Irishman and a sweet-natured German immigrant. I don’t know much about his youth, except that he achieved high marks in school and was considered kind-hearted by his siblings and friends. He enlisted in the Army when he was a young man, stormed the beach at Normandy, marched across France with the allied forces, married a stylish French woman, and eventually settled into a life of raising kids and being a policeman. He was not a perfect man, but he was the sort of man who made soup for shut-ins, kept boxes of candy bars to pass out to neighborhood kids, and greeted every cashier, waitress, and postman by name. He teased me about my verbose nature, promised me a dollar if I could learn to spell the word antidisestablishmentarianism, and tirelessly nurtured my dream to become a published author.

Gramps died on a dreary November day. I was home from school because I had just had my wisdom teeth pulled. I drifted in and out of a narcotics-induced slumber, while images of my childhood and my dying grandfather floated through my brain. A few days later, when I said my final adieu to a man I had loved my entire life, it was the memory of Robert Doisneau’s photograph that lifted my spirits. I thought about the slender young woman and the stylish young man with the scarf draped around his neck, locked in a passionate embrace, heedless of the chaos around them. If you have not looked at the photograph, you should. Doisneau brilliantly positioned his lovers in the center of the frame, to draw the eye immediately to them. Behind them, a man is striding purposefully down the boulevard, a woman with a furrowed brow is deep in thought, and a blurry car is partially in frame, leading the viewer to believe that this photograph is one of those rare, spontaneous images of fleeting love captured. The woman’s head is tipped back and her arms are akimbo in total surrender; the man has his arm around her shoulder, possessively but tenderly. Their eyes are closed. They are lost in their own world of primal passion. At that moment, nothing mattered to them but their kiss. Debts, disappointments, wars, illnesses, famines, accidents, heartaches, death, all fade away at the promise of passion and true love.
Many times throughout the years, when my life was in flux – a lost job, friend, lover, dream – I would look at Doisneau’s photograph and feel my hope restored. Somewhere out there, in Paris, Prague or Poughkeepsie, there were people blissfully in love.

The other day, quite by chance, I came across an article about Doisneau’s famous photograph. The reporter included a quote from the photographer wherein he admitted that the woman had been a paid model and that the image had been posed. The woman, Françoise Bornet, revealed that the man in the photograph had been her boyfriend, but the relationship only lasted nine months and once they parted they never spoke again. “I now think of it as a picture that never should have existed,” Bournet said.

Finding out that the image I held dear for so many years was not spontaneous and that the love affair depicted in the photograph had not endured was a bit devastating. The photograph had become my talsiman to romance, my amulet for amour. So now what do I do? Banish the image from my home and memory? Give up on the idea of breath-taking, all-consuming romance?

In this world, it would be easy for me to become jaded. Doisneau’s photograph was a fake. Mr. Darcy is a self-absorbed, pompous ass who would not have given Elizabeth Bennett the time of day had she not had fine eyes and form. The Mona Lisa was not a woman, but a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci. Romeo and Juliet needed Prozac. Brad left Jen for that homewrecker Angelina.

But I am not a cynic by nature. Deep down inside of me beats the heart of a hopeless, helpless, head-over-heels romantic. I want to believe, have to believe, that of all of the pleasures and pursuits in this world, love is the grandest of all.

Even the seemingly hard-hearted, bubble-bursting Bournet admitted, “The photograph was posed. The kiss was real.”

The kiss was real.

That’s enough for me.

2 comments:

Fanny said...

Leah,

Your grandfather sounds like such and interesting man with an equally interesting background...Did you know that my grandpa, too, died in November (7th, 1999)...Yet another coincidence :-)

Leah Marie Brown said...

Way, way too many coincidences in our pasts....I am telling you, we are twins seperated by mothers and years by some strange cosmic mistake.