When I woke up on New Year’s Day, I had an email from a friend in Paris, congratulating me for something, and telling me that it was ‘greatly deserved’. I had no idea what they were talking about, and assumed that they had celebrated New Year’s eve a little too exuberantly, and had sent me a message that made no sense. Within hours though, I got other emails like it from other friends. I had totally forgotten that the list of people to be honored with the illustrious Legion of Honor awards is published in the newspapers in France on New Year’s Day. (And also on Independence Day, on the 14th of July, Bastille Day). The announcements are only made twice a year. And several hours later, a press release had gone out all over the world. And by nightfall I was getting emails of congratulation from countries as far away as India and Pakistan. My other big surprise over the announcement—-aside from being on the list of honorees—–is that I always thought that the Legion of Honor was only known in France, and I was quite amazed to realize that people in every country seemed to know what it was, even in the States. And in France, it is a huge deal. Since I grew up there for part of my youth, and went to French schools, and have now spent a good part of my adulthood there, I not only knew about it, but was stunned to hear that I was about to be knighted with the Legion of Honor in France. Who? Me? Wow!!!
Twelve years ago, I was knighted in France in the “Order of Arts and letters”, at a high rank, for my literary achievements. I was touched and flattered, and given how many books I’ve written (132 to date), and have been published, in other countries (69) as well as the States, the award for “Arts and Letters” made sense. But the Legion of Honor is the most important distinction in France. It dates back to the time of Napoleon, and was originally created to honor great warriors, usually for acts of extraordinary heroism in battle. In its early days, it was never given to women, and surely not to foreigners. In the 200 years since it began, it is in fact given to women, though less frequently than to men, and sometimes though not often to foreigners. And it is given for major lifetime achievements, not just courage in battle. (Walt Disney was decorated with the Legion of Honor for instance) I’m not sure what it is equal to in the States, maybe the Congressional Medal of Honor, or the Purple Heart, though I’m not sure. There are three grades of it, and you begin as a Knight, graduate to Officer eventually, and after many years and more impressive achievements, you become a Commander. Those who have been decorated with the Legion of Honor as a knight wear a little red thread sewn to their lapel (of a jacket), ‘Officers’ wear a small round red ‘rosette’, very small also on the lapel of a jacket, and a Commander wears the same rosette sewn onto a small white ribbon. And it is a HUGE deal in France. And nowadays, it is given for more general lifetime achievement of an important nature. You have to do something pretty big over a long period of time to be knighted by the Order of the Legion of Honor. And when I heard that I was going to receive the prestigious decoration my initial reaction was “Who? Me?”. As it turns out, I was on this year’s list not just for my literary career, and the number of books I’ve written, and their success in France as well, but for my deep commitment to and work with the mentally ill and homeless, for suicide and child abuse prevention, for my life, and longtime ties to France. But still, when I heard that I was going to receive it, my reaction was still, “Who? Me?” But in spite of that, I was totally thrilled. I was stunned to be included in the ranks of impressive people who have been knighted with that award.
Once you are on that list, you are allowed to choose where you want to receive it, when, and who you would like to give it to you, within the year. You can even be decorated by the President of France, if they agree to, at a group ceremony, at the French equivalent of the White House, the Elysee. So after my initial amazement, I asked the husband of a friend to give me the medal that goes with it at a private ceremony with close friends and my family. He is the head of a major bank in France (similar to the World Bank), was previously a Cabinet Minister and the Secretary of State of France for Europe, and we share the personal bond of having lost sons at a young age to suicide. And I later learned that he was one of the people who had recommended me for the award, so his giving me the medal seemed appropriate. The other person who had recommended me was the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, who knew of my street outreach work with the homeless in the States for many years, and to a lesser degree in France, but my involvement there too. And my work providing peer counseling for bereaved parents who have lost children. I was very touched when my friend’s husband agreed to give it to me, and his doing so had to be approved by the Grand Chancellery of the Legion of Honor, it has to be given by a person who has the Legion of Honor at a higher rank. He qualified, so that worked. Then I had to decide on a location. I chose a pretty restaurant I love, with a lovely garden. And the big challenge was finding a date that worked for my children, because it was inconceivable to me to receive the medal and be knighted without them there. They all came when I was knighted the first time 12 years ago, but they were younger and it was a lot easier then. The younger ones were still children a dozen years ago, and the older ones in college. Now all of them have serious jobs, heavy work schedules, and the 3 older ones are married and have young children. The date fell into place, and everything moved ahead. I was still feeling dazed, but thrilled (with that odd feeling one gets when something unusually wonderful happens that there must be some mistake).
Fast forward the film two months to yesterday, which was The Big Day, the Award Ceremony. My five youngest children were able to come, three of whom work in Paris at times (in fashion) and had to be there for work. The other two arranged 3 days off from their jobs, and flew from California to Paris to be there. Unfortunately, my three oldest children were unable to come, which I was sad about, but no other date worked. The location wasn’t available in the summer, nor the award giver. A very dear old friend gave me the medal as a gift (also a tradition in France), the place and time were set. My family arranged to come (a brother in law from Germany, and a niece from London), and 50 close friends from my Paris life. None of my American friends were able to come, but it’s a long way to travel, and they all have busy lives, and for one reason or another (health, or business and family obligations), none could come for the ceremony.
And in the last few days before the award ceremony, I tormented myself about whether I deserved it. What had I done to deserve such an honor? I hadn’t found a cure to an illness, nor committed acts of bravery in wartime; I hadn’t invented anything vital to the health and well being of mankind. My life seemed ordinary to me, in terms of extraordinary achievement. I felt undeserving of such an illustrious award. I hadn’t found a cure for mental illness, nor solved the problem of homelessness either in France or the States. All I had done was bring comfort to some, and helped keep hope alive for others, which didn’t seem like enough for such a high honor. I strive to be a good person, but so do most people. I felt tiny and humbled in the face of such a distinction. And I felt smaller and smaller as the day approached. And to add to my anxiety over it, I had to give a speech at the ceremony—-and I am terrified of public speaking, and it’s not something I do well. And what could I say? And how would I say it, overwhelmed with emotion? But despite my fears and nervousness, the big day came. Yesterday.
I went to the location before the event to check the sound system for the speeches (and one of my daughters had done a terrific playlist on her iPod to play during the party), and I went to watch the flowers delivered: beautiful red tulips on the tables where my friends would sit after the ceremony, and enormously tall red roses behind me and the person giving me the medal, and for his speech and mine. My heart pounded just thinking about it. My 5 children who would be attending were in Paris and wonderful to me. My friends were excited, and so was I, but I was terrified of the whole event nonetheless. And the ceremony had the solemnity of a wedding, as everyone gathered, and I worried more and more about my speech.
The person giving me the medal made his very generous speech, and pinned the medal to my dress. It’s a silver medal with enamel in green, white and blue, the whole thing hanging from a wide red ribbon, all of it about 5 or 6 inches tall. Men can wear the medal again for dress occasions. Women can only wear the medal on the day it is given to them, and from then on can only wear a tiny miniature of it. There is no pretense of equality there, but women are lucky to get the Legion of Honor at all!!! And I had already bought all the assorted little versions of the red ribbon to wear from then on. And somehow, miraculously, I got through the speech, without fainting, or hiding under a chair. My knees were knocking (literally) and my voice shaking, but I managed to get through the 5 minute speech I had prepared, and expressed my deep appreciation for the award, and my friends and family who were there. It was an emotional moment for me. And when it was over, I was suddenly overwhelmed with excitement, and truly thrilled (and stopped worrying about whether I deserved it, and just enjoyed the moment thoroughly). It was a magical evening with my family and friends. My family was there from Germany, England, France, and the States, and I mentioned my multi-national background in the speech: German Father, Portuguese mother, Spanish cousins, education and early life in France, married to a French man, and an Italian, long life and career in the States, and children in the States, and born in New York myself, though I spent much of my youth in France, and now live here part time again. It’s enough to confuse anyone!!! But above all, I said how grateful I was for the award, and how much it meant to me. My children were proud and adorable, my friends were wonderful, and I felt like I was walking on air all night. And no, I hadn’t cured an illness or won a war, but I finally decided that if they were going to honor me, I was going to enjoy every minute of it, and I did. The ceremony was at 6:30 in the evening, and the party ended at midnight. And like Cinderella, I went home, not with one glass slipper, but with the exceptionally beautiful medal pinned to my dress. I took it off when I got home, and put it on a little stand on the mantelpiece and stared at it in awe and disbelief. Is that really mine?? How did I ever get that? But now, the next morning, it’s still there, and for the first time, I will wear the little red ribbon today when I go out, and those in the know will realize what it means….that for some amazing, miraculous reason I was knighted with the Legion of Honor yesterday. I’m so grateful for the honor, the whole event was magical, and it was a day I will never forget, and all I can say is Wow!!!! I feel very blessed!!! And am so thrilled to have shared it with my children and friends who were there….amazing!!!