By Sabina Mollot
After losing her father to lung cancer when she was a teenager, Jennifer Coburn grew up thinking that she too would end up in an early grave. Though she wasn’t necessarily convinced she’d get cancer, Coburn, a Stuyvesant Town native who became a novelist, admitted she just had a general paralyzing fear of death.
When she was 24, she’d told her husband that she was highly psychic and expected to die in a car accident by 26. “He said, ‘I’ll take my chances,’” she recalled.
Today of course she’s still here and while Coburn still fears death, it’s less so today. In no small part this is due to a tradition she’s now had for eight years of traveling with her daughter through Europe. Though her husband William, an attorney, hasn’t accompanied them since he has to work, mother and daughter still make it a family affair each summer, always a whole month at a time.
The Coburns’ travels have since been chronicled in the author’s first memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Adventure (Trade Paper, $15).
The trips started when her daughter Katie was eight and continued until she turned 16 last year. Since the Coburns aren’t especially wealthy, the vacations have been budget-friendly with flights courtesy of frequent flier miles, most dinners from delis or grocery stores and once, even a one-night stay at a bookstore.
“I made some very real economic choices,” said Coburn, who now lives in San Diego with her family. “I could either redo the kitchen or take a trip and the kitchen is still a disaster.”
She also got organized, always paying an extra nine percent on her bills so that when she went away there’d be enough of a balance to cover the month’s costs. She’d schedule her freelance writing work around the trips, letting clients know in advance she’d be unavailable and she’d use a credit card religiously in order to earn frequent flier miles. “If I bought a pack of gum I’d charge it,” she said. There were also, she learned, many deals and discounts for things available to kids wherever they went.
Coburn and her daughter’s first trip was to Paris. This is where, at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, Katie happened to notice some cots tucked away in the shelves. When they asked what they were for, they learned that the cots were for weary and broke travelers who’d earn their overnight stays by doing a couple of hours work for the business. Katie wound up talking her mother into staying at the writers’ studio in the building, a converted 17th century monastery. There, their bed consisted of two file cabinets of differing lengths with a door and a yoga mat as a cushion. When they turned on the faucet it wasn’t water that came out but a swarm of gnats.
“It was rough accommodations,” said Coburn. And since it was Bastille Day in July, “It was broiling.” Coburn opened the window only to be greeted by a sickening stench. “I said, ‘Ugh, I smell hot garbage,’” said Coburn, whose daughter, at the time noted that they had “the perfect view of Notre Dame.” That’s when Coburn started to see things differently. “I said, you know what, I’ve got a lot to learn from this kid.” Another life lesson came on another trip to Amsterdam. Jennifer and Katie had gone to the house where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis. That’s when she started to feel like her own shadowing fear of death was self-indulgent.
“You had these people with a very real reason to fear death,” she said, “and still Anne Frank was able to see beauty in life.” Soon after leaving, she heard accordion music being played on a nearby canal, and realized she didn’t want to dwell on her fears.
Coburn even ditched her habit of scheduling each day down to the hour. This was inspired by her cousin’s French husband, who, upon noticing a map she had that was covered in sticker notes, told her if she wanted to enjoy Paris, she simply needed to have a glass of wine and relax.
“I said, ‘Do you know what it’s like to be an American mother? Homework, art lessons.’ Then I realized I wanted to get away from that over-scheduled life.”
Through writing the book, Coburn also learned that she wasn’t alone in her phobia of death. Other mothers later spoke to her about it at book events.
“There are so many moms who are terrified of not seeing their children grow up,” she said. “You think it’s so freaky and then you find out it’s more common than you thought.”
But now that the fear is under control, Coburn has been able to find comfort by being with her daughter while staying at home. In fact, she’s put off taking on any more major projects in order to stay home with Katie until she goes off to college. When looking back on her travels, though, Coburn said the only hard part was seeing it come to an end each time. “Not to sound like Pollyanna, but it was too short,” she said.
Prior to We’ll Always Have Paris, Coburn penned six novels and has won awards for her articles on parenting that have appeared in publications like Mothering and Big Apple Baby. She’s written articles for Planned Parenthood, where she worked as worked as director of communications, and she’s also had writing published by Salon.com and The Huffington Post.