The ProsenPeople

In Search of Lost Time

Friday, June 26, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Miranda Richmond Mouillot offered her advice and insight to readers about extracting even the most painful family history from those who carry it. She is the author of the recently published book A Fifty-Year Silence: Love War and a Ruined House in France and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The mulberries are ripe in the southern French village where I live, and today after I dropped my daughter off at preschool, I stopped on the walk back to my office and picked a handful of them. In an instant, I was transported back to my grandmother’s backyard in Pearl River, New York, to a time when I was too short to pick the mulberries that grew on the little tree in her side yard, but occasionally was lucky enough to be standing in the right place when a ripe one fell, and could savor it before it got squished. Picking mulberries this morning was what I call a madeleine moment—a smell or taste or texture that opens up a piece of the past and sends us spinning into it. What does that for you?

Words can do it: “Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure. Parfois, à peine ma bougie éteinte, mes yeux se fermaient si vite que je n’avais pas le temps de me dire : “Je m’endors.” Those are the first lines of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the gigantic novel in which the madeleine moment was born. I never did read the whole thing, in part because I got to know it at my grandfather’s dining table, where he fed me madeleines and linden flower tea and read to me from Proust’s masterpiece in order to perfect my French. He always started with those opening sentences, which enchanted him, which meant we didn’t ever get very far into the story. Years after he became senile, he could still recite them to me.

Recitation, to him, was the ultimate madeleine—the thing you couldn’t take away, and the thing that brought everything back. Proust wrote about madeleines in an epoch when the Industrial Revolution and the dynamics of modern capitalism had made time fully linear. In pre-industrial Europe time had moved in cycles, and, for some, toward some far-off end-date. The dividing line between now and then was blurred by the circle of seasons, holidays, and recurring life events. But as Proust’s title indicates, in the century in which he was writing, time had become a thing that could be lost forever. The whole world was marching toward the future, leaving the past irretrievably behind. Time capsules like the madeleine, and, more broadly, Proust’s meticulous and vast re-creation of a lost world, were both products of accelerating modern life—and both attempts to break its linearity.

Many philosophers and historians have observed that the Shoah, with its industrialized and mechanical methods of murder, was the monstrous consequence of this massive shift in how society perceived and lived time. And certainly, it succeeded with terrible finality in carving a near-unbridgeable gulf between its survivors and their pasts.

Madeleine moments, to survivors and refugees like my grandparents, are a double-edged sword. They are a magical pathway to lands long-gone—but they are also all that remains. The linden tea my grandfather served me while reading Proust recalled to him the lindens that lined the Boulevard Tauler in Strasbourg, France. That was the street where he grew up—in a building that was razed during the war. And if the scent of that tea was uncannily effective at recalling the past to him, it was also ephemeral, elusive, and all too easily lost. Taste a madeleine one too many times and its buttery sweetness becomes banal, unable to evoke anything but an afternoon goûter.

I discovered madeleine moments with my grandfather, and it was also with him that I observed for the first time the far more potent force of another form of non-linear time: that of religious observance. The first time I celebrated Shabbat with him I had no idea of what I was getting us into—no idea, more precisely, of what I was inflicting on him. I was fourteen, and attending boarding school in Geneva, Switzerland, not far from my grandfather’s apartment. I spent each weekend with him, and on my first Friday there I missed my parents. Hungry for a little continuity with home, I asked if I could light Shabbat candles, and my grandfather reluctantly agreed. When I uncovered my eyes, I looked at him through the dim glow of the candles and saw he was weeping, his shoulders shuddering, just barely suppressing sobs. He gazed at me with wide eyes I could hardly bear to meet.

“My mother,” he whispered.

In the months that followed I discovered something that has affected every subsequent Friday of my life: a ritual repeated draws a thread through your existence. Every time you do it connects you to every other time you do it. And unlike the madeleine moment, whose evanescence and volatility underlined, however sweetly, the total disappearance of my grandfather’s past, lighting candles every week rebuilt the bridge between then and now. It was a fragile one, to be sure, but each flame we lit the candles we fastened his annihilated parents back into his life, back into life. Rooted in repetition, his memory fastened onto mine, and the moments we spent together calling up the past became moments we both remembered, too. Moments we knew reached back beyond the tragic time when all was lost, and forward into my own life, to a time when he would be gone, too, and I would remember. Neither then nor now, the brief silence that follows the kindling of the Sabbath lights is all times at once—far sweeter than a mulberry or a madeleine.

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was born in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of the recently published book A Fifty-Year Silence: Love War and a Ruined House in France and currently lives in the South of France.

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How To Ask?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 | Permalink

Miranda Richmond Mouillot was born in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of the recently published book A Fifty-Year Silence: Love War and a Ruined House in France and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Ask questions. Make sure to ask them while you still can. How I always hated those sentences, proffered by well-meaning outsiders whenever the subject of my grandparents came up. I always wondered about those people and their families. Had they ever tried it? Because in my family, asking questions could feel about as natural – and about as considerate – as reaching over and pushing your hand into someone’s face.

In A Fifty-Year Silence, which recounts my efforts to uncover the history of my grandparents, both Holocaust survivors, and the reasons behind their half-century estrangement, I wrote:

I’d find myself at a loss for what to ask: the subjects about which I felt most curious sparked so much anger and chagrin […] that I didn’t usually have the heart to broach them.

In the near decade it took me to tease my grandparents’ story out of them, I would go days, weeks, even months without venturing a query, for fear of stirring that pot of bad memories. Asking questions was too dangerous, too painful, too sad. Asking questions just wasn’t how it worked.

In the months since the publication of my book, many readers have shared little shards of the family secrets they carry with them, and asked me where to begin, how to find out more. In most families, particularly families of trauma survivors – and particularly families of Holocaust survivors, questions are the dangerous objects you’re not allowed to carry onto the plane. When your relatives have lived through a war, fled for their lives, seen the world they grew up in reduced to dust, and suffer with the knowledge that they came through and their loved ones did not, they earn the right to bar all inquiries from the boarding line. Like a security agent impassively tossing out a nail file, my grandparents would, more often than I can count, shut down my questioning with a shrug and a shake of their heads.

In my experience, you don’t learn the most from asking questions. Or at least, not from direct questions, not from the questions you’d think were the ones to ask. The need to know and the impossibility of asking are at the heart of every family mystery, and when readers come to me for advice about how to begin, I generally say that the best you can do is pull a chair up to the table and wait. And I tell them about my great aunt in Jerusalem, who used to bake the most wonderful cakes. She’d use her hands to weigh out the ingredients, plunging them into the canister and letting the soft white flour sift through her fingers. When you asked where her recipes came from, the answer was always the same: “Auschwitz.” And sometimes, if you stayed at the table, she’d tell you more. Of how the women in her prison block memorized each other’s recipes as they worked, or at night as they lay talking to one another from their splintery beds. Of starving mothers and sisters and daughters recalling teaspoons and cupfuls of ingredients they’d never taste again, parceling out pieces of their lost lives just in case one of them got away, to remember for the others. Where did you get that recipe? You never know which question will open the door. And in the wake of each one answered, a thousand more inevitably linger, unasked – faces, names, whole lifetimes, reduced to a few sweet morsels, crumbs on a cake plate.

Miranda Richmond Mouillot currently lives in the South of France.

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