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 non­lin­ear 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.

Relat­ed Content:

Miran­da Rich­mond Mouil­lot is the author of A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France. Her most recent trans­la­tion is of The Kites, the last and great­est nov­el of French author and Resis­tance hero Romain Gary.