Continuing a Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew
6. What is the most interesting or surprising fact you learned about your grandmother?
I discovered that she’d had a love affair of some sort with a French brigadier who was in charge of a German POW camp a couple miles down the road from the little village where she and her fellow relief workers were headquartered after the war. That really was a surprise. When I developed those photographs from the packet of negatives, almost the first thing I noticed were several photographs of a handsome man in a French uniform – he looked like Clark Gable – and I thought, “Who is this?” But it wasn’t until I started doing research in the Wellesley archive that I found out his name, then later I found letters from a nurse in Lucile’s unit that corroborated what I’d already begun to suspect. My father loved finding out that his mother had had a romance. That was perhaps the single most important discovery for him – it humanized her more than anything else I found out.
7. Your story is in essence two stories – the biography of your grandmother, and the story of a daughter trying to provide a mother for her elderly father. How did you meld these two stories together?
Mostly by trying to remember that one didn’t have much relevance for the reader without the other. Also by recognizing that these are not only two stories, they are two impossible stories: My grandmother has been dead for over 75 years and almost everything that once belonged to her was thrown away, so to try to “find” her I had to look past what I didn’t know into what could be or might be true. My father lost his mother over 75 years ago. I couldn’t “give” her back to him; but I could give him my efforts to reconstruct her life, and that brought the two of us much closer after many years of estrangement.
Yet always, always I had to keep my eye on what I couldn’t do, couldn’t know. Which, oddly enough, is what gives this book tension and coherence, or that’s what I hope.
8. You discover that the function of family history is “to explain what is essentially inexplicable – how we came to be ourselves.” Do you feel that you, and your father, now have a better sense of who you are and how you became that way?
History is made up of people and what they do and what they fail to do, just as people are made up of all the history that has gone before them. What I helped my father reclaim, I believe, is the feeling of being connected to something larger than himself. Lucile was an intellectual, an early feminist, a business executive, a relief worker, a wife and mother. She was a person of history, who was a product of her times, and also more than that, as we are all more than just “products” of our time. Through his mother, my father was connected to tremendous world events, to commercial innovation, political change, seismic social shifts, war. And so, I discovered, was I.
Of course, we are also very much products of a family history, shaped by certain traits and tendencies, either genetically inherited or passed along, as well as influenced by family losses and achievements. Putting some of my own tendencies within some sort of ancestral context was liberating for me at least. Or maybe it simply made me feel less alone with them.
9. You are the author of three acclaimed novels. How was the writing process for this nonfiction book different?
Well, frankly, I first tried to write a novel about Lucile, especially after I started learning about her experiences in France after the war. I thought I could make her come alive after I started learning for my father even more palpably through fiction. And she seemed like such a promising heroine for a novel! The grocer’s daughter in ruined France. But the fact of her kept getting in the way of the fiction I was trying to create – and the fact kept being more interesting.
So to answer your question, the process was not entirely different from what usually happens for me, which is that I have an idea for a novel and then I work away at that idea for years, and the result is nothing like what I first imagined. In this case, I had an idea for a novel and then abandoned the idea of a novel and wrote a biography instead.
10. What do you want readers to take away from Missing Lucile?
I’ve come to think that every family has a “missing person,” someone who died young, or disappeared, or was exiled from the family for some real or perceived crime. Missing relatives are ghosts – real ghosts – and they haunt us by making us wonder how life might have been had they not vanished. Maybe we would be kinder, or braver, or have made better decisions. Maybe we wouldn’t have felt so at odds with the world. Who knows? I suppose I’d like readers to finish the book and realize that no one is really missing if you start looking for her.
Missing Lucile has been released by Algonquin ($23.95; 296 pages). “Takes us deep into the lore of history as well as family.” Sven Birkerts