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Talk Talk

A Conversation with Suzanne Berne, author of Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew (Algonquin)

1.   What was your inspiration for writing Missing Lucile?

My father’s mother, Lucile Kroger Berne, died when he was a little boy and he never got over it.   His whole life was defined by this one terrible fact.   As a child I always wished I could find his mother for him, the way children always wish they could give their parents things they feel their parents are missing.   In my case, the feeling persisted into adulthood, especially when my father got very sick and he began to focus almost obsessively on the mother he’d never known.

2.   You’ve said that you found a few things that once belonged to your grandmother that sparked your research into her life.   What were they?

A few years ago I discoverd an old fruitcake tin of odds and ends belonging to my grandmother that I’d collected from my grandmother’s attic in Cincinnati when I was twelve.   A commemorative medal, a college pin, a charm bracelet, two packets of postcards from World War I, an old exercise book of poems she had copied out, an annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith.   Nothing that, at first glance, seemed particularly revealing.   But what caught my eye was a packet of undeveloped negatives.   When I opened the packet and held the negatives up to the light, I realized they were photographs Lucile had taken in France in 1919.   That packet was what really got me going, especially after I’d had the photographs printed and sent one to my father of his mother in uniform, a rifle propped against a wall behind her.

3.   Your book illuminates the life of Lucile Kroger during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the rich culture of that time.   How much research did you do into that time period to write this book?

A lot – much of it haphazard.   To my shame, I never took a history course in college, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to conduct historical research.   The archivists at the Wellesley College library can tell you just what a novice I was when I first appeared at their door, asking if they could direct me to any information about my grandmother.   But I was lucky in having a research assistant for a semester when I was teaching at Harvard, who went weekly to Widener Library and returned with armloads of books about France after World War I.   And I was lucky in having a great grandfather, B. H. Kroger, who was famous enough to have had a book written partly about him, with lots of information about his first grocery stores and his life in Cincinnati at the turn of the century.   And I was very lucky to be living close to Wellesley College, where I haunted the library for a couple of years and slowly blundered my way into information about Lucile, and college life for women in the early 1900s, and then the experiences of Wellesley relief workers during and after the first World War.

I paged through photo albums and scrapbooks, read college newpapers, alumnae bulletins, letters, yearbooks, and gradually found a woman and a world I hadn’t known existed.

4.   In the book you describe your father’s sadness and his sense of loss, which permeated the family over decades.   What was it like to, in essence, give him his life back?

I didn’t give him his life back – he was already in his eighties when I began researching his mother’s life and only too painfully aware of what he had missed by focusing so much on what he hadn’t had.   What I did manage to do, however imperfectly, was help him realize that his mother had been more than simply an absence, that she had been a  person with her own ambitions, frustrations, her own loses and chances, her own fierce desires.

5.   How much of the book is fact versus what you imagine Lucile to be like?   How did you weave those two pieces together?

I tried to be factual as much as possible but there were periods of Lucile’s life where I had very few “facts” about her to go on.   For instance, all I had to inform me about her high school years were some photographs and her annotated copy of Washington Irving’s The Life of Oliver Goldsmith in which she’s recorded the names and addresses of two different boarding schools in Washington, DC, and the dates she supposedly attended them – though I could never ascertain whether she was ever a student at either school.  

Often all I had that was truly factual about her life was what I could glean from the time period and wherever it was that she was living and what I knew, in general, about her family.   So there’s quite a bit of speculation in the book.   I don’t try to imagine Lucile so much as theorize about her, which I suppose sometimes amounts to the same thing.

To be continued…

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A Day in the Life

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne (Algonquin; $23.95; 296 pages)

“He had lost his mother when he was a little boy.   He’d hardly known her…  I wished I could give his mother back to him.”

Missing Lucile is a loving, lovely and lively account of the life of Lucile Kroger Berne, the grandmother that author Suzanne Berne was never to meet.   Lucile graduated from the prestigious and challenging Wellesley College in 1911, was married in 1923, gave birth to two children and died in 1932.   Hers was a short life and the author’s father was just 6 when his mother died.

Lucile was a member of THE Kroger family of Cincinnati, her own father being the founder of a grocery empire that today is worth billions of dollars.   Despite being part of such a prominent family, little was known of her life.   As Suzanne Berne writes early in her account, “Lucile has slipped out of memory…”   That is, until the author stumbled across a history of the Kroger family which provided her with the outlines of the story that is told here.   She also found developed and never-before-developed photographs that helped her to fill in some gaps in Lucile’s story.

Suzanne Berne’s father was in his eighties when she began trying to put the pieces together to create a living, breathing, woman named Lucile.   She has largely succeeded in this effort, even putting to rest some family myths.   For example, it was said of Lucile that she never smiled, but the reader sees photographs of Lucile smiling – even while her college graduation photo is being taken – and reads accounts of her being almost hysterically happy.   This is what happens in real life.

Suzanne Berne spent a great deal of time conducting research at the Wellesley College library, and a large part of this biography involves the time that Lucile spent there – a period she often referred to as the very best period in her life.   And, yet, despite the author’s best efforts some riddles remain as such…  “Every life has its blank squares.”   (Lucile was captain of the Wellesley Running Team until she dropped out for a reason that is still unknown.)

Senator Robert Taft’s wife once said of Lucile that she was, “The only one in the Kroger family with brains.”   She was also an adventurous person, a young woman who went to France just two weeks after the end of World War I; her intent being to fulfill the mission of Wellesley’s graduates – to minister to others rather than being ministered to.   There it seems she may have engaged in a romance with a military man.   Perhaps.

Perhaps is a word often used by Suzanne Berne in this work, because filling in the blanks on a life requires some guesswork:  “In my opinion, writing about other people requires a certain stupid bravado – a willingness to chat up the unknowable.   Especially since what you don’t know about someone is always going to be more interesting than what you do…”   But this account is plenty interesting enough in telling the reader what’s known about the life of Lucile Berne.

The manner in which Suzanne Berne fills in “the unknowable” is charming (this is a novelist applying her creative skills to tying the events of a life together).   The author writes about a woman she never knew in a tone that is filled with love and respect.   The reader will suspect that Suzanne Berne sees a large part of herself in her late grandmother, a feeling that haunts many grandchildren.

“…everyone’s life is a promising novel when reduced to a few lines in a reunion record…  every yearbook is full of promising-looking people who have no idea what will happen to them.”

Suzanne Berne’s father died in 2009, but not before he was able to read the majority of the manuscript that makes up this unique portrait.   His daughter Suzanne provided him with an invaluable, lyrical, account of his mother’s life – one that turned a ghost back into a living person, a woman with strengths and weaknesses; a woman who won and lost in life; a woman who lived a life in full before her early passing.   What a tremendous gift!

Lucile Berne’s life is now well accounted for, and it is well, well worth reading.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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