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…