Thursday, September 29, 2016
I will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah because there’s a strong likelihood that I am the issue of a closeted Jewish family.
Let me explain.
Many years ago, shortly after my mother’s funeral in Paris, I went to visit her best friend, Madame C. She sat me down in a parlor full of priceless antiques and said, “Did you know your mother was Jewish?”
I did not.
Madame C then told me a fascinating story.
When the Dreyfus affairs* broke out in 1894, antisemitism, which has plagued France since Roman times, was rampant and often violent. Many French Jewish families, fearful of what the scandal might lead to, opted to change their names and, at least on the surface, their religions. In order to recognize each other anonymously, a number of these families assumed the names of months. The Rosenfelds became the Septembres; the Hassans became the Janviers. My mother’s family name was Février (February), but if I look into our family tree, the Février name appears suddenly in 1898. In the mid-50s, I remember listening to my maternal grandfather carry on about the injustice done to Dreyfus. In my family of origin, the affair was far from forgotten.
My mother’s first marriage when she was very young had been to a Jewish doctor and film-maker who originally hailed from Algeria. She had two daughters with him and both were raised in the Jewish faith, though neither really practiced it.
I had always assumed this first union was largely due to my mother’s desperate desire to leave her home. Madame C thought otherwise. “I think you mother wanted to return to her faith,” she told me.
If this was the case, my mother’s decision did not survive World War Two. She divorced her first husband and eventually married the man who became my father. Judaism, to the best of my memory, was seldom mentioned in the household.
To be honest, religion was never an important part of my life. My parents, if they attended services, did so for social reasons. I was confirmed as a Catholic, and attended Christmas midnight mass occasionally. Much later I became a Buddhist of sorts.
But Madame C’s tale stayed with me. Years ago, I spoke about it to my late sister, Florence, who hemmed and hawed and, after a long silence, simply said, “Maman had secrets.”
That she did.
Arielle and I will make dinner and she will teach me some of the faith’s blessings.
זה טוב. I think that reads, “It is good” in Hebrew.
* A scandal that rocked France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dreyfus affair involved a Jewish artillery captain in the French army, Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), who was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans. In 1894, after a French spy at the German Embassy in Paris discovered a ripped-up letter in a waste basket with handwriting said to resemble that of Dreyfus, Dreyfus was court-martialed, found guilty of treason and sentenced to life behind bars on Devil’s Island off of French Guiana. In a public ceremony in Paris following his conviction, Dreyfus had the insignia torn from his uniform and his sword broken and was paraded before a crowd that shouted, “Death to Judas, death to the Jew.” In 1896, the new head of the army’s intelligence unit, Georges Picquart, uncovered evidence pointing to another French military officer, Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, as the real traitor. However, when Picquart told his bosses what he’d discovered he was discouraged from continuing his investigation, transferred to North Africa and later imprisoned. Nevertheless, word about Esterhazy’s possible guilt began to circulate. In 1898, he was court-martialed but quickly found not guilty; he later fled the country. After Esterhazy’s acquittal, a French newspaper published an open letter titled “J’Accuse…!” by well-known author Emile Zola in which he defended Dreyfus and accused the military of a major cover-up in the case. The Dreyfus affair deeply divided France, not just over the fate of the man at its center but also over a range of issues, including politics, religion and national identity. In 1899, Dreyfus was court-martialed for a second time and found guilty. Although he was pardoned days later by the French president, it wasn’t until 1906 that Dreyfus officially was exonerated and reinstated in the army. History Magazine
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Footnote: An event of lesser importance than some larger event to which it is related.
Or perhaps: An annoying detail that must be referred to for honesty's sake.
Or even: A matter of debatable interest that should not detract from the primary focus of the text.
I started thinking of footnotes a few years back. I was researching the life of the French painter Maurice Utrillo, whose existence seem to have been an endless series of footnotes. Shortly after that a friend asked me to read and edit her master's thesis which was, as it should be, festooned with the things. In fact, if I’d counted the lines, I’m reasonably certain there might have been more space devoted to the footnotes than to the subject at hand.
It struck me then that the majority of our existence is spent being footnotes in other people's lives.
We are brief romances vaguely remembered, one or two pleasant rainy afternoons in a month of doldrums. We are the bringers of gifts that adorn a coffee table but will end their lives in someone else’s yard sale. We are a meal with a particularly good dessert or bottle of wine, a conversation that left something behind but didn’t change a belief.
We expand a lot of energy being footnotes, because really, each and every footnote would like the opportunity to become a full book, a meaningful discussion that alters a consciousness, a something that really matters. But, by their very definition and every letter in their spelling, footnotes are lesser creations, afterthoughts there to amplify a greater truth. And a footnote, even if it has every right to ask, why am I here? will not necessarily get an answer. It simply is there.
A footnote cannot exist without a more important text, but the reverse is not true and sometimes preferable. Footnotes may be annoying ankle-biters, but were they alive and truly breathing, they would tell you the veracity of entire manuscripts hinge on their very existence. Footnotes, no matter how brief, are very important in their own minds, and they echo the old saw: I may not be much, but I'm all I think about. They occasionally add a bit of excitement, a tint of the forbidden, something secret with which we may have gotten away. They can be clandestine, joyfully mysterious, even if there's an uneasy relationship between the footnotes and the writing they complement. And of course, they can be sad: there is something tragically complete and finite about them. Footnotes do not have footnotes of their own. They stand alone in much smaller print and thus much harder to see than the texts they adorn.
As footnotes, we may have had a time of greater importance, a moment when we thought we lit up the sky, but most of us are as ephemeral as fireworks. We are remembered faintly, adjuncts to other events, other feelings and moments in time that become vaguer as memories either fade or are replaced.
But here, perhaps, is a radiant side: while they are happening, in the moment, footnotes can appear to be life-changing epiphanies. They may have an intensity that dims only after the page is turned, when reality becomes, well, reality. For many, life without footnotes would be spiceless and boring.
Next week I'll write about semi-colons.
No. I won't.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
An odd twenty-four hours, where I went for my fifteenth cystoscopy and was told there was no trace of cancer this time around. That’s two clean exams in a row. My record is three, after five or so years of dealing with this unpleasantness.
I was also told there is Still Something Going On, though the doctor is not sure what IT is. IT will call for more tests. I was informed of the same thing three months ago and will start doing the lab work next week, or the week after that.
Arielle and I went for a celebratory lunch, and we haggled over who would pay.
On another front, I had my first meeting with the real estate agent who will handle the marketing of my house, so it is official—I am selling my home, and I’m wrestling with a strange mélange of sadness and relief.
After the agent left, I spent an hour or so pacing through my yard. Over the two-and-half decades of living here, I did a lot to alter the topography of this small patch of Virginia soil. I created and stocked a tiny fishpond, made a couple of small hills, and a couple of little hollows. I planted innumerable trees, bushes, vegetables, and flowering and non-flowering things. I pulled up weeds until, about a decade ago, I realized that weeds are green and great ground-cover. I put up fences and took them down again. I saw a tall and slender willow fall after a heavy snow, and I cut down three dead pines that smelled of pitch and needles. I hung a hammock I never used between two elm trees.
I remembered buying a two-foot leafless branch shortly after my father’s death. I wanted to commemorate his life. I stuck the branch into the ground and in time it became a twenty-foot corkscrew willow that now towers over the fishpond. I remembered being attacked by wasps no less than four times, and using an almost strawless broom to challenge a hissing raccoon on my kitchen stoop. I chased away a fox that was threatening my cat.
Inside the house I’ve taken down walls, destroyed and rebuilt bathrooms, and put in closets, Sheetrocked, sanded and painted. I retiled the kitchen, refinished floors and put in new windows. Some work was necessity; other was a labor of love. I built a room out back over a concrete apron and the band I played with for a decade practiced and recorded there.
There have been brownouts and blackouts, days without heat and days with air conditioning. I’ve dug out the snow from my driveway more times than I can count. Five years ago, the house two doors down burned almost to the ground but thankfully no one was hurt. The street fronting my home was widened, re-laned, and went from a seldom traveled road to a thoroughfare.
There have been good neighbors, and bad neighbors, and neighbors struck by tragedy. The Iranian family that lived across the street lost a kid to a heroin overdose. There was a murder just a quarter of a mile away, and housebreakings and robberies. On the other hand, for several years a delightful family from Beirut lived next door, an aging mother and three daughters, who bribed me with endless cups of bitter coffee and honeyed pastries. I mowed their lawn, repaired their roof, and moved their furniture. I fixed flat tires and drove them around when their ancient cars broke down. I listened to tales of woes and wars, and to stories of joy. I watched two daughters get married and have children. When the mother died, I was a pallbearer at her funeral…
It’s nearing time to go, but it’s going to be hard to leave.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
I’ve been culling books for the past few days in anticipation of an eventual move. It’s a bittersweet activity, since I know, as a writer, the effort each volume required of its author. Books to me are sacred things. They imply a dual commitment, one by the writer, the other by the reader, to engage in a strange and temporary symbiotic relationship that begins and ends with the turn of a page.
Many years ago I owned a dilapidated house in Adams Morgan, a grand old and brooding four-story edifice with a speckled history. When my then-wife and I bought it, we innocently believed that in a matter of months we would completely rebuild its kitchen, paneled dining room, six bathrooms, seven bedrooms, and mother-in-law basement apartment. This was not to be.
The first thing I insisted on when taking ownership of the house was creating a library. I gutted the top floor, in the process inhaling a few pounds of asbestos fiber, and with an architectural student friend, built gorgeous serpentine bookshelves to line the entire now-open room. I cut and shaped and assembled. I sanded and stained and varnished. I quickly stocked the shelves by buying all the books I’d always wanted, many from a bric-a-brac store down the street. I got the entire Harvard Classics, an illustrated Medical Encyclopedia from 1897, and Will and Ariel Durant’s eleven-volume (now largely ignored) Story of Civilization. I got all the works of Emile Zola in French and in English. I bought Bulwer-Lytton and the writings of Kant and Heidegger and Marx. I resurrected Descartes and Sartre and Camus. I invited Voltaire and Corneille and Moliere and Shakespeare home. In time, I managed to read almost everything save some of the Harvard Classics which were, frankly, unreadable. I got both full sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book Encyclopedia, because the latter is largely how I learned to read English many decades ago. I also unpacked one of my prized possessions, a set of Les Aventures de Tintin by the Belgian artist/writer Hergé.
For a time, I was coming home daily with a book or three. I continued doing this until the shelves were almost filled. In hindsight, it was one of the better times of my life.
Today I am doing the opposite. I sold the Harvard Classics a while back and gave the Britannica to a downtown rehab/shelter, a donation that was welcomed by the counselors, if not the clients in early sobriety. I was told later that the tomes were read avidly enough that a waitlist had to be established.
I found I had two editions of Updike’s complete works, so one went to the local library. I approached another library and asked if its staff might be interested in my collection of books about Paris, which I used to research a book of my own set in the French capital shortly after World War One. I was given a tentative yes, and so I’m packing up those as well. I am going to sell my collection of Historia magazines, a monthly glossy French review that deals in painful detail with the vagaries of royalty and tsars, and seems particularly fascinated by the life of William Howard Taft, the fattest of all US Presidents and the very first celebrity weight-loss patient.
Save for a few works I found horribly written (my favorite and on Amazon’s Worst List is How Fatima Started Islam: Mohammad’s Daughter Tells All) or truly boring (Madame Bovary, Finnegan’s Wake, Tess of d’Urbervilles and anything by Proust) every book I am giving away evokes a small pang of regret.
I love books. I love reading them, writing them, looking at their spines, admiring their covers, and scanning their first and last sentences. I will miss them all, but it is time for them to find new homes.
I will not give up the Tintin collection, though.
Saturday, September 10, 2016
My mother never got used to America.
Years after she and my dad had returned to Paris where they rented a tiny apartment in Paris near the Opera that was smaller than the living room of the suburban house they’d lived in, she would say, “I almost died there. In America.”
This was technically true.
While they lived on the outskirts of Washington, DC, the tail-end of a hurricane roared through the capital. My parents were on Rock Creek Parkway after an evening with friends when the roaring wind uprooted a tree that crashed on their car as they were driving back to Maryland. The tree hit the roof of the car and collapsed it, shattering both front and back windshields. Had it fallen a nanosecond earlier, it would have landed squarely on top of them and killed them. Both were bloodied by flying glass but neither was seriously injured.
Another time, was mother was deep-frying beignets in the kitchen when the boiling oil caught fire and singed her eyebrows with a frightening whoosh. My father, who liked to hang around the kitchen and bother my mom when she was cooking, grabbed the sink sprayer, a new gadget much in vogue, and squirted the fire with a thin stream of water. The flames leapt to the ceiling with an angry roar, and my mother would later tell her friends in France that these were American flames, and not the standard European flames she knew how to deal with.
My mom was an accomplished artist whose works were displayed in both Washington and Paris. Once, as she was creating an oil painting of a scene from the Belle Époque, a small bat flew into the room through an open window. My mother had probably never seen a bat in its natural state. She screamed, covered her head with the palette full of paint, knocked over the easel, painting, and a glass jar full of turpentine and used brushes. The bat eventually found the window and vanished. The turpentine ate through the varnish on the floor, and it took my mother weeks to get her hair free of the blue, red and sun yellow paints she’d been working with.
In the recounting, the bat became a red-eyed monster with a two-foot wing span. She would tell people it had hissed venomously as it attempted to sink its fangs into her tender French neck.
Perhaps the American near-death experience that most affected her was when she and my father were vacationing in Florida and staying in an inexpensive beach-front motel. My mother realized she had left the pack of Pall Mall cigarettes she was never without in the glove compartment of their car. She went to retrieve it and was halfway there when she realized the parking lot was covered with scuttling crabs. She froze. She screamed. My farther rushed out and rescued her, picking her up bodily like a movie hero. The story might have ended there but it turned out the motel owner had told my father of the crab issue when they’d checked in, and my father, afraid to alarm my mother, had not passed on this disconcerting information.
Like the bat, the crabs took on science-fiction proportion. They were monsters from the deep with serrated claws and bubbling maws. From that day on, my mother’s occasional feasting on the crustaceans became almost vengeful. She would pound at their carapaces with a small wooden mallet and a bitter smile, recalling how she had, once again, foiled an American death.
Thursday, September 8, 2016
My father, Jean Octave Sagnier, died 18 years ago. He was a good wise man who without being secretive hated talking about himself. He was an architectural student working as the traveling secretary of a wealthy Brit when World War II broke out and he walked from the south of France to St. Malo in Brittany, then hopped a boat to England so he could join the upstart general Charles de Gaulle and become a Free French. De Gaulle assigned him a mobile radio station which roamed occupied France and relayed Allied news to the maquis and other underground forces. He never fired a shot during the war. He was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor, for deeds that I do not know.
He met my mother in the summer of 1945 in Marseilles. She was Free French too and they conceived me that very night in January in the back of a US Army truck.
He was estranged from his family. I would be an adult before I was told I had uncles and an alcoholic aunt who died of the disease in the UK. He lost a younger brother during the V2 bombings of London. He never, as I recall, mentioned his own mother. I have an aged family photo taken in the 20s, three boys and a girl posing with a man and a woman standing at attention. A much later shot shows a painfully thin young man wearing boxing gloves and looking not at all ready to fight.
It was snowing when I was born in the American Hospital in Paris, and the barely liberated capital was devoid of food. Regardless, my mother craved a ham omelet. My father, using the military issue Colt he had never fired, forced the hospital cook at gunpoint to go into his own larder for eggs, butter and meat. He fixed the omelet himself, ate it, made another and served it to her. She complained it wasn’t hot enough, and that would be the tenet of their relationship. They were married 46 years, nursing each other through poverty, joblessness, an eventual move to the US, and cancer.
He died five years after my mother. I carried his ashes in an oak box from the US to France, and when I went through customs the douaniers were very curious as to what I was cradling in my arms. One soldier took the box, shook it. It rattled as if there were pebbles inside. When I told him he was manhandling my father’s remains, he turned sheet-white, handed the box to his superior officer who in turn gave it back to me. I said these were the ashes of a Free French and the man saluted.
He was not a natural father. The growing up and education of a son baffled him. He was unlikely to give advice, did so only at my mother’s prompting. He taught by doing, showing, and patience. We never played catch, never went fishing together, we did not bond in the accepted way. There were few family vacations, a limited number of father/son experiences shared. He was a good and quiet man who witnessed and took part in moments of history that are now almost forgotten.
He told two jokes, neither particularly, but each telling brought tears to his eyes. He died a bad death and I hope he didn’t suffer. I think of him every day.