October 17, 2018

Miranda Richmond Mouillot’s fascination with an ancestral divorce

Acknowledging her own anger frightens Miranda Richmond Mouillot more than she realizes, as we discover in her new book, “A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France” (Crown).  And she has plenty to be angry about.  She grew up a nervous and anxious child in a family riddled with dysfunction and unresolved grief and toxic secrets that resulted in her compulsion to keep things in her room in immaculate order.  If something fell out of place, so could she.  A child of divorce, she was close to her stepfather whom she thought of as her “heart-father,” since he was there for her when she felt most vulnerable.  She is almost peculiarly silent about her mother.  Her biological father, whom she saw sporadically, seems to have often been distracted.  Her most pervasive love was for her maternal grandmother.  She writes about her with awe: “Grandma and I were so close that when I shut my eyes, I can still feel her silver hair, which even in extreme old age was soft as silk and streaked with coal black.  I can see her before her mirror in a pale pink slip, rubbing face cream on her high cheekbones and into her neck, all the way down her graceful shoulders, doing “face yoga” to keep away the wrinkles, her gold and turquoise earrings quivering in her ears.  They had been in her ears since she was eight years old, when her ears were pierced in the Romanian Jewish equivalent of a bris for a girl.”   

Miranda was obsessed with what her grandparents, Anna and Armand, had endured during the Holocaust.  But she was even more preoccupied with fantasies of the romance they once shared before their union bitterly shattered after just a few short years of marriage.  That was when her grandmother left her grandfather and fled to Asheville, North Carolina with two children in tow; one of them Miranda’s mother.  Both her grandparents had escaped Nazi-occupied France for Switzerland where they each were individually sent to separate refugee camps.  After the war, there was a reunion and they married and bought a majestic old stone house in horrible disrepair in a picturesque village in the south of France, but their marriage did not survive long enough for them to make a home there.  Her grandparents hadn’t spoken in over 50 years, and neither of them ever remarried.

There was something about their courtship took hold of Miranda’s young imagination.  Like a detective, she attempted to put the pieces together.  Her grandmother, optimistic and resilient by nature, would answer her questions skittishly leaving question marks floating everywhere.  Miranda stayed in touch with her grandfather in Geneva by writing him letters which he would send back to her marked up in red where she had errors in spelling or punctuation.  He would visit every few years and stay for a few days and leave abruptly and often without notice.  If she or her mother mentioned grandma in his presence, he would immediately leave the room looking frazzled.  Miranda became certain that some sort of grotesque misunderstanding had taken place between them, and perhaps could be repaired, which she felt would lessen the suffering that rippled through their family.

At 14, she got her chance.  Her mother sent her to boarding school in Geneva so she could be near her grandfather and spend weekends with him.  She found him difficult at first since he was demanding and distant, and often seemed on the verge of losing control.  When she shyly suggested they light Shabbat candles, he resisted and then relented, and soon found himself drawn back to this ritual of his childhood.  Miranda remembers looking up after saying her prayers and seeing his eyes brimming with tears but he said nothing and she knew better than to ask.  When she did mention her grandmother, he grew agitated and spoke in a stilted heated language that frightened her but convinced her he must still care for her.  Her grandfather spoke impeccable English unlike her grandmother who never lost her Austro-Hungarian German accent.  He did not believe in God like her grandmother did, and was continually reading books about the persecution of the Jews.  He never spoke of his own parents whom he lost during the war.

One day he drove Miranda to the village where they had bought the old stone house in southern France to show it to her.  It was still in terrible shape but the serenity it evoked in Miranda was life-changing.  She remembers thinking immediately “I want this place to be my home.  It was an odd, disorienting thought to have, but I could not make it go away.”  She began to see a possibility for a future for herself that would embrace her family’s legacy, but also allow her to escape it.   She writes perceptively about her shaky journey towards selfhood with a shy elegance and graceful restraint.  We watch her attempt to come to terms with the role she seems to have been assigned within her family; which was to act as a repository for the family’s grief.  It gave her star billing but threatened to swallow her.

Still, the psychological pull of her grandmother’s story loomed large in her psyche and Miranda’s anxieties continued unabated.  She enjoyed just thinking about her grandparent’s early love affair; imagining their love “as dizzy and spectacular, with an ache behind it I couldn’t identify.”   She tried to distract herself with boys and dates and teen-age antics but couldn’t let it go.   She took her 87-year-old grandmother to visit the house in Geneva and was distraught when her grandmother’s usual cheeriness turned dark.  Going to sleep in a bleak hotel room, her grandmother grabbed her hand and mumbled softly to her about what she had endured saying softly “They killed so many people…we were so frightened….we wouldn’t make it….I was so frightened.”  Her grandmother, a physician, spent many years as a supervising psychiatrist at Rockland State Mental Hospital in America.  But on their trip in France, she was thrust into despair by memories she had long buried; traumatized again by what she had experienced.

Her grandfather, after the war, served as an interpreter and translator for the Nuremberg Trials where he was forced to question the most brutal Nazis about their crimes.  She recognizes the trauma this must have inflicted upon him writing “Who could wear a wedding band, after learning of the stacks of them stripped off perished fingers?  Who could read by the light cast through a lampshade?  Coats, hats, children’s toys-everything had been marked, stained, destroyed.  My grandfather’s personality could not withstand it.”

Mouillot has written on her blog that she has synaesthesis; a condition where one can see numbers as vivid colors, and actually smell sounds, and practically taste words, and this quirky vibrancy is present throughout her narrative.  We sense we are in the presence of an eccentric soul who can become overwhelmed easily; sometimes with joy and sometimes with sadness.  She is open to the pain of others but this makes her vulnerable to their manipulations.  She has to work hard to stake out her own terrain, and struggle to hold on to it.

In her writing, she rarely makes overt declarations but reaches us more deeply by her perceptive reactions to the world around her.  And those reactions are charged with a unique sensibility.  We are interested in what she has to say.  And her mind has free range over a multiplicity of topics.  She can become entranced by simply looking at a bunch of marbles in a jar charmed by their “pure color” and “unassuming beauty,” and the next moment be smitten by a vending machine she discovers that actually pops out a pizza pie you can take home and heat up.  She spends most of her time now working as a translator in France where she  lives in a small village with her new Catholic French husband and baby daughter.  Her husband works restoring old houses and they are now working on restoring their own home and transforming it into something spectacular.  It is not the home her grandparents bought, but is similar in its charm and beauty, and more importantly, it is finally a home of her own.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.