Lucy's Newspaper Columns
Common Ground is a monthly newspaper column appearing in the New Hampshire Seacoast Newspapers. Professional photographer Lucy also does the accompanying photographs.
These steps lead to a steep slope approaching the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, an architectural landmark rising above Montmartre, Paris. It is possible French writer Marcel Proust may have walked these steps.
Are mothers like novelists?
This column appeared on May 12, 2000
Novelists don't have to write
Telling stories can enrich lives
Are mothers like novelists?
That's an odd question, especially when asked about a mother who doesn't write fiction. On Mother's Day we often look at what mothers, parents, and other nurturers have done for us. Not everyone is a parent, nor are everyone's parents still living, but we all at various points in our lives nurture and are nurtured by others.
The French writer Marcel Proust wrote about how novelists help us see life's experiences. In his novel "Swann's Way," the first of his famous seven-volume set, he pointed out that in one hour of a reader's time a novelist can describe experiences only a few of which any one person will actually experience. Proust also points out that that many experiences happen to us so slowly, over such long periods of time, that we can't easily perceive them as a whole or interpret them. A novelist can do this for us.
What does this have to do with mothers, nurturers? In these roles we often give others the benefit of our experience, with or without the intent to do so, and sometimes with stories.
When I was growing up my parents told various stories from their lives before my birth. For example, my mother talked about five months she had spent in Europe, as a young single woman in 1932, a few years before her marriage to my father. She visited people in France, Germany, and Switzerland.
1932 in Europe was an ominous time. The Nazi regime was imminent and people were beginning to worry about a possible Second World War. A Swiss friend of my mother's, a young man named Adolf, whom she had met earlier in the Boston area when he had been there as a graduate student in law, instructed her during her travels, "If anything happens, come immediately to Switzerland."
While in France my mother visited Lucienne, a young woman whom she had not previously met but with whom she had been corresponding since her eighth-grade year when they had become "pen pals." It was summer, and Lucienne invited her to vacation spots in southern France. Some years later, when I was a child and my mother talked about travels on the French Riviera with Lucienne, I would think, "Oh, I've heard these stories before." Later, though, I realized that these stories had enriched my life. Her experiences with Lucienne may been early lessons for me in how people from different countries and cultures interact. Both in 1932 and later, during my childhood, fewer Americans traveled abroad than do now.
Some of my mother's experiences were amusing. For example, on one occasion just before she and Lucienne entered a store in southern France, Lucienne instructed my mother not to say anything, in either English or French, lest she give herself away as American. My mother found this entertaining both then and later because, as she describes it, next to the petite, dark-haired, then typically French-looking Lucienne, my tall, quite fair-skinned, probably American-dressed mother didn't have to utter a word to be recognized as from the U.S. "I looked like an American in France in 1932," my mother, now 96, still jokes. "They could have spotted me as one a mile off."
This little anecdote reveals something of the resentment that some Europeans then felt toward Americans. On the economic level alone, they saw our country as a prosperous one that had been spared the shelling and other devastation suffered in Europe during World War I.
When my mother visited the Swiss family of her friend Adolf, in a tourist-magnet town, the family didn't want her to behave like a tourist. One day, however, she "escaped," on a tourist bus bound for an Alpine glacier. In Germany, she visited family acquaintances in Weimar, a city then poor from postwar economic stress but rich in the literary heritage of writers Goethe and Schiller. My mother describes conversations during which people born over 100 years later than either of these literary giants discussed them as if Goethe and Schiller had been their personal friends.
These stories, like the countless stories parents are telling to children all over the world at this very moment, are a little like the novels Proust describes. They compress what Proust calls the slowness of real experience, and interpret it
In March of this year my husband, one of our sons, and I spent a week's vacation in France. Shortly before our trip our son, at the beginning of college spring break, visited my mother, who now lives in Exeter's Eventide Home. She told him and other visitors a few of her European stories. He returned impressed both with her memories of these events and with the experiences themselves.
During our vacation week I took the accompanying photograph in Montmartre, Paris. Those steps lead up a steep slope approaching the Basilique du Sacre Coeur, an architectural landmark rising above the city. Marcel Proust may have walked up these steps, and perhaps my mother did as well. These steps could represent our life stories now in progress. As with these stories, their destination is around a corner, beyond our view.
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