Lucille and Charles

When my mother came to Paris for her chemotherapy, it was her very first time on a plane.   The trip was full of meaning.  Lucille Arrigan Rice, my mother, was one of the greatest readers ever to live.  She had been born and raised in New England and never traveled beyond Washington DC to the south, Quebec City to the north, and New York City to the west.  Her reading had taken her everywhere in the world so perhaps she hadn't felt the need to visit places other than through literature.  The cost was also an issue; it wasn't so uncommon for teachers, typewriter men, and their children, to think flying was only for the Air Force and rich people.

I was living in Paris and couldn't bear not being with her during her treatment for a brain tumor, so I arranged for her to have chemo at the American Hospital in Neuilly.  She loved Paris immediately; she'd felt a bond with the city since, when pregnant with my youngest sister, she'd spent labor reading Paul Gallico's Mrs. 'Arris goes to Paris, and eventually the baby grew up to marry a Frenchman (here is the baby and her husband, Maureen and Olivier Onorato, in Arcachon, France, where they lived their first year of marriage many moons ago.)  (Photo by Amelia Onorato,)  Anyway, the Gallico book is a magical reference tool in our family, so my sister's marriage, and now my mother's visit to Paris, all seemed quite blessed and cosmic, but that is another story.

My mother was enchanted by Paris but wanted to go to England.  Her grandmother, Gertrude Gibson Harwood Beaudry, was English, so we'd grown up with teatime, silver spoons commemorating Queen Elizabeth's coronation, and a habit i shared with my sisters of practicing English accents while walking on the golf course, pretending it  was the Yorkshire Moors.  I also invented an imaginary English family, wherein my father was the fabulously dashing Max Gardiner, I had nine brothers and no sisters, and my own bay thoroughbred, on whom I rode hunt seat jolly well.  But that too is another story.

Flying across the Channel, my mother was moved to remember my father's service during WWll, how his squadron had given air support to the troops landing on Normandy beaches on D-Day.  During our London stay we would visit places my father had stayed on leave from the base at North Pickenham, including a Catholic church hit by a buzz-bomb while my father was at Mass.

Upon landing in England, my mother's smile grew huge, as if she had finally come home.  We took a taxi to the Basil Street Hotel, where we had a tiny suite and our own butler.  My mother tired easily, so she had to drink bouillon in bed and sleep a while before we could set out to see London.

I had planned an itinerary that I thought she would enjoy, but it went out the window as soon as she woke up.  "I want to go straight to Doughty Street," she said.  "What's there?" I asked.  She looked disappointed in both herself and me, as if she'd failed me in my education and I'd failed myself by not enquiring further.  "Charles Dickens' house," she said.

We went straightaway.  Dickens had lived in the Georgian terraced house at 48 Doughty Street for two years: he and Catherine moved in right after their marriage in April 1837.  Home to the Dickenses and the three eldest of their ten children, two of their daughters were born there.  The family moved to larger houses as Dickens became more successful, but none of those other residences survive.

The interior was Victorian, and we wandered--my mother blissfully--through the morning room, drawing room, and brilliantly scholarly library.  The house contains the most comprehensive collection of all things Dickens, including first editions and a painting, Dicken's Dream, by R. W. Buss, the artist who'd illustrated The Pickwick Papers.

I was overjoyed to see early editions of Dombey and Son, a novel my sisters and I loved for its own merit but also because in Franny and Zooey by J.D Salinger, it was the novel Zooey was reading at the kitchen table when Jesus appeared and asked him for a small glass of ginger ale.  A small glass, mind you.

My mother adored Dickens.  Not just as the literary giant he was, but also, simply as an avid reader, because he wrote such engaging, addictive stories.  My mother said, "He wrote such cliffhangers.  The books would be published in serials, and readers would be waiting at the loading dock to pick up the next installment."  It thrilled her to know that he had written The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, and part of Barnaby Rudge while in residence there.

After reluctantly leaving as the house/museum closed for the day, we went to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which was both charming and incredibly touristy, because a woman in the museum had told my mother that Dickens had frequented the pub.  My mother couldn't eat, she was too sick, but she leaned back and soaked in the atmosphere, imagining Dickens at the next table--perhaps writing, perhaps thinking of his latest chapter.

Our next stop, the following day, would be at Samuel Johnson's house, as she was quite obsessed with Dr. Johnson and was, back in Connecticut, caring for a stray tiger cat she'd named Boswell after the diarist and author of The Life of Samuel Johnson.  But today, in this post, I savor that memory of my mother and our visit with Charles Dickens.  It is, after all, Dickens' birthday...  Lucille would be the first to bake him a cake.


(Photograph by Peter Turnley, Café Ma Bourgogne, Place des Vosges, Paris, 1982) Lydie McBride occupied a café table in the Jardin du Palais Royale and thought how fine it was to be an American woman in Paris at the end of the twentieth century.

That is the first line of Secrets of Paris, a novel I wrote when I was, well, an American woman in Paris at the end of the twentieth century.  The novel was first  published by Viking in 1991 and will appear again on January 25.

(New trade paperback)

(The original hardcover jacket.)

My time in Paris was romantic, literary, adventurous, tragic, and haunting.  I wrote in a garret, the maid's room on the top floor of a Belle Epoque apartment house.  Every day I walked from the Pont de l'Alma to the Ile St. Louis, and back.

My walk took me past the Louvre, which I visited often.

I began to imagine setting a section of my novel in the museum's storerooms, where treasures hide, ghosts live, and a madwoman roams.  I was inspired by the letters of Madame de Sévigné (February 5, 1626 – April 17, 1696) Mainly I drew on my own expatriate life--being in Paris with a man I loved, wanting to live in the city forever, yet missing home so much.

Most of Madame de Sévigné's letters were written to her daughter, and their connection touched me deeply.  My mother had gotten ill while I lived on Rue Chambiges.  Being so far from her, especially during that time, was very hard.

We wrote each other countless letters, and then she came to Paris to have chemotherapy at the American Hospital in Neuilly.  Rock Hudson, dying of AIDS, was a patient at the same time.  We passed Elizabeth Taylor in the hall.  The intensity of everyone's sorrow...our family's, theirs.

Gelsey, my mother's Scottish Terrier, came to live with us.  She traveled in cars, on the Metro, the TVG, Air France, and trans-Atlantic on the Queen Elizabeth II.  When I would walk Gelsey in my neighborhood--she adorable, me writer-disheveled in jeans and a bomber jacket--fashionable women shopping at Dior and Givenchy would coo and pet her while I gladly remained invisible.

I met a Filipino woman, "Kelly," working as a maid in the Eighth Arrondissement, whose great dream was to reunite with her sister living in the United States, and open a fish market together.  She had been smuggled into France from Germany by a Filipino driver of exiled Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.  The driver had many duties, including a weekly visit to the design house of Nina Ricci on Avenue Montaigne, to purchase hundreds of hand-embroidered white linen handkerchiefs which the Marcoses would use instead of tissues, at a time when millions in the Philippines suffered in poverty.

These are a few of the stories that lived with me in Paris.  The city's beauty hides secrets.

While living there my novel Angels All Over Town came out in the States.  One day i received a call from a man saying he was a Newsweek photographer and had been assigned to take my picture for the magazine--an article about first novelists.  I thought it was my friend Joe Monniger, a fellow writer living in Vienna, playing a joke on me (he would,) but the photographer gave me a number and told me to call back, and the operator answered, "Newsweek" and put me through.

Thus I met Peter Turnley, amazing, talented, award-winning, war correspondent, artist, photographer.  We spent the day touring Paris, Peter photographing me on the Champs-Élysées, at Invalides, on the Pont d'Alexandre III, on the Champs de Mars beneath the Eiffel Tower, on the banks of the Seine.

We had coffee at storied and literary Fouquet's and he told me of covering world conflicts, dodging fire, seeing war upfront.  I wondered how he'd gotten stuck taking pictures of a first novelist.  His last shot of the day--using up film--was black and white, on my balcony.  I'm squinting into the day's last light, thinking about Paris and war and Peter dodging bullets.  That's the picture (shown here) the photo editor chose.

The photo shoot made it into my novel Crazy in Love. In the movie, the photographer is played by Julian Sands.

Over the years I have viewed Peter's work with admiration.  His Wikipedia entry begins:  Peter Turnley is a photojournalist known for documenting the human condition and current events. Over the past two decades, he has traveled to eighty-five countries and covered nearly every major news event of international significance. His photographs have been featured on the cover of Newsweek more than forty times. A renowned street photographer who's lived in and photographed Paris since 1978, Turnley is one of the preeminent photographers of the daily life in Paris of his generation.

That is Peter, exactly.  How lucky I was to be photographed by him, and to become his friend.  His images capture for me the essence of Paris then and now.

On Facebook my team often holds giveaways.  This one will stand out from all others.  We'll be offering signed copies of Secrets of Paris, but also a print, for one single reader, of one of my favorite of Peter's photographs (Peter Turnley, Paris, 1991):

The black and white photograph is traditional collector museum quality archival prints on fiber paper. Each print is signed on the front and back by Peter Turnley, and signed on the back by Voja Mitrovic, world renowned master printer who has been a long time printer for Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Rene Burri, Peter Turnley, and many others.

If you wish to be eligible to win a copy of the novel as well as the photograph, please just click this link to Facebook and "like" the page.  Among other things, we have a wonderful, supportive group.

I'll sign off with this quote.  It's from a letter by Madame de Sévigné and appears on page one of Secrets of Paris:

What I am about to communicate to you is the most astonishing thing, the most surprising, most triumphant, most baffling, most unheard of, most singular, most unbelievable, most unforeseen, biggest, tiniest, rarest, commonest, the most talked about, the most secret up to this day, the most enviable, a fact a thing of which only one example can be found in past ages, and moreover, that example is a false one; a thing nobody can believe in Paris (how could anyone believe it in Lyons?). ~From Madame de Sévigné, December 1672

We Gather Together (even if we can't)

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. This year I'm missing my sister Maureen--she and Olivier went to France, to say bon voyage to his brother and sister-in-law, leaving Bordeaux to open an inn in Indonesia.  Missing my nieces, too--Mia will be with her friend, and Molly will be with her husband Alex and his family.  We'll all be together in spirit, as well as with Rosemary...sometimes that's the best even a close family can do.

Thinking of Maureen and Olivier in France, I remember having Thanksgivings in Paris.  The day would start by reading Art Buchwald's yearly-repeated column in the International Herald Tribune.  Then I'd make dinner, including a not-so-easy-to-find dinde, for all my American friends there.  There'd always be at least twenty...

I'm very lucky, though; a young friend, Nyasha, is coming down from Massachusetts to spend the holiday with me.  I love having visitors from out of town, and I'll enjoy showing her all my favorite NYC places, and having a special dinner.

Growing up always had dinner with my father's sisters and family--Aunt Mary, Uncle Bill, and Billy Keenan, Aunt Jan and Uncle Bud Lee--either at our house in New Britain or the Keenans' in Elmwood.  When it was at ours, we had lots to do to prepare.  Wednesday was a half-day at school, and my sisters and I would run home to help our mother and grandmother.

We'd go down to the basement to get the good china and crystal glasses, and we'd wash everything till it sparkled.  Mim would bake pies, and we'd help: apple, pumpkin, and mince.  One of us would make cranberry-orange relish--a recipe via Ocean Spray from the Whitneys, the family across the street for whom I babysat--and another of us would bake cranberry and date-nut breads.

The three of us would help polish the silver, and fill bowls with nuts in their shells.  My grandmother had a turkey platter, a green oval with a splendid turkey, its tail spread and preening, displayed on a hutch in the dining room.  We would take it down, the only time all year, feeling excited to know the next day it would be laden with turkey.

(Photo below from right: Tom Rice, Bill Keenan, Mary Keenan, me, Billy's elbow, Lucille Rice raising her glass, tiny corner of Maureen's hair.)

After dinner, my father would lead a walk on Shuttle Meadow golf course, across the street.  It was always wonderfully bracing and damp, and usually cold, and we'd tromp through the rough toward the brook and ponds, to see if any ice had formed yet.  Given my father and Uncle Bill's humor, there'd be lots of laughter.

Dinner at the Keenans's was great, not only because we were guests and had only to bring the pies, but because Billy had these toy horses that I loved and wanted to play with long after it made sense age-wise.  When we got older and could drive, "the kids"--my sisters, Bill, and I--would go to the movies.  Billy and I were recently reminiscing about seeing Silent Movie at the Elm Theater.  Dom Deluise's line, "I need a blueberry pie badly" made a particularly deep impression.

Billy was a football player; if he had a game we'd go see him play at Northwest Catholic.  Later, when he went to Amherst College, one of my teenage highlights was to head up there with his parents and my sisters, tailgate in the parking lot, and feel like hot stuff because we knew Billy.  (Photo of Rosemary, me, Bill Keenan.)

This year Thanksgiving falls on November 25.  That is a bright and shining occurrence.  It happened once many years ago.  Mrs. Whitney, my "other mother," (and currently bookseller extraordinaire at G. J. Ford ) gave birth to her second daughter, the exceptional and luminous Sam--aka the best midwife in the west in my novel Dream Country.  Sam lit up our lives from the minute she was born, and continues to do so while being the best midwife in the west, raising her daughter (my goddaughter) and twins, and telemark skiing in the mountains of Park City, Utah. (Photo of Sam and Sadie)

We all attended Vance School--from my mother to my sisters and me to the Whitney children (aside from Sam, the birthday-Thanksgiving girl, there are Tobin and the twins Sarah and Palmer.)

Every year all the classes filed into the auditorium, and we'd sing We Gather Together and Over the River and Through the Woods.  May you all be gathering together with your families and friends, all your loved ones.

Cranberry Orange relish:

1 bag cranberries; 1 seedless orange; 1 cup of sugar.  Make in two batches: chop up the orange and put half plus half the cranberries and half the sugar through a Cuisinart, food mill, or grinder.  Then do it again.  The relish will be delicious and you will be happy.

The photo above is of Maureen and me in the kitchen at Hubbard's Point.

Light of the Moon

Against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty, and in the shadow of a mysterious family legend, one woman is about to discover that to find your way home, sometimes you must travel far away...

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