A young woman moves across an ocean to uncover the truth about her grandparents' mysterious estrangement and pieces together the extraordinary story of their wartime experiences
In 1948, after surviving World War II by escaping Nazi-occupied France for refugee camps in Switzerland, Miranda's grandparents, Anna and Armand, bought an old stone house in a remote, picturesque village in the South of France. Five years later, Anna packed her bags and walked out on Armand, taking the typewriter and their children. Aside from one brief encounter, the two never saw or spoke to each other again, never remarried, and never revealed what had divided them forever.
A Fifty-Year Silence is the deeply involving account of Miranda Richmond Mouillot's journey to find out what happened between her grandmother, a physician, and her grandfather, an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials, who refused to utter his wife's name aloud after she left him. To discover the roots of their embittered and entrenched silence, Miranda abandons her plans for the future and moves to their stone house, now a crumbling ruin; immerses herself in letters, archival materials, and secondary sources; and teases stories out of her reticent, and declining, grandparents. As she reconstructs how Anna and Armand braved overwhelming odds and how the knowledge her grandfather acquired at Nuremberg destroyed their relationship, Miranda wrestles with the legacy of trauma, the burden of history, and the complexities of memory. She also finds herself learning how not only to survive but to thrive--making a home in the village and falling in love.
With warmth, humor, and rich, evocative details that bring her grandparents' outsize characters and their daily struggles vividly to life, A Fifty-Year Silence is a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents and three generations.
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MIRANDA RICHMOND MOUILLOT was born in Asheville, North Carolina. She lives in the South of France with her family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye. She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me, her only grandchild.
My grandmother had fled or lost countless homes in her lifetime, and though she never fully resigned herself to living in America, she was determined to die in her house in Pearl River, New York, to which she had retired from her job as a supervising psychiatrist at Rockland State Mental Hospital. She would tell me this with some frequency, because my grandmother viewed death as an interesting dance step she’d eventually get around to learning, or perhaps a pen pal she’d come awfully close to meeting several times—no doubt this intrigued equanimity was part of the reason she managed to live so long.
My grandmother told me many things over the years, in a jumbled and constant flow of speech. I hung on to her every sentence, fascinated and admiring. Each word she said was like a vivid, tangible object to me, a bright buoy, a bloodred lifeline:
That was her favorite word. She rolled it out of her mouth with Carpathian verve, inflected with both Austro-Hungarian German and French.
You’re like me, Mirandali, she’d say. You’ll sourrwvive.
This was immensely comforting, because outside the reassuring confines of my grandmother’s presence, I was never too sure about that.
When Grandma wasn’t around, my life was bafflingly full of terror. I say bafflingly because my childhood, albeit eccentric, was outwardly perfectly secure: my parents divorced when I was small, but they’d done so amicably, and each remarried a stepparent I loved as fiercely as if they had all given birth to me. There I was, a nice little girl with two big front yards, climbing apple trees and peeling Elmer’s glue off my hands at recess with my friends, except for the moments when my comfortably ordinary world incomprehensibly fell to pieces.
Take the day my friend Erin and I locked her little brother in the bathroom, and Erin began belting out a loud rendition of “The Farmer in the Dell” so her parents wouldn’t hear him hollering for us to let him out: one minute I was singing along with her, and the next I was clutching Erin’s arm for dear life, as if she might pull me out from under the avalanche of fear now suffocating me. “Stop,” I begged her. “We have to stop. They played music to drown out the screams of the children when they were killing them.” Years later Erin recalled that she’d been so upset by what I’d said that she’d run crying to her father.
“What did he say?” I asked her.
“He told me you came from a family of Holocaust survivors with a lot of bad memories to cope with.”
All I could think was, I wish someone had told me that.
With the clumsy logic of a small child, I tried to protect myself from these episodes by constructing scenes of perfect domesticity in which everything was ordered and beautiful: careful dioramas I fitted into Kleenex boxes or arranged on the shelf beside my bed, elaborate habitats I squirreled away in hideouts behind the bushes of our front walk or tucked under my mother’s desk. I would spend hours imagining myself away from the world and into these fictitious universes. If you had asked me, as a child, what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have told you a career—ballerina, scientist, senator—but what I really wanted was my own home, a place to keep me safe from the lurking menace of destruction, the horrible crumbling feeling I knew was never far-off.
The habitats I created were of no use at night. I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead. Biding my fearful time until I fell asleep, I would calculate how quickly I could jump out of bed and dress and count the places I might hide. I wished I were grown up and more graceful; I believed I was resourceful enough, but not tall enough, to survive. I grieved in advance for the loss of my cozy home with the books on the shelves and the bright bedspread, brush and comb on the dresser, fire in the woodstove, food in the fridge.
I would call out for my mother to come sit with me, hoping she could keep my nameless fear at bay, and pepper her with questions.
“Could someone steal our house?”
My mother always took me seriously, and she replied to my questions honestly, which meant her answers were rarely as reassuring as I wanted them to be. “No,” she would say. “Not usually.”
“Well, if something happened.” There would be a small pause as she considered what she would and would not explain. “For example, if you had to go away for a long time, someone could move in, or steal the papers saying you owned it, or make new ones saying it was theirs.”
“What if you came back?” I’d press.
“Well, you would have to prove that the house really was yours.”
“How could you do that?”
“Well, you could go to court, if the government were still intact.”
There was also the question of fire. What if someone burned our house down?
“That’s not very likely.” Her calm, dry voice was silent another moment in the dark room. “Really. It’s very unlikely.”
But no matter how many times she reassured me with rational considerations of likelihood and risk (no one in our household smoked; we didn’t have a furnace; we owned three fire extinguishers), my mother could not give me the gift of certainty that every child craves. What I longed to hear was That will never happen. But how could she say that? In our family, everyone had lost a home. The unspoken question that nettled me at night was not whether such a thing could happen but how many homes you could lose in a lifetime.
In my dreams, when sleep finally came, I’d pack quickly for my flight. Only the essentials. Coat, matches, pocketknife. I’d get bogged down as I tried to plan ahead, to think of all the things I would lack: change of underwear, soap, raincoat, antiseptic ointment, adhesive bandages, toilet paper, candles, shoelaces, string, a sweater, powdered milk, wool socks, long johns, tarp, hat, scissors. Pots and pans. A hammer. Stamps. Wallet. Photographs. Some sort of container for holding water. Rubber bands. Gloves, not mittens. A sleeping bag. Salt. Sugar. Towel. Needle and thread.
All the dreams were the same, except for the ones where they got me before I had time to pack. Sometimes I’d end up in a train, occasionally they’d shoot me right away, and always, afterward, I’d wake to a world drained of color, thick with a desolation so familiar I never even thought to mention it to anyone. I preferred the dreams of flight: in those, my grandmother would come back for me, wrest the excess baggage from my hands, and push me out the door.
Grandma and I were so close that when I shut my eyes, I can still count the spots on her aging skin, which reminded me of an almond in its smoothness and color. If I concentrate on my fingers, I can feel her silver hair, which even in her extreme old age was soft as silk and streaked with coal black. I can see her standing before her mirror in a pale pink slip, rubbing face cream on her high cheekbones and into her neck, all the way down to 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 earlobes since she was eight days old, when her ears were pierced in the Romanian Jewish equivalent of a bris for a girl. I spent so much time looking at those earrings that their existence was more intense, more fully real to me than that of other objects. You could say the same of the way I saw my grandmother. She was so beautiful, even her dentures seemed glamorous, in my favorite shades of seashell pink and pearly white. “Your teeth fall out when you don’t have enough food,” she’d say in a matter-of-fact tone when I admired them in their little cup, secretly hoping she’d lend them to me one day. “So I got mine young. But maybe when you’re very old you can have some, too.”
My earliest memory was of her, of bouncing on her outstretched leg as she chanted a Romanian Yiddish nursery rhyme: “Pitzili, coucoulou . . .” Not on her knees but on her outstretched leg—my grandmother was the strongest woman I knew. She taught yoga to a group she called “my old ladies” and had a chin-up bar in the doorway of her bedroom. Lest you think she was some sort of health fanatic, I hasten to add that she also drank a pot of coffee a day and had a secret fondness for Little Debbie cakes. My grandmother’s perfume was one of contradictions: she smelled of Roger & Gallet lavender soap, Weleda iris face cream, and raw garlic. Beneath that, her skin had a floral and slightly metallic scent, which put me in mind of roses and iron playground bars. When I open her papers, I can still smell it, growing fainter with the passage of time.
Her home in New York was like a ship pulled up onto an unknown shore, a bulwark she’d fitted out against the oddities of America, intensely personal in a way that indicated she knew she was here for the duration and was determined to make the best of her stay. Taste-wise, it was a mishmash: fine textiles; valuable etchings by her artist friend Isaac Friedlander; paintings by her psychiatric patients; furniture salvaged from the curb; rag rugs; giant plastic flowers in a gaudy ceramic umbrella stand from Portugal; and the bits of Judaica and African art that are standard-issue home decor for left-wing Jews of a certain age. Her wardrobe was a similar jumble. Her dresses and jackets, custom-made for her by a couture seamstress she’d befriended in Paris, had been subjected over the years to endless alterations, additions, and improvements. She was devoted to a pair of flesh-colored orthopedic ghillies she called “space shoes” that a famous podiatrist had made for her in the 1950s to relieve the pain in her frost-damaged toes. Her preferred accessories were a child’s sun hat with a bright blue splatter-painted band and matching sunglasses.
The year after I was born my grandmother bought the house next door to my mother’s house in Asheville as a second home. It was the ugliest house in the neighborhood, but Grandma was extremely proud of it. It looked like a badly constructed pontoon boat had eaten and failed to digest a mobile home, then crashed into the mountainside. It had white aluminum siding and a flat tarpaper roof, with red aluminum awnings that made its doors and windows look like sleepy, half-closed eyes. But my grandmother didn’t care. The house was hers, and that was what mattered.
Before she moved in, she shipped herself a coal-burning stove and a box of bricks from her house in New York. Grandma sent a lot of things to Asheville over the years, including a pair of fuchsia suede high-heeled sandals too large for anyone but my father, a fur wallet made by one of her psychiatric patients, and a kerosene lamp and cookstove, with live fuel included, “just in case.”
A lot of things were just in case. Candles and cough drops, the woolen bandage she always carried in her purse. My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency. She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself.
My grandmother lived alone in a way that seemed natural, inevitable, and inviolable, and for all our closeness, it never occurred to me to wonder with whom she had managed to produce her two children, my mother and uncle. She seemed perfectly capable of doing such a thing unassisted, and where in her life would a companion have fit in? Still, I remember a day when I was about five years old, and my mother handed my grandmother a photograph of me posed with my grandfather in a Sears, Roebuck studio, taken that summer on one of his infrequent visits to Asheville.
My grandmother examined the picture. “What a nice photo. Who’s that with Miranda?”
My mother replied, “That’s Daddy.”
My grandmother’s smooth forehead wrinkled into a map of sadness. She looked carefully at the picture, as if searching for a sign. Then she set the photo on the table in front of her.
“I would never even have recognized him.” She sounded the words out slowly, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t know him if I met him on the street.” She picked it up and looked again. “May I keep this?” she asked.
“Sure,” my mother said, sounding surprised.
Later that day I found the photograph tucked into a picture frame beside my grandmother’s bed, where it remained until her death. At the time I wondered why she wanted to keep a picture of me with someone she didn’t know. I was too young to put one and one together and realize my grandparents might once have been two, to discern they might ever have been anything but strangers to each other.
How could I, at that age, have thought to match my grandmother to my grandfather? He wasn’t apples to her oranges; he was pine cones or prickly pears: a remote and vaguely terrifying figure who noted corrections in the margins of his dictionaries, sent my letters back marked up with red pencil, and occasionally appeared in our house with tasteful gifts and an inclination to take umbrage in toxic doses. He was retired from the UN civil service and had been an interpreter at the Nuremberg Trials. I didn’t know what the Trials were (we called them “the Trials,” as if they were some kind of kissing cousin or family vacation spot), except that they added to his aura of prestige and authority.
Yes, he and my grandmother were more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection. The idea that they might be linked first came to me on the day we began addressing invitations to my bat mitzvah, and I pointed out to my mother that my grandfather hadn’t been included on the guest list.
“I guess you could send him an invitation,” she replied. “But he’s not going to come.”
“Think about it.”
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