19 January 2008

Paris: From My Grandmother's Desk

Allow me to tell you about the mysteries of my grandmother’s desk. Indulge me. I am leading somewhere with this one.

To Paris, in fact.

It all began when I was a child, seven years old maybe. Old enough to read. Young enough to venture where I should not go with no qualms.

On Sundays, after that big midday meal of chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes and green beans that went on interminably, the grownups would move drowsily to the living room, grab their favorite part of the paper and drift into somnolence.

I would delve into the deep drawers of my Grandma Annie’s desk. Oh, the intrigue there! Old letters and postcards and programs from concerts and plays and church events. Holy cards and prayer books and recipes scribbled on the back of envelopes. Old leather bookmarks and bottles of glue with orange rubber tops and photographs of women garbed in high-necked dresses with leg-of-mutton sleeves and men with handlebar moustaches, all of them dark-eyed and dark-haired and looking squarely into the camera with stern faces

Each item fascinated me and gave me a sense of what? Family? Roots? Place?

This was the ephemera of my grandmother’s life, and it acquired a certain mystique for me, while it also shaped my notion of the past.

The desk had a certain smell, too: A flat, old, paper-y smell.

For decades the sherry flat-topped desk with its two pedestals of drawers remained in the living room of Annie’s house, the house her father bought in 1883.

Lamentably, the house was sold four years ago. Happily, it was sold to people who care about old houses and who have brought it into the 21st century.

The desk remains in the possession of my Aunt Pat, who lives now in a modern apartment only a few blocks away.
It still holds secrets, apparently.

One of them was a tattered book of black-and-white postcards of Paris, which my aunt gave us earlier this year upon our return from that storied city. Most of the cards have been torn from the book; those that remain suggest – from the look of automobiles in the street shots and the clothing of pedestrians – that the book was produced in the 1930s, in the years just before the Nazi Occupation.

These are bittersweet images then, images of a Paris gone forever, a Paris humbled and brought to her knees, a Paris not yet beautified by Andre Malraux and his exterior cleaning program: The buildings and monuments are soot-blackened with age.

These and other images formed the Paris of my young dreams. Gritty, a little seedy, but still elegant.

Who gave this booklet to Annie or her mother, Memere? Someone who knew what Paris meant to them. Paris, the mother of cities in the far-off motherland.

Neither woman ever traveled to France. Memere was born in Quebec, Annie in Michigan. But Paris drew them all the same.

I wonder about this book of postcards. But I am not overly eager to solve the mystery of its provenance.

I know this: At some time my young hands must have held the book, my eager fingers rifling through its pages.

And it must have touched me and formed my views of Paris. And forged my dreams.

18 comments:

Bebe said...

Awww, Mimi, what a great story! Isn't it wonderful what treasures can be found tucked away in antique furniture? Those postcards are great and I'm sure you will treasure them! The love for your family runs eloquently throughout your writing of this post! Thanks for sharing some memories!

Bebe :)

Mimi said...

Thanks, BeBe. The first time I went to Paris, I was amazed at how light and bright the city was - I expected soot gray!

BTW, love the ET photo on your blog!

Lydia said...

How lovely that the romance of Paris has been with you for your entire life, and continues into your future.

Mimi said...

I guess it was like a Mecca, Lydia. My father was often the one who fueled those dreams with his stories. Since he'd only spent a day in Paris in his life, I would imagine they call came from books.

But what a gift for me.

fiona said...

I wonder if you will ever solve the mystery surrounding the book of postcards.

Annie and her mother would have been with you in spirit walking the streets of today's Paris.

I enjoyed reading about your childhood Sunday lunches and the family routine. It reminded me of Sundays at my grandparents place, though I used to go through boxes of buttons and nick nacks in the afternoons.

Fiona.

Mimi said...

Anie had a button box, too, Fiona, but that was kept on a shelf in her closet.

I loved to rifle through it.

Jann said...

Ah, Mimi!I enjoy reading yor family stories,immensely~ was so wonderful to learn more about your grandmother. Did I ever tell you it was my grandmother who took me to Paris for the first time?She had not been before,she was from Holland.It was a place she talked about so often and mentioned that she would like to take me. She did, when I was thirteen.It was magical for us both, as it still remains that way for me today. Your grandmother must have felt that same magical emotion to draw her to dream of Paris~longing to have some part of Paris in her heart~I took my daughter when she turned thirteen...she continues her adventures there whenever time allows her....it is all so strange~

Mimi said...

I would love to take my niece, Molly - what a great idea. Right now, she is very much into horses, though, and her upcoming trip to Disneyworld.

Toni said...

Mimi - I absolutely ADORE this post! Even before you mentioned the smell, I could smell it. I have seen those photos of those women and men, held those postcards, seen the same memorabilia in my own home. My mom grew up traveling back and forth between New York and Paris as a child. It was a part of her blood and bones. Thanks for bringing it all back to life for me!

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

Isn't it amazing the world a child can find in such a small place. For me it was my aunt's attic - old clothes, hats and the family books, pictures and bibles! Sadly I don't think there was any Paris.

Mimi said...

Toni, your mother must have had a fascinating life!

Tanna, I think sometimes the things we discover influence us as much as the ideas...

Christine said...

A beautiful writing, as always Mimi. I can almost feel my fingers running through the papers and cards. What wonderful memories you have.

Mimi said...

Thank you. Christine. I really wish I could bring them all back - all those who went before - now that I understand it all so much better. Life, I mean.

Christine said...

I know just what you mean, Mimi. I think the best we can do when we begin to understand is to pass it on. And you're doing just that.

Mimi said...

Thanks, Christine. I just wish we could appreciate people when they are here to be appreciated. I mean, we do, but not enough, somehow...

Kristen said...

I just can't get enough of your memories and stories Mimi. You have such talent.

Mimi said...

What a nice thing to say, Kristen! I miss my grandmother after all these years...

Bruised Orange said...

Great story! Got me thinking about how I should somehow try to instill something like this into my young kids' lives...So maybe if I make it "forbidden" to look at something cool like this, all the more intriguing, right? I'm off to 'plant' something for them...