A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War, and a Ruined House in France is an entrancing memoir written by Miranda Richmond Mouillot as she puzzles out the fifty-year estrangement between her grandparents, Anna and Armand. So entrancing, I started to read this book after dinner and did not look up from it until I finished it nearly four hours later. My only interruption was when my cat nudged his head between the book and my face for a few minutes of attention.
Miranda’s life has always been haunted by her grandparents’ history. She has nonspecific anxieties, about the need to escape in a hurry, about being prepared to flee. She realizes this was imparted by her mother and her grandmother – two people who were incapable of giving the usual “That’ll never happen,” assurances that most families naturally give their children when they ask about whether their house will burn down or other imagined frights. As Holocaust survivors, that kind of certainty is not possible.
However, it is not that her grandmother Anna is a fearful woman. Just the opposite, she is lively, optimistic, one of those wonderful people persons who never meets a stranger. She is loving, warm and what my family would call a real pistol. She is doing yoga in her 80s, teaching her granddaughter to read fortunes in the cards—so she always has a skill to fall back on. She loves life and is a vivid, active woman.
In contrast, her grandfather, Armand, is tightly wound, obsessively controlled in his personal habits, demanding and sparing with his affection. He collects grievances like most people collect recipes, actually keeping them in a binder so he never forgets exactly why he has exiled people from his life. And yet, he loves Miranda, but she knows always, that she must not trespass, that his boundaries are inviolate.
Anna and Armand were Jewish refugees in Geneva, having escaped France together. Miranda is certain there must be some great secret in their past because they have not spoken to each other for more than fifty years. After the war, her grandmother left her grandfather. She went to America and worked as a psychiatrist at Rockland State Mental Hospital. Her grandfather stayed in Geneva, working as one of the interpreters at the Nuremberg Trials before continuing to work as an interpreter for the rest of his life. Even for the great events of Miranda’s life, her bat mitzvah and graduation, Armand would not come because he would never be in the same place as Anna. His hatred is complete.
Her grandparents’ alienation from each other is so complete that it never even occurs to Miranda that her grandparents were ever in the same place in their lives, not even realizing for the longest time that for them both to be her grandparents, they must have been together.
However, Anna encouraged Miranda to get to know her grandfather, to go to boarding school in Geneva so she would know him better, a generosity that Miranda did not fully understand, but a wonderful gift that changed her life, inspiring her to write about her grandparents, to research their past, and to find a life and future in France for herself.
Miranda compares writing this memoir to tracing shadows. She is investigating silences, silences deeper and more profound, really, than secrets. In fact, it is not secrets that hide the past, it is only silence.
I loved this memoir. Miranda is extraordinarily empathetic in her search for answers in the silence. It was not easy to question her grandfather, treading lightly to avoid his anger while retaining her compassion for his need of his silence. I loved her grandmother Anna, wise and courageous. I recommend that you do not start The Fifty-Year Silence unless you have a nice three to four hours so you can read it straight through, because when you sink into her story, it is hard to leave.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.