Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew

by Suzanne Berne


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Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne

Even as a child, Suzanne Berne understood the source of her father’s terrible melancholy: he’d lost his mother when he was a little boy. Decades later, with her father now elderly and ailing, she decides to try to uncover the woman who continues to haunt him.

Every family has a missing person, someone who died young or disappeared, leaving a legacy of loss. Aided by vintage photographs and a box of old keepsakes, Berne sets out to fill in her grandmother’s silhouette and along the way uncovers her own foothold in American history.

Lucile Berne, née Kroger, was a daughter of Bernard Henry Kroger, the archetypal American self-made man, who at twenty-three established what is today’s $76 billion grocery enterprise. From her turn-of-the-century Cincinnati childhood to her college years at Wellesley, her tenure as treasurer of her father’s huge company, her stint as a relief worker in devastated France, her marriage to a professional singer, and the elusive, unhappy wealthy young matron she became, Lucile both illustrates and contradicts her times.

In the process of creating this portrait, Berne discovers the function of family history: “to explain what is essentially inexplicable—how we came to be ourselves.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781565126251
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 10/12/2010
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Suzanne Berne is the author of three novels, the first of which, A Crime in the Neighborhood, won great Britain’s Orange Prize. Her most recent novel is The Ghost at the Table. She lives with her family near Boston and teaches at Boston College.

Read an Excerpt

Missing Lucile

Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew
By Suzanne Berne


Copyright © 2010 Suzanne Berne
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-56512-625-1

Chapter One

Lady of Richmond

DUKE: And what is her history?

VIOLA: A blank, my lord.

—SHAKESPEARE, Twelfth Night

* * *

Outside the bedroom windows the garden is full of snow. The lily pond is frozen, the dark branches of the apple tree, standing alone in its stone circle, are sharply defined against a winter sky. Snow caps the bronze statues at either end of the rectangular pool, each of a child offering water to birds. A thoughtful garden, with its matching statuary, its low hedges and flower beds flanking a sloping grassy avenue that leads outward to a wide lawn and a lily pond, the garden of someone more than casually interested in symmetry and perspective. In the spring the grass will turn a deep blue-green, just as the apple tree will be surrounded by a perfect circle of lily of the valley. But for now everything but the bare tree branches is white.

Upstairs in the master bedroom, a red-haired woman lies in a white-painted iron hospital bed facing the southeast window, which has a long view not of her garden, where she has spent so much time and to which she has given so much thought, but of the Little Miami River and the low hills of Ohio's Clermont County. Across from the foot of the bed is a fireplace, beside which is a chaise longue. A fire burns in the fireplace, firelight reflecting off the glass covering a very old, very simple pencil-and-ink drawing hanging near the bed. A sketchbook drawing of a woman in a plumed hat. Also red haired. The artist has shaded her hair, face, and lips with colored pencil. But only her hat and the black plumed feather are distinct, the woman's face is barely outlined, half smiling, the eyes mysterious, half closed, looking away from both the viewer and the artist. "Lady of Richmond" is carefully lettered in the top right-hand corner.

The woman in bed is my grandmother, Lucile Kroger Berne, the daughter of B. H. Kroger, the Cincinnati grocery-store magnate. Forty-three years old in December of 1932 and dying of abdominal cancer, though she, perhaps alone in her family, believes she is getting well.

This particular morning, a Thursday, December 1, she has enough energy to write to her old college friend, Ridie Guion. "Just a note," she apologizes, in a firm regular hand. "I am not allowed to do much in the way of correspondence." She is still in bed "with no immediate prospects of anything else," and with "no appetite," and not much strength. But, she insists, "I do feel that there is a slight but steady improvement."

Of course this is not true. Her immediate prospects are as plain as the low hills of Clermont County beyond her window. She will die the Friday after next.

And yet according to this letter, she spends her days mildly, not in the extremity one would expect from someone with so little time left, not clutching at the coverlet or tossing restlessly from side to side on her pillow, not calling out for her children, so soon to be motherless, or weeping in her husband's arms. Instead she does picture puzzles in bed and reads. Every so often she looks at the old clock on her mantel, a clock set in a dark gothic wooden case above a glass panel painted with an idealized landscape in bright greens and blues. Then she glances away.

"I've gotten down to detective novels," she admits to Ridie, "as I can't take anything heavy."

She confides that she is being visited daily by her three sisters, Gertrude, Helen, and Gretchen, who all live nearby on Indian Hill; her father visits almost as often and sends her flowers. Her two little boys, Albert Jr. and Henry, like school and are doing well, though she has not yet seen their report cards. They are taking piano lessons. Of Albert Jr. she confides that he shows no "especial talent"; still, she does not doubt that "he'll be able to play acceptably," a prediction that unfortunately will not come true.

Christmas is upon her; she frets over being unprepared. "I have done nothing. I must start to make out lists and let Helen and Gretchen take care of things for me." She is still making plans, still determined to worry about Christmas presents and writing lists. Downstairs in the living room her husband is singing "Brahms and Schubert, etc.," accompanying himself on the grand piano. When they met at a reception at a friend's house he was a professional singer. A baritone modestly famous in Cincinnati, where he teaches at the conservatory. Every morning after breakfast he sings for an hour or more while upstairs his wife lies in bed looking toward the river and the woods and listening. "There are compensations for being sick," she writes.

Husband, children, sisters. Christmas, piano lessons, detective novels. Brahms and Schubert. Etcetera. These are the preoccupations of the woman who is about to vanish forever from her big cream-colored house on Indian Hill. She is concerned as well for her friend Ridie, apologizing again, this time for writing "a stupid note" and for having "no news," though she is fast approaching that strange dark frontier that lies beyond news, beyond even etcetera, a place that few of us can bring ourselves to contemplate for long or too closely. By the time her letter reaches its destination, she will have fewer days left to her than she could count on both hands.

Still, her final words in this letter are about Ridie, whom she cautions not to "work too hard and get yourself all tired out," understanding that Ridie, unmarried, with little money, an English teacher at Milton Academy outside of Boston, is delicate. Not someone who needs further worries. She has been sending Ridie checks for years; a week after her death, her husband, Albert, will send another, a Christmas one, "as Lucile would have done."

In that quiet bedroom she fits together pieces of a puzzle, turning the smooth colored cardboard pieces over in her pale fingers, hunting for the right shapes that will finish the picture. She follows clues in her detective novels, waits for a complicated story to come clear. She knows it will all end neatly enough—the last lobed piece will reveal a complete Taj Mahal, the detective will explain his final discovery and solve the crime—but she doesn't yet know exactly how.

From the slender evidence of this letter, my grandmother's death seems like it must have been a calm, dignified passage. One we could all aspire to—no railing against fate, no bleak hospital corridor. Visits from sisters, letters from friends. Downstairs her husband is singing "Ave Maria" as the children go cheerfully off to school on a Monday morning. By her last days the children will have been sent to a sister's house to stay, her husband will have stopped singing. In that elegant room full of wintry light, the only sounds are footsteps muffled by the hallway's thick plum-colored carpet, whispered conferences, and the distant crack of ice on the river.

And yet something remains out of place within this picture of my grandmother's quiet bedroom, where she lies in that iron bed with a crank, facing away from her garden. A piece does not quite fit. All that worrying about a friend while on her own deathbed, the stringent lack of self-pity, the serene contemplation of her children and their piano lessons. "It seems hardly possible," writes her sister Helen three weeks later, "that anyone could be so brave and meet death with so much courage."

It does seem hardly possible. And so one has to wonder if such bravery, like her careful account of the compensations of illness, isn't part of some final mutiny, a moment when she halts her subdued progress toward the frost-colored horizon beyond those low hills. A last-ditch defiance encoded in this "stupid note" that bears "no news," a small revolt that comes actually at the expense of her poor friend Ridie.

I am not so sick, that letter implies, that I forget myself: I am sick, not unfortunate. Here in my wide bedroom with a view of the river, where I lie in bed listening to my husband sing downstairs, anticipating my children's first report cards, awaiting another visit from my sisters and flowers from my father, I have no news. News is disasters and accidents, prizes, discoveries, events. Something unhappened that happened, something that was missing until now. But nothing is missing from my life. The pieces are all here, the clues all add up. I am not being brave, I am being practical. My sisters will take care of my lists.

I have no news, but I have everything else.

A last stand. An idealized landscape in bright greens and blues, overshadowed by a gothic clock. A pretense. Because of course she doesn't want to die in that iron bed. Of course she does not have what she wants most, which is more time, time for whatever she still wants to do, things she can't even imagine now, but knows that she wants to have done. Time to be part of whatever is going to happen, next year, and the year after that, as well as time to reflect on everything she has lived through, because that is who she is, a person to whom things have happened, but now who will know about it?

And her children, her two small boys with their unread report cards. What will happen to them?

She cannot think of that. And so she blazes up for an instant, like a log breaking on the fire under that ticking clock, fierce in her insistence that she has written "a stupid note," because there is no intelligence she can pass on about where she is going. Only that where she has been is worth envying.

("Of course we have known for some months how things were," writes her sister Helen, "but even so were not prepared.")

For a moment her red hair glints. Then the fire dies down again, the sparks subside. From her frame on the wall, the woman in the sketch looks down at the woman in the bed. The dark plume nods above her head, her eyes half closed, gazing past the artist who sketched her so many years ago, smiling faintly.

But this is not a real likeness, that smile seems to say. Only the barest suggestion.


Excerpted from Missing Lucile by Suzanne Berne Copyright © 2010 by Suzanne Berne. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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