Leaving it All Behind

(Blogger’s note: I don’t usually write about or review books. But here’s the story of an excellent memoir I recently finished.)

As a Russian aristocrat, Paul Grabbe grew up in a lost world.

His family lived in palatial residences in St. Petersburg and the Russian countryside. They were waited on by a staff of footmen and cooks, maids and tutors — a life so cosseted his mother never even brushed her own hair till they left the country. His father, a famous Russian general, was an intimate of the last Russian czar Nicholas II.

Image_11 copy (1)

In 1917, Paul and the rest of his family watched the Russian Revolution begin from their apartment in St. Petersburg. Their world was ending, but they didn’t know it at the time.

The recently released memoir Emigre: 95 Years in the Life of a Russian Count is the story of Paul Grabbe’s remarkable life. It follows him from his early years in Russia through his wanderings in Europe, then the United States.

Emigré Front Cover

For years, Paul and his family assume their exile is temporary and the Bolsheviks will lose power. One day, they’ll return to their homeland and their old lives will resume again.

So Paul, young and adventuresome, journeys to Colorado in the 1920s, where he works as a waiter in a TB sanitarium, a gold miner, and a tutor. He goes to California, where he tries to break into the movies as a screenwriter. Instead, he finds work in a plush cemetery, tending the dead and the bereaved. When he becomes unemployed, he’s so broke he almost starves to death.

Image_54

From job to job, place to place, Paul Grabbe spends his spare time doggedly pursuing knowledge and mastery of the English language. He falls in and out of love. After a while, you kind of give up and fall in love with him yourself — this privileged young man who loses everything, but grows up quickly and learns to make his own way in a harsh new world.

Paul Grabbe died in 1999, leaving behind this manuscript. His daughter, writer Alexandra Grabbe, added photographs and published this vivid memoir early this year. Here, she answers questions about her father and the book he didn’t live to see.

Did your father talk much about his past to you and your family? 

My father did not talk much about his family and past until I was grown up. I think he finally began talking about it when my mom pushed him to write his memoir. Then, they did a project together, based on my granddad’s photos, Private World of the Last Tsar. (My mom was an English major at Vassar and had worked as an editor.)
My kids have had many friends whose parents were from other countries, and I’ve often noticed the difficulties for parents and children who come from both different generations and different cultures. Do you think you can ever completely understand someone from a different culture? (Of course, this raises the obvious question whether you can completely understand someone from a different generation. Maybe you can’t.)
I do think it is difficult to understand someone from another culture, but it all depends, like on where you live.  If you live in the other person’s country, it is harder. I feel as if the cultural differences with my ex were why we broke up, as much as his betrayal with my “best” friend (preview of my novel, if I ever get an agent.)
I don’t think you can generalize though, as it depends on the situation and the people.  Flexibility required.  By the time my parents met, my dad was ready to do some therapy. He still went to therapy into his nineties.
Readers can’t help falling a little in love with your father as he makes his way through this country. He’s amazingly resilient, hungry to learn, keeps pushing on, no matter what. Did he ever wonder what he would have been like — how different — if there had been no Russian Revolution and he had remained an aristocrat?
No, he really never looked back once he was married to my mom. He never made a big deal about his past or having been a member of the aristocracy or having lost a fortune. He was very humble, which comes across in the memoir. (If there had been no Revolution, he would not have met my mom and I would not exist.)
For me, the most vivid writing in the memoir comes as your father tackles life in this country. In contrast, his childhood and youth in Russia don’t seem to have the same kind of immediacy — they’re more like a remembered dream. I’m wondering if this isn’t just the passage of time. Did he not want to remember it too vividly? Was it too painful?
I don’t know the answer to this question. I can theorize that maybe, maybe some of it has to do with my editing skills. I did edit down the manuscript considerably, but touched the first part less, since it was already published, although not distributed since the publisher went bankrupt.
 Your father died more than 15 years ago. Do you feel he’s finally at rest after you published this lovely memoir?
It was important to him to finish the memoir, so I think he would have really appreciated that I got it out there for him. He hoped people could learn from his experience, I think. The part about being an immigrant I found particularly moving.
And your next project?
I’m writing a short story collection about how the Revolution affected the children and grandchildren of members of the aristocracy in their lives outside Russia.
(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

 

I
Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
2 comments

The Snowflake

Oh, sure — I can keep a secret. I can hammer my mouth shut for hours, days, weeks, or years, if necessary. I’m tough!

But, you know, some secrets are easier to keep than others.

“I’m pregnant!” our daughter announced at Christmas dinner.

She might as well have lit a pipe bomb. Forget dignity; her father and I went into a loud and deep emotional swoon.

A baby!

Finally!

We’re going to be grandparents before we’re complete geriatric cases!

We can stop hinting about grandkids!

We can tell all our fr –

“Of course, you can’t tell anyone till my second trimester,” our daughter said. “We want to announce it first,” she added, nodding at her husband, Bennett. (If I ever saw a guy bursting with paternal enthusiasm, it’s Bennett. According to our daughter, he’s already itching to buy some kind of special microphone so he can read to the kid in utero.)

 

FullSizeRender (8)

But the second trimester! That was weeks and weeks away. I got woozy just thinking about the people I couldn’t tell — my sister, Betsy, Donna, my neighbors, my yoga class, my pilates class, my hairdresser Snodene, passers-by, my dentist, total strangers. I might as well give up my whole social world and become a mime.

I looked at my daughter and son-in-law, who seemed to be very firm about this whole early pregnancy omerta business. Oh, brother. For some reason, they also appeared to view me as being the leakiest vessel at the table. Like my husband and son didn’t go around spilling the beans on all kinds of things practically all the time.

Typical. Women always get the blame. I guess my daughter and Bennett had forgotten how heroically I’d kept the secret when Bennett was about to propose and I’d hardly told anyone for days.

FullSizeRender (7)

“So — what do you all want to be called?” our daughter asked us.

Our first decision as almost grandparents! My husband looked blank. He said he didn’t know. He’d have to think about it.

“What about you, Mom?” our daughter asked.

“I want to be Coco,” I said.

Well, for some reason, this set off a firestorm of amazement at the table. Coco? Really? Why Coco?

“You sound like you’ve been thinking about this a long time,” my husband said.

Of course I’ve been thinking about it a long time,” I snapped. “This is about my identity as a grandmother.”

It occurred to me they’d all expected me to pick out some appropriately dowdy, self-sacrificing moniker for this very important transition in my life. Well, forget that. For once in my life, I was going for the zip, the glamour, the glitz.

Prepare yourself, baby. You and Coco have a rendezvous in only a few months.

 

P.S. Thirty-three years ago, the sonograms of our daughter in utero looked like a Rorschach test for potential felons. My husband and I pretended we could recognize the head, but it looked indistinguishable from the bottom — white blurs against a black background.

These days, the tiniest fetus is ready for Instagram. Our grandchild’s first photo traveled thousands of miles to find us in Finnish Lapland. You could see the head perfectly, along with another long, straight body part that I thought was a leg, but my husband felt sure was a penis.

That stark white image against a black background — the first evidence my own dear child is having a child of her own — moved me in a way I could never really explain. I stared at it as I sat near a fire in a distant land of snow and ice and darkness. He or she looked like a perfect little snowflake, someone I would have recognized anywhere.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
14 comments

Meeting the Neighbors

How can you ignore history when you’re living down the street from it? My husband and I were walking down Rue de Varenne, where we’re living for another few days, and noticed a marker.

It commemorated Edith Wharton, who, as it turned out, used to live down the street. Edith Wharton! We only missed her by a few blocks and 77 years. I tried to imagine her coming and going on the narrow sidewalks, then bent over her desk writing masterpieces. I was betting she had the exact same kind of ancient casement windows we do, with beaucoup de charme and zero d’insulation.

image

We kept going several blocks to the museums at Hotel des Invalides. There, you can see Napoleon’s tomb — so lavish that half the tourists in Paris seemed to be posing for selfies in front of it. Selfies aside, it’s odd to see such reverent treatment of a guy whose name mostly makes the rest of the world think of Trafalgar, Waterloo, and short guys with big ideas.

But then — as has already been noted more than once — the French are diffferent from you and me. We skipped the selfies and moved on.

image

The adjacent museum about World Wars I and II was subtly overwhelming. My husband and I walked through the exhibits of uniforms and weapons, maps and photos and videos.

Here, we had personal ties. My grandfather, a midwestern farmboy, fought in the first World War. Both our fathers were in Europe in World War II.

Blinded for a month by poison gas, my grandfather came back a harsher, angrier man, my grandmother had always said. He was never the same. Both our fathers –well, who really knew about men of that generation? They rarely talked about the war when we were growing up. Now, at 97, my father-in-law speaks of it often. But he has almost no one left to remember it with.

These were American war stories, though. Going through a European museum about those same wars, you quickly realize how different the perspectives were when warfare rages on your own continent and blood stains your own dirt — when you aren’t protected by a broad ocean.

During the first world war, France suffered more than 1.3 million dead. This number was larger than for any other country, except Russia, with its far bigger population. Then, Hitler came to power and began threatening aggression less than two decades later. No wonder France was so ill-prepared for another war.

How does France explain World War I? World War II? That’s what we’re trying to understand coming here. How different are their stories and histories from our own?

Traveling, I think my husband and I try to be less American and rooted in our own pasts and biases. We try to be more open to others’ perspectives. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Sometimes, I never feel more American than when I’m out of the country. Maybe you only think you can take off your own skin.

“Look at this!” my husband hissed from a nearby exhibit. “Look at this!”

He pointed excitedly to a description, translated into English, about the Nazis’ occupation of much of France. Up to that point, the English translations had been well-done and smooth. Here, command of the other language faltered.

“It’s like they forgot how to translate,” he said. “Like it was too upsetting for them to continue.”

Here it is:

 

image

 

We talk about it later, sitting in the museum cafe and drinking coffee. How honest are our own museums? What do they say about slavery, the genocide of the American Indians, the War in Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq? What glaring omissions do foreign visitors find in our historic sites?

That night, we ate at a nearby rstaurant, A La Petite Chaise, which claims to date back to 1680, making it the oldest in the city. Musset, Georges Sand, and Chateaubriand all dined here, according to the back of the menu. Even Colette was once there, admitted to a rowdy writing group of men who published the satirical magazine “Le Crapouillot.”

Colette, it was emphasized, was admitted to the group only in her capacity as a writer –and not as a woman. After missing her at Pere Lachaise Cemetery, how nice to find her nearby in whatever capacity she had to assume.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
6 comments

Rain In the Street, Not in the Heart

Except for the Alamo and a few other historic sites, Texans aren’t sentimental about preserving the past. My husband and I, who are Texans by birth or habit (even when our state infuriates us every several hours), are part of a culture that razes the old and lionizes the new.

We are all about progress and moving on. We’re descendants of pioneers who kept pushing west, always looking for something better, newer, different, till the West finally ran out or the horse died or Ma said she’d shoot Pa (that dreamer with stars in his eyes and itch in his feet) if they didn’t stop moving on and agree to settle down now.

So, it’s striking for us to spend almost a month in Paris, with its centuries of vivid, intact history and its stubborn and haughty refusal to change much. They seem to have found perfection in their city’s great boulevards and narrow cobbled streets, its grand cathedrals and majestic monuments. Who wants to mess with perfection?

And, wandering around, marveling at its stunning views and irresistible charms, who could argue with that? Not us.

My husband and I have walked miles through the cold and on-and-off rain. From our small apartment in the 7th arrondissement, we’ve crossed the Seine into the Marais, traipsed on to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery with its marble remembrances to the long dead, the new dead, and the famous dead. By then, we were too tired to hunt down the graves of Oscar Wilde or Edith Piaf or Colette. and we didn’t really care about Jim Morrison. So, being Texans, we moved on.

(“Either that wallpaper goes — or I do,” Oscar Wilde is reported to have said on his deathbed. Knowing Paris, you have to assume the wallpaper is still there.)

image

Coming back, we glimpsed a young Parisienne on a street close to ours. Her hair looked like Jerry Hall’s back when Jerry used to hang out with Jean-Paul Sartre (no kidding). She walked along carelessly on high heels through the cobblestones, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind her, smoking a cigarette, and looking deeply bored by the meaninglessness of life.

A few days later, having gnawed our way through the menus of restaurants close to us. I read about a foreign correspondent’s recommendations on the 10 hottest Parisian restaurants. “There’s one really close, in the 6th arrondissement,” I told my husband. “You have to make reservations years in advance. But if you’re willing to come at a really unfashionable time, you can maybe get in. It’s supposed to be very earthy but refined.”

Since we wrote the book on being really unfashionable, we happily showed up at 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon after starving ourselves the whole day. The restaurant, Le Comptoir du Relais, looked like any number of so-so establishments in the area. We went to the end of a line outside, feeling very much in the know — especially when we learned the people in front of us had just hopped off a flight from Tel Aviv to get there.

Now and then, the hostess admitted a couple of people from the line and led them inside. Then, it started to rain. “God, I feel sorry for those losers sitting outside,” my husband said, nodding at the outdoors tables full of people eating and drinking, smoking and shivering, “It’s only” — he checked his iPhone — “36 degrees.”

image

Oh, sure, that was a lot better than the minus 40F in Lapland, but our blood had already thinned dramatically. Paris has its own kind of chill that works its way into your bones.

The hostess appeared again and led the Israeli couple inside. When she returned, she looked a little apologetic. There were no more seats inside the restaurant, she said. We could either wait an hour or join the shivering patrons outside.

So this is how you find yourself sitting outside a hot Paris restaurant on a wintry late January afternoon, huddled in your coats and scarves and hats, eating with your gloves on, trying to ignore the rain that was just inches away. Next to us, the small crowd of patrons laughed and talked and blew cigarette smoke in our faces — and who cared, since the bursts of smoke were almost as warm as the feeble heaters above us?

In fact, who cared at all, when the escargots were delectable and garlicky, the bread crusty and warm, the veal stew rich and hearty, the small chicken moist and tender? For dessert, I ordered ice cream and my husband asked for a drink. The waiter returned with my ice cream and a layered dish of cream and liqueur.

At first, my husband argued he hadn’t ordered the dessert and the waiter went off in a huff. By the time he returned, we had already eaten most of the dish, which I’d announced was going down in my personal dessert hall of fame.

What’s the country and Western lyric — something about how if loving something is wrong, I don’t wanta be right? I think I hummed it all the way home.

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

 

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
8 comments

Feasts That Move On

By the time my husband and I left Finnish Lapland, the temperature had skyrocketed to minus 3 Fahrenheit. We flew to Helsinki, then Stockholm, then boarded a flight to Paris.

The hard, icy tundra, a world of white and gray daylight hours and long, black nights, fell away. We glided into Paris watching the city’s golden lights beneath us. We’ll be here for three weeks.

A great violence had come here and, we hoped, had departed. But who knows? Millions had marched in the streets and “Je suis Charlie” signs were propped in store windows. The city and its people were tense, we’d read, but maybe we didn’t know the city well enough to recognize it on our own. The city looked much as it always had to us — graceful and charming and dazzling.

We first came here in 1972, when my then-boyfriend and I were broke college students. We stayed in 6th-floor walkups in the student quarter and shared bathrooms with anybody else on the same hall.

In France, I first learned you could actually eat the green curlicues on the dishes, which no one at the Furr’s Cafeteria in West Texas would have dreamt of doing (our seasonings were all taken care of by Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, merci beaucoup). A haughty waiter who towered over us one night taught me that “banana” was feminine, not masculine, but I’m still not sure I concede the point. Maybe we just spoke French differently in Midland, where bananas remained the he-men of fruit.

The next morning, my husband and I wandered through the winding streets of the 6th and 7th arrondissements. They create the most elegant window displays on earth here — languid mannequins draped in cashmere and silk and hauteur. Every few steps I stopped and couldn’t move, drawn in by the opulence and the winter sale signs. My husband, oddly, was less intrigued.

“Go to Bon Marche,” the young Frenchwoman who let us into our temporary apartment had said. We went to Bon Marche

image

— an immense department store full of luxury goods and winter sales and the most glamourous food aisles on the planet earth. I went into my own version of a retail frenzy: I want to be elegant, I want to be well-dressed, I want to be French, damn it. Somehow, it all seemed to involve scarves. Send me to this town and I want to be Isadora Duncan, sans the final scene.

“This is how you tie a scarf,” the thin, beautiful, middleaged woman told me at the scarf counter at Bon Marche. She went into action, creating a small work of art above my collar bone. I watched her, but promptly forgot what she’d done. I am simply too American to tie a scarf artfully.

Her name, she told me, was Amalia Vairelli, and she’d been a top model in her youth. “I was the muse,” she said, “to Yves St. Laurent.”

So she’d traveled and met everyone and whooped it up and had done whatever muses do. But time passed and gravity had its way with her and St. Laurent made his final exit — and, along the way, she’d spent all her money. “So now, I work in scarves, from time to time so I can support my art,” she said, folding the scarf back into a soft rectangle.

A muse! I’d never met a muse before, much less a muse to Yves St. Laurent. I wasn’t even quite sure what muses did, except to look glamorous and inspire geniuses to creativity. They were probably the same kind of women who got rock songs written about them. You’re either that kind of woman or you’re not, and I knew which group I fell into. That other kind of woman — like Isadora Duncan, I suspected — had probably been born knowing how to tie a scarf.

We went back to our little apartment and I fired up my iPad. There was Amalia Vairelli at the height of her beauty, looking soignee and fiercely elegant and there was Yves St. Laurent standing close beside her, looking inspired.

Funny how we all make our way in life, I thought. Some of us could be muses, some of us could be amusing, but we all had to find our own way.

“What a life you must have had,” I’d said to Amalia Vairelli as she tended to her small domain of soft cashmere scarves.

She had shrugged again, the way only a Frenchwoman can shrug. “After all of that,” she had said, “at least I got to keep my soul.”

(Copyright 2015 by Ruth Pennebaker)

 

 

 

 

Share and Enjoy:
  • email
  • Print
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Tumblr
10 comments