Tidewater Review - December 2010

 

Missing Lusile
by
Anne Stinson

 

Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew by Suzanne Berne. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 296 pp. $23.95.
Missing Lucile is an odd hybrid kind of book. It’s one that could serve as a story meted out in pieces at a week-long family reunion, three generations sprawled around a beach bonfire or clustered in sleepy groups around a fireplace with more embers than blazes. It could be a tender Valentine from a middle-aged woman to her elderly father. It could even be, the author writes, a real ghost story. It is a biography that uses imagination to surmise probable events that may or may not fill in the gaps in scanty records of the subject’s life, so it’s partly a novel.
The Lucile of the book title was Suzanne Berne’s late grandmother, a woman whose death permanently affected her son, Berne’s father. He was scarred by his impression that Lucile was stern, an unmotherly mother who showed him no affection, no love. It has blighted his entire life since her death when he was only five years old. All he remembers with clarity is how he and his little brother were informed of her death: “They said she had gone away,” he told his daughter. “They didn’t say where.”
It was the author’s self-imposed project to find out the story of the Missing Lucile, to discover the life of her absent grandmother. Suzanne writes that there were so many missing clues to what sort of woman Lucile was that it required a difficult search to soothe her father’s persistent grief.
The family knew a few bare facts. John Henry Kroger, the family’s forebear, was an immigrant from Germany. He worked as a deck hand to pay for his passage to America sometime between 1846 and 1848. He was seven years old.
Landing in Baltimore and “finding nothing to keep him {there} he walked across the Allegheny Mountains to Pittsburgh. John Henry found work on a flatboat and floated down the Ohio River to Covington, Kentucky. He has six cents in his pocket,” Suzanne writes. A job in a cracker factory solved his hunger problem until he saved enough to open a grocery store with his German wife, Gertrude. The family, with all 10 children, lived behind their small store.
John Henry was the Missing Lucile’s grandfather, dead long before Lucile was born. If he was “affable, but lazy,” as the book suggests, his wife, Gertrude, was someone to be reckoned with. Sharp in tongue, sharp in business, she eventually became one son’s right arm.
Lucile’s father, the fabulously wealthy grocer-tycoon Bernard Henry Kroger, was 13 when his dad died. Mama Gertrude had put all the children to work in the store almost as soon as they could walk. For her, wasted time was a mortal sin. Bernard, who called himself Barney, took a job as delivery boy for a drug store. Gertrude made him quit when she found he had to work on the Sabbath.
Idleness was forbidden, so he hired out as a farmhand, sleeping in a shed loft and rising at 4 a.m. to begin his chores, followed by a long day of plowing, milking, feeding the hogs and pitching hay to the horses, “all for $6 a month,” the author writes. After almost two years he quit “and set foot walking the entire distance to Cincinnati to save the train fare.”
Thus began the career of the legendary B.H. Kroger, the entrepreneur who founded the successful chain of 5,000 grocery stores in the Midwest. He started out as a helper in two local groceries and studied the ins and outs of the business before investing his own $372 and a bank loan of $350 to open a small grocery store, building a reputation for good food at low prices.
He advertised a novel feature: home deliveries by horses in gold-colored harnesses and red wagons painted with the firm’s name. Working long hours seven days a week, he built 17 more stores in Cincinnati and planned for 15 more in Dayton, Ohio, when disaster struck.
B.H. Kroger’s wife, and mother of his seven children including Lucile, died. Lucile was eight years old and unhappy under the replacement thumb of dour Aunt Ida, daddy’s spinster sister. Her father was devastated by his wife’s death, and his mood reflected it. One of his acquaintances noted that “His second language was not German. It was profanity.” The year was 1899.
Now the reader comes to the leading lady in this family saga: Lucile, the “missing” enigma. For obvious reasons, none of her siblings remember much about their lost mother, less by far than they recall Aunt Ida’s strictness and, even more, their grandmother Gertrude, a busy whirlwind in the stores and an ogre at home.
The bare facts of Lucile’s life were sparsely recorded. She was educated at Wellesley College in 1907 and graduated in 1911. Her two older brothers fought in World War I. She excelled in math, so was drafted by her father to be treasurer for his huge company, a multimillion-dollar enterprise with over 5,000 stores by this time, as well as being her father’s secretary. She stepped into the breach for her absent brothers’ military duty and reluctantly stepped aside when they returned to daddy’s employ. What was a well-educated heiress to do with her time?
Aunt Ida was still the queen of the roost, running the house with its 24 rooms and 10 servants, and bleaching ala the bedsheets for spring cleaning. Berne follows this information with the smarty-pants quip in parentheses, “(Aunt Ida’s version of sex)” and brooking no interference. Lucile’s duty was to sit at the head of the dinner table and be daddy’s hostess. By this time he dropped the name Barney and became B.H. Kroger.
Berne’s prose is a delight in situations like this; there are no written records of how Lucile handled her frustration, but the author invents scenes true to the period. The smoke rising from candles on the table, the flickering light dancing on her beautiful red hair, the wind stirring the curtains and changing colors in the gardens around the house. All the details fit the likely routines of life in a lavish mansion and an intelligent young woman with no role to play.
An announcement from Wellesley was just what was needed. The war was over, her brothers had made her irrelevant in the family business. Her alma mater was organizing a group of alumnae in 1919 to form the Wellesley College Reconstruction Unit to assist in the daunting task of repairing 20 rural villages heavily damaged by battles and bombs in the recent war.
Lucile was one of 10 grads who sailed to France for the Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood sectors. “Everywhere houses were rubble and rafters. No shops, no cafés; in the center of a village, a church, unless it has been bombed to nothing. A well, unless it has been poisoned or a body thrown down it, in which case it is no longer a well but just a hole in the ground full of bad water,” Berne writes.
The Wellesley girls, all close to 25 years old, brought varied skills to the task. Lucile could drive a car (and a truck, she discovered), could speak French, run a store, order and fetch needed goods from Paris and catalog desperate villagers’ needs. There was also a nurse, a schoolteacher, two doctors, several social workers and unspecified relief workers.
U.S. soldiers erected a hospital tent and a separate tent for the women with cots, a cooking area, tables for interviewing villagers who were drifting back to their shattered homes and a makeshift store with clothes, shoes and food.
Lucile spent a year in service, happy to be useful and gaining the courtship of a young, handsome French Brigadier who took her to meet his parents. The romance cooled, Berne speculates, when Lucile spent the afternoon in the company of her suitor’s father, a domineering man whose arrogance may have been too much like B.H.’s.
Berne’s research on Lucile’s college years and service in France were reconstructed from scraps of information – some from archives at Wellesley, some from old trunks and boxes found in the attic at B.H.’s house after his death. Much of Lucile’s history was discarded after the mansion’s contents were distributed to family members or sold and the attic swept clean. Lucile’s sisters and brother also contributed photographs and caches of things the children had purloined. Lucile’s journal (including her visit to a concert in a German prison camp in France) and rolls of undeveloped film helped fill the gaps in that part of her life, however.
After her year in France, Lucile returned to America and was once again at loose ends. The Twenties rolled on and Lucile was 29, unmarried and restless. She met her future husband, Albert Berne, a classical pianist and concert singer at a party in Cincinnati and they were soon engaged. He was bookish, had studied in Europe, was a bit older than she and was very good looking with lovely manners. They were married in 1923.
Lucile bore two boys, one of them Berne’s father. She created a beautiful garden around the house her father built for the couple on the same Cincinnati hill that her sisters’ houses stood. All seemed pleasant and content until Lucile became sick and died in 1932. She was 42 years old.
Berne renewed ties with her sad father, cheering him up with each discovery of another facet of Missing Lucile’s life. At the end of the book, she’s unsure that she captured the real Lucile whose maternal coolness blighted her son’s life. Maybe she did.
As her father failed, near the end of his life, Berne put her arms around him and said, “‘Your mother is holding you.’ I kissed him and said, ‘Your mother is kissing you.’” Her father raised his blue eyes, so like Lucile’s, and said, “Thank you.”
Berne frequently admits that threads were so thin for this chronicle that some of it – the imagined thoughts and reactions – can only be surmised. Her caveats are pure delight, as is her self-deprecating modesty. Her writing style is beguiling, fresh and vivid as the word portraits are produced.
Suzanne Berne teaches at Harvard and Boston College. She is the author of three novels, A Crime in the Neighborhood, A Perfect Arrangement and The Ghost at the Table.
Highly recommended.