My Mother's Madeleine
And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it.
I've been discussing madeleines with my students this week, the surge of memory that surprises, confounds and then inspires writers and artists when our senses are stirred in some way, often unexpectedly. I have missed the surfacing of such a palpable muse during the months of isolation, and feared that this particular connection to the physical world had fled. Like so many of us, I had been holding my breath, and once vaccinated, was able to exhale, more or less. I finished a short story last week and have returned to reading fiction; I'd only read nonfiction during the worst of times, and developed the dedicated blog, Virus Without Borders, which is already 70,000 words.
More than one of my students has been touched by Covid; Ed Koenig lost his partner. That loss, itself, became a muse. He's written a beautiful eulogy, published @ whowelost.org .
Sadly, our writing strengthens as we grieve.
Last night, during the advanced (still on Zoom) workshop class I teach once a month, Eric Stotter showed us a clay ashtray he'd made when he was five-years-old; he found it among his mother's belongings after her death. Holding it in his hand again brought back a childhood memory of traveling with her on the New York subway for art classes at MOMA. The essay he submitted was stirred by this memory.
My mother was not a writer, though she was an avid reader in three languages. If she hadn't studied medicine, she probably would have become an art historian, curator, or professor. The man she eventually married, my doctor father, became an art collector and drew very well. Their living spaces—together and then apart—were artfully designed, paintings on every wall, sculptures, all purchased many years after arrival in the United States.
Like so many refugees, immigrants and asylees, my mother had arrived without many possessions or mementos, except for a few photographs, an embroidered tablecloth and, oddly, a silver soup ladle which my grandmother probably thought was valuable and stuffed into my mother's suitcase. Also hidden in the pocket of her coat as she fled from Vienna to Paris: a small, round enameled "candy" box etched with an Italian Renaissance artist's image of puttis, chubby male toddler cupids. My mother loved infants and toddlers (she delivered babies) and she loved this box; it was her madeleine. Angels descended to calm her tormented spirit whenever she held it in her hand. She filled the box with M&M's for her guests and kept it on the coffee table throughout my childhood. Thankfully, I still have it.
This blog post is dedicated to all my students. They have persevered during the pandemic and shown up for each other-- critiquing work, writing drafts, generating new stories, revising, attending workshop classes remotely. They have kept me grounded and hopeful.