Suzanne Berne never knew her alluring, gone-before-her-time grandmother, Lucile. But neither did Berne’s father, Lucile’s son.
Lucile, who died from cancer in her early 40s, left behind a 6-year-old bereft by her absence, with only a few sore memories of her life. Berne, a fiction instructor at Harvard Extension School, grew up witnessing her father’s ache and fixation over the lost Lucile. He repeatedly told Berne, “I never had a mother.”
“That became more and more difficult to hear,” she said. “He blamed everything that went wrong in his life on her.”
Lucile was destined to remain a ghost, if not for Berne’s rediscovery of an old childhood tin of knickknacks. Sifting through these artifacts, taken from her grandfather’s attic when he died in 1973, Berne found they were keepsakes that had once belonged to her grandmother, small clues to her life.
“Even at 12 I was interested in this woman,” she said.
Now in a new book, “Missing Lucile: Memories of the Grandmother I Never Knew,” Berne, whose several novels include “A Crime in the Neighborhood,” has découpaged a history of Lucile’s brief but vibrant life.
An heiress to the Kroger grocery chain and a graduate of Wellesley College, Lucile had the kind of life most women at the time only dreamed of. Old negatives Berne found, for example, show Lucile in post-World War I France, a volunteer with the Wellesley College Relief Unit working to rebuild devastated villages along the Marne. Berne also found indications of a romance with a French brigadier.
To fill in the holes of Lucile’s life story, Berne drew from historical research to suppose what most likely happened.
“It’s a book about trying to answer questions, even though you’re not really going to find an answer,” she said. “People contain history, and they contain all sorts of connections to events they lived through.”
Estranged from her father for many years, Berne said that researching Lucile “provided a common ground for us, and, in a strange way, she helped relate us to each other again.”
Berne’s father died in 2009, and, though he never had the chance to read the completed manuscript, he read sections along the way and supported her endeavor.
“Every family has a missing person of some kind — somebody who died young, who disappeared, or the family banished for some perceived crime, and you always wonder, ‘Who is that face in the album? What would we all be like if that person hadn’t disappeared? Would we be a different kind of family?’”
“Nobody is really missing once you start to wonder about them,” she said, “no matter how little information you have.”