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Love through the ages

lovebirds

Lovebirds

It was Valentine’s Day this week. A time to think of romance and love and, for those of us ribbon-heartswho are older, to remember past loves. We all have a past.

If you think we’re boring and have nothing interesting to tell, you’re missing an opportunity to hear some fabulous love stories. Want to hear about long treasured memories of romantic love affairs? Forbidden loves? Lovers possibly lost, but recalled in old age with pleasure? Try asking.

A few days ago, my dear daughter-in-law Chandra did just that. I was caught off-guard, however, by asking me to tell her about a past love, she let me know she was interested in me. I liked that. I love her. Also, she had me think about someone I hadn’t thought of for many years.

Chandra and Remy, 2007

A weary but beautiful Chandra with little Remy in 2007

We were all young once, and most young humans search for love. Certainly the cave man grunted his admiration for the gal who lived in the next cave and tried to impress her with his prowess before he carried her off.

abelard-and-heloise

Abelard & Eloise together at last at Pere Lachaise cemetery

The tragic love story of Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Eloise captured my interest and for  years I read all I could find about the famous scholastic philosopher and his beloved. Not able to be together in life, their bones are now joined forever at the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

They say there is nothing new under the sun. People have always loved. I love this poem written by a woman who lived during Medieval times. A UBC history professor gave it to me years ago. I like it so much, I still have and treasure it. Here it is:

 

‘Marriage is a sweet thing
I can prove it by my own example.
God indeed gave to me
A good and sensible husband.
Thank God for being willing
To save him for me, for I have truly
Experienced his great goodness.
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.two-hearts

And he said, with such tender words:
‘God made me live for you
Sweet friend, and I think that he had me raised
For your personal use.’
He did not stop raving like that
The whole night.
Without being any more immoderate
Indeed the sweet heart loves me well.

Prince, he makes me mad for love,
When he says that he is all mine.
He will make me die of sweetness,
Indeed the sweetheart loves me well.

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Shall we dance?

susans-sculpture

daughter Susan’s wood wall sculpture she claims was inspired by my love of dancing

Joseph Molnar was a charming and debonaire, well traveled continental, who had lived in and traveled to many countries — and loved many women. Born and raised in Hungary, he studied in France and, besides Hungarian, spoke English, French and Spanish fluently, and perhaps others. My husband, a Parisian, first met Joseph on a train in France.

Religion was extremely important to Joseph. He loved and enjoyed them all. As a Catholic, he attended Catholic, Protestant and Jewish services — and did so regularly. They could be in French, Spanish, English, or Hebrew — it didn’t matter. The first time I met him, by then in his mid-sixties, which I thought ancient, was at such a service.

He sat me between himself and my husband-to-be, and said: ‘A rose between two thorns’. A line, perhaps, but a young woman doesn’t forget something like that.

ilona-massey-02

Hungarian actress Ilona Massey.

Joseph called himself a bachelor, but had lived with a woman in Mexico for 20 years. I argued that anyone who had done so could no longer call himself a bachelor. He’d laugh, but never talked about her or any of the women in his past. I learned by chance about one special love.

sticks-better

Silver candlesticks, unpolished

In helping him move from one apartment to another, (to across the street from our home so we’d be closer) I came upon a lovely, very old pair of ornate, silver candlesticks. They were tucked away in a drawer and hadn’t been used or polished for years.

‘They’re too lovely to hide,’ I said, ‘I’ll polish them for you. They should be on your dining table where you can see them every day.’

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A little more detail

That’s when he told me he had had an affair with the actress Ilona Massey’s mother in Hungary and she had given them to him. Ilona Massey was such a beauty, I can only imagine how beautiful her mother was in her youth.

The following Mother’s day, Joseph came across the street with a greasy, brown paper bag under his arm in which he carried those precious candlesticks as a gift for me. I still treasure them. (I’ve been advised not to polish them any more– that it rubs off the artistic details.)

Joseph was the sole male member of several Hungarian, French, or Spanish ladies’ church groups. He would be sure to ask every member to dance with him at their dinner-dances.  No wonder they loved him.

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Dancing with Joseph

My husband had two left feet, but Joseph could dance to anything. We did the Csardas at Hungarian dinner dances, and the rumba, tango, Viennese Waltzes, or what-have-you at other times. The two of us became a team, and even won two competitions!  I look back to those evenings with much pleasure.

My children adored Joseph and he returned

joseph-and-rafi

Rafi with Joseph at Cinco De Mayo celebration

their love. He had been a furrier, and had scraps of animal furs he’d give to Susan when she’d run across the street to visit. She loved the fur and Joseph. Little Rafi enjoyed going out with Joseph by himself and would climb on his lap whenever the lap was available.

So, what happened to our dear friend? He was hit by a car as he ran to catch a bus across a busy Los Angeles Boulevard. It was holiday time and he was in a hurry to get to a church  party. He died before he could leave the hospital when he was about 71. We were devastated.

Shortly after his death, the children wanted to visit ‘Uncle Joseph’ at his grave site. We did so. If memory serves, I think Susan wondered where ‘Uncle Joseph’ was and what he was doing. Rafi, about four at the time, knew and with certainty stated: ‘Uncle Joseph is dancing in heaven.’

Napoleon and (Josephine) Marie

Muriel's 80th-Me&Remy

Me with a special love, grandson Remy

For years I was captivated by Napoleon, (1769-1821) and read many books about him. On my bookshelf still sits a set of four volumes ‘The Private Life of Napoleon’ by Constant, his valet. Constant thought Napoleon brilliant and tells us, as an example,  that when Marie Louise of

Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros

A young Napoleon

Austria didn’t become pregnant immediately, she did so only after Napoleon instructed her not to bathe. I love old books. (The English translation was copyrighted by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1895.)

Study of Josephine

study of Josephine

My own impression is that Josephine (1763-1814) has been badly treated by historians — mostly male. As Napoleon’s first love, she opened doors for the young officer. She already had important contacts, and probably was the brains behind much of his success. Napoleon didn’t realize how much he owed to her.

You can’t deny things went rapidly downhill when he, as self-proclaimed emperor, became too big for his britches and wanting an heir to the throne, he divorced Josephine and banished her from the palace. Big mistake…..

300px-Ingres,_Napoleon_on_his_Imperial_throne

Self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon

Maria_Walewska_by_François_Gérard

Marie Walewska, Napoleon’s mistress

Of course Napoleon had lovers along the way. Power and money are sexy. There are always women willing to give themselves to men like him. Yet, in all the reading I did, nowhere did I find a word about Marie Walewska, (1786-1817) a Polish noblewoman who became his long-time mistress. I read, sometimes wearily, of battle after battle and his prowess in the battlefield, but never much about his prowess in the bedroom with this beauty.

The young Marie, married off to an elderly Count by her family, (because of an inconvenient prior pregnancy) was not smitten by Napoleon when he marched into Poland. The Poles, however, adored him — they desperately needed his help. No sacrifice was too big to win his favor. Marie, a mere child of 18, was pushed into the affair by Polish nobles and, yes, even her elderly husband. After all, what was one woman’s honor compared to the freedom of your country? Marie obeyed. Well, she WAS patriotic. Wouldn’t you? If you were patriotic?

She already had one son, and was to be the only woman to give Napoleon a son of his own who lived to adulthood, Count Alexandre Florian de Walewski (1810-1868). Her husband, the patriot, continued to be cooperative and willingly gave the child his name. After all, the man loved his country and Napoleon had promised to make Poland a strong, free kingdom. (He never kept this promise.)

Obviously a generous guy as well, when Marie, who grew to love Napoleon, (the guy could be magnetic) divorced him in 1812, Walewski gave her and her oldest son half his estates, which made her wealthy in her own right. She had also moved to Paris in 1810, where Napoleon set her up in splendor. Not bad….

For awhile, the lovers did discontinue their affair for political reasons because Napoleon wanted to divorce Josephine and thought, under the circumstances, it wouldn’t look good. But their feelings for each other persisted.

His marriage to Marie Louise of Austria (1791-1847) produced a son too, who died in

marie_louise of Austria3-f

Marie Louise of Austria

childhood, but Marie Louise fled when things got rough and later became the mistress of a Count. Marie Walewska, on the other hand, remained true to her famous lover although she did marry again. She visited Napoleon while he was in exile and disgrace at Elba to (ahem) console him. This surely was a woman who cared. She later died in Paris while Napoleon was a prisoner at St. Helena. They say the very last word she ever uttered was: ‘Napoleon’.

If you like this kind of thing, you may enjoy ‘Famous Affinities of History’ by Lyndon Orr, published in 1909, which can be found on:

http://www.gutenberg.org/wiki/Category:Bookshelf

‘The last time I saw Paris….’

photo by Susan Kauffmann

photo by Susan Kauffmann

9 a.m.: Installed on a bench, I’m pouring over the map of the famous Pere

Through the Chunnel, 1st class boring, regular class more fun

Through the Chunnel, 1st class boring, regular class more fun

Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Friends in England teased me about wanting to visit nothing but dead people. Indeed,

I had taken the Chunnel from London to Paris solely for this reason. It is where the likes of Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Bizet, Chopin, Isadora Duncan, Moliere, Edith Piaf, Marcel

The famous 12th century philosopher Abelard & his Heloise, at last united in death

The famous 12th century philosopher Abelard & his Heloise, at last united in death

Proust, Simone Signoret, Gertrude Stein and Oscar Wilde are buried. Here the 12th century lovers Peter Abelard and Heloise were finally united in death.

If I pay proper homage and breath deeply at the gravesides of these brilliant/talented people, I might even absorb a little of their creativity. I mark the location of each grave I want to see and select the most logical route along Avenue des Peupliers towards Bizet’s final resting place. Just in case no one else has, I tell him his opera ‘Carmen’ (which he believed ‘a definite and hopeless flop’) is popular, famous and beloved today, 130 years later.

Frederic Chopin's tomb, Pere Lachaise cemetery

Frederic Chopin’s tomb, Pere Lachaise cemetery

That duty dispensed with, I turn onto Avenue des Ailantes, looking for Balzac’s grave. What is this? Right between Bizet and Balzac is an ancient, moss-covered tomb with my own family’s surname on it! If I had a name like ‘Smith’, I wouldn’t have given it a thought, but my maiden name ‘Ruch’ is not common. My dad, who immigrated to Canada from Lithuania during the 1920s wasn’t in touch with family left behind, and none lived where I grew up in Montreal.

Was it possible? Could it be? Was I walking around with the same genes as the people in this very tomb? I drop onto a nearby bench contemplating this unexpected turn of events, giving thought to the family I have never known. Unbidden, tears run down my cheeks. I approach the tomb and run my fingers along the rusted gate. I peer within the dark interior, but nothing is revealed. Without flowers to leave behind, I pick up a small pebble from the ground and carefully balance it on the peaked roof as a sign of my visit. Perhaps it is still there today.

Sarah Bernhardt's grave at Pere Lachaise

Sarah Bernhardt’s grave

After whispering goodbye to the “Famille J. Ruch” ghosts, I continue on my way, but that tomb won’t leave me alone. I visit each grave marked on my map, yet questions continue to plague me. How many relatives survived World War II? Where are they? What are they like? Do we look alike? Do any share my interests as well as my genes? Would I like them if I knew them? Would they like me?? How do you locate family you don’t even know?

Later, by mere chance, a friend told me about a genealogy website. I found it, typed in my maiden name and – hey, someone else was looking for people with the same name. I immediately sent off an email to Amanda, who lives in Longmeadow, MA. (USA). We ARE related; our grandmothers were sisters. She has created a family tree and because we found each other, she was able to fill in a few blanks. Amanda sent me a copy. When it arrived, I quickly tore the package open and set to work taping all 20 pages together. There, in black and white, were names and locations of dozens of relatives — in South Africa, Australia, England, Israel, Canada, and the U.S. Some had been murdered during WWII. One, whose dear ones had all perished took his own life; some made it through. Their tragedies and triumphs are, in part, my own.

An inquiry went off to Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Could they put me in touch with any descendants of ‘Famille J. Ruch’? They didn’t respond, after all it IS a very old tomb. And, are Amanda and I alike? Well, both of us are writers…..

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Full of surprises

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Full of surprises

Death in the Afternoon

Muriel from BlogSpring is my favorite time of year — a promise of things to come. Like all promises, it isn’t always kept, but like a five-year-old, I keep believing this time my little balcony garden will thrive. So, two sunny days in a row and I was already cleaning up winter’s debris, checking on my struggling garlic planted in the fall, seeing which herbs barely survived, and putting in beans, peas and kale. “It’s too soon!” my more pragmatic friend warned, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be out there before the wasps arrive. (I’m a delicate flower —  allergic to their sting.) As for them, they LOVE it here. I’m convinced they’ve passed the word around to all their friends about how great I taste, and they’re also very angry with me.

Wasps love it here

Wasps love it here

Here I must confess, I’m responsible for the death of hundreds of wasps! Not “WASPS” (Women Airforce Service Pilots) or “WASPS” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants), but wasps, the stinging, mean guys who are now apparently out to get back at me. How did this happen?

"WASPS" Women Airforce Service Pilots

“WASPS”
Women Airforce Service Pilots

I was innocently, diligently working away at my computer, when I glanced out my office window to drink in the glory of the mountains. There was this smooth, round, light-brown, globular-shaped structure about the size of a large grapefruit hanging

A wasp nest with entrance on the bottom

A wasp nest with entrance on the bottom

perfectly-centered and straight down from our building’s over-hang. Strange, I thought, I never noticed it before. I wondered why it was there and what its function was.

Like a female Sherlock Holmes investigating a mystery, I perused it with care, and, upon closer inspection, noted activity — much activity. Traipsing in and out of the entrance at the very bottom of the beautiful dome, for beautiful it was, were numerous tiny, busy creatures. Aliens? No, nothing that dramatic.

They were wasps, wasps with stingers! Hundreds and hundreds of them flying in and out their basement door. “Aha!” I declared aloud to the empty room, for Watson wasn’t here. “This smooth, round, light-brown, globular-shaped structure about the size of a large grapefruit hanging perfectly-centered and straight down from our building’s overhang clearly seems to be a — wasp nest!”

Was I scared? Did I panic? No! I was safely indoors

Was I scared? Did I panic? No! I was safely indoors

Did I panic? Did I cry out in fright? Did I scream for help? Did you hear me? Of course not! Sure, I am allergic to their sting, but they were outside and I was safely inside, so I was able to be courageous. The industry of the little devils was fascinating. My computer’s screen-saver had to kick in while I spent the next hour or so observing the goings-on out there. What an interesting thing to have so close to my window. I liked it!

“Well, if you find it so beautiful and interesting,” said the gal (somewhat incredulously) at our building’s management office over the phone when I called “Perhaps you’d like to keep it for a few days before I order an exterminator out.”

Was she kidding? Some years ago, after a wasp sting, my arm developed a plateau-like, angry, painful, red welt, which three weeks later grew larger, hotter, angrier, redder, even more painful and itchier. Medication was required to calm things down. No way! Fascinating as it was, the nest would have to go.

Wasp circular hotel rooms within nest

Wasp circular hotel rooms within nest

A calm, business-like exterminator arrived next afternoon, canister and long metal tube in tow. He sprayed right into the wasp “Home-Sweet-Home”. The displaced creatures flew about in a tizzy, hither and yon, while chunks of their beautiful nest collapsed and fell away, at first leaving the circular inner structure of hotel-rooms, built around a perfectly round elevator-like shaft, exposed.

The circular stairwell at the Hotel D'Alsace in Paris where Oscar Wilde spent his last days

The circular stairwell at the Hotel D’Alsace in Paris where Oscar Wilde spent his last days

It reminded me of the Hotel D’Alsace I’d visited in Paris, where Oscar Wilde spent his last days. I still remember looking up at that circular staircase that goes up and up and up….

Oscar Wilde, who died at the Hotel D'Alsace in Paris

Oscar Wilde, who died at the Hotel D’Alsace in Paris

Still safely indoors, I peered into those wasp hotel rooms, wondering if I might observe any improprieties in progress, but any amorous activities taking place had already been rudely interrupted, so I cannot tell you anything new about the birds and the wasps.

The exterminator looked at his work and saw that it was good. “When the wasps stop coming back in a day or two, you can knock the rest of it down.” he announced and left, not at all troubled by the murder and mayhem we two had planned and carried out.

In relating this grisly tale to friends, I found some confusion existed as to the social structure of wasp society. Some friends thought wasps, like bees, have a queen, others thought the life of a wasp was totally different. My encyclopedia said they are both right since there are so many species of wasps. The nest building kind apparently do have a queen.

Does that mean I’ve committed regicide???