|The adventurers in Paris|
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
He met her at a friend’s get-together in 1913. They fell into conversation next to the icebox in the kitchen. Carrie was as petite as a child; almost cute and almost plain; witty, anxious, and intense. Although they had interests in common – music, art, and literature – there were impediments you might call Hide and Prejudice: for my grandfather hid from binding relationships with women, and Carrie was prejudiced against wealthy men.
There was a certain resentment in her attitude. Carrie’s family occupied the same upper reaches of society, but her father periodically and ignominiously suffered business reverses. With her parents and sisters Carrie danced the riches-to-rags-back-to-riches rag. Because she often had to do without, she decided that those who had more than enough, like Grandpa, were selfish, spoiled and oblivious to the hardship of others. Being down on one’s luck made one more enlightened than, and thus superior to, the pampered rich. At any rate, this was how Carrie preserved her pride.
Preserving her independence was her other obsession. Women didn’t have the vote yet, but Carrie proclaimed her freedom anyway by smoking like a chimney and avoiding the manacles of marriage. At age 29, she was an old maid and fine with it. On the other hand, insecurity plagued her. She felt she never followed through with anything, was of no use in the world.
But opportunity was on its way.
By 1914 Carrie’s family was headed for rags once again. That was the same year my grandfather got in the news for suing his demented aunt’s estate, going after her money when he was already quite rich. Carrie and her kin shared the prevailing opinion that he was a layabout and a parasite.
It was high time for Grandpa to heed his beloved mother’s pleas and to buckle down publicly. He was the sole descendant of his father’s line. He needed a male heir to carry the name forward. A wife was in order.
But women made him nervous; he tended to be overpolite and formal around them. So he looked around for a “gal” with whom he could relax, who shared his interests, and who wouldn’t change his life overmuch. Carrie was single, with a lively mind, into the arts…and she went her own way. That left him free for fraternizing in men’s clubs, where he spent a great deal of his time.
You wouldn’t be surprised that Carrie initially found him a bit of a bore. He sent her flowers, loaned her books. Her thank-you notes were warm but brief, without encouragement.
The New York papers were filled with horror stories and the appalling body count coming from Europe, where war raged. America had not yet entered the conflict. Carrie suddenly announced she was going to France to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse, to any hospital that would have her, as near as possible to the Western front.
It was a testament to her determination that her family couldn’t stop her. In February of 1916, she sailed alone for Europe. She had never been to France before, her health was forever fragile, and she had neither certification nor experience at nursing. She declared, “I feel that I have never in my life stuck at anything so I am going to see this through.”
She found work immediately in a hospital in Paris. The doctors discovered the American volunteer to be intelligent, cheerful, quick to learn, difficult to horrify, and industrious to the point of collapse. They gave her more to do. Soon she had her own ward. The wounded poured in from the front; she threw herself into the care of soldiers and aviators, whom she called her “blessées.” She wrote her sister, “You would die to see me pumping dope into drains in open wounds & tying up heads with the brains sticking out in the back.”
|Carrie with one of her “blessées”|
My grandfather was so impressed by Carrie’s bold and selfless act that he enlisted in the army. As he departed for field artillery training in upstate New York, he wrote to her: “Dear Carrie, the die is cast now. I am well aware what the consequences must be to us all in blood & misery, but one would far rather bring one’s earthly career to a premature close than feel that one comes from a country which failed to make good when faced by the choice between the honorable thing and the yellow thing. I’m quitting my own work now & starting to study for the army, in whatever capacity I can serve. Wish me luck. If you do, I know it’ll bring me some. I need it.” He would show Carrie and the world that he was good for something.
The news took Carrie by surprise. “I had a long letter from Marshall Kernochan,” she reported to her mother, “just as he was leaving for Plattsburg! I wonder what it will do for him? Kill or cure?”
From the time he reported for duty their correspondence began in earnest: letters flew across the ocean between them. Though they were 3000 miles apart, they felt they were comrades in action – two sheltered bluebloods plunging into a great cause and experiencing their own bravery for the first time. Soon Carrie was writing to her folks, “It certainly does show people up, a time like this, & you may call him a freak – but how many of the boys we know are making good that way?”
She had promised her family she’d return after six months. The Paris damp, the grueling stress and the unhealthy conditions at the hospital brought back her chronic bronchitis. She fell into a pattern of working her heart out, getting ill, and becoming a patient herself. Still, fourteen months later she was still there. It was unthinkable to leave: she was needed.
Grandpa shipped out to France in the fall of 1917. A second lieutenant, he was transferred to the intelligence corps. His letters couldn’t reveal his whereabouts or his activities, but they were full of frustration and eagerness to see her. He demanded that she take him on a tour of Paris (though he already knew the city very well) “or I shall order up my platoon & put you under arrest.”
Finally at Christmas he got two days’ leave. And that’s all it took: a day and a night. Whatever happened to put the match to his ardor, he came away crazy to marry her.
Carrie, on the other hand, held back. She called him “short-sighted,” which stung. He wrote: “Dear, you know you must ‘take a shot at it’! I care more than I ever could tell you. That I can take care of you I am sure, and I won’t pluck one feather out of that cherished independence of yours. If I had my pick of every woman who ever lived and you were an invalid in a wheelchair, I’d far rather spend my life with you. We’re not little kids, and if we want to live there’s but one way – jump! You said last night that I’m short sighted. I doubt it. And I know the Big Need is with me, and only you can take it away.”
She didn’t reply. He waited one agonizing week, firing off more letters. The New Year came and went.
Finally a letter from Carrie arrived.
She: “You ask if I think of you. Of course I do – lots – much too much for my peace of mind. But tho’ I cannot yet ‘say the good word’ you want me to, if it’s any help for you to feel there is something more than an ordinary friendship between us – why please do. Whether or not it will grow is something only the future can decide.”
He: “What else can I say, except that I love you? If, as you say, you like to be told that, why, I like to tell it, still more…You say, ‘if you only dared let yourself go’! Well – who’s holding you back?...Don’t think that I’m such a crazy optimist as to say that married life would be all a bed of roses! Of course there are concessions and little sacrifices, but it seems to me that making those is the best part of all. I know I’d like to give up anything to get you.” Meanwhile, he wrote his mother about Carrie, to assure her that his mission was almost accomplished: “She is such a sweet little girl. I think she would suit me splendidly.”
Carrie rejoined: “Yes, I did tell you, in a rash moment, that I like to be made love to – but please next time we meet don’t do anything of the kind, because we’ve got to talk & talk & talk, and nothing kills conversation so.” (“Making love” in those days could mean nothing more than snogging.)
They got together one more time in Paris, a single day of walking around the city and talking and talking and talking, capped off by an air raid that both found quite “thrilling.” But he returned to camp believing she didn’t return his feelings enough to marry him.
Doctors advised Carrie not to spend another winter in Paris. She sailed home for three months. Before leaving, she sent Grandpa an ambiguous note: “I want so much to be fair & square & honest & aboveboard with you! I’ve decided I can’t be that until I’ve been home & found out if & how completely I’ve been able to put certain things out of my mind…”
She must have gotten quite an earful from her parents. Hello? You’re 32 and alone, not rich or beautiful, you’re living off your hard-up parents, and now one of the wealthiest bachelors in New York is begging to marry you, and you’re hesitating? Are you insane?!
Whether she bowed to pressure or something else happened, she changed her mind. Her next letter to Grandpa showed her backtracking almost frantically: “You have no idea how much I miss you. I hate it. How perfectly horrid I was to you most of the time. What must you think of me?...If you don’t really want to marry me, you had better not ask me again!”
Upon her return to Paris they were married. He wrote his mother, “Thank God I have a wife who is not helpless, and who has enough initiative to be able and not to be afraid to do things. I tell you, Ma, this life here changes one’s point of view in everything and shows up people’s character as nothing else could. This war, even if it is horrible and cruel, has certainly separated the wheat from the chaff.” (He added, “Be sure & get all the wine you can, for very soon it will no longer be possible, when we have prohibition. What a nuisance it will be!”)
A year later their only child, my father, was born.
The World War I letters, tied up in bundles with frayed kitchen string, were discovered 75 years later in a trunk in Grandpa’s house in Martha’s Vineyard. As I read them, handling with caution the brittle ink-blotched pages, I was haunted by several questions. What held Carrie back? What did she mean, that she had to find out “if & how completely I’ve been able to put certain things out of my mind”? Were those “certain things” someone else? Someone she loved? Why really was she still unwed at 32?
The letters were out of sequence, so the last ones I read were from Carrie to her sister, written soon after Carrie first arrived in Paris. Her voice changed on these pages; became whispered girl-talk. Suddenly two passages leapt out at me.
“No more married lovers for me,” Carrie wrote. “At least that’s what I say now. You never know.” And: “Do let me know if the darling goes to see you – I bet his wife doesn’t miss me so she suffers - !”
I was sure now: there was a secret here. But I had come to the bottom of the family papers, with no more clues or answers. No one – parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles – was alive for me to question.
But the dead were another matter. Only one thing remained for me to do: make an appointment with a medium.
(To be continued.)