The velvet hours, p.25
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       The Velvet Hours, p.25

           Alyson Richman

  “Please pardon our appearance. Alex and I live like woodsmen here,” he laughed, releasing me from his arms. “The books are our trees.”

  “I only wish my mother could have seen all this,” I said as I gestured to the floor-to-ceiling shelves. My eyes took in the old bindings in red Valiant leather with gilt-embossed titles. In the corner of the room was a movable ladder that slid across the shelves. “She would have been amazed.”

  “Your grandfather’s apartment was equally as filled with books just as ours. Perhaps he had even more . . .”

  I scanned the room again and tried to imagine my mother living in an apartment just like this one. I had always thought her bookshelf in our living room was formidable, but to live amidst all these works, some of them priceless in value, seemed incredible.

  Monsieur Armel’s eyes traveled over his crowded shelves and the stack of books on his desk, and he shook his head. “We’ve acquired too much over the past two years. So many families left, and I bought their inventory. I hedged my bets incorrectly, it seems. I thought they were all foolish for leaving Paris. But now I’m here writing urgent letters to America, buried in a tomb of books, while they’re all safely across the Atlantic.”

  He came over and squeezed Alex’s shoulder. “But I still consider myself a lucky man after last night.”

  I smiled. I, too, was thankful. “It was an extraordinary evening. I still can’t believe it all happened.”

  “Come.” He gestured for me to follow him deeper into the room. “I want to give your grandmother a gift to show her Alex’s and my gratitude.” He walked toward the far side of the library and began to climb the ladder.

  “Careful, Papa,” cautioned Alex.

  “I have been climbing ladders for years, Alex. This is the least of my worries.”

  From the top shelf, he pulled down a slender volume.

  “Perhaps she’ll enjoy this one.” He placed his palms on the dark brown leather cover. Around the perimeter was a floral design that had been tooled into the leather and rubbed afterward with gilt. “It’s a book of poetry from the Ottoman empire. The illustrations reflect an Oriental influence, so I suspect it will appeal to her artistic sensibility.” He closed his eyes as if he were conjuring up an image of Marthe before him.

  “Even though your grandmother won’t be able to decipher the words, I think she’ll enjoy the illustrations and calligraphy.”

  “How thoughtful of you,” I said, as I gently traced a finger over the cover’s sensual, arabesque design. “I’m sure it will delight her.”

  “Please tell her how grateful we are for what she’s done for me,” Alex added as he locked his eyes with me. “I’m still in a state of disbelief . . .”

  “We would also like to reciprocate with a dinner at our apartment . . . ,” Monsieur Armel interrupted. “It is the first night of Passover in a little over two weeks’ time. Solomon’s wife, Rachel, will make dinner at our apartment. Do you think you and your grandmother might wish to come?”

  His invitation touched me in its warmth and intimacy. But as much as I wanted to go, I did not think Marthe would join me.

  “My grandmother seldom leaves her apartment, as her health has been rather fragile lately. But it would be my pleasure to come.”

  “Well, still, please ask her,” Monsieur Armel insisted. “The meal will be simple and the accommodations far less sumptuous, but we’d be honored to welcome her into our home.”

  I promised them both that I would ask her.

  * * *

  I left the Armel residence shortly afterward and entered the warm early afternoon light. I decided to use my extra time to return to my old apartment and retrieve a few lightweight dresses and some additional notebooks. I knew I still had quite a few empty ones stored away in my desk.

  Although the Métro would have been faster, I opted to walk through the Gardens of Avenue Foch. With Alex no longer heading off to war, I wanted to savor this rare pause of calm. I knew Alex’s father would continue making plans to leave France. But this afternoon my heart felt as if it were a tightly petaled flower that was finally opening to the warmth of spring. I wanted to walk amongst beauty, under the shade of protective elm trees, and feel the joy of being alive.

  * * *

  Along the winding paths lined by the canopy of foliage, I watched young children ride their tricycles, and a nanny as she stretched out a large blanket and offered two little girls and their dolls tiny ceramic cups of tea.

  My attention softened as I walked the quiet path. I hadn’t written in my journal for several days, not wanting to waste a single moment of those hours I could spend with Alex. But now I felt the familiar urge to once again return to my writing.

  Less than an hour later, I emerged from the gardens and set off to the closest Métro station to take me closer to home. Once in my own neighborhood, I passed by Augustin’s grocery shop, the Alsatian baker, and the crèmerie where my mother and I had always shopped. When I reached the doorstep of our old apartment building, I stood outside for several seconds, surprised that I felt the need to adjust my eyes to what I saw. For well over a year and a half I had traveled between my grandmother’s apartment and my own, slipping seamlessly between both worlds. But now the modesty of our own building felt somehow jarring.

  I turned the key and pressed open the heavy door. Once inside, I immediately noticed that the lobby didn’t smell of marble and brass as in Grandmother’s or the Armels’ building. Rather, a vague mustiness clung to the air. Beneath my feet, the linoleum tile was worn and in need of replacement. The walls were not chalk white, but rather the color of yellowed, faded paper. Although my father had stopped the mail, I took the newsprint flyers from the box, and slowly began to mount the stairs.

  * * *

  Our apartment looked like a dollhouse when I entered. The wooden furniture. The dishes in the cupboard that were white and functional. On the kitchen table sat the radio with the Bakelite dials. If the books on the living room shelf reminded me of my mother, that radio connected me to my father. Immediately, I felt a void when I saw it, a palpable longing to see him again. I yearned for that hum of the radio as we searched for a station on which we could hear the news. I wanted the comforting sight of his mustache, his eyes framed by his wire-rimmed glasses. The security of his measured voice, his unflappable ability to never appear frightened or alarmed. It felt strange that the onset of the war had brought us closer, only to take him away from me just when we were beginning to form a connection.

  As I moved through the apartment, I felt my father’s absence profoundly, and it seemed almost like trespassing to be there without him. I could see traces of his last movements as I glanced around the apartment. The icebox had been defrosted, the door left open. The toaster had been unplugged. On his desk was an open-faced ledger with the list of utility companies and a notation showing they had been contacted and knew to forward the bills to his new address at the military hospital. His last gestures were like a marble frieze, every action showing his careful and meticulous nature in high relief.

  I entered my bedroom and looked at it with fresh eyes. It was darker and more crowded than I had remembered it. I had grown accustomed to my small room at Marthe’s—the elegant rosewood desk and the diamond-shaped window that cast a kaleidoscope of colors during the different hours of the day. I scanned the shelves filled with not only my books and journals, but also my many knickknacks and souvenirs: the porcelain rabbit where I had once stored the coins of my weekly allowance, and the milk jar that contained my vast marble collection. Tucked in the corner was a Mickey Mouse doll that my father had uncharacteristically bought for me after taking me to the cinema to see Steamboat Willie when I was still young enough to hold his hand.

  I knelt down and reached for my mother’s old carpetbag from underneath my bed and pulled it open. I knew I could place my two remaining spring dresses and a few notebooks inside its
deep vault of black-skinned leather. I went to my wardrobe and took out my dresses. Both were the same A-line flattering cut with a nipped waist and flared skirt that hovered just over the knee. One was in navy crepe and the other in a red chevron stripe. I put the notebooks on the bottom of the bag and carefully laid the folded dresses on top. On the way out, I was overcome with wanting something from my father. I reached for the Mickey Mouse doll and squeezed it inside the bag.


  April 1940

  ASeder?” Marthe said the word as though it was the name of an exotic fruit she had never tasted before. “Why, it sounds intriguing. I actually think I would like to go, Solange.”

  She held the book of Turkish poetry that the Armels had gifted to her between her paper-white hands.

  “I haven’t been out since that night with you a few weeks ago, and of all the salons and parties I’ve participated in over the years, I’ve never once attended a Passover meal.” Marthe looked out the window. “Perhaps I’ll wear my trousers.” She grinned mischievously. “The occasion does sound rather exotic.”

  “And you would look quite smart if you did . . .” I laughed. I was pleased she was considering their invitation.

  She shook her head. “You might find this surprising, but I have a great affinity for the Jews. They’re a smart and cultured race . . .

  “And when your mother came here that first time, when she and your father were announcing their engagement, I immediately sensed she was a Juive.”

  I felt a little stab in my heart when she spoke and I stiffened, bracing myself to hear something that would shatter the warm and protective feelings I had recently come to have for my grandmother.

  “She was beautiful. An oval face with almond-shaped eyes. Her skin was slightly olive. And her last name, Cohen . . . it was a telltale sign of her ancestry.” I could feel Marthe looking at me and contrasting the memory she still had in her mind of my then twentysomething-year-old mother.

  “You have her eyes, her dark hair, and the same exotic beauty. And, of course, her intelligence . . .”

  A sense of relief washed over me. I had been fearful Marthe might say something anti-Semitic in relation to my mother. Had she done so, the affection that had grown in my heart for her over the past year would have been tarnished.

  “I feel guilty that I didn’t embrace your parents more fully when they arrived brimming with their young love. When I reflect on it now, I realize I was threatened by your mother. It was clear she possessed a great deal of wisdom behind those beautiful eyes of hers.” Marthe’s words sounded almost as if they were uttered as a confession.

  “I was haughty and narcissistic that afternoon, Solange. And when they came a few months later to tell me about the pregnancy, I barely acknowledged it.”

  She took a deep breath.

  “It was an error on my part that I’ve come to regret . . .” Her eyes looked out toward the window, never once looking at her portrait as she normally did. For several minutes neither of us said a word. The quiet between us filled the room.

  * * *

  We spent the next two hours together. I sat beside Marthe on the gray sofa, looking at the pages of the book that Monsieur Armel had given her. Marveling at the illustrations, our fingers carefully turned the parchment pages together.

  “Have I ever shown you the two books I have from my mother’s collection?” I asked, though I knew full well that I had never shared them with her.

  “No,” she answered. “But I would love to see them.”

  I excused myself and walked toward my new bedroom and pulled out my suitcase, where they were protected in layers of brown paper.

  I returned, holding them protectively to my chest. Then I unwrapped them in front of her.

  “These belonged to my mother’s father, Moishe Cohen,” I said.

  I lifted the dark brown Haggadah and the Zemirot Yisrael from the paper and brought them over to her.

  I placed the Barcelona Haggadah in her hands, and set the slender Zemirot book to the side. As Marthe touched the outer cover, I could see the collector in her come alive before me. She pored over every detail, appraising the outside before entering its inner pages.

  “See how the book opens from left to right . . .” I reached over and lifted the left corner of the cover to open the first page. Her eyes widened and I watched as her finger delicately touched the vellum corner.

  “Is this Hebrew?” she asked. I watched as her eyes scanned the calligraphic lines executed in dark black ink.

  “Yes, the text is written by a rabbi and the illustrations were painted by his wife.”

  “It’s extraordinary,” Marthe said in a hushed tone. I could see she was transfixed, just as I had first been upon seeing it.

  “The slender volume is a book of poetry by Israel Najara, printed in Venice in the sixteenth century. But, this one,” I said, touching the heavy brown cover of the Barcelona Haggadah, “Monsieur Armel says is an extremely rare fourteenth-century Haggadah from Spain.”

  My voice floated through the parlor. I was now the storyteller to Marthe. For well over a year I had listened to her tell the story of her life, of her ascent from the alleys of Montmartre to this treasure-filled apartment in the ninth arrondissement. But now we had switched places, and it was she who was listening to my every word. Under the hush of the room, in the comfort of the velvet furniture, I began to tell Marthe the story of my mother’s family and these two priceless books that now rested between us. The very books that had initially brought me to the Armels’ store.

  I spoke slowly and in a carefully measured voice, just as Marthe had always done when she shared her stories with me.

  “The book was in my grandfather’s collection, and it was one of the few Mother saved upon his death. According to Monsieur Armel, the Haggadah was written and illustrated by a rabbi and his wife. The rabbi’s wife possessed a rare gift that few people, let alone women, had at that time. She knew not only how to paint, but to work with gold leaf. Her collaboration on the Haggadah is one of the reasons it is so unique. It is one of the only prayer books known to have been illustrated by a female hand.”

  Marthe listened quietly. I watched as she turned another page and marveled at the deep red and lapis blue design around the perimeter.

  “It took them nearly twenty years to complete it.”

  “I can imagine.” Marthe paused over the illustration of the family at the Seder table. The patriarch with his arms open and children seated around him.

  “I’ve been told the book is priceless not only because it’s several hundred years old, and the only one made by their hands, but also because it is symbolic of the love between them.”

  “How beautiful to think their love continues to exist through the ancient pages of the text,” Marthe said as she carefully examined each page.

  “Yes. It’s become the second story that’s woven through the book,” I added. “But only known to those who are privy to the information about the rabbi and his wife.”

  Marthe was quiet for a moment and I could tell she was reflecting upon what I had just said.

  “It’s like your painting, Grand-maman. One sees the beautiful portrait. But when you share the story behind it . . . your friendship with Boldini, it has even deeper resonance.”

  “Yes,” she said, her eyes lifting toward her portrait. “There are those who can look at something and only see the outer beauty, but it’s always the story behind it that renders it priceless.”

  I nodded.

  “Still, I wish you could translate a little of what is written here. It looks as though it’s in a secret code.” A cough suddenly broke into her words.

  “Can you read any of it?”

  “Sadly I can’t.” I looked down again at the page, admiring the artful hand of both husband and wife. “My mother sounded out only a few letters for me before she died.

  “How unfortunate. I would so love to hear a translation.”

  I was happy I had piqued her interest. “Yes,” I agreed. “So would I.”

  * * *

  That afternoon I asked Giselle to prepare something for us to bring to the Armels’.

  “We can’t bring anything made with flour.”

  Giselle wrinkled her brow. “That eliminates all my cakes, then . . .”

  “Perhaps we could get some marzipan?” I suggested.

  She pulled the tin down from the cupboard and examined the folded bills inside. “It only costs triple what it was before the war, not five times like cigarettes or chocolate. We could manage that.”

  “We need to have some before we leave in a few hours, so perhaps if you . . .”

  “I will go ask Jean-Luc this afternoon, Mademoiselle Solange. You needn’t worry. You’ll have your marzipan in time.”

  “Thank you. I’m sorry to be so nervous.” I forced a smile.

  Giselle placed a hand on my arm. “You only want everything to be perfect.” Her eyes looked at me knowingly, and I could see a maternal warmth that I hadn’t experienced before. “It is most natural when you’re in love.”

  * * *

  We dressed for our first Seder, Marthe and I. She in a tasteful gabardine suit, the cultured pearls around her slender throat. In her hair she had placed a tortoiseshell comb.

  “No trousers, then?” I said as I stepped closer to her in the hallway. I was in the navy blue dress I had brought from the apartment.

  I could see Marthe appraising me as we stood across from each other, our reflections cast in the hall mirror.

  “It is interesting to see that you have no powder, hardly a trace of lipstick, and not a single accessory on your body. And yet I have never seen a more radiant-looking young woman.”

  I looked down at the floor.

  “There is no need to be embarrassed, Solange. I have never given a compliment that was not sincere.”

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