A Cruel Calm

If you were writing a memoir about your mother set between World Wars I and II, how would you set the stage?

Amelia Earhart and Lockheed Electra 10E NR1602...

Amelia Earhart and Lockheed Electra 10E NR16020 c. 1937 (original source: http://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/earhart.newdocs/earhart.electra.jpeg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For that matter, if you were writing about your Mom, how would you pick a time frame to focus on?

How much history would you include and how would you tell it?

What might make you decide to write it as historical fiction instead of a biography?

Patricia Daly-Lipe, who lost her mother at 18, used fiction and contemporaneous documents from her family and historical archives to tie together a story of how her mother’s life might have been in pre-World War II France.

She added details from a letter written by her aunt as she sailed to America from France in September 1939, just before war broke out in Europe.

She used the letters from a secret Parisian lover she discovered after her mother’s death.

She used her mother’s journal.

She spoke to family members, including a favorite uncle who knew much about her mother’s life.

She found the home where her mother was born and three generations of her family had lived.

She read her mother’s baptismal certificate and records of her marriage.

She read letters, books and newspaper articles about writers living in Paris between the wars that her mother might have known, constructing representative conversations to give readers a feel for post- and pre-war Paris.

James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Joseph Campbell.

An exciting time and place to be, Lipe describes what it might have been like for her mother to watch Charles Lindbergh land right outside Paris, fresh from his solo flight across the ocean, in 1927.

She described unflinchingly how her mother’s first marriage disintegrated in confusion, humiliation and low family tolerance or acknowledgment of her new husband’s gay bent.

And, she discusses marriage and mores in the Paris artistic community, the Hemingway’s divorce, at a time when divorce was rare.

It was practically unheard of for Catholics, including, as it turned out, for the author’s mother, whose appeal to the Church for an annulment was rejected.

She imagines that James Joyce, seeing her troubled marriage and, perhaps, guessing the reason, tells her:

“You are a beautiful woman. Go and find someone to love….Do not let the Church or anyone’s rules stop you from happiness.”

She describes the thrill of being young and in Paris:

“One evening after attending a performance at the Opéra, we decided to linger and enjoy the warm evening air. We chose a small café on the edge of the Place de la Bastille and ordered two Anisettes.

There is nothing more Parisian than sitting at an outdoor café, the ultimate people percolator where solitude and companionship, meal or snack, coffee or wine all mix perfectly.”

She tells us about living through an era when women are starting to assert their independence.

“For the rest of the world, meaning the white male population, flying a plane in the late twenties and thirties was considered simply romantic.

In 1937, I read about another woman, Amelia Earhart, who took romance one more step….Amelia Earhart, a thirty-nine-year-old aviator, was proving it possible that not only could a woman fly, she could take a plane around the world.”

Lipe describes the events leading up to World War II after her mother returned to the United States.

March 24, 1933. German Chancellor Hitler exposes the broad outline of his interior and exterior program and asks the Reichstag for full powers.

July 14, 1933. East European Jewish immigrants are stripped of German citizenship.

1937. Pablo Picasso creates Guernica, depicting the horrors of war in Guernica, Spain.

Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain, says, ‘We should seek all means in our power to avoid war, by analyzing possible causes, by trying to remove them, by discussion in a spirit of collaboration and good will.’”

Then, after her return to Paris, and breakup with her Parisian boyfriend because the Church will not allow her annulment, Lipe describes how it must have felt to her mother to stare war in the face.

What does a city feel like when it knows, from a mere 20 years’ perspective, what it is facing?

“To match my mood, Paris was closing down.

From the beginning, the approaching and inevitable was unlike any others.

It was a long, numb waiting period.

Endless days of apathetic delay while more and more soldiers were mobilized and visit after visit exchanged between Ambassadors and Ministers….

The moon became bigger and brighter as Paris was stripped of her lights and museums emptied of their treasures….

Then one glorious morning…’Mobilisation Générale’ was added…and we knew the war had come.

Delirious shouts, shrieks and tragic, moving speeches came over the radio while, still unbelieving, we drank champagne with shivers running up the spine.”

“In the country…the Mayor of the village came to see what houses…could be used by refugee families.”

“After being embraced by the children and decorated with flowers, the horses were requisitioned.”

“Great white spaces in the newspapers indicated an absence of news or news not permitted to print.”

“Marketing was done on bicycles since gas was scarce and needed to work the electricity and water.”

“At night there was the black-out accompanied by soldiers walking around the houses looking for a ray of light from a careless window.”

“If there is moonlight, the buildings of a blacked-out city rise high in the sky, proud of their naked white beauty.”

She describes her mother’s return home to New York City in June 1939 on the first Pan American Airlines transatlantic flight.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland.

Great Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later.

Then, her father died suddenly of a heart attack.

In 1940, she remarried, and in 1942 had her only child, a daughter.

She divorced when her daughter was 10.

She contracted cancer when her daughter was 14 and died when her daughter was 18, a Freshman in college.

In her mother’s journal, after her death, the author found this advice to her daughter,

“I leave this story to my daughter or to whoever wishes to learn from it. I am finished. It is time to return to the light. One last thought.

Don’t be fooled, dear Catherine, into believing that the only reality is what you see and hear and smell, a reality of sharp distinctions.

There is so much more.”

You can listen to an interview with the author about how she came to write this book, the process she went through to research and publish it and tips she has for those considering writing their own memoirs, by clicking on listen to Patricia Daly-Lipe.

Order this fascinating historical fiction, A Cruel  Calm: Paris Between the Wars, by Patricia Daly-Lipe, from amazon by clicking on the title.

Have you considered writing a memoir of someone in your family as historical fiction?

How would you weave in events of the day?

Have you ever wondered how much is truth, how much fiction when you read a novel?

To you and uncovering the secrets of your family.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru, Grandma to two awesome 7-year-olds

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers”


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