Resurrecting the Ancestors
My debut novel, The Doctor and the Diva, was inspired by the life of a real woman who lived a century ago, and I remember the moment I first heard about her. A friend of mine had gone away for the weekend, and she’d loaned me her beachside apartment in Santa Barbara, California. I was nineteen years old. It was an autumn night. The air was chilly, smelling of salt, and the Pacific Ocean thundered just outside the windows. I found myself lying in a strange bed with a young man I hardly knew. He would later become my husband.
As we lay there in the darkness, we talked. He didn’t live in Santa Barbara – he’d only come there to help his grandmother pack up her house and move to a care facility. His grandfather had recently died.
Suddenly he said: “When my grandfather was a little boy, his mother abandoned him and went off to Italy to become an opera singer.”
The notion of that both appalled me and filled me with awe. A Boston woman, married to a wealthy man, deserting her husband and child during the first decade of the twentieth century. A woman who sailed to a foreign land, aspiring to be an extraordinary singer.
From that moment of first hearing about “Erika,” I could not let go of the mystery and force of her.
Within a few years, this new boyfriend had become my husband, and we’d moved to Boston, where he was attending graduate school. Every day I walked to work through the Back Bay neighborhood where his great-grandmother, the opera singer, had lived. As I made my way along the ice-encrusted sidewalk, I first passed by the townhouse of Erika’s fiancé. He was British, a brilliant young entrepreneur who would soon make a fortune as an importer. (On my finger I still wear a diamond and emerald ring purchased with money he made.) I followed the steps he must have taken, strolling down Commonwealth Avenue toward “Erika’s” house.
When I reached the large townhouse where she’d grown up, I realized that her fiancé must have entered by this same door to court her. I cupped my hands against door’s half- pane of glass, and held my breath as I peered at the vestibule’s mosaic floor. Beyond that, I could see deep into the house, where little must have changed in a hundred years. The massive staircase, built of black walnut, and the wall paneling remained untouched. As her fiancé climbed the wide steps, I imagined that he heard her exquisite voice echoing down the stairwell, luring him as she sang from the second story parlor.
Erika’s father – like many other men in the “Von Kessler” family -- was a famous doctor. The family’s Back Bay townhouse was distinctive for its double archways at the street level. Under the left arch, the family entered; under the right arch was the entrance to his private practice. Through a window I saw where his affluent patients slipped discreetly along a corridor of doors.
I stood outside “Erika’s” childhood home and stared up at the windows for so long that I could almost see the face of the young girl she’d been, staring back at me from an oval window on the third story. I felt a god-like omniscience, knowing what would happen to her – how her hopeful young fiancé would eventually be forced to divorce her, how she would perform in I Puritani in Italy, how she would die in June, 1918. I knew that her little son “Quentin” would live a long and happy life, and that he would die, in his mid-seventies, on a Santa Barbara massage table.
During the nine years my husband and I lived in Boston, I researched everything I could about Erika, and thirteen generations of her family. The information was easy to find, since she was related to governors and members of Congress, and the founders of Boston University Medical School. I went to the courthouse and held the little pink postal slip she’d signed in Italy, upon receiving her divorce papers. (The blue ink was blurry.) I descended into a basement archive at Harvard and found alumnus reports her brother wrote every five years, about the progress of his life. I studied photographs of him.
Certainly I was not the only family member haunted by the real “Erika.” Her two granddaughters – my mother-in-law and her sister – felt fascinated by Erika their entire lives. It pained them to think that when their father was only a boy of seven, his mother had abandoned him. And yet their father always kept a framed portrait of Erika dressed in her opera regalia on top of the Steinway piano in the living room.
An elderly cousin from England, born in 1898, came to the U.S. for a visit. One couldn’t help but be curious: what had this cousin overheard as a child? What, exactly, did she know? She’d heard that “Erika” had a baby who’d been fathered by another man, but the baby daughter had died... She’d heard that long after “Erika” had deserted her son, she’d appeared one day, unannounced, at the child’s boarding school….
At the distance of so many years, it was hard to know which family tales were true, but I savored every story, rumor, and memory. I wanted to write a novel about the drama of “Erika’s” life, but the undertaking seemed daunting. Apart from everything else, how could I presume to know the way people talked at the outset of the twentieth century?
Answers came, like a chorus of voices from the dead, as my husband and I left New England and moved back to the West Coast. Toward the end of our long cross- country drive, we pulled up to his aunt’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. This aunt, like me, loved genealogy. Her house served partly as a shrine to the ancestors – with wood paneled walls that displayed family portraits, and a grandfather’s meticulously painted butterflies. Where are the letters? I asked. You said you have letters. And photos?
Out came boxes of letters wrapped in ribbon. Out came scrapbooks and folders containing photographs. Out came a little boy’s letters from boarding school. He’d addressed some to “Mama,” and asked, with longing, when she’d return, but those notes were never mailed to her.
The letters dazzled me in their detail. These ancestors had led bigger lives than I’d even imagined. The pages were filled with exotic treks into South American jungles, tours of Pompeii or Tangier by night; life threatening storms at sea; a man named “Ravell” who managed a coconut plantation in Trinidad; midnight buggy rides along a beach where horses raced to get past quicksands, and vampire bats...
Even the words the opera singer’s son “Quentin” had written to his father during the Great War were there. Words written upon learning of his mother’s death.
No matter how rich the primary sources, there are a thousand ways to tell the same tale. At what point do you begin the story of woman and her loved ones’ lives? At what moment should you end it? Where to imagine and dramatize scenes (especially bedroom scenes) that are nowhere to be found in an archive of family letters?
When I wrote the first draft of this novel, I hewed far too close to the line the actual letters followed, and the attempt was lifeless and stultified. I put the novel and my research notes into a box and stored them away.
For twenty years I did not look at that draft. After much drama had passed in my own life – after I’d lost one baby, given birth to another, been divorced and remarried – I returned to those ancestors. My son was in college by then. When he was small, I used to read passages to him from those letters as bedtime stories. One night at a coconut plantation in Trinidad in the year 1907, his great-great grandfather listened to spooky tales told by friends after dinner, including one report about a servant who poisoned his master’s soup.
Now that the novel is done, I worry and wonder, of course, what my son’s great-great grandparents would think of the fiction – the shapely fabrications – I’ve made from the records, memories, and rumors about their lives. To weave a novel worthy of reading, I’ve had to go far beyond the known facts.
At least one ancestor might have sympathized with my need to design a compelling narrative. My son’s great-great grandfather chose to edit and doctor his own letters a bit. Hundreds of pages of those letters do not exist in their original handwritten form but only as typewritten copies. After he’d excised the dull parts of his travel letters, he paid a typist to keep the exciting parts. He bound them and called them “Letters to My Sons,” hoping, no doubt, for them to be handed down and read by descendants.
Of one thing I am certain. These ancestors wanted to leave traces of their best selves behind. That is why Erika took herself to a photographer’s studio -- dressed as beautifully as she could be – and posed in a striking silver belt, or a black velvet suit with white cuffs that impress the eye, over a century later. That is why she sent copies of her opera program back to the States, to prove that she sang at Montepulciano on the night of July 23, 1907. That same week, one hundred years later, I reached the part in the novel where Erika makes her operatic debut in Italy. On the night of July 23, 2007 – precisely a century later, I finished writing that chapter. I walked out onto my deck that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. I gazed up at the stars, and thought of her.
To leave mementoes of oneself... That is why my son’s great-great grandfather had a cameograph made of himself in London in 1924. He probably gave a number of these cameographs to friends and relatives as gifts. My son keeps one in a drawer, and he takes it out sometimes to hold it in his palm. My son opens the lid, like a compact, to see a bronze likeness of his great-great-grandfather’s profile embedded in deep blue velvet.
Whether the ancestors would approve of the novel inspired by their lives, I’ll never know. But since their deaths, nobody has read and scrutinized those family letters or savored those mementoes with more love and gratitude than I. With every letter, especially the ones carefully edited and typed by a professional typist, with every silver bowl that has a name engraved on it, these ancestors are saying, over and over: Remember me. Remember us. Remember the voyages we survived, the arias we sang. Remember the magnificence of our lives.