French Connections: Family Scrapbook

French Family Connections

Found in my Mother’s Photo Album

We’ll always have Paris

If my parents ever saw the film Casablanca, the Moroccan capital my father visited in the 1930’s when he was a photojournalist, they’d both have appreciated the line, “We’ll always have Paris.” They met on a blind date, Sunday, April 18, 1937, my father’s birthday, on the western edge of the city. It was cloudy, and my mother wasn’t keen on the meeting. She usually spent Sundays in the suburbs having lunch with colleagues and changing buses at the Porte de Saint-Cloud. To please her best friend, she was squeezing him in.

My Mother: 26, single, independent and cosmopolitan

At the time, she was 26, single, independent, and cosmopolitan, working in the Paris office of her father’s import-export business. Her flair for languages was an asset, coming in handy as she took dictation in her own multilingual brand of Pitman shorthand, handled correspondence, and answered the phone. If she was handsome – some would say even beautiful from the photographs – she could never acknowledge it, being instead utterly convinced that she was ugly or at best plain. She was smart and bookish; played the piano; and was not easily won or impressed.

My father was a sound- and cameraman who had started out as a sales representative at Fox Movietone. Starry-eyed about America, and its cultural icons like Shirley Temple and Tom Mix, he was lured by the drama and thrills, of travel across Europe and journalistic scoops. In Berlin, his hometown, he photographed Hitler when he rose to Chancellor in January 1933, standing in the Reich Chancellery just a few feet away from him; and Mussolini’s family, too, when my father, no longer able to work in Germany, was moved by Fox to Rome.

When he first saw her

When he first saw her – was she walking toward him, did he fix his gaze upon her, or was she the one sitting down as he approached, did she extend a gloved hand, did he kiss it? – he knew he was not indifferent. He always told us it was a coup de foudre. A lightning bolt. Love at first sight. My father pressed my mother to meet him again that evening and she agreed. They ordered lobster – because it was his birthday – in a restaurant around the corner from the Gare Saint-Lazare. He walked her back to her hotel behind the Place de la Madeleine. The next day they lunched near the Rue des Poules, and then, in the evening, without remembering being asked and without reconsidering, she went to his hotel, asked the night clerk for his room number, climbed the stairs, knocked on the door, and walked in.

It’s a long story

It’s a long story that I’ll shorthand – they made their way, separately, to Spain, and in December 1940, visas finally in hand, set sail on a Spanish steamer bound first for Cuba and then New York City. They married in May 1941.

As my parents put down roots in America and sent me to a French private school, my mother never considered that I would have any difficulty thrust into an utterly foreign linguistic environment where, at first, I couldn’t communicate. She assumed that I would simply catch on, much as she had as a child when her Dutch father decided that at the dinner table, his family would speak French. My mother had become a convert of this over-zealousness.

Paris Office

When my grandfather sent her to work in his Paris office, he may not have seen the posting as a reward for her follow-through or belief in him, but for her, it was all that and an idealized, almost innate faith in France.

French Family Connections

My Parents in Paris, November 1984

What a name!

And there was no escaping my mother’s preposterous name. My grandmother, in what must have been a romantic haze as she expected her firstborn, invested in my mother much of her own youthful imagination and yearning for French ground and culture, for the people she had come across in life and in books. Like so many Europeans of her generation, she had been won over by France’s idealized “civilizing mission,” its centuries of international influence.

When my mother was born, just a few, short months after my grandparents had married in England, my grandmother named her child Clementine Marie-Antoinette.

French Family Connections

My Grandparents in Paris

Can family photos make French connections across generations? Mine do.

  • There’s my grandmother, perhaps on a visit to her adult daughter in Paris, climbing the Eiffel Tower.
  • In my mother’s photo album, I find snapshots of Notre Dame.
  • In my own collection, there are pictures of my aging parents, in the last 20 years of their lives, walking around the city, marveling at it again.

Do you have French connections in your family? share below in the comments.


*Adapted from an essay that first appeared as “France in the Family,” in Peninsula Pulse, 2017.
All images copyright Ronnie Hess


About the Contributor

Ronnie Hess

“I’ve had a long and passionate interest in France and especially French food. An American now based in Madison, WI, I’ve lived and worked in Paris as a reporter for CBS News and in Burgundy as a teacher. I’m the author of Eat Smart in France and Eat Smart in Portugal, both culinary travel guides. See my web page for further information.”

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