…the making of Clemenceau’s Daughters
Call it fate, or call it the creeps, but the idea behind Clemenceau’s Daughters emerged as I was thumbing through my great-grandmother’s photo album, trying to decide if I had the ambition to digitize a bunch of old photos of people completely lost to the collective family memory. I felt pretty guilty as I toyed with the idea of simply burning it, letting the dead stay buried and lost to time. Something just didn’t feel right about destroying it, though. I turned a page and startled, dropping the album as the hairs rose on the back of my neck. My daughter, pensive expression and devil-may-care stance, stared at me across a century.
I had no information about this girl whose uncanny resemblance to my Syd was enough to convince folks of the validity of reincarnation, or, at the least, the power of genetics. Gently, painstakingly, I pried the photo from the page in hopes of a clue. Scrawled on the back of the photo in my grandmother’s distinctive hand was the single word Jewel. I remembered my grandmother taking me to visit an ancient relative in what could only be described as a hovel. She lectured me on manners and not turning my nose up at Aunt Jull, whose poverty was by choice. I was just a child and found it inconceivable that someone could actually live without TV. I soon found out Aunt Jull also lived without indoor plumbing. It was like walking into another world.
Could this Jewel be the Aunt Jull my grandmother took me to see? The girl in the photograph did not reconcile with my memory of the old woman, pruny with age and ripe with the smell of snuff, so unlike my grandmother who left traces of Estee Lauder and talcum powder in her wake as I walked behind her. I recall little of that day except the having the vague sense my grandmother was making more of a pilgrimage than a social visit and that, somehow, I had been judged.
I called my father to ask if he remembered a Jewel. He was my best shot since everybody else on that side of the family is dead and gone. “Jull, you mean?” he piped up without hesitation, “Yeah, she was the old bag who talked to ghosts. Spooky as hell.” The hairs rose on my neck again.
That old photograph haunted me for weeks. If family resemblance can be that marked, what about personality? Was there anything to this macabre snippet of family lore? I started poring through the other albums I inherited from the matriarchs of the family. I ran across another photo of me as a little bitty thing standing in the roots of a storm-tossed, upturned oak. It towered over me, the naked roots twisting almost protectively in tendrils about a face that also echoed across generations. I thought about family trees and how death uproots us from our past. I thought about young Jewel, my Syd from another age, and what little was remembered of her. Could the two of them be connected in any way beyond blood?
Renae Clemenceau materialized and a novel sprang to life.