Marcel's Letters, page 19
What ultimately broke the case was the listing I provided of Suzanne’s death, she said. Dixie searched permutations of the name I found—Suzanne Bernadette Heuzé Cléro—until she found a close-but-not-exact variation: Suzanne Marcelline Jeanne Cléro. That name led to information on a different website, which in turn confirmed Suzanne’s death and revealed Marcel and Renée’s fates. Dixie sent a message to the person who posted the information about Marcel and Renée. She could not tell who the message went to, but that had been the message Natacha referred to when she had written, “My mother … read Dixie’s mail, which I translate for her.”
The website did not include Denise or Lily’s first names, but it included what Dixie guessed were married surnames. Dixie mixed first names with surnames until she found answers on yet another website. The information listed on the last site revealed Lily was actually Eliane. The labyrinth left my head spinning.
“You are amazing,” I repeated, though Dixie dismissed the compliment. She assured me if that path had not led to answers, something else would have turned up.
For you, I thought. Something else would have turned up for you.
For the next hour or so, conversation meandered. Kathy listed some of her favorite markets and museums in Paris. Dixie told us about her genealogy projects; Norwegian research was her specialty. Kathy and I listened with mouths agape as Dixie explained it was possible to identify which valley in Norway a person’s ancestors lived in based on autosomal DNA.
Months later, when I told a friend about the search for Marcel, she interrupted me when I mentioned Dixie’s name. “You’re working with Dixie Hansen?” she exclaimed. “Do you have any idea who you’re working with?”
I wanted to shrug and explain that Dixie was Kathy’s friend, but I sensed she meant something larger. “She is royalty in the genealogy world, you know,” my friend stated emphatically. “Having Dixie help with your research is”—my friend waved her arms as she searched for a comparison—“is like getting songwriting help from Paul McCartney! If anyone could have found him, it was Dixie.”
I smiled and thought of the day I told Marcel, “If you want me to find you, help me find you.” Maybe he heard me after all. Maybe somehow—some way—Marcel made sure Dixie got involved with my search.
“Oftentimes,” Dixie wrote in an email after our dinner, “it’s the older generation that holds a family together. When the parents or grandparents die off, it’s not unusual for a family to grow apart or split apart. So, it’s magical when—with some assistance and maybe a little well-placed connivance—the earlier generation comes back from the grave and gathers the sheep back into the fold. Maybe not so close. Probably not forever. But, for a time at least, into an elbows and knees cluster that in some way resembles the jostling essence of a family.”
“Do you wanna see ’em?” Kent eagerly nodded at my offer.
I lifted my shoulder bag onto the large worktable in Kent’s letterpress print shop—the same table that two months earlier had been covered with bottles and bowls of snacks on the Tuesday we celebrated the completion of Craig’s font. I pulled taped-together pieces of a cardboard mock-up out of my bag, along with a spool of blue-, white-, and red-striped ribbon. Lastly, I brought out a large envelope that held Marcel’s original letters.
I wanted Kent to create a presentation case to hold Marcel’s letters. A plain envelope or a plastic sleeve simply would not do when I returned the letters to Marcel’s family. I wanted the letters to be inside something that would protect them. But more than that, I wanted the letters to be inside something that would unequivocally demonstrate to the family I had cared for them.
I grabbed the wide grosgrain ribbon and tied a bow around the cardboard to show my idea for closing the case. I made a mental note to bring a small scissor to Paris so I could cut the ribbon ends into precise angles that looked just so.
Kent rifled through a back room stacked high with rolls of linen until he found a roll of buff-color linen that coordinated perfectly with the aged pieces of paper. Kent carefully measured the largest letter, made a few other notes, and provided an estimate for his work.
As I drove the letters back to the safety deposit box, I realized only Aaron—and now Kent—had seen Marcel’s original letters. Kathy, Tom, and Dixie had only ever seen copies. Once the letters were returned to the family, the letters might not see the light of day again. That evening, I talked with Aaron about having an open house. He was amenable to the idea because he had witnessed friends barraging me with questions once they learned where Marcel had been writing from. He had seen friends wipe tears from their eyes when they learned Marcel lived. Aaron and I compared schedules. Only one option existed: Saturday, October 6. It was two weeks before we left for Paris, so it gave Tom as much time as possible to work through the translations.
“You’ve heard about these love letters,” the invitations read. “Here’s your only opportunity to see them before they are delivered to Marcel’s family in Paris. We’ll have the letters—seventeen in total, along with the translations—available for you to view. We’ll provide Champagne and other treats from France to celebrate the letters’ extraordinary journey home.”
Responses flooded back from friends, family, neighbors: people were thrilled to have the opportunity to see Marcel’s letters in person. But it made my heart heavy to learn three of the people I most wanted to be there—Kathy, Tom, and Dixie—all had scheduling conflicts. When Tom sent his regrets, he sent an update: he had not yet worked on the translations, though he assured me they would be done in time for our party.
In the weeks that followed, Aaron and I finalized details for our trip. Kathy suggested we rent a little apartment rather than stay in a hotel. It was a common thing to do, she explained. We did some research and reserved a charming little seventh-floor apartment two blocks from the Eiffel Tower.
Emails from the family became more frequent, and more comfortable. They even teased me that my translated emails read like Tarzan trying to speak French. We were establishing a baseline of trust and comfort, and as each day passed, I grew more eager to meet them.
I reluctantly concluded the font would not be finished by October. But I still wanted it to be as beautiful as possible, so I spent night after night refining lines, curves, and loops. I printed test pages, marked up revisions, made more adjustments, then tested it again.
And, every night, before I fell asleep, I tried to commit one French word or phrase to memory: S’il vous plaît. Please. Droite. Right. Gauche. Left. Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
One weekday afternoon, eighteen or so years earlier—back when I worked for Tim at his design firm in downtown Minneapolis—my attention was abruptly diverted from whatever project I had been working on as music suddenly filled the office. Tim rushed from workstation to workstation, commanding his team of designers to come listen to his radio. I stepped into Tim’s office, confused by the interruption, while also bewitched by the extraordinary sound echoing through the cavernous space.
As Tim silently gestured for us to absorb the music, I realized what was happening. This was some sort of design lesson. I leaned back against a wall, hands flat behind me. Edith Piaf’s soaring expressions—both raging in defiance and crumbling with vulnerability—reverberated through the wallboard into my fingertips. I started at the sensation. It felt as if she were singing directly into my flesh and bone, and I found myself hungrily pressing my hands tighter against the wall. I did not understand a word, but as Piaf sang “Non, je ne regrette rien,” I unequivocally understood her. Tim’s lesson became apparent. He wanted his designers to experience how emotion could transcend words. How emotion could transcend language.
As hot summer evenings disappeared refining my font, I decided to set aside my go-to lists of animals, foods, famous people, cities, and states to test words in French. I wanted words nearer—truer—to Marcel.
“What the hell are you listening to?” Aaron’s interruption ripped through the moment’s magic like a needle scratching across a vinyl record.
“La Marsey … La Maraise …” Correct pronunciation eluded me. “It’s the French national anthem.”
“Well, can you turn zee volume down?” Aaron asked with irritation.
I obliged, but did not stop listening. The drumming anthem provided an infusion of energy.
Aux armes, citoyens! To arms, citizens!
Formez vos bataillons! Form your battalions!
Marchons! Marchons! March! March!
Qu’un sang impur Let impure blood
Abreuve nos sillons! Water our furrows!
I created a new two-column text document and filled each column with lyrics: French on the left, English on the right. I changed the M in the title—“La Marseillaise”—to Marcel’s beautiful swash M, then changed the ll to alternate glyphs where the two l’s curled together like spoons.
The lines of French included fascinating letter combinations I had never seen in English: u’u, êt, S’I, n’y. I printed the pages, and with a red pen, I marked dozens of glyphs that needed revision. Yet it was also one of the first times I liked the appearance of complete words: longtemps, sanglant, mercenaires, expirants. One letter swept into the next with fluid grace. That had rarely happened before, and my heart soared.
It took days to work through the revisions. When I reprinted the page, an entirely new round of issues caught my eye. Over the following days and weeks, I printed pages with the lyrics again and again, each time marking spacing or individual glyphs that needed additional attention.
TypeCon is an annual conference for type designers, type historians, educators, and serious type aficionados. Several Type Tuesday members regularly attended; some had even been featured speakers. I had never before attended because the prospect of traveling to a faraway city and mingling with strangers who possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of type made every introverted cell in my body want to shrink and hide. But this year was different. I had already signed up, largely to take the pre-conference workshop on the alternate piece of font design software.
TypeCon 2012 was in Milwaukee, which was an easy five-hour drive. As I drove past vast seas of soybeans and corn growing under the hot August sun, I hummed along to Edith Piaf and Maurice Chevalier. I tried to imagine what it would be like to meet Marcel’s family, and what secrets Tom might unfurl in the twelve new translations. As Milwaukee grew near, I tried to keep the whispers of uncertainty at bay about how and when—and if—I might complete the font.
Three other designers attended the pre-conference workshop. Combined, they had created more than seventy fonts. Their fonts were on books and cards. One of their fonts was even printed on the paper grocery bags at the store where Aaron and I regularly shopped.
It did not take long to realize everything I hoped would be quick and easy in the alternate software—kerning, specifically—was still complicated. The problem was not the software: it was me. A thick black cloud of self-doubt gathered over me, and by afternoon’s end, I berated myself for ever thinking I had the skill to finish. I resigned myself to the possibility I might only ever use the font on personal projects where I could manually fix kerning and other problems.
The conference officially kicked off Thursday evening, and over the following days, presentations were given on topics as diverse as optimizing type readability in airplane cockpits, designing fonts for Cherokee and Arabic languages, marketing, legal issues, distribution, and licensing. Pages were filled with careful lecture notes combined with sketches of glyphs to add to my font. One particular sketch was of a lowercase y with a loop that reminded me of a cat’s tail; Marcel had not written his y’s like that, but I hoped he would approve of the embellishment. Despite the cloud that loomed large during the workshop, the presentations inspired me to forge ahead. I resolved to figure out kerning no matter what it took.
I skipped the late Saturday afternoon presentations to attend an exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The museum was hosting the traveling exhibit, “Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and His Contemporaries.” I justified playing hooky by reminding myself Toulouse-Lautrec often incorporated organic lettering into his work. More than one hundred posters from the late 1800s were on display. Fluid, expressive illustrations promoted products like Champagne, chocolate, bicycles, and bawdy Parisian nightclubs. Iconic prints showed women in can-can skirts with legs thrown high in the air; multi-layer petticoats swirled around their bodies like whorls of foam.
At the end of the exhibit, visitors were shunted through a gift shop filled with prints, greeting cards, travel guidebooks, and Paris-themed home décor. I was nearly out of the shop when a small plastic box caught my eye. I carried it to a check-out counter. The box was filled with magnetic tiles printed with French vocabulary words. I hoped having the words stuck on our refrigerator might help me reach my goal of learning one French word per day.
TypeCon wrapped up on Sunday afternoon, but not before the not-to-miss conference event: Type Crit. At Type Crit, first-time type designers presented a font-in-progress to three industry experts for a review and critique.
Often it felt as if I was making decisions about the font in a vacuum, so I wanted feedback that would help me make it as good as it could be. As soon as the Type Crit sign-up opened, I claimed the fifth of the ten available slots. I figured fifth was a good, anonymous middle option.
But I would soon come to understand there was not a single thing anonymous about Type Crit.
The critique was held in a room separate from main conference ballroom. When I arrived, a handful of people loitered around the perimeter. A single, round, cloth-covered table with four chairs sat in the center of the room. No one dared to get close, it seemed.
I leaned against a wall, pretending to read the conference program.
“If I was on the list today, I’d be in the bathroom throwing up right now,” a man in a nearby cluster of three whispered.
“Oh, gawd. I can’t imagine,” a man next to him said.
“I’d be crying,” a young woman added.
My heart started pounding. A knot started twisting in my core.
“Do you remember Craig Eliason?” My ears perked at Craig’s name. Craig was the leader of our Type Tuesday group. “His hands were shaking so much he could barely hand over his sheet,” one of the men snickered. I had seen Craig lecture on type history to packed auditoriums. Craig embodied cool, composed confidence. The notion he could be unnerved enough that his hand shook made my swell of anxiety feel like a tidal wave of panic.
What the fuck have I signed up for?
During Type Crit, a designer received invaluable feedback to revise and improve their font, but it was not necessarily a gentle review—it was more like a three-on-one typographic bullfight. If the designer was lucky, they would limp away with bruises and scrapes to their ego. If they were unlucky, their work would be eviscerated. The room was filled with spectators—including many veteran type designers—and there was no doubt that they were there for the entertainment. They wanted to watch novice type designers be gored.
Two of the judges stood near the windows. Their conversation echoed through the quiet room. While I focused on breathing, their words began to sound warbled and muffled. The room’s temperature began to feel infernal.
By the time the third judge arrived, the room was filled with spectators. The judges walked to the table. “Welcome to the—what is it?—elevent
I do not recall whether the judges introduced themselves, but everyone in the room knew who they were. They did not need introductions.
For four decades, Roger Black designed magazines such as Rolling Stone and Newsweek, and newspapers including the New York Times. His design teams had redesigned Reader’s Digest, Esquire, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post. The second judge, John Downer, had been designing type since the early 1980s. He wrote about type design for magazines including Emigre and House. He was also an accomplished sign painter who specialized in gold-leaf lettering. The third judge, Akira Kobayashi, had a background in calligraphy, and early in his career had designed Latin typefaces to accompany Japanese fonts. During his twenty-year career, Akira had amassed numerous awards and had designed some of the world’s best-known fonts.
Roger Black called the first name on the list. The designer sat in the empty seat. I took a deep breath, sure hives were about to bloom.
Fuck. How can I get out of this?
As the judges began scrutinizing the designer’s specimen, the circle of spectators tightened around the small table like a noose.
“What we have here is a modern slab serif,” John Downer said. “How long have you been working on it?”
“Six months,” the designer said.
“And how do you see this being used?” John asked.
“Body text for a magazine.”
“Proportions are unresolved,” Roger stated as he pointed to something on the page. I was in the very back, so I only saw an occasional flash of paper.