On July 16, 1789, I became the diary of Marié Amélie Céleste Condé, direct descendant of Louis XIV and the rightful heir to the French throne. Well, her older brother was. Before the revolution her family had been planning to reclaim their birthright, but after the storming of the Bastille they fled France--seeking refuge in Canada--and changed their name to Lagnier for fear of their conspiracy being discovered. For many years I was Marié’s companion and confidant as she became accustomed to life in the new and foreign country. In me, she chronicled her adventures and romances, her struggles and memories, but most importantly, she recorded her family tree into my front cover.
When she married Jacques Gagné in December 1795, I became buried behind her responsibilities. I watched her longingly from the mantle as she scurried around doing this and that. She only returned to me once: years later following the death of her daughter. This tragedy revisited Marié’s memories of her time in France leading up to the revolution, and she felt compelled to recount these to me. Her fond remembrance of our time together in her childhood provided her solace in her time of grief. But then, once again, I got backed into the corner by her obligations. Many years passed before I met Cecile Damien Lagnier, Marié’s great-nephew, in March 1844.
Originally, Cecile was only interested in the family tree inscribed in my cover. But he soon was captivated by my possibilities and implored Marié to indulge his quest of continuing carrying on the family legacy. He wanted more stories to fill me with--ones that had been passed down through generations long before her lifetime. Marié obliged, and I once again became imperative in retracing her family’s perplexing connection to the French Royal Family.
King Louis XIV had imprisoned his twin brother, Philippe, for fear of being usurped for his throne. Little did Louis know, Philippe would befriend his guards, who in turn released him. Soon after, Philippe kidnapped Louis in the night and left him in the same cell he himself had been imprisoned. Philippe had stolen Louis' throne and taken his existence in the process. Louis escaped and sojourned himself among the common people while plotting his revenge. For six generations this plan evolved until Christophe Demont Condé, Marié's father, deemed it time to put it into action, thrusting Jean, Marié's brother, into the role of King of France. Or he would have been if the revolution had not taken place. My significance in portraying the family’s history flourished as I began to swell with these incriminating accounts of schemes and revenge.
When Marié died in the spring of 1862, I became Cecile’s permanently. But by then he had a family of his own, and my stories became ones he only told to the children as fairy tales. As enchanting as it was, I soon began collecting dust; I was just another book on the shelf. It wasn’t long before I literally fell behind the stacks, to be rescued years later by new hands: Cecile’s grandson, Gerard. Unlike his grandfather, Gerard's initial interest in me quickly faded and I was soon packed away with half a dozen books and odd ends. I remained this way through two world wars, only taken out once to subsequently be lobbed into another box when Gerard's belongings were distributed amongst his children in wake of his death.
Jerome Antoine Lagnier, my new owner, was father to eight children and fervent in his work. As a result, his job moved them around the country frequently, but I was always carried along, acting as cushioning for other books and trinkets. My spirit persisted despite my circumstances. When Jerome died in 1991, I took my final trip with his widow, Cessily, when she moved to Lawrence, Kansas from Littleton, Colorado. For nearly thirty years I have been packed away in her attic, miraculously surviving her spring cleanings and weathering the accumulating cobwebs and moths, in spite of the odds.
And here I am now, March 8, 2020--this year's spring cleaning--wondering if my luck will change; that I might finally rid myself of this dreary existence.
Suddenly the light is penetrating and it blinds me. My cover feels the warmth of hands wrap around it as I’m pulled from the musty cardboard box where I have taken up residence for all these years. The comfort it brings to me after thirty years of spider’s embraces is invigorating. As the light dims, I see a pair eyes, tender and curious. Then hear her voice, tremulous as she calls down the ladder asking what to do with these boxes of books. She leafs through my feeble pages, pausing momentarily to caress the soft black leather of my cover.
“Just bring them down here, Elisa,” a voice echoes up, “then we can see what’s worth saving and what to toss.”
Elisa slips me gently back into my box. The flaps flop around like bird’s wings as she climbs gingerly down the ladder. They aren’t the only wings either, my excitement has coaxed butterflies into my pages. It feels like a century before three pairs of eyes peer at me--one pair brown, another blue, and the last hazel--but when they do, I feel alive again. Gradually, all of the books that I spent years surrounded by become stacks carpeting the table. Some are put into a box with ‘DONATE’ scrawled across it sloppily in permanent marker. Others are in such disarray that they go straight into the recycling bin at the other end of the kitchen.
Elisa’s hands once again graze my cover, feeling all my wrinkles and wear. Her fingers are nimble and demure as she inspects me more thoroughly. Suddenly, she pauses just inside my front cover and her eyes widen as she meticulously scrutinizes the family tree.
“Mom! Look at this,” she murmurs in astonishment. “What does this mean?”
The blue-eyed woman examines me as well, then gestures to the last woman to look for herself. She takes me into her cool and weathered fingers, her brow furrowing. She turns page after page, skimming my contents, becoming more and more intent on discovering my secrets. Then she stops and looks at the youngest woman with stars in her eyes.
“Read what this says, Elisa,” she says passing me to her and pointing at an entry.
Elisa’s hazel eyes glitter with tears by the time they reach the bottom of my page, but she doesn’t look upset, instead she laughs lightly to herself and wipes the tears from her cheeks. I am nearly bubbling over in glee when she lays me down on the table and disappears from sight, returning moments later with a swatch of muslin fabric in which she swaddles me.
In the weeks that follow, I’m touched by dozens of hands and talked about for hours. One person jokes that I’m worth more than twenty-thousand dollars. Another says, to my horror, that they should put me up for auction. But at the end of every day, I’m wrapped safely back up in the muslin and held tightly in Elisa’s reverent arms. Two hundred, thirty-one years later, I’ve found my new owner, a young woman--much like my first--eager and determined to take part in the life around her. Someday I know she will pass me on and let me continue living my legacy, but until then, I feel serene knowing that I matter.