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Imagine the terror of a ten-year-old boy suddenly facing the nozzle of a submachine gun held by an SS soldier, after having been slammed against the courtyard wall with its butt. It was Jo Joffo, waiting for his older brother on the Rue de Russie in Nazi-occupied Nice, France. It was summer, 1942. For over a month nasty inspectors interrogated him and his brother at the Excelsior Hotel until they were finally released. This experience ripped Jo Joffo from his childhood with its games of marbles and jacks, with ringing doorbells and other pranks.

This boy would later become a French author whose 1974 memoir A Bag of Marbles narrates this gripping flight to freedom, a hair-breath away from the enemy. So deep was the memoir’s appeal that it was translated into eighteen languages.

Such stories of survival still speak. From a safe distance, we observe and learn from others who have suffered heart-wrenching losses and survived murderous occupations of their countries. Yet, our times are not that different. Subtle forms of “occupation” still abound: social media, fake news, and addictive substances that manipulate attitudes, thoughts, and choices and keep spirits in bondage to Evil. Indeed, Jesus cautions us whenever we step outside our homes: “Be like sheep among wolves, cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)

The Plaza Frontenac Theater in St. Louis, Missouri, is currently showing the second film adaption of this memoir A Bag of Marbles; Christian Duguy directed it with English sub-titles.

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It is late morning in the chilly waiting room. Most of the navy leaf-patterned armchairs lining the walls are empty of other patients. On the couch next to me slouch three millennials, in Gothic attire, studying their cells, and occasionally rolling their eyes and giggling at each other. Across from me, a woman with graying cropped hair wipes her bifocals, then delves into her romance novel; next to her, her husband drums blunt fingers upon the armrest. Another heavyset man, wearing continuous oxygen and a pulse oximeter around neck, stands in line at the check-in desk, a tank of portable oxygen by his side. Tedium weights down us like a sooty tarp.

After I settle my purse on my lap and button my cardigan, I hug my sleeves while admiring the over-sized autumnal prints, taken at the Columbia Bottoms Conservation Area, which line the walls. Suddenly, a strange chill wells up from somewhere. I shiver, thinking it inconceivable that an engineer would turn up the A/C.

“Mary Moloney.” I hear my name and rise from my armchair. A plump respiratory therapist, poured into black sweater and tights, blanches watching my first steps toward the opened doorway. I am dripping. I look down. A wet circle, the outline of my bag, imprints my jeans. The tawny-maned therapist only relaxes after learning the source of the wetness: the loose cap on my bottled water, not a weak bladder. But my wetness does not deter her from administering the prescribed tests.

Still damp, I pace the corridor as I wait for the pulmonologist’s evaluation. By this time, the stain on my jeans is not as glaring as earlier, but a synchronicity is about to occur. A resourceful nurse happens by, learns of my mishap, and plugs in a space heater in the exam room for my use. In twenty minutes, I am dry.

I give thanks … with full heart …

 

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Have you ever wondered how accomplished authors handle life’s adversities? How these break ground for further development? We see this paradox in Hilary Mantel’s memoir, Giving Up The Ghost (2003), in which she brings the wisdom of her fifty years to bear upon her diminishments which she terms ”ghosts.”

 

The primary one is her health. As a child, Hilary paid little heed to seasonal allergies and severe PMS, even grew accustomed to auras evoked by her migraines. Her passion for learning overrode such concerns. Later, while studying Jurisprudence at the School of Economics in London in 1971, she finally sought medical care for severe leg and back pains. Unfortunately, a succession of doctors misdiagnosed her symptoms and prescribed antipsychotic drugs. Several hospitalizations followed. During these intervals of “insanity,” she began writing, eventually becoming a world-renowned author of historical fiction, short stories, and essays. Thus she abandoned a social work career for which she had prepared.

 

Another “ghost” is Catrioner, the daughter she dreamed of having. In December 1979 she underwent a hysterectomy for endometriosis, the underlying cause of her previous ills, at London’s St. George’s Hospital.

 

And there are still other “ghosts:” her unfinished works (“ghostly quality of words emanating from my center”); the “flickerings” of Jack, her deceased stepfather; and her spooked homes in England, Saudi Arabia, and Botswana.

 

Several times, the author breaks into the narrative and addresses her readers. She decries the wooden style she uses in this memoir, unlike the textural rich images in her fiction. Handling her grief with its fingers of pain requires this approach. Yet these season Hilary Mantel’s continuing productivity. She has authored twelve novels of historical fiction; among them, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bringing Up the Bodies (2012) winning two auspicious Man Booker Prizes.

 

Hilary Mantel teaches this writer to persevere in her craft.

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