Umlas’ memoir reflects on her mother’s life-changing international correspondence with a French pen pal.
Even from a very early age, the author recalled her mother Sylvia Wagreich’s deepening bond with a woman from Lyon, France named Claudia Raymonde Mariotti. The relationship began with a high school–instituted letter-exchange project in 1936. And for the next 70 years, the friendship between these two women endured through a series of letters, written half in French, half in English, detailing their private lives, loves, losses, and their separate life adventures. “I’ve always known that I’d been a major beneficiary of my mother’s long and rich relationship with her French pen pal,” the author writes. In 1965, despite Umlas’ Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, her mother allowed her enough independence to spend the summer of her 18th birthday in France with Claudia and her husband, Mario. The extended visit, which was life-changing for Umlas, had been carefully prearranged by her mother, who had yet to meet Claudia in person. As an adult, the author and her teenage son made a special trip in 2005 to visit Mario and Claudia (who, at 85 years old, was still an officer in the official Elvis Presley fan club of France). Claudia ceremoniously presented the author with a treasury of letters she’d received from Sylvia beginning from their first exchange to the spring of 1947, when Sylvia was 26 and was about six months pregnant with Umlas. This gift became a keepsake and a priceless glimpse into her mother’s life as a teenager and into her adulthood. After the devastating loss of both parents in 2008, Umlas, with her mother’s letters in tow, visited Mario and Claudia to share nostalgic moments, reconnect on a deeper emotional level, and express her fondest appreciation for the gift of her mother’s letters.
Umlas, whose background is in corporate training with a focus on empowerment and acknowledgment advocacy, embellishes her enthusiastic, heartfelt prose with an eye-catchingly creative design that balances the author’s narration with the letters and family photographs that bring the stories and “glorious and colorful details” of her mother’s adventures to life. Early in their correspondence, Sylvia and Claudia exchanged constructive criticism (and gracious acknowledgment) for minor missteps in each other’s attempts at translation. Verbatim extracts from the letters provide an intimate knowledge of the women’s friendship as well as affording the author the opportunity to familiarize herself with her “mover and shaker” mother’s perspectives on the arts, old Hollywood, and international politics. As Umlas’ unique insider education on her mother broadens, so does her adoration, as the memories deepen her emotional attachment to her mother’s legacy. In her first letter, Umlas’ mother writes to Claudia: “I was enchanted to receive your letter. I read it almost 100 times until I knew it by heart. I am very happy to have a French friend.” Readers who still have close relationships with their parents will find much to appreciate here, as will Francophiles since Umlas incorporates the French language, culture, and atmosphere that Claudia shared with her soul mate. In a social media–saturated world, this is a refreshing example of how an enduring long-distance companionship can be formed using simple pen and paper.