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excerpt > Harriet Scott Chessman > The Lost Sketchbook of Edgar Degas


I have been unpacking boxes in this new house all morning,

hoping to comb through as many as I can. Soon Didi will come over to help, and in the afternoon—astonishing!— Honor Benoît.

I haven’t seen Honor in ten years, since the winter Cousin Edgar came to live with us here in New Orleans. I remember her as a slender colored girl, playing with Josie in our back garden, carrying buckets of orange peels and lettuce leaves to the compost pile, holding my Odile on her narrow hip, picking bugs from the tomato plants, standing on an overturned bucket to help her aunt Lily knead bread dough, or hang up blouses and baby blankets on the clothesline. She came to us before I lost my sight, so I can see her as clear as day. Of course, she will be a young woman now.

I was just telling Didi yesterday, I miss our old house, up toward Lake Pontchartrain. Papa did not own it—none of us owned it—yet it was a beautiful structure, large and welcoming, big enough to hold Papa, Didi, Mouche’s family and my own, the servants, all of us. And when Edgar lived with us for those five months, it was just about big enough for him as well.

“I miss it too, Tell,” Didi said, as she hemmed Odile’s dress for me. “It was a lot of house to keep orderly, though.”

“Oh, yes. As soon as one room was clean, the children would blow through like a hurricane.”

“And the dog,” my sister said wryly. “Don’t forget the dog.”

Ah, the dog. Vasco da Gama—one of Cousin Edgar’s whimsies, that name. A pure mutt and stray, yet once he came sniffing around that winter and Edgar fed him, the hound took it upon himself to become our protector. The children loved him. My sisters said he slept with one eye open on the front porch or the back stoop. You could hear him barking whenever a stranger came through the gate. Yet he’d let our children pull his ears and put hats on him. I liked to scratch him behind his scruffy, faithful ears.

I wish I could know how that house looks now, how New Orleans looks. Sometimes I go over and over the pictures in my memory, so as to make sure I still have them, a whole bunch, bright and almost clear.

Our magnolia stood gracefully in one corner of the front garden. Climbing roses spilled over portions of the iron railing protecting the yard. In one corner of the garden, the grass was uncut, profuse, and sometimes filled with wildflowers, just as I liked it. Across the wide avenue, white or cream-colored houses sat placidly, cousins to ours. On fine days, I would walk along Esplanade Avenue with my sisters and our children, accompanied by Honor or another servant. My lovely sister Mouche would laugh about something comical, and tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.

By the time Edgar came to visit us in New Orleans, I could barely see the house at all, or the magnolia, or the lemon tree, or the toys scattered throughout the house, or the saffron rooms, the baby grand piano René had bought for me in Paris. I couldn’t see Lily or our gardener Augustus. I couldn’t see Honor or the maids. I couldn’t see Mouche or Didi, or Papa, or my three children, or Mouche’s children, or our iridescent parrot. I couldn’t see my pregnant self in the mirror.

My world was almost, by then, erased from my sight as thoroughly as with an India rubber. I could see some light, in the periphery, and hazy suggestions of objects, yet all of it had become mostly clouds. I would give much now, just to see those touches of blurred light still.

Odile—a year old then—was the first of my children I hadn’t been able to see well, from birth. I felt I could, though; I felt that I could just about see her face. I am so lucky—God knows I am—that she is still with me now. It is important to struggle each day to hold to the present, and to be glad for what is here. Odile and Gaston help me in this effort. Children do buoy you up, if you let them. You can’t just sink under. You have to be here for them, thinking about clothes and lunch and the little details of each day. “Here I am!” I sometimes feel I’m saying to the world, or to God. “Here I am, still.”

Odile said at breakfast this morning, “This house looks like a big wedding cake. It looks like a dream.” She’s enchanted with the pineapple medallions on the ceilings, and the cherry banister curving to the second floor. She loves the marble mantels too—a pink-gray color, luscioussounding. “Touch this, Maman!” my spirited daughter says, as she brings my hand along one of the cool surfaces.

Soon we will unpack candles to go on the mantels, and Didi will help me decide which paintings to place above. I’m sure she’ll say something, as usual, about her wish to have one—just one!—of Edgar’s paintings from his visit. He made so many, and then he brought all the dry canvases back with him, with instructions on how to pack the wetter ones, once they’d dried. “Think of all those portraits of you and Mouche, Tell!” Didi said around Christmas, as we started to bring our modest watercolors and landscapes down from our cottage walls, to prepare them for this move. I agree with her, yet what can be done? The paintings were Edgar’s, to do with as he wanted, even if they were of our household. The one I most wish we could have is the one of the children sitting together on the doorstep, in view of our back garden, Vasco da Gama planted staunchly nearby. I asked Mouche and Didi to describe that one to me in great detail, more than once, so that I could picture it, hold onto it, in my mind’s eye.

Our cook Hattie says the kitchen is just fine, the sinks a good porcelain, the spot for a vegetable garden by the back door sunny. It’s noisier on this southern portion of Esplanade Avenue. There’s a constant rattle of carriages here. I like this, in a way. It’s reassuring to feel a neighborhood bustling—maybe it distracts me in just the way I need. And once Didi and Papa join us, in a few days, this house will surely feel full to bursting. After so much has happened, it is important to have hope


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Harriet Scott Chessman is the author of the acclaimed novels The Beauty of Ordinary Things (2013), Someone Not Really Her Mother (a 2004 San Francisco Chronicle Best Book, and a Good Morning America Book Club Choice), Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper (2001), and Ohio Angels (1999). She is also the author of the libretto for My Lai, a contemporary operatic piece commissioned by Kronos Quartet in 2015. She has taught literature and creative writing at Yale University, Bread Loaf School of English, and Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program. Learn more about The Lost Sketchbook of Edgar Degas.

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