July - August 2005 Georgia Writers News/Mag Page 13

TITLE: Tea With Sister Anna: a Paris Journal

AUTHOR: Susan Gilbert Harvey

PUBLISHER: Golden Apple Press, (Rome, GA), 2005

ISBN 0-9768956-0-9

REVIEWER: Ann Lovett

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When Rome native and artist Susan Gilbert Harvey found

that her life’s work—creating and exhibiting large sculptures

assembled from "found objects," or junk—was beginning to take

its toll on her both mentally and physically, she cast about for

another medium. She discovered poetry, an eminently portable

means of expression. As she developed her poetic and writing

skills, she came across a fortuitous find —the trunk of her

grandmother’s sister, Anna McNulty Lester, whose life was sadly

cut short by tuberculosis.

Her great-aunt, whom she came to regard as her spiritual

guide, had also been an artist, and in 1897 had resigned her

teaching position at Augusta Female Seminary to study for a year

or more at Paris studios. What Susan found in the dusty trunk that

afternoon was all the correspondence from that Paris sojourn of

"Sister Anna," along with a diary and charcoal sketches from her

life drawing class. Perusing the material, Susan also came upon a

mystery of sorts. Her great-aunt had been an old maid. So who was

the "darling" referred to in the letters and diaries?

Susan felt she had been guided to Sister Anna’s treasure

trove for a reason. She’d always wanted to return to Paris after her

trip there in 1957 on the Hollins Abroad program, and now she

decided to go back to Paris alone—in November of 1997, one

hundred years later—and trace her great-aunt’s footsteps. If

possible, she would stay where she stayed; see what she saw. A

bold step—but as Susan said, when she found unused World War II

ration coupons among her parents’ memorabilia—"I don’t want to

lie in a nursing home with unused coupons in my life ration book."

The result of that trip to Paris is this charming book, both

travelogue and history, in which the reader follows Susan as she

retraces her great-aunt’s steps in the streets of Paris—to the sites of

long-defunct churches, art studios, and institutions, finding some

happy surprises along the way. She finds that the boardinghouse in

which her great-aunt stayed is now a small jewel of a hotel, and

manages by luck and persistence to book a room there.

Anna’s letters and diary entries are dovetailed with

Susan’s journey. The reader takes tea with Anna and the two

Scottish women who came to board, delighting in the invitation

drawn by one, the witty Frances Blaikie, whose drawing also

illustrates the cover. Anna suffers from an undiagnosed cough all

through the chill Paris days with their unheated rooms. We marvel

at her persistence and sorrow at what lies ahead for her. We also

smile at Susan’s chutzpah in walking right into places in search of

Anna, sometimes being escorted out, but sometimes finding stories

that enrich her history.

There seems, perhaps, much that isn’t told in this book,

facts the reader will have to imagine, but as Susan Harvey herself

says, comparing writing versus sculpture, "Once a piece is welded or

glued, it’s finished. A poem is never completed; it lies on the page

waiting for one more word to be changed. . . .I miss the finality of

the welder’s torch." History, too, can never really be completed.

This book is a comfortable read, a journey to take in an armchair by

the fire on a rainy, cool afternoon—with a cup of tea, of course. It’s

also inspiring, filling a niche in the publishing world neglected by the

major houses—a book you’d not be embarrassed to give your

mother.