Crucible of Death and Violence

One afternoon, we sat down in the living room on the light-green, leather couch in the home of Francoise and Jean-Luc outside Rennes in the heart of Brittany.

Francoise and the older daughter, who is going to have a child pretty soon, and I were on the couch. Francoise brought out a binder with pages of photographs. They were black and whites from the past.

The mother of Francoise and my mother, both named Janine, had been best friends. The photos showed young people outside a wooden “auberge de jeunesse,” a youth hostel, in the mountains. The men were in hiking shorts and the photos had the feeling of a group of relaxed and adventurous friends.

My mom was small, youthful and tanned with a generous mane of black hair.

There was something very natural about the pictures. The subjects were looking at the camera, they were relaxed but not smiling. The photos were grainy, black and white photos, slightly brown-tinted.

To one side at the top of the stairs going into the cabin stood a tall, good-looking young man, in shorts. If I understood correctly, he was the brother of Francoise’s father.

As the pages turned, he showed up a number of times in the photos, a charismatic youth.

Francoise described him and the friends in a matter-of-fact way, the way you would when running through some old photos. But at the end of the album, she turned a page and we could see a stark stone monument in a field.

At the top was the cross of the French resistance and two names were inscribed on the monument. One of them was of the young man whose photos I had just been looking at.

On the day the Allied Forces marched into Paris, on that very day, he and a friend had gone to find a doctor for a wounded partisan. Retreating German forces, vengeful and angry, took them both as resistance fighters and executed both.

In the peaceful present day, the Bretons live in an old crucible of violent and deadly history. The field where 6,000 Bretons and roughly 4,000 mercenaries died in a XVI century battle against the French army is just up the “route nationale” from the home of Jean-Luc and Francoise.

The beaches where so many allied forces died in the invasion of Normandy are a couple hours away, and the German occupation continues to reverberate through the individual losses of French families.

There was a reason why my mother would never allow anyone to speak a word of German word in our house.

The photo album she pulled out illustrated the understated way in which Francoise had taken over the role of family historian.

Long ago, her mother had sent me prints that my dad had given her when they were young, prints she kept in pristine condition. One of them showed a tiny figure and my tall father holding his hand, as we walked along the Seine.

(Bill Girdner/CNS)

On the most recent trip in September, Francoise followed on that theme by giving me a letter typed by my dad with the envelope addressed in my father’s distinctive writing in all caps with a design drawn around the edge, also in mint condition.

The letter inside the envelope was typed out in rough French, addressed to Francoise’s parents, the Guimeras. It was hard to read because my dad was much more open writing in French to old friends than he was in talking to us kids. He explained that he lives on his farm “tout seul,” all alone. But, he added, a woman that he was very close to, a Taiwanese chemist, comes to visit every other week.

She will soon retire, he says, and maybe she will spend more time at the farm. “J’espere au moin,” I hope so at least. “Non, j’espere beacoup,” No, I hope very much.

That hope was not fulfilled, not for lack of love.

He switches to a lighter note, playing on an eternal theme in our family, saying he cannot find good bread here. On camping trips to Mexico, he explains, we return with good Mexican bread that we freeze and bring out on special occasions. He closes by expressing the wish that the Guimeras can come to visit, a visit that did not come to pass.

Of all the photos and writings of my father, these are the most searing. Reading the letter 25 years after it was typed out, on a tan sheet of paper with a smooth finish, brought my father vividly back to life.

Francoise the historian had told one part of my family’s story through her gift.

(Bill Girdner/CNS)
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