Marcels letters, p.16

Marcel's Letters, page 16


Marcel's Letters

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  “I’ll bet this is little ‘Lily,’” the next email said. My head snapped back as I read Dixie’s email. The strange feeling I had weeks earlier had been true: Lily did not exist. “Lily” had been a nickname. Lily wasn’t Lily! Dixie did not have any information other than that Lily—Eliane, I corrected myself—was alive, too. Eliane was seventy-three years old.

  “Because Denise and Lily are alive, their records are private. But their maiden names are Heuzé so it’s probable they are the two you are looking for,” Dixie wrote. She then added something that made me gasp: “I found a record which showed Marcel and Renée had four children (a fourth child must have been born after the war).” I stared at my computer monitor, dumbstruck.

  By the time Dixie signed off, it was well past midnight. I went to the living room, collapsed into the couch, and read the translations of the four letters and the postcard. For the first time, I could read his glorious words through a filter of life, not death. Hoover crawled next to me and licked the tears from my face. As I rubbed his silken ears I assured him they were happy tears. The happiest ever tears. For the entire night, he remained vigilantly by my side.

  My mind wheeled with all the new information. They had another child. Lily wasn’t Lily. Marcel’s wife’s name was Renée. Denise and Eliane were alive. Dizzying swells of joy were tempered by waves of guilt and confusion that Marcel’s letters had been in my possession while Renée was alive. And fresh tears flooded my cheeks every time I thought about the most astonishing news: he lived. Marcel lived.

  Hours later, bright morning sunlight flickered between the closed living room blinds. Aaron, I realized, must have shut them while I slept. As I slowly sat up, I kicked to free myself from the zigzag afghan, which had twisted around my legs. A pounding echoed inside my head. It felt as if I had a raging hangover. My eyelids were raw, and I could see my swollen cheeks in the periphery of my vision. The hair on the right side of my head was matted to my face; the hair on the left side was a spaghetti-like tangle.

  “How are you doing?” Aaron reached forward with a cup of hot coffee.

  Tears began to well. Through a series of choked-back sobs I squeaked, “I’m so happy.”

  “Mmmhmm, I can see that.”

  Other than having another child, I did not know anything else about Marcel’s life, yet my heart overflowed with joy. How could it be possible to feel this much happiness for someone I would never meet?

  On Sunday afternoon, Dixie sent a couple more emails, one that included Denise’s mailing address in Paris. As I stared at the letters and numbers that defined her physical existence, two things were immediately clear: this was a different Denise than the woman I had written to months earlier, and I had to write this Denise.

  Questions swirled: Was it even my place to contact Denise? The all-consuming question had been answered; I didn’t have to know anything else. Would my letter be welcome? Or, if the letters were at a flea market because of something horrible that happened, could my letter usher home an unwelcome relic and break her heart wide open?

  Despite unknown consequences, the fire of curiosity still roared. Not writing to Denise was an impossibility.

  I realized it would be prudent to include proof I was not running some cruel scam, so I decided to include a copy of the sweet letter Marcel had written to Denise and her sisters. That letter mentioned cherry blossoms, fetching milk, picking violets—not bombings, men burned alive, boiled veal bones. The letter did not include the swastika.

  Dear Denise—

  I am searching for relatives of Marcel Heuzé. I have been working with a researcher who believes you may be related, and I hope that is true. To be sure, though, the Marcel Heuzé I am seeking information on was born January 26, 1912 in Boissy-le-Châtel and worked as a turner. Is this the same Marcel Heuzé as your father?

  Let me tell you more. My part of the story starts in 2002, when I purchased several letters in a local antique shop. By local, I mean in Stillwater, Minnesota. I do not speak French, but I purchased the letters because they were beautiful, and it was clear that they had been written with love. The letters begin, “Mes chères petites.”

  I am a graphic designer and I have been designing a font inspired by the letterforms in the letters. I wish I could tell you that the font was done.

  Even though I don’t speak French, I could pick out words here and there: Paris, Berlin, 1,300 kilometers, and names such as Denise, Lily, and Suzanne. Last year, I began to wonder who wrote them. I paid someone to translate the letters. The letters were written by Marcel while he was conscripted into labor at the Daimler factory in Marienfelde. The letters describe many things: how hungry he was, what his daily work life was like, that his clothes needed mending, and how desperately he wanted to come home. In every letter, he expressed deep love for his wife and daughters.

  After spending so much time with the letters, I began to consider Marcel an old friend, yet I knew nothing about him other than what was written in the letters.

  This led me to wonder about the fate of Marcel and how his letters ended up in a small antique store halfway around the world. I could not find anything about Marcel searching online, though I looked for many months.

  I even contacted Daimler seeking information. An archivist confirmed Marcel worked as a turner at the Berlin-Marienfelde factory. Their records indicate he was released November of 1943, which could not be true since I have a letter from April 1944 expressing how much how much he hoped to be able to go home.

  Later, I was connected to a genealogy researcher, who was the one who found you.

  When she discovered Marcel returned home, I am not ashamed to tell you that I cried I was so happy. Based on his letters and everything I’ve read, it seemed unlikely that he would have survived. I understand he lived to be seventy-nine. I would love to learn more about him, if there is anything you would be willing to share. I have so many questions:

  Did he share stories about his time at Marienfelde?

  The letters were filled with love for his wife; were they together the rest of their lives?

  Where did he work before and after the war? Was he always a “turner”?

  What was he like? Was he kind or hot tempered? Funny or serious? Quiet or loud?

  Do you have any photos of him from that time? Do you have any photos of Marcel and your mother together?

  The genealogy researcher said that they had another daughter after he returned home. Is that true?

  During the war, the family lived in Berchères-la-Maingot, but it didn’t seem like “home.” Were you staying with extended family during the war?

  Do you have any idea how his letters wound up in an antique store halfway around the world?

  I have enclosed a copy of one of the letters. This letter is the sweetest of all of the letters, and has a section written to you. This is the only letter signed “Papa,” the other letters were signed “Marcel.”

  If you are so inclined, I would love to learn more about the life of Marcel. If you are not interested, I send great apologies for the intrusion.

  After considering what to—or what not to—reveal, I decided not to tell Denise that Marcel’s letters had been purchased at a flea market, instead asking the gentler question of whether she knew how the letters might have ended up in Stillwater. It seemed like a small kindness. What if being at a flea market meant someone in the family had sold them?

  I folded my letter—translated into French with the standard apology for errors—over the copy of Marcel’s letter, and slid both inside an envelope. When she opened the envelope’s contents, she would see Marcel’s letter first.

  Using the most delicate handwriting I was capable of, I inked Denise’s address onto the envelope. When I set the pen down, my eyebrows arched in surprise. The left side of the M in “Mrs.” swooped just like Marcel’s M. Without realizing it even happened, my handwriting had started to look like his.

  Chapter Sixteen

  White Bear Lake, Minnesota

/>   May 21, 2012

  Early Monday morning, Dixie sent an email noting she had received a brief message through a genealogy website from a member of the Cléro family in France. Cléro was Suzanne’s husband’s surname. I assured Dixie it was fine to pass along my contact information, and figured if the person was a distant relative of Suzanne’s husband, they might be reaching out as a curiosity. They might not know much about Marcel.

  As I showered I planned my day: final revisions were due on the medical device brochure, the rebranding project needed attention, some administrative tasks needed to be done. The day sounded delightfully mundane compared to the weekend’s emotional roller coaster.

  As soon as the post office opened, I took Denise’s letter to the counter so a clerk could confirm I had enough postage. I was bursting to tell the woman behind the counter what was inside the envelope, but I refrained. The story seemed impossible to summarize.

  On the drive home, I swung by a coffee shop and ordered a fancy drink with a towering ruffle of whipped cream. It was a splurge reserved for special occasions. As I waited for my drink, I reminded myself this was really happening. Contact with Marcel’s family was five or six days away.

  But it wasn’t just five or six days. It felt as if sixty-eight years were about to fold down and disappear like an accordion’s bellows.

  Hours later, an email arrived with the subject line “Marcel Heuzé.” The sender’s name was unfamiliar; it did not include “Cléro.”

  The email was in passable English, and after reading four sentences, it felt as if I was back in Aaron’s pickup, sliding sideways. I rolled the chair away from the computer monitor, distancing myself from the words on the screen.

  “What the fuck do you mean by that?” I whispered as my fingers covered my mouth.

  I reread the first four sentences as a sourness flooded my mouth. The room felt like it was tilting. As I stood up, my office chair skittered across the room.

  “What the fuck do you mean by that?” I said again. This time, the words were loud.

  I scurried into the bathroom and leaned over the toilet, anticipating a wave of convulsions. Fuck! What have I done? WhathaveIdonewhathaveIdone? I wanted to race back to the post office and retrieve the letter to Denise. By now, though, the envelope had certainly been processed and shuffled into a mountain of a million other pieces of mail.

  The email I received had not been from some shirttail relative. It was from Suzanne’s granddaughter, Natacha. “My mother who doesn’t speak and write English read Dixie’s mail, which I translate for her,” Natacha wrote. “We were so surprised to know that Marcel’s letters travelled so far. It’s just unbelievable and so exciting. My mother is quite sad to think that Suzanne, her sisters, and Marcel’s wife Renée never received those letters.”

  I read the last sentence ten times. Twenty times. My head began pounding and it hurt to focus my eyes. They never received the letters? How could that be? That was not a scenario I considered!

  “If you want to receive a picture of Marcel as army suit, we could send to you. My mother, Nadine, and her sister, Agnès will meet tonight, because they have so many questions they would like to ask you. Will you accept to reply?”

  “I would love to see a photo of Marcel,” I wrote to Natacha. I decided to proffer answers to questions about who I was, why and how long I had Marcel’s letters. I explained Marcel’s letters had been purchased at a flea market in France before being sold here in Minnesota—a tidbit that seemed essential to disclose after learning the family never received the letters. I attached a scan of the first letter, promised I would answer any question her mother and aunt had, and noted I had many questions, too.

  It was impossible to concentrate on anything else, so I sat on the couch trying to puzzle together any scenario that could explain how letters spanning fifteen months could have remained together, yet not have been received by the family. I felt like a toddler clumsily trying to pound a square peg into a round hole: nothing fit. As hour after hour passed, emotions ranged from disbelief to amazement to near-suffocating anxiety.

  “What’s going on?” Aaron stepped into the dark living room after finishing a sixteen-hour shift.

  “In a couple of days I’m going to go to prison.”

  He sat down in the stuffed chair. “Elaborate …”

  “I got an email from Suzanne’s granddaughter. She said they never got the letters.” Aaron’s eyebrows shot up; his surprise reflected the astonishment I had felt all afternoon and evening. “So, in what? Five more days, Denise is going to open a letter that includes a photocopy of a letter her father mailed from a fucking Nazi labor camp. A letter she’s never seen before. She’s going to have a heart attack and fall over dead, then I’m going to go to prison for killing her.”

  Aaron started to laugh. “It’s not funny,” I whined. “This could kill her.” I reached behind me, grabbed a pillow, and threw it at Aaron.

  “You’re not going to kill her,” he said, tossing the pillow back to me.

  At midnight—early Tuesday in France—Natacha sent another email. She wanted to share her family history. “Marcel came into the world January 26, 1912 at Boissy-la-Châtel, a little country town near Coulommiers and died in 1992. They had three girls: Suzanne in 1933 (who is my grandmother, she died in 1990), Denise in 1934, Eliane (nicknamed Lily) in 1939. After the war they had Marcel.”

  A son. They had a son! Dixie had not specified whether they had a girl or a boy. In my letter to Denise I mentioned a fourth daughter, an incorrect assumption I blamed on not thinking clearly in the hours after learning Marcel lived.

  “His whole life Marcel lived in Montreuil-sous-Bois, a town adjacent to Paris,” Natacha continued. “In 1939, Renée and her three girls moved to their country house at Berchères-la-Maingot, close to Chartres, a town famous for its cathedral. During World War II, Marcel was imprisoned at the STO, then a prisoner of war interned in Germany. It was a forbidden subject.”

  “Forbidden” rattled in my brain. The word sounded sharp. Inflexible. Many people did not talk about the war afterward, yet this seemed different. “Forbidden” represented something infinitely more damaged, and my heart ached.

  The words “prisoner of war” surprised me, though they should not have. It made sense, unfortunately. After the Daimler factory was destroyed, I speculated the Germans might have held on to him to prevent him from returning home and fighting with the Allies.

  “Marcel was tall and slim, to my mum, he was often sad, and not talkative at all. Serious and quiet but not hot tempered.” Quiet, sad, not talkative: Natacha’s description unmoored me. Marcel had been so expressive in his letters. He had been filled with hope and optimism!

  “Renée received so many letters of him. If I can find it I will let you know. We think the letters were taken by a German soldier, and after the war, to get money, they were sold to a flea market shop.”

  The suggestion a German soldier had taken the letters seemed impossible since the letters spanned so many months. But what did I know? Perhaps the mail had been confiscated before it left Germany. Perhaps mail had been held by the French postal service.

  “At the end of the war they went back to Montreuil-sous-Bois. He was still a ‘turner’—do you know what that is? They lived there until Marcel died in 1992. Renée died in 2005. And they were still in love.”

  Natacha’s announcement “they were still in love” made thick drops pool in my eyes. Guilt stabbed at me for having entertained the notion Marcel had been unloved, or that he had been forgotten. Nothing could be further from the truth, it seemed.

  Natacha attached a file with photos. As I looked at the first image, the tears that had pooled in my eyes began dripping down my cheeks. Marcel stood tall in a military uniform with a proud, stoic expression. Straight, dark hair swept over the crown of his head. His nose was thin and straight, his complexion flawless. His right arm bent at his elbow and his hand grasped the buckle of a thick garrison belt. Numbers were pinned to
his collar; chevron patches sat above his cuffs.

  The next photo took my breath away: it was Marcel and Renée’s wedding portrait. Marcel seemed to have a slight smile, and he wore a tuxedo, complete with a bowtie and white pocket square. But it was not so much that he wore the tuxedo. Marcel held his body with so much confidence it was as if he wore a tuxedo every day.

  Renée sat next to Marcel. Deep, dark, perfect finger curls framed Renée’s temple. Her expression was regal. Her floor-length black dress had a simple scoop neck. The skirt’s waves of silk reminded me of water shimmering in moonlight. I wondered whether simple black wedding dresses had been the fashion in 1932, but I later learned she wore black as a sign of respect for Marcel’s mother, who had recently passed away. Renée cradled a bouquet of roses and hyacinths. A wicker basket filled with additional flowers sat on a table next to Marcel.

  Together, they were a vision of confidence. It was as if neither of them doubted their marriage would last forever.

  The file Natacha sent included other, unlabeled family photos: baby photos, a young girl embracing a terrier, decades-old class portraits, a scratched photo of a stern old woman wearing a black bonnet tied with a big bow. Later, I would learn one of the wallet-size photos was Renée, though I could not yet see the thread that tied the stunning twenty-two-year-old in the wedding portrait to the small portrait taken fifty or more years later.

  I extracted Marcel and Renée’s wedding portrait from Natacha’s file and placed the image in emails to Kathy, Tom, and Dixie.

  I was so honored to make this introduction.

  With tears in my eyes, I typed the words: “Meet Marcel.”

  Chapter Seventeen

  White Bear Lake, Minnesota

  Late May 2012

  I did not hear back from Natacha, and fretted her mom or aunt had reined in additional communication. Did they want to contact an embassy? A lawyer?

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