Marcel's Letters, page 30
Marcel died Saturday, January 4, 1992. I nearly remarked that it made my heart happy to hear that in his final hours Marcel had been as comfortable as possible, surrounded by people who loved him. For so long, that ending seemed impossible—and it was an ending fate cruelly withheld from too many. I glanced up at the rearview mirror and noticed tears had started to dribble down Valentine’s cheeks; I was glad I had kept the thought to myself.
January 4, 1992 was three weeks before Marcel’s eightieth birthday. Five days earlier, he and Renée had marked their fifty-ninth wedding anniversary. The word that came to mind was lucky, and I smiled. Marcel, indeed, had been an extraordinarily lucky man.
January 4, 1992 was also nearly thirteen years to the day before Renée’s death. Her body would join his in Montreuil’s old city cemetery. I did not know if or when I might return to Paris, but I made a silent promise to place flowers on their graves someday.
Two days after Marcel’s death—January 6, 1992—I purchased a guidebook to Paris. I know this only because the purchase was scribbled in the margin of a journal I kept back then. One month later, I stood in front of the Eiffel Tower, gazing skyward at its majesty.
It did not occur to me to look for that decades-old journal until long after our return. On the day I read the ink-filled pages, and saw the note about buying the guidebook, I wondered if even then—ten years to the day before I bought Marcel’s letters, twenty years before his family would hear about the font based on his writing—some cosmic string was already pulling me toward Marcel.
Valentine exited the A11 northeast of Chartres, driving ever-narrowing roads with familiar ease. As we passed a sign displaying the name of the tiny commune of Saint-Prest, my body jerked and twisted and I tried to steal a second look. That was it—Saint-Prest! I smiled, knowing with certainty what I would see when I returned home and looked at Marcel’s postcard. He had not addressed the postcard to “Route de Sr. Prest.” It read “Route de St. Prest.” The card did not have an address so much as a description of the location: the cottage had been on the road that ran from Berchères-la-Maingot to Saint-Prest.
Valentine wanted to start our visit in the village of Jouy. Jouy had the closest train station to Berchères-la-Maingot, and she wanted us to understand how far the family had to walk or bicycle each time they traveled to and from Paris in the decades before anyone in the family had a car. The best way to appreciate the four-mile distance, she explained, was to retrace their path.
A few hundred feet beyond the train station, Valentine brought the car to a gentle stop. “Sometimes Marcel kept a bicycle in the back,” she said as she pointed to a cozy brasserie.
I imagined Marcel sweeping his hair over the crown of his head as he stepped inside, greeting friends with a familiar pat on the back. After having a drink, catching up on local news, and smoking a few of his favorite cigarettes—Gauloises unfiltered—I envisioned a jovial goodbye before pedaling away. It was as if the photographic paper that swished back and forth in developing chemicals a year and a quarter earlier had finally come into clear, beautiful view.
After a few quick turns, we were out of Jouy and surrounded by vast open farmland. I had studied satellite images of the area, so I knew what to expect, but the landscape was familiar in a surprising way: these fields, fringed with groves of thick trees, looked remarkably similar to the land that surrounded my childhood home. This landscape, it seemed, was already deep in my bones.
As we crawled through an intersection, I saw a sign: Berchères-la-Maingot, 4.5 km ahead. My heart soared. We passed acre after acre of vibrant green plants, lush and low to the ground. We passed another sign: Berchères-la-Maingot, 3 km ahead.
Back in the 1940s, I guessed, the road had been gravel. Maybe it wasn’t even that; perhaps it was dirt. The walk could have been miserable, especially if the road was mud-slicked, or if ruts were frozen hard as cement. Or if the girls were tired and wanted to be carried. Or if Renée and Marcel lugged bags filled with supplies.
Or if darkness was descending.
Or if Germans lurked nearby.
Another sign: this one marked the boundary of Berchères-la-Maingot. I took a deep breath and smiled.
Valentine rolled to a stop next to a large pond. “This is where we used to fish for frogs.” I could not help but smile an even bigger smile as I realized this was the pond in the picture postcard where the woman sat along the water’s edge. It was also the pond Marcel wanted to return to so he could “tease the little fish a bit in the ferns” with Renée.
As Valentine drove Berchères’s narrow lanes, I found the village even more enchanting than I had imagined. Entire buildings were overgrown with thick quilts of ivy. Shutters were painted candy-apple red or rich caramel brown. Ghosts of old painted signs adorned walls and buildings. Tall privacy walls were made of stacked stone or brick. In other walls, round stones protruded beyond a stucco surface that made it appear as if the wall had been made of enormous sheets of plastic bubble wrap.
I smiled as Valentine drove past a building with diamond- and herringbone-patterned brickwork and rows of dark and light brick that looked like Morse code. It was the building pictured on the postcard where villagers stood in the street and stared as if it was the first time they had seen a camera. Shutters no longer framed the windows, and brickwork needed repair, but it was, without a doubt, the same building.
We drove past a grassy wedge of land that was Berchères’s central square. Trees framed one end, a henge of boulders framed the other. “Whenever there was a community gathering, it would happen here,” Valentine explained. My mind filled with images of picnics, kids playing tag, and spirited debates about the price of sheep. I also imagined German soldiers in long, gray-green wool jackets, sucking on cigarettes as they watched the citizens of this quiet little village.
Valentine pulled the car to a stop in front of a large metal gate flanked with stout brick pillars and tall stone walls. “I’ll be right back,” she said. She unlatched the metal gate with an ease that revealed she had opened it a hundred times before, then walked to a single-level house on the far side of a courtyard. An elderly man slowly pushed open the door, then gave her a long embrace. The man had been friends with Denise since childhood, Tiffanie told us.
Valentine waved for us to come over. They spoke only in French, but I could tell she introduced us as the Americans who had found Marcel’s letters. How many people here still remembered Marcel? I wondered. How had the news of the letters reverberated through this little village? Before we departed, Valentine had Tiffanie take a photo. Valentine told us it would bring Denise immense joy to see a photo of her dear old friend.
“This is where they bought milk,” Valentine said as we drove past a farm. I caught a brief glimpse of cows inside a courtyard—the same courtyard, I believed, as the postcard that showed the thick pinwheel of sheep, and the wagons with wheels as tall as a man.
Valentine rolled to a stop in front of burgundy metal gates. “This is where the Gommier family lives. Do you want to meet them?” My breath caught. Mrs. Gommier, I had learned, had been like a second mother—a second grandmother—to the family. She taught Agnès and Nadine how to crochet, and each year they gathered to watch Bastille Day parades on the Gommier family television. I told Valentine I did not want to intrude, and she continued down the road.
A handful of seconds later, Valentine brought the car to an abrupt halt. Between the time she applied the brake and the moment she and Tiffanie jumped out of the car, the two spoke tersely to each other in French. As they walked down the road, Aaron and I tried to figure out what was happening. More accurately, what might be wrong.
“Should we get out?”
“Not yet,” Aaron warned.
A moment later, Valentine signaled for us to join them.
“This is new,” Tiffanie said as she gestured to a modern house in the final stage of construction.
“This is … it?” I stammered. Tiffanie nodded.
Unlike the ivy-cov
As the shock of seeing the modern house dissipated, Valentine’s expression softened, and a gentle smile washed over her face. “When Marcel was here, when he was in residence, he would hang a white towel over the wall,” she said as she gestured to a stone wall that flanked the road. “It is like when a flag flies over Buckingham Palace indicating the Queen is in residence. It was a sign Marcel was here. Anyone was welcome to stop by.” Back then, the wall had been more than eight feet tall and “Berchères-la-Maingot” had been painted across the stones in large white-on-black block letters. If someone arrived from the southeast—from Saint-Prest—this would have been the first property they would have seen.
In one of our first emails, Tiffanie noted Marcel had been the “star of the village.” Initially, the statement seemed to reflect an idyllic vision of a great-grandfather she barely knew. But after learning how deeply he had been loved, I now believed her claim with my whole heart. I smiled as I envisioned Marcel flipping a towel over the wall, welcoming anyone for a laugh, a glass of wine, a game of Belotte.
The four of us walked up the driveway. An empty wheelbarrow sat at the ready and construction remnants were scattered around. As Valentine knocked on the front door to see if anyone was home, I asked Tiffanie whether she had heard the towel story before; she had not.
I asked Tiffanie and Valentine to show me where on the property the cottage had been. In unison they pointed to the property’s northern corner. The new house had been built in what had been the courtyard between the cottage and the barn.
Months later, Nadine drew a map of the property for me. The day it arrived, I pored over every detail until I could have redrawn it from memory. She marked the locations of the peach and apple trees, the plum tree whose branches held a swing, red and white gooseberry shrubs, mulberry and hawthorn hedges. She noted the location of the outhouse, and a wall that had been overgrown with artichoke flowers and white roses. She identified which part of the barn housed the rabbits and sketched out the locations of Renée’s vegetable and herb gardens. Nadine even marked the tree her uncle André, Eliane’s husband, preferred to nap under—naps he took at his own risk since Agnès and Nadine were known to ambush him with a water sprinkler.
I did not yet have the map as I stood on the property, but it wouldn’t have mattered; the cottage, barn, and gardens had long ago returned to dust. A tangle of trees and waist-high sections of two stone walls were all that remained.
Marcel and Renée’s cottage had had two rooms. The main room—which functioned as the kitchen, living, and dining space—held a table with chairs, a wardrobe, a folding bed, and a buffet. A stove and a washbasin sat along one wall. Tile covered the floor. A crucifix hung on the wall.
The second room held a wardrobe, a dresser, and three beds covered with feather-filled comforters.
The cottage did not have running water or electricity until the 1960s.
I was grateful Marcel and Renée had three years to make this plot of land feel like home before Marcel was sent to Germany. It explained his references to the work completed early on: “And what about the little plum trees that we put in at the beginning, will I maybe have the honor of eating some plums this year?”
I asked Nadine once what smells came to mind when she thought of the property. “Grass, hay, mushrooms,” she wrote, “and ripe plums.”
Most of the ground around the new house had been churned during construction. But as we walked around the far end of the property, Aaron touched my elbow and nodded for me to look down. Atop a small, undisturbed patch of clover sat two dinner-plate-size rocks the color of bleached bone with mottled spots of amber, rust, and gray.
Along with the detailed drawing of the property, Nadine and Agnès sent a handful of additional photos. One idyllic black-and-white photo showed the family gathered around a long table next to the barn. Fresh-cut daisies billowed from a milk pitcher set atop a tablecloth. Marcel and Renée sat next to each other at one end. Denise crouched at the opposite end, near her brother, who had his arms wrapped around an infant Valentine. Agnès, who would have been four, knelt on a wooden chair. Other family members, even some neighbors—including the father of the elderly man we had met minutes earlier—gathered around. I imagined the sound of laughter echoing between the cottage and the barn before carrying over the fields to the far-off woods.
During the previous days, the phrase I repeatedly heard was that the cottage “came down.” As I attempted to parse what that meant, I imagined the roof and walls collapsing in a sob of grief after Marcel died, or crumbling after Renée moved to a nursing home in Châtillon. In my mind, it was as if the cottage could not bear to exist without them.
The truth, I learned, was more benign.
Several fierce windstorms blew through France in late 1999. Ten thousand trees were uprooted at Versailles. Windows broke at Notre Dame. Cranes toppled. Roofs were destroyed. And one old two-room cottage in Berchères-la-Maingot came down.
I walked to the edge of the property, gazing east and west at fields where Renée stole beans, where planes plummeted to the ground, where parachute silks had been abandoned. I gazed beyond the fields to thick groves of trees and tried to decide which one would have provided the best hiding place for Renée and the girls. I looked south to where the road—now called Rue Albert—bent into the distance. If we walked down the road a short distance, the horizon would reveal the spires of Chartres’s famous cathedral.
I took long, deep breaths, filling my lungs with air that seemed both sweet and musty, before swiveling to look at Valentine. She had her arm wrapped tight around Tiffanie’s shoulder. She might have been offering warmth, but the embrace reminded me of a graveside hug, a gesture of consolation, like when someone simultaneously celebrates a life, mourns a loss, and says a final goodbye. I understood why losing this land felt like losing a family member. This land sustained them. After the war, it provided a place to heal. A lifetime of memories had been worn into these roads, grew on these trees, echoed off these stones.
I turned and looked at the new house again. Criticizing its modernity had been unfair, I decided. Maybe the foundation incorporated stones from the barn. Maybe traces of laughter still infused the dirt. Maybe the land still yearned to provide and protect. Maybe another family was on the cusp of creating four generations of memories.
As I finished walking the property’s perimeter, then as we walked down the drive, I thought of a black-and-white photo I had seen months earlier. It had been taken mid-1945 in Fribourg, Germany. Five uniformed German soldiers stood in a row, feet spread wide, hands clasped above their heads. They were powerless. Leaderless. Defeated.
In the foreground, liberated STO workers walked past the soldiers as if the soldiers were invisible. The man in the lead carried a ragged suitcase. His smile seemed to reveal astonishment he was free. A man following close behind had a hand raised in a wave. An insuppressible smile filled his face.
Some men did not get home for months due to the near-complete annihilation of Germany’s infrastructure. Some did not get home until 1946. Once back in France, workers were processed in reception centers where they received a health check, a repatriation card, one thousand francs, and some tobacco.
Did Marcel return before the war’s end, as Valentine and Tiffanie believed? Did Daimler release him after the Marienfelde factory was destroyed? Or did Germans hold him as a prisoner as Natacha once suggested? When frustration surged at the still-unanswered questions, I reminded myself those details did not matter. He made it home. Marcel made it home.
The only thing about his return we knew for sure was that it was here—on this very piece of land—where they were reunited.
I imagined honking horns, waving arms, tears of joy. And after Marcel stepped out of his friend’s vehicle, I imagined him folding his girls into his long, thin arms, promising to never let go.
But I did not need to close my eyes to imagine it.
They were here.
Marcel and Renée and their precious girls would always, forever, be right here.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
January 30, 2014
In the days after our return to White Bear Lake, an exhaustion bigger than what could be blamed on jet lag inhabited my body. My legs and arms felt heavy. I slept twelve hours at a time. Short-term memory was absent. Yet, I understood precisely what was happening. My body had returned to Minnesota; my heart and mind were still in Le Plessis-Robinson, in Villemomble, in Berchères-la-Maingot.
Friends and family were eager to hear about our trip, but other than emailing updates to Kathy, Tom, Dixie, Kim, and Louise, our time in France felt simultaneously too enormous—and too intimate—to share. I needed time to process all I had learned.
One of the few people I wanted to share our experience with was the woman in Roseville. I hoped we might meet so I could welcome her into the circle of people inextricably part of Marcel’s story. And so she could give me the letters from her garage.
She told me she would be in touch.
A month later, I reached out to her again. She noted she had been busy and had not found the letters yet. She assured me “they are there.”