Tuesday, May 29, 2012
A Modern French Fairy Tale
Once upon a time, I had a career as a translator (and interpreter)
I also gave English lessons to a boy who lived in the building across the street. One day his mother asked me if I’d help her cleaning lady.
Or rather her cleaning lady showed up at my door because his mother had told her I was "a nice American lady". Not quite understanding what I could do for her, I asked her in and she told me her story.
Once Paris was liberated in World War II, some American troops were left behind while the others slogged on toward Berlin. One essential part of those troops was the motor pool, made up largely of what were then called Negroes. Their job was to keep the jeeps and trucks rolling.
But when they weren’t tuning the engines and greasing up the axles, the motor pool guys liked to "step out". And they were good at it. These soldiers were enjoying to the fullest a freedom they couldn’t enjoy back home, and given the five years of deprivation and fear the French had just lived through, they welcomed anyone in an American uniform with open arms, especially if they came bearing nylons and chocolate.
This woman, visibly of mixed race, told me that her mother was particularly welcoming of one fun-loving GI. He was a ray of sunshine after the darkness, a breath of fresh air. He brought her gifts and took her dancing, much to the chagrin of her own mother. He brought the family food from the PX and was very polite. That went on for several months.
Then one morning he showed up at her doorstep to tell her that the motor pool was being transferred elsewhere. He said he’d miss her and promised he’d stay in touch. He left her his watch and a book of fairy tales - which shows he must have been a really good man in his heart - kissed her and waved as he disappeared around the corner.
And he did stay in touch. For a while.
Some time later - obviously less than nine months - this woman seated across from me, twisting the life out of her handkerchief, was born. Her mother didn’t want a dark baby with frizzy hair and disappeared, leaving the infant in the reluctant care of its begrudging grandmother.
All this woman knew about her father was his name, his rank, that he worked in the motor pool and that he was from a town in the south. That... and a watch and a book of fairy tales that her grandmother had taunted her with for her entire childhood. And one faded photo.
It was her birthday and she was 40 years old and the anniversary of D-Day was coming up. She wanted to know if I could find him for her.
This woman was very nice and polite, but didn’t seem too smart. Her education had ended as soon as her grandmother could pull her out of school and put her to work cleaning other people’s homes. But that was all right. That’s the way things are sometimes, she told me.
Her grandmother had just died. She’d rarely seen her mother again and had no idea where she was. There was no one to stop her, no one to hurt.
She gave me her phone number, thanked me, shook my hand powerfully, wiped her eyes and left. I just sat there.
After a somewhat sleepless night wondering how I could help this woman find a part of her life that had been stolen, I called the American Embassy. The switchboard transferred me to the Military Attaché’s office. They told me they might be able to help and took the information I had. Good bye, Madam. I was pretty sure that was it.
A few weeks later, I got a call back. Through Veterans Affairs, they had found an address for someone of that name near the town I’d indicated. They would get a letter to him if I wanted. Just bring it in. And they hung up.
I called the woman back. Did she want to send him a letter? When she was able to talk, she asked if she could come over the next day.
When she knocked at my door again, she grabbed me, hugged me and handed me a box of chocolates that must have cost her most of her paycheck. She also handed me a letter that she’d written and asked me to translate it for her. The handwriting was shaky, as were the spelling and grammar. But the letter was simple. As I remember it now - 25 years later - it just told the old GI who she was, and said she’d always treasured the watch and book of fairy tales, plus the photo. She hoped he was well and would like to hear from him, if that was all right, if he had time, if it didn’t cause problems.
I translated the letter, trying to capture her meekness and respectfulness. She signed it, wrote her return address, and entrusted it to me. She didn’t want to go to the embassy with me to hand it over. That would make it too real if he decided not to reply, she explained.
About three months later she showed up on my doorstep again. Speechless, she held out an envelope that fluttered in her hand.
It was a letter from the son of the GI. His father had passed away peacefully two years ago. He never knew he had a daughter in France. He had married after his return to the States and had some children. He was a tough father, but fair. He wished her well. I don’t remember the letter saying any more. It was polite but curt.
The woman seemed all right with that. Life hadn’t been kind to her, and if the old GI was dead... well then, that was the end of the road. She’d never have the money to go to the States anyway. And at least she knew a bit more about him. It was a miracle, she said, that I’d been able to find him - as if I’d done much - and now she could lay it to rest. One last time she took my hand... then decided to kiss me on both cheeks, as French people do. And she walked down the stairs and out of my life.
I tell you all this now because walking around Montmartre doing my errands today, I saw a face that looked half familiar. A pale woman of obvious mixed race with unruly hair. We passed each other and I tried to remember where I’d seen her before. Then my mind settled on the unruly hair.
It was her. I suppose I could have turned and run after her, but she looked happy with her lot, healthy and well-fed. What could I have added to her existence? Still, I took some comfort in knowing that she’s still around, and as I think about this whole story in the quiet of my garden, I lift my glass to her and hope she’ll live happily ever after.