The photograph came in the post. In a manila envelope, with a note from my brother:
“Here’s a picture of the family star. You’ve probably seen it before. I had it enlarged. Ask her the story behind it. I hope it lifts her spirits. Hugs. Richard.”
My brother’s handwriting was as bad as usual. But decipherable. I looked at the photo. A black & white blow-up of a picture I had indeed seen before in a much smaller format. The enlarged pic was good. My brother had been a photographer before shifting to flea market vendor of old furniture. Had he enlarged the photo himself?
One could easily recognize my mother, early twenties maybe, in an army uniform. With a cap daintily placed on her combed back dark curly hair. She wore a French W.A.C. uniform (Women’s Army Corps). What the French called a P.F.A.T: Personnel Féminin de l’Armée de Terre. Army Female Personnel. Or so I thought. On close look there were wings on her cap. So she was Air Force Auxiliary Personnel. A P.F.A.A, pronounced “Péfa”. There was tall grass in the foreground, trees in the background. It looked like the picture was taken in a garden or a field. Maybe at my grandfather’s house in Rennes? I remembered the house, on the outskirts of the city. It opened up on fields all the way to the horizon.
I’d never asked my mother ‘why the uniform?’ I’d assumed she’d joined the Armed forces at the end of the war as so many had, when France had been liberated. But I had no details. I only knew she’d met my father in Air France in the Fall of ’45, in Paris.
I put the photo and note back in the envelope. I’d give it to her in the evening when I dropped by my parent’s house on my way back from the office.
My mother was in bed. She was mostly bed-ridden then with the cancer that would eventually claim her life. Though always a fighter, she still tried her best to walk a few steps every morning and afternoon in her room. She would say a phrase I will always remember:
“Bon! Ne mollissons pas.” ‘Let’s not get soft’. She would swing her feet to the side of her bed, maybe ask for a helping arm, walk a few steps in the room to a nearby armchair. Rest for a while. Chat. Get up, walk a few more steps and climb back in bed.
She was in good spirits as I kissed her cheek. Later, in the last weeks of the “crab”, she stopped talking. She’d once said that before her mother died in ’44, of a cardiac condition and the privations of the war, she’d spent the last weeks without a word, or a complaint, never whining. Neither were whiners.
I showed her my brother’s envelope. She smiled. Read the note. Said: “your brother’s handwriting is getting worse every day.” Looked at the picture and said:
“Hah! Of course. I remember that picture. That was in Rennes (Brittany) outside your grandfather’s garden.”
“When was that?” I asked. “Do you remember?”
“Summer of ’45, I think. I joined the Air Force after my mother died, that must have been late ’44 or early ’45. There was nothing else to do. Not many jobs. Brittany, Paris, and most of France had been liberated but the war was still on. The Germans were fighting back very hard. Remember the Ardennes?”
“Yes”, I said, “The German counter-offensive that took the Allies by surprise. In the winter of ’44-’45? Were it not for Patton, the outcome of the war could have been very different. So, you were stationed in Rennes?”
“Yes. I lived in Rennes, so I signed up there. I wanted to go to Paris. I’d never left Brittany, and Paris sounded like a promise of liberty. The Air Force was as good an option as anything else.”
My mother never finished high school. Between a working-class background, blue-collar to a fault, the war, her mother’s illness, she had to drop-out. As a typist. At least she had a trade. She even taught my sister and I shorthand. Which I forgot, of course. Quite fun, it was like writing in code.
“I was a typist at the military command for Brittany,” my mother went on. “I asked the Colonel several times for a transfer to Paris. Which he always refused. I was getting desperate to move out of Brittany.”
“What did you do then?” I asked.
She laughed: “I sneaked into the Colonel’s office one day while he was out somewhere. Probably in the loo. And I stole a few “ordres de mission” forms that were lying on his desk. Orders and transportation forms. I filled them with my name, destination Paris, assignment: typist at the Ministry of War, Paris, forged the Colonel’s signature, and hopped on the first train to Paris.” Smile. She was pleased with herself. And I was not surprised. She could cut corners.
“I remember those trains,” I said, “when I was in the Army, stationed near Rennes. Took them back and forth to Paris for a full year! The train back to Paris was always a train to freedom. And nobody noticed? That your orders were forged?”
“No. You must remember this was the war. People moving around, stationed here, moved there, the Colonel probably never even noticed I was gone!”
She was smiling at the good trick she’d played. Got her way as she had always done and would always do. I can imagine the young, pretty Breton girl having the time of her life in Paris.
“If you left for Paris around April or early May, you were, what? Barely 18, or 19?” (My mother was from May 18th, 1926)
“Yes. I was 19. Barely, but old enough to know I wanted a different life.”
“I can imagine. And how was work at the Ministère de la Défense?”
“Mostly boring. I was at the typing pool. Memos and memos, in 4 or 5 copies, with carbon paper. In early May 1945, the race was on between the Allies and the Russians to see who would deal the final blow to the Germans. We all knew it was a matter of days.”
“Hitler shot himself on April 30th in the Bunker in Berlin. Goebbels and his wife killed their six children before killing themselves as well. The Soviets were rushing West, the Allies running East at full speed.”
“Yes”, she said, “the thing was: who would get to Berlin first?”
“The Russians did, right?”
The Soviet Army under Joukov (Zhukov in English) and the first US Army corps under Hodges make their junction on the river Elbe at Torgau on April 25, 1945. The Reichstag is destroyed by the Soviets on April 30th, the red flag hoisted over the ruins. On May 2nd, the German troops in Berlin surrender to the Russians. On May 7th, the Germans surrender in Reims to the Allied troops (British, US, French). On May 8th, Keitel signs unconditional capitulation of the Reich in front of all four Allies including the Soviet generals. A third of Berlin has been completely destroyed, up to 70% in the centre of the city.
“Yes, the Russians got there first,” my mother said. “And then, on May 8th, the war was over. Celebration everywhere, Blue, White, and Red flags in all the streets of Paris, and every village. Japan was still fighting in the Pacific, but for us, in Europe, it was over…”
“And then what?”
“Nobody knew what was going to happen. Many cities in France had been destroyed: Le Havre, Rouen and others. France was basically in ruins. I didn’t know what would happen to my job at the Ministry. If the war was over, there wasn’t really much need in the War Office for a small typist from Brittany. Until…” She paused. My mother always had the knack to pause at the right moment.
“Until what?! What happened? Don’t ‘pause’ me!”
“One morning, I can’t remember when exactly, a few weeks after the capitulation of the Germans, a young and dapper Air Force Captain came to the typing pool. We all suddenly pretended to type something.” Smile. “Work had been slow after the 8th.” She smiled at me again with one of her damn pauses. I kept silent. I could play the game. She went on:
“The Captain asked: ‘Who’s the one who speaks English here?’”
“No! You must be joking!”
“Nope! I kept my eyes glued to my keyboard. See, I’d not… exactly… lied, but let’s say I ‘d ‘exaggerated’ a tad when I joined the Air Force as an auxiliary. On the sign-up form, I’d ticked the box next to ‘Foreign languages spoken’ and written ‘English’ ”.
My mother’s English was flawless but that was after 8 years in India, and 25 years abroad. After the war. I wasn’t sure of the quality of her English in 1945…
“English?” I asked. “In Brittany, during the war, in German-occupied France?”
She laughed. “Well, you could almost be executed for speaking English. ‘Suspected intelligence with the British enemy’ and all that. But I had a self-learning book. Well hidden in the house. And I knew a few people in the Resistance who spoke some English and gave me classes. So, I managed. Not very well, but better than many of our dear compatriots, as you know…”
“I know. English is still not their forte. And the Captain?”
“The Captain repeated: ‘Which one of you speaks English? Come on! I haven’t got all day!’ I lifted my eyes from the keyboard. Raised my hand.”
My mother went on: “The Captain said: ‘Ah! It’s you! Get up. Come with me.’ I took my notepad and my French-English dictionary, just in case. Maybe he wanted to draft a memo in English. I rushed after him. He turned around and told me: ‘Meet me in an hour at Villacoublay. Here are your orders.’ “
“Villacoublay?” I said. “The Air Force base, south of Paris?”
“Yes. I was dumbfounded. But what could I say? I was just a small typist, a WAC. He was a Captain. So, I went along. Then he looked at me. Up and down. And said:
‘Make it an hour and half. You can’t go in that sorry uniform of yours. Give me your notepad.’
“He took out a gold-tipped fountain pen from a breast-pocket under a bunch of ribbons. He looked young but had certainly earned his share of medals. He scribbled and signed a note, handed the pad back to me. ‘Here. Take this note to the store, get a pair of new uniforms. Yours is a disgrace. And shoes too. Then take any Jeep to Villacoublay. Show them your orders. Meet me there in an hour and half sharp.’ “
It was my turn to be “dumbfounded”. What did the Captain want? Villacoublay? The Air Force base? Another uniform?
“Why another uniform?” I asked my mother.
“Again, think ‘WAR’. France had been occupied, bombed and ransacked for 5 years. There was shortage of everything. Even decent clothes. My uniform was coarse, thick wool. My shoes were practically cardboard! So I went to the Air Force store in the basement. They handed me two brand new uniforms, of the finest, most delicate, softest wool I’d ever seen. Fitted me like a glove. And the shoes! I couldn’t believe it. ‘Des mocassins en chevreau!’ Flat-heel fine leather shoes. I had never seen shoes like that either. I ran to my locker. Grabbed a toothbrush, a pair of panties, stuffed them inside my bag, took the first available Jeep to Villacoublay. The Captain was already waiting. Looked approvingly at my new uniform. A man of not so many words he pointed at a military airplane nearby, engines already running, we hopped on and took off!”
To be continued…