Repost from 2009
The other day at the brocante I found a stack of letters written during World War Two (WWII) between a husband and his wife. The husband lived in the city, and the wife and their child lived in the countryside "because it was safer". At first I was drawn to them because of how they were worn, and stacked in perfect order. You might say the "art factor" attracted me. Then the antique dealer seeing that I didn't get the letters real significance told me they were written during WWII.
I asked him how much he wanted for them.
He wanted half of France, or close to it, he wanted more than I wanted to pay that much is true.
I told him that I did not read French very well, and that I wanted them because they looked attractive, a conversational piece of art, a living coffee tabletop book, but letters instead. He shook his head, "You don't understand their worth."
"I'll give you five euro." I might as well have stabbed him in the heart, he looked so shocked. Then I mentioned that my son liked history and he would read them to me, and I batted my eyes, "Pretty please with sugar on it." (or at least that is what I thought I was saying in French.)
Flirting works. Sorry but it does. I got the letters for five euros.
Later, while my friend Nathalie waited for me in the car, she started to read the letters. When I came back she had tears in her eyes, "These letters are incredible, they are full of emotion."
At that point I felt terrible that I had bartered for history with flirtation.
When I got home I put the letters on the kitchen table.
The next day after breakfast, French Husband and Sacha carefully opened them. The letters had a hypnotic power, they read in complete silence. Every now and then they would look up at each other share a line or two then bury their heads back into a time long ago.
Annie, my dear friend shared her stories of WWII with me. When she talked about her past her eyes glaze over and I see her go back to when she was a young girl by her parent's side.
One of the things Annie has shared is that when the Americans arrived they had "chewing gum" and "chocolate." The American soldiers gave it to the children whenever they entered a town.
Later the troop heard that Annie's mother had the best home made soup, soup made with vegetables from her garden! They traded chewing gum and chocolate for bowls of soup.
Most of Annie's stories were not as dark as the ones written in the letters I bought at the brocante.
The letters written are from Lyon, where the war raged bitterly.
The letters always start with, "My Big Love". Rarely, do they mention any names, instead they refer to people they know as "The one who worked at the bakery" or "The one who use to live underneath us." They never say the enemies name, for fear that the letters might be opened and used against them, or worse destroyed.
The letters talk about how the enemy gathered the children, using them as human shields as they maneuvered from town to town. How farms where ram shacked they burned to the ground. "The Wife" mentions how she felt safer in the city that was being bombed everyday than living in the country.
Later she talks about a butter factory that was raided by the enemy, the butter was burned. "Just to belittle, to taunt us in the face of slow starvation," she added.
She goes on to mention a small village of thirty-five residents, where she had thought to live safely, though over half where murdered in one day. "Whenever we hear a gunshot, we know someone is dying. Many are dying."
They write, in details, often coded, out of anguish, fear and love for one another.
Sacha and French Husband read ever so slowly a few letters, often stopping... casting a distant look out the window, in deep thought, then continuing without a word.
The handwriting is exceptionally small. French Husband told me that is because paper was scarce, and to post a letter during that time one was expensive... in more ways than one.
Often the letters were written on mix match pieces of scrap paper. Their need to "talk" to one another, to share what they were witnessing, to be present to each other through the details of how they were surviving. They found paper, and a mail carrier out of their healing balm for one another.
I kept thinking how much they loved each other: Image walking to the post office, or a drop off zone to mail a letter in a battle zone? That is commitment.
"I do not know if I could have done that...." I said to the men in my life engrossed with reading. Nonetheless, French Husband looked up at me with sad eyes.
"Love motivates," he responded, "But so does fear!"
XOXO in French "Gros Bisous".
Sacha pointed to the curled back envelope, "Look Mom," he said. He knows I love random, unplanned, spirit of love moving in the unconscious hand of time, sort of thing.
Food for thought.
French Husband says he will read the letters slowly. He is methodical like that, and it teaches me to harbor my excitement and not open all of the letters just to pick them apart for a quick fix.
I hope to post bit by bit as French Husband and Sacha read them to me. I wanted to read the last letter, but the two of them would not have it, I guess I am out-numbered and on the wrong side of the fence on this matter.
What side of the fence are you on?