Essay · Memoir

Secrets of WWII 

I recently visited Secrets of WWII at the Reagan Library There, I explored “over a hundred rare and unique stories and hundreds of artifacts” that were “not even made public until recently.” Particularly touching to me were the panels dedicated to the horses, birds, and dogs who had been forced into the war. What I saw and read, however, felt somewhat removed from my personal life experience until I happened upon a glass case that contained a German helmet and a telephone that the Germans used to communicate.

“They forgot the Waffen SS boots,” my grandmother and I thought. « Les bottes noires des boches, tu les vois ? »

My grandmother Marinette, deceased for three decades, was standing with me by that glass case, asking me, in French, if I could see the black boots. No longer was I standing in the lower level of the Reagan Library in 2022: Marinette and I were both frozen in dread in the cellar of the family live-in store in the early seventies in a remote village of the Auvergne region of France.

Marinette suffered from then-undiagnosed PTSD, the result of her active role in the French Resistance. For her, WWII had never ended, and to hide us both from the Nazis, she would rush me down to the cellar throughout my youth and well into the early eighties. From the diminutive, street-level rectangular window, she could still see the dreaded boots march by the store.

My maternal grandparents Marius and Marinette were both members of the French Resistance. Records about their service are archived in the French Defense Historical Service in Vincennes, near Paris. They had put themselves in grave danger, and many of their friends had died. Marinette’s closest cousin Yvonne, also a Resistance member, had been caught and deported. She miraculously survived Ravensbrück from August 1944 until May 1955. Here is a link to a short story that I wrote about Yvonne

 My maternal grandparents also raised me for the first few years of my life starting in the mid-sixties. Twenty years after the end of WWII, they still lived and worked in the same tailoring shop in the village’s main square by the 12th-century church. Their trusted friends from their time in the Resistance continued to stop by to reminisce around homemade pastries and tart cherry liquor. They told stories high in color in patois Auvergnat, which is a local dialect of the Occitan language, the language of the French peasantry. My grandfather, who hailed from the south of France (an area with a different dialect of Occitan) was not as fluent in patois Auvergnat as his wife and fellow résistants, so he’d switch to his southern-accented French when the actions recounted required words said in rapid-fire.  

My grandmother was especially vocal about les collabos. Those people were either supporting or full members of La Milice, which was a paramilitary organization created in January 1943 by the collaborationist French government to combat la Résistance. Those were people she had also grown up with. They were even more dangerous than les boches, she said, because you were prone to assume that you could trust them, but you could not.

Silent dread set in once their résistant friends left. My grandparents would usually drown themselves in work, then, while I often went up to the attic to scrutinize the remnant of the bleach-resistant blood stains on the unpolished pine floorboards. The attic was where they had hidden wounded résistants and British paratroopers. Tonton Mabrut, head of the resistance for the region and a medical doctor by profession, would sneak in under cover of night to remove exploding bullets from mangled limbs. My grandmother was the one to assist in the operations because my grandfather would faint at the sight of blood.

Once my grandparents retired, they sold the store to move into a brand-new house. Perhaps they hoped that the physical move could make them new also, that it could remove their dread and even the painful parts of the lives that they had lived so far. I took it a step further and moved to America. But dread takes more than relocation to dislodge.

Announcement · Fiction · Memoir

A Toast to Digestive Health and to a Fantastic Editor

For half a year now, I have been suffering from often painful digestive health problems. I thought that perhaps I had done all the digestion I could do in one lifetime both physically and metaphorically speaking. And yet, to keep on living, I had to keep on digesting, so how would I do that?

One day, the thought occurred to me that I would need to split my digesting into two parts: the French part and the American part. My problem seemed more manageable that way. Here is what I would do: draw two circles in white chalk on a blackboard. The circle to the left would be smaller than the circle to the right because I only had about twenty years of French living versus thirty-five plus years of American living.

I drew the circles from left to right because I had learned to write from left to right and because I had assimilated the arbitrary construct that time traveled from left to right. I would digest my binational living from the oblong area where both circles intersected. With my piece of white chalk, I started highlighting that area of intersection so it would look like a cloud because I felt at ease on planes above clouds and, on land, I did some of my best thinking with no roof above my head.

Almost imperceptibly, I had become the French sixth grader who loved her math class. I barely took the time to notice the inkwells on the neatly arranged wooden desks from which my classmates and I watched our teacher draw shapes and circles and letters and numbers. I had walked up to the blackboard and started drawing my cloud inside the oblong area of the two intersecting circles that symbolized my life. The chalk dust made me sneeze.

My teacher, Monsieur Raoul, had stepped to the side and was waiting for me to finish. I did not get scared when he called me to the blackboard to solve a math problem, but now I was, and I froze. I was too close to the board. I could no longer see the circles for what they represented, and the cloud I was drawing seemed like a ridiculous thing to do in a math class. I was failing the exercise.

Somehow, I retreated forward to the present time, but outside of the larger circle that should have represented my American life. I was back on my couch in the suburbs of Los Angeles with a roof over my head and no clouds in sight. My two dogs were asleep next to me. It became suddenly clear that figuring out what was going on at the intersection of my binational life was a futile exercise, at least for now. Instead, I thought of focusing on the single thread that ran through all my splits at the seams: dogs. My love of my canine family members and their love for me will be the subject of a future post.

2021 was a good year for my published work. For now, I am trying to close the door to the year 2021 as elegantly and productively as I can. During the first week of 2022, I learned that a very short fiction piece I had written last year will be anthologized by Poets’ Choice, an Indian publisher based in Mumbai, but two of the stories I wrote last year are still looking for a home.

Because I have been unusually exhausted for the last few months, I feared that I may not have the energy to keep writing in 2022. That was a depressing thought. I needed help, but I did not know how to articulate the type of help I needed regarding the future of my writing. Thankfully, I did remember how empowering and joyful it had been to work with Teresa Berkowitz, the editor of Tangled Locks Journal, and I reached out to her.

In the fall of 2021, I had the especially good fortune to have my short memoir, “Revenge Savings,” published by Tangled Locks Journal. Teresa is extremely supportive of my writing so I sent her my 2021 unpublished fiction and creative nonfiction for developmental feedback. Tangled Locks Journal has launched services to support writers including developmental editing and promotion.

I have been lucky to study and work with gifted English professors, but Teresa is truly the best editor I have met for both fiction and creative nonfiction, and she also works at baffling speed. Best of all, Teresa once again boosted my confidence. Her detailed feedback is also allowing me to reflect on the type of writing I want to pursue next.

I am welcoming in 2022 with renewed energy and, health permitting, I will be writing a short memoir this year.