Jeanne Duclos was a formidable woman. She survived World War II, the loss of a husband and the Paris exodus. Having seen death at close range she still lived to a hundred. She was my lighthouse in turbulent seas, my sunshine on a cold wintry day, my moonlight on a dark silent night, but most of all, she was my grandmother and only relative.
My mother, Sophie Duclos, had passed away when I was still young enough to believe that death was not final, that our memories linger on and that our hearts forever hold the images of those we have loved. Maman had been a distant figure that came and went, never settling long enough to make roots anywhere, she was also full of appetite for life as if she knew that she must make the most of it before it was too late. We were never sure who my father was as my mother was an extremely beautiful woman with an everlasting entourage of lovers that she picked up and discarded within weeks, sometimes days. Whenever she was not travelling around France (or Italy or Spain depending on her latest fling) she would visit for my birthday and occasionally at Christmas bringing with her a multitude of sumptuous gifts. Sophie Duclos was a whirlwind of a woman, a forever young girl with an unquenching ‘joie de vivre’.
I never knew of any other family member but these two women. Of course, I was curious about my grandfather, Henri Duclos who had been killed during the war in a raid to bomb an arms factory occupied by the German. She was always very vague about anything that happened before the war ended and I knew not to pursue her with my questioning as she often ended my string of queries by saying ‘It does not matter, they are all dead.’ With the years I sensed that she was reluctant to revisit the past and put it down to the atrocities she had witnessed both in the capital and on her long journey south to escape the cold grip of the German occupation. There were no photos either for me to relate to any family of sorts, they had not survived the war. I had a happy childhood, nevertheless and today on my way back from the cemetery I realised that I was truly an orphan; Jeannote, as I called her, was no more.
The house was the same as always, a typical “Soulacaise” villa built of bricks and timber and surrounded by a large garden filled with pine trees. My home town is a little seaside resort on the Atlantic coast at the tip of the Medoc peninsula, nestled between the ocean and the Gironde river, an ancient settlement with its’ own XII century church that sustained the passing of time by being buried under the sand. Jeannote had lived here for 80 years and was well respected by the local community. Many changes had taken place over the years but the town has managed to retain its’ charm, despite the surge of overbuilding that assailed most of the neighbouring sea-looking settlements during the 80s and 90s. In winter, there were merely 3,000 souls but the summer months saw a surge in population and the locals calmly reclaimed their area come September.
As I opened the front door after 5 years of absence, I could almost hear my grandmother’s strong voice; ‘Is that you Alice?’. ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘I’m home’. Memories came flooding, me aged 10 hiding behind the door trying to surprise her, my first communion and the wonderful dress she had made for me, my 15th birthday party with all my friends dressed up in the 1920’s fashion giggling, eating cake, drinking lemonade, and the much grander affair of my 20th celebration with marquee on the grounds, waiters and a lot of champagne. The house was stirring with happy history. Jeannote had died peacefully in her sleep. She had said last week that she felt her time was up but she did not fear death. I travelled every room and ended up in her bedroom still full of her presence. Everything was as neat as ever, her dislike for ornaments legendary and she called these “feeble decorations for those lacking imagination”. I would have to sort out the house at some stage and decide what to keep, give or throw away but today was a trip down memory lane. Sitting on her bed, I looked around and noticed an envelope on the bedside cabinet, it had my name on it, so I opened it.
Things are not always as they seem, as my time nears its end I feel you must learn your story.
In the attic, stands the large wardrobe that you so feared when you were little. Behind the old pile of linen, there is a hatch. Open it and take out the box. It will tell you who you really are.
Please forgive me if you can, I never meant to hurt anyone and I have loved you and your mother very much.
Try not to judge me too harshly, I did what I had to do. It is up to you to understand this.
The wardrobe in the attic was glaring at me, daring me to overcome my fear but at almost 50, your childhood fears are a lot less pronounced. Behind the linen, the latch I never knew existed was revealed. I opened it and removed the box, it was light. Taking it downstairs, grabbing a bottle of Medoc on my way to the kitchen, I settled at the vast oak table close to the range. It was the lightest room in the house, the kind of room that would chase anyone’s demons and replace them with a sense of heady cosiness. The box contained 2 photographs, 3 postcards and a diary.
The pictures showed the same handsome couple. The first one was taken by the Eiffel tower and the second one in front of a church. The woman was wearing a pale dress and the man a dark suit. Turning them over I read in my grandmother’s writing Marion and Per’ engagement February 1939 and Marion and Per wedding July 1939. All three postcards were signed Per and had been sent from Denmark in April 1940. ‘Who was Per?’ I asked myself, ‘and why only three postcards?’ Placing them in date order, I started reading them;
I already miss my beautiful wife. It has only been a few days but it feels much longer. Things seem to be almost normal here. We sense there is a presence but is not overwhelming. My parents and brothers were pleased to see me and cannot wait to meet their new daughter.
I love you more!
The second postcard was a little bit less optimistic;
I wish I had not returned out of duty for my country and family. We are under scrutiny and fear the worst. Some of my friends have gone missing. I must try to come back to you soon.
I love you even more!
The third one had a tone of imminent gloom;
Dreadful news, my parents are dead, I cannot tell you more at this stage. I have a passage booked on a ship to Le Havre in a week’s time. If you have not heard from me in 2 weeks, you must travel south to safety for your sake and that of our child.
I love you forever.
The second glass of wine drank, puzzlement was second to none in my mind. What was all this about? Who were these people? Why had Jeannote left me this correspondence to read? Perhaps the diary would cast a furtive light on my questions. The book was thin and did not look as though it were old.
I began reading it with my third glass of Medoc;
“My name is Marion Leclerc. In 1939 I married my beloved Per. I never heard from him again after the last postcard. I was heavily pregnant but intent on staying in Paris for a little while longer. It was April and the bombing has started. Our house was hit one evening before I had a chance to move my heavy body through the door towards the safety of the shelter. I survived but our child did not. It was a little girl. How Per would have loved her. Some kind souls took pity on me, housed and fed me. I didn’t care, my life was over. Days later my friends guided me outside long before day break, a cart full of meagre possessions. We trailed silently through the streets, not speaking, heading for Rheims were someone would see us to the Languedoc a few days later. That’s when I met Jeanne Duclos and her newly born daughter, Sophie.”
‘So,’ I thought ‘this is what it is all about, my grandmother was this Jeanne Marion was describing. ‘How strange, though that she never mentioned her before, surely she was a friend.’
“Jeanne had lost her husband during a resistance raid to a bomb factory. She was very sad and listless but the baby was so sweet. Little Sophie was a dream child, only days old and not crying, content to silently watch and study her surroundings. Jeanne and I soon became friends; she would tell me of her final destination Soulac, a gentle seaside retreat where her husband family owned a villa, although she had not met them yet. She had married Henri just over 9 months earlier and his parents had already left for the south west coast by then but they were expecting Jeanne and their granddaughter. She showed me the letter she had received describing the house and how their arrival would be a welcome distraction in these dreadful times to help them overcome the death of their oldest son, they could heal together. A few days passed, we were travelling slowly, silently, avoiding towns and relying on the kindness of farmers for what little food they could spare, sleeping in barns during the day and moving across fields at night. We were now south of Bourges and soon our paths would separate and I felt I could not continue the journey without a least a friend by my side. The bombings were still a strong threat even though they seemed to occur less the further south we moved. As we walked, we would occasionally come across bodies left to rot by the side of a ditch or a on dirt track, people of all ages, fear stamped across their open eyes.
One evening Jeanne asked if I could carry Sophie for a while as she was exhausted. I did not need to be asked twice, this little bundle had woken me from the dreadful lethargy that had taken hold of me, now I finally thought that I might want to carry on living. By then Jeanne had decided that I must go with them and that together we may be able to help one another survive. We heard them coming at the last moment, it was just dusk by then and the low clouds were muffling the engines’ throaty roar. Everyone jumped to the ground, lying down in the hope they would think us already dead. Perhaps they had seen us moving moments before, perhaps out of a perverse game of shooting they decided to make another target practice but the shooting did start and the noise was terrible. And then, as quickly as it had started, the noise fell away, there was complete silence. From where I lay under the clump of a big fallen tree clutching Sophie to my chest, I could not see or hear anything. Another few minutes passed and I tentatively stood up calling softly to Jeanne and our companions. No reply came, no sound, no cry, nothing. It took me a while to check on everyone and my worst fears had materialised, they were all dead! Jeanne, our traveling friends, our guide, Sophie and I were the only survivors. I wailed and the baby started crying too. Then I stopped. What was I to do? We were somewhere west of Limoges. What happened afterwards felt like a dream, my body possessed by some unbelievable drive to get us away and reach our destination. I searched the bodies frantically, first finding a map and instructions to travel to Bordeaux, and the papers Jeanne was carrying. Within half an hour I had become Jeanne Duclos, mother of Sophie, widow of Henri on my way to Soulac, Marion Leclerc lying dead by the side of the road.”
I dropped the diary in shock. How could this woman, this stranger, dare do this to my family? Rage was making me shake, my world had shattered, nothing was as it seemed. Then I remembered the letter Jeannote had left me and with great effort picked up the diary to continue reading.
“I do not remember how we travelled, I was in a trance, an automate with one goal in mind, reaching Soulac with Sophie. Had I become insane with shock? For a few months after we arrived, I truly believed I was Jeanne and Sophie my baby but memories started to break through little by little, until I finally remembered. By then it was too late to backtrack, how was I to explain that I had suffered a personality swap as a result of shock? No-one would believe me. I decided to say nothing and continued to play my new life. The rest of the story, you know. Had I done these people a great injustice or had I enabled life to unfold in an easier manner? Sophie grew up with her real grandparents, yourself Alice are a true Duclos, I have not acted for my own benefit, merely carried on living for what I hope you will consider as a sacrifice as I denied myself my own life. Yes, I lived whilst you grandmother had died but do you not think that I only lived for her and through her, forgetting entirely who I had been? Do not judge me harshly, I never judged anyone!”
Yes, I must admit Jeannote never had a harsh word for anyone and would not allow me to criticise others. Still, I found it hard to swallow and it would take me a while to get used to the idea of this usurpation of identity, that’s how I see it.
Over the next few days, I re-read the diary and as I read it over and over I started to empathise with my fake grandmother. I had not yet forgiven her but at least I could start to understand her. When the doorbell rang I had to shake myself from the past to open the door to whoever was disturbing my peace. The man at the door must have been in his late fifties but I was sure I did not know him. When he said he had a message for me from my grandmother, I let him in and listened carefully;
‘I am a private detective and for the past 10 years, I have been employed by Jeanne Duclos to track down her husband’s younger brother Pierre who was deported to a work camp in Germany in 1939 and never heard from since. Jeanne, or rather Marion Leclerc as we both now know her, told me the truth from the onset. She was intent on finding your true family no matter what it cost. She said she owed it to herself to set things right. I took me a long time to track Pierre down, all we knew was that he had been taken to Dresden. Finally, after years of false leads, I found him and his extended family. When the war ended he was working on a farm and married a local girl. Pierre tried to find his family but his letters remained unanswered and he learnt that Henri had died fighting for the resistance. He assumed his parents had been killed too. Your grandmother wrote to me about a month ago asking me to do two things; first I had to visit your German relatives and explain everything, then my last mission was to give you one final letter from her.’
‘My dearest Alice,
You probably thought you had finally heard the last of me. You should know me better, I don’t give up that easily! Perhaps you are still angry with me, I hope not, your happiness is of the utmost importance and if I loved your mother as if she were my own child, you truly felt like a granddaughter to me, never forget that.
Now, I hear that you have a very large family eager to meet you, waste no time! I shall be by your side, always.
It was typical of her, logical, optimistic and generous. How could I judge her, she had given up her life to carry forward the memories of the dead and in a last attempt at redemption, finally reunited a long-ago separated family. As the sun was setting on the sea I had a last recollection of a summer evening on the terrace, sharing a glass of Chateau Pontet-Canet with my grandmother when she turned towards me and with a twinkle in her eyes said; ‘I am one of the lucky ones, I got to choose who to be.’ It all makes sense now.
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!