The old woman smiled to herself as she savored her mouthful of champagne.
Then she peered across her champagne glass at her granddaughter Bethany as they sat enjoying the famous omelet of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy. Earlier they had climbed the island’s one main street, strolled through the abbey’s gardens, and observed the ebb and flow of the tides encircling the Norman architecture.
“A very satisfactory day, if I do say so myself,” the old woman said to her granddaughter. Expending her limited energy on the activities of this day seemed worth the effort.
“I am so glad you agreed to go on this trip,” she continued. “You need to see more of the world than the shopping malls of Los Angeles.”
Bethany nodded. Her light brown hair hugging her head reminded her grandmother of a style reminiscent of bathing caps in the days when women wore such things. Nowadays everyone jumped into those horrid chlorine-filled waters with no concern for the potential damage to their hair.
“Grandmother, tell me more about when you lived here in Normandy. Before you met Grandfather and he brought you back to America with him after the war.”
The old woman stared into her champagne glass, then looked up.
“A story that I have never told anyone else?”
“You have a secret?”
The old woman laughed, pleased at the ability to still surprise her granddaughter. “Many secrets. And now I will tell you one.”
The old woman began:
“It was the spring of 1972. I had come back to Normandy to see my mother. She was not well and I feared she would not live long. Your father was already in college and your grandfather was too busy with business to accompany me.
“The train from Paris sped through the countryside. At Caen a driver was to meet me and take me to my mother’s farmhouse.”
For a moment the old woman looked away from her granddaughter, her mind on a time before the war, before the Nazi occupation.
“The car was waiting and we drove north towards the beaches of Normandy. As I neared the town of Bayeux, I had an impulse. Why not stop in Bayeux and see the Bayeux Tapestry, which I had never seen?”
The old woman nodded at Bethany. “You know, of course, what the Bayeux Tapestry is?”
Bethany shook her head. Her helmet hair didn’t move. The old woman hoped her granddaughter didn’t use those hair sprays with their dreadful chemicals.
“Oh, dear, do you learn nothing today of culture and history?”
Bethany gave her one of those knowing smiles. “Grandmother, I learn all kinds of things. What is the Bayeux Tapestry?”
“It is actually not a woven tapestry but an embroidery 20 inches wide, 230 feet long. Made after William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066 to record the triumphant conquest of this duke of Normandy.”
“What does it have to do with your story?”
“Patience, my dear.” These young people had little appreciation for enjoying one’s meal — letting the taste of the champagne linger in the mouth.
“When I reached the museum that houses the tapestry, a movie production company from Germany was shooting in the room with the tapestry. The museum guard informed me that I could not enter the room as it was occupied. By Germans! Who won the war I ask you?”
The old woman glanced around at the other patrons. Perhaps she should lower her voice.
“I glared at the man. I was not to be stopped by a mere film company of Germans. I could be more German than the Germans. I demanded entrance.”
The old woman could see from Bethany’s expression that her granddaughter found it hard to imagine her grandmother asserting her rights.
“And the guard acquiesced,” the old woman continued, pleased to see Bethany’s reaction to this statement.
“He shooed all the Germans out of the gallery, then ushered me in. I walked the circumference of the room. There was nothing in the room except the tapestry. As I had always imagined, the stitchery and the scenes depicted were magnificent. It was well worth my display of imperiousness.”
“Then what happened?”
“Afterwards I walked towards the waiting car, ignoring the mutterings of the Germans complaining of the 10-minute delay in their shooting schedule. As I reached the car I expected the driver to jump out and open the door for me. Yet he did not. I leaned down to peer in the car window and was grabbed from behind. How dare the Germans!
“Instead of a German voice an unpleasant male voice told me in French to come with him now. And he stayed behind me and marched me down the street.”
The waiter suddenly hovered over their table, checking that they had no need of additional refreshments. The old woman smiled at the waiter and motioned him away.
“I could not turn around to see the man’s face. I had told no one in Normandy except my mother that I was coming. I had used my married name to book the driver. Who could this be?”
“Did the man hurt you, Grandmother?”
The old woman shook her head, motioning to her granddaughter not to interrupt.
“In front of a small house we stopped. The man reached around me, pushed open the door, and shoved me inside.
“It was then he released me. I turned around, and the air exploded from my lungs. It was Jean-Paul!”
“Must I remind you again to have patience. I am telling the story to you.”
The helmeted head of hair nodded.
“Jean-Paul said to me that after all this time he would have his revenge. I sank into a chair, asking shouldn’t the revenge be the other way around?
“His face was splotchy red as he accused me of costing his brother’s life, for which I had to pay.”
Bethany gasped. “Grandmother, what had you done?”
“Really, my dear, it was quite simple. During the war my younger sister and I worked for the French Resistance.”
“You did? You were only teenagers then.”
“Oh, yes, that was one of the advantages. Who would suspect such innocent-looking girls who worked on their family farm?”
“What did you do?”
“We would pedal around the countryside on our bicycles, delivering messages and supplies. At the time of the Allies’ invasion of Normandy we were given our most important mission — sabotaging the train cars on which the Germans moved their tanks. In this way the Germans could not bring tank reinforcements to the Normandy beaches.”
Bethany stared at the old woman. “Did your parents know what you were doing?”
“Oh, no, my dear. They would have thought it much too dangerous. My sister and I climbed out of our bedroom window each night. Our parents never suspected.”
Bethany laughed. Perhaps it was amusing to imagine one’s grandmother young and climbing out of windows.
“What happened with Jean-Paul’s brother?”
“My sister and I were to siphon off the axle oil and substitute an abrasive grease. The Germans disguised the train cars and did not guard them with soldiers in order to be less conspicuous.”
The old woman waved away the waiter who again advanced on their table. There would be no interruptions now.
“When we got to the first siding, Jean-Paul was there guarding the train cars. We were not surprised. We knew he was Milice.”
The old woman shook her head. Of course Bethany would not know this. “A paramilitary force created during the war by the Vichy regime to help fight against the French Resistance.”
“A Nazi collaborator?”
The old woman nodded.
“My sister went towards him wheeling her bicycle. She began flirting, saying she was out late, in spite of the curfew, because she had a rendezvous with a lover. Of course, the implication was that, if she was so easy, perhaps Jean-Paul too could have the same.
“While she was talking, I made my way behind the train cars and began siphoning off the axle oil. My hands trembled so that I could barely work.”
The old woman’s hand trembled on her champagne glass as if the memory brought back the fear. She sighed before going on.
“When I finally completed my task I signaled my sister with an owl’s hoot. She made some excuse, slipped from Jean Paul’s arms, and regained her bicycle. As she met me a few yards beyond the cars, I slid on the gravel and my bicycle tires screeched. Jean-Paul called to us to halt; we bicycled faster.
“He fired his gun, and still we pedaled away. A moment later a scream exploded behind us. Even for that we did not stop.”
“Did you get caught?”
The old woman shook her head. “The next day we learned what had happened. Jean-Paul had shot and killed his younger brother. The poor boy had been sent by their mama with cheese and a baguette and had gotten in the line of fire.”
Bethany’s face paled; she said nothing.
“Now, almost 30 years later, he stood across from me, accusing me of the murder of his brother. But even as he was accusing me he had the bad manners to use the familiar form of address in French.”
Clearly this comment did not impress Bethany because she said, “Grandmother, really, what did you do?”
“I laughed at him.”
“I need not bother with the likes of him. He was always a boorish, ignorant farmer.”
Bethany’s expression was one of concern. The old woman thought it pleasant that one’s offspring should actually appear to care.
“Didn’t your laughter make him angrier?” Bethany said. “Didn’t he try to hurt you?”
“He collapsed into a chair and cried, asking me how I could be so cruel. Tears streamed down his face.
“And I asked in turn how he could have been a collaborator. Were the extra rations or whatever he got worth being a traitor to his country?
“He slipped from the chair onto his knees in front of me, asking for my forgiveness. He said,‘I made a terrible mistake — and my brother paid for it.’”
“Did you forgive him?”
The old woman nodded. “I placed my hand on his shoulder and told him it was not for me to forgive him but for God.
“Then I walked out of the house and retraced my steps. I found my driver tied up behind a bush near the car and we continued our trip.”
“Oh, Grandmother!” Bethany clapped her hands. Either the child was indulging in too much champagne or she appreciated the story.
The old woman smiled. “I arrived at my mother’s farmhouse in time to spend two days with her before she died. I did not tell her the story of Jean-Paul. Why tell her a story she’d lived so many years without knowing?”
Bethany nodded as if this was the most reasonable decision. The old woman wondered what important events in Bethany’s own life she had decided not to tell her own mother.
“After my mother died, I took a bottle of champagne with me to the Normandy beaches where the Allies had landed. I stood at the top of Pointe du Hoc — such a steep cliff. The Americans who landed there climbed directly into the German guns, suffering monstrous casualties! I toasted those young men who spilled their blood to free France.”
The old woman smiled at her granddaughter. “And I toasted the French Resistance fighters who also sacrificed their lives for freedom.”
Note: The fictional World War II exploit of the old woman in this story was inspired by the information from: Weitz, Margaret Collins, “Sisters in the Resistance: How Women Fought to Free France 1940-1945” (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.,1995); Foot, M.R.D., “SOE: The Special Operations Executive 1940-46” (University Publication of America, 1986); and Ambrose, Stephen E., “D-Day, June 6, 1944; The Climactic Battle of World War II” (Simon and Schuster, 1994).
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© 2016 Miller Mosaic LLC
Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the author of fiction and nonfiction books/ebooks. Phyllis is available by skype for book group discussions and may be reached at email@example.com
Her Kindle fiction ebooks may be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszimblermiller — and her Kindle nonfiction ebooks may also be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszmiller