Childless in War

Marie S. was born in 1870 in a small town forty miles north of Paris. Looking back at her early years in a letter to cousins she had never met, Marie did not provide any explanation or comment about remaining single and childless. A sad childhood due to the long illness of her father gave way to a studious youth and a fulfilling career as a teacher. Such a pathway had recently opened to young women of promise, as universal schooling dating from the 1880s required an influx of teachers. Marie served as director of a local school for twenty-five years and retired at age sixty after forty years of service in the same schoolhouse. She reported to her cousins the crucial dates in her life: her father’s death (age 12), the Great War (ages 44-48), her mother’s death (age 55), and World War II (ages 69-74). The reproductive years barely merit a mention; it’s not clear whether they are too painful, too much of a blur or just not important.

In her retirement, Marie was pleased with her situation, living alone yet surrounded by friends and former students. In her late sixties she managed the house for herself, with hired help only for the heaviest of tasks.[1] She suffered from heart problems, and the winter could be cold enough to freeze a cup of coffee overnight, but she laughed off hardship: “if I’d put sugar in it, it would have made a proper coffee ice cream.”[2] Although Marie stayed in one spot, books, the mail and the radio brought the world to her. In her retirement she especially reading literary talks from the Sorbonne and listened to religious radio programs “of all confessions,” and classical music programs, “for, in art, I am hardly modern.”[3]

Marie’s town had not always been so quiet. During the Great War, she lived thirty miles from the Western Front. French soldiers billeted in her school’s outlying buildings, and during vacation periods took over classrooms as well. She witnessed the invasion of 1914 and shepherded her students into cellars during bombardments. Through it all, she never missed a day, remaining a firm presence amid the turmoil for her two hundred charges.[4] They repaid her fortitude with regular visits during her retirement, bringing azaleas and roses to celebrate the new year.[5]

In the late 1930s, the radio and newspaper kept Marie apprised of the threat of war. Her physical strength worried her more than her morale: “I’ve regained my war mentality from 25 years ago, but not my 44 years.”[6] Still, she vowed, “it’s better to live and to die chez soi.”[7]

When the Germans invaded in May 1940, Marie's town became a target for bombardment due to its factories and proximity to a major rail line. Marie stayed for a week under daily bombardment until the order to evacuate. She was able to secure a midnight ride on a truck to Paris and from there moved with old friends to a house on the edge of the forest of Fontainebleau.[8] From there she was soon evacuated again, this time to Orleans, where bombardment forced her to take refuge with two wounded nuns. For thirty-six hours, the women sheltered without food or water. One of the nuns died two weeks later, “almost in my arms.”[9] Her old friend, with whom she had going to Fontainebleau, returned to Paris three months later with an amputated arm.

Marie herself returned home after six weeks to a house that had been open to all comers during the invasion. During the harsh winter that followed she quartered a Pomeranian soldier.[10] Now she silenced her radio and only glanced at newspaper headlines. For four long years she found distraction from fear through books and intense and the direct observation of her town.[11] After D-Day in June 1944, the bombardment returned but Marie remained at home and managed to survive unscathed.[12]  [1] Association pour l'Autobiographie 3141, January 5, 1937, 8. [2] APA 3141, [early 1939], 12. [3] APA 3141, January 3 [1936], 7. [4] APA 3141, July 18, 1935, 5. [5] APA 3141, [early 1939], 12. [6] APA 3141, September 12, 1939, 14. [7] APA 3141, October 10, 1939, 15. [8] APA 3141, June 4, 1940, 17. [9] APA 3141, June 20, 1941, 18. [10] APA 3141, June 20, 1941, 18. [11] APA 3141, September 21, 1941, 19. [12] APA 3141, October 20, 1944, 23.

#France #WorldWarI #WorldWarII #oldage

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© 2016 by Rachel Chrastil