|From a picture? Or real life?|
End of 1944.
The day my uncle Claude arrived at his future in-laws’ house to ask for his beloved Mony’s hand in marriage to Grand-Père, they run into each other on the doorstep.
Grand-Père was handcuffed and leaving his house surrounded by cops.
‘Don’t worry, Claude,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back in less than one hour. Wait for me, please.’
I’ve heard this story many, many times. It was hilarious because Oncle Claude was a very important man at the time and it was hilarious to those of us (in the family) who were old enough to remember Grand-Père’s arrogance.
He was back in less than one hour and he gave Mony’s hand in marriage to Claude who was still very much in love with my aunt.
You see, Grand-Père had been given away to the police by ‘nice’ neighbors who believed or chose to believe he had been a collaborationist during the war.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Grand-Père was a hero. This is the part where my heart goes to him even though he never was a very good husband, father or grandfather. Not because he became a hero but because of the path he chose to follow, which must have been a very hard choice to make.
In 1939, he could have carried on with his career in France even though the country was briefly at war with the Germans. Instead he enlisted in the Air Force again. (He was a fighter pilot this time.)
When France was defeated and invaded, when Paris became German, he could have stayed in France to carry on with his career again like so many French actors did at that time.
He could also have flown back to Hollywood and spent the war peacefully there like some of his friends did.
He did get back to the States and... enlisted in the American Army and then in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). He became a spy, was flown over to France several times.
There he organized units to fight the Germans and prepare the Normandy landings. And he went to war with his men.
How do I know all those things about him, who never talked?
Well, I do not know the detailed story. None of us ever did. I imagine I could do some research about him though.
But as I said before, there were old unopened boxes in my basement. I went through them a couple of weeks ago.
There were pictures, lots of pictures. Here is one of them.
One of them was a citation - it says that he was made ‘commandeur’ of the ‘Légion d’Honneur’ on the 19th of January, 1946.
Because since 1941, he had been a Resistance fighter. He had gone underground to train, equip and lead more than 3.000 men to battle. Awesome. Simply awesome.
Then they talk about his powerful influence as an officer and his exceptional talent of leadership.
So he was made ‘commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur’ and awarded the Military Cross with a bar.
The reason why I’m telling all this is not because he got so many prestigious medals (he got a few more from the American Government). The reason I’m telling this is because it helped me understand him a little bit better.
I’ve said before that he was a hard man, humiliating his family and his close relations. I now believe he was deeply suffering from what happened after the war.
France had been collaborationist. He had chosen to fight along the American army. He didn’t cross the Channel to fight with Général de Gaulle. He was a free spirit, maybe a little bit lost and driven by the many heroic parts he had played all his life long.
After the war, France tried very hard to forget its horrifying recent past. Four years spent to make friends and more with the Nazis.
People like him did not belong anywhere. They could no longer fit into the French society which was bent to forget the past very easily, too easily.
So he quit acting. Oncle Claude hired him in his company. And he became a very lonely man. Which in turn brought anger and harshness.
When he died, we did not cry very much. Grand-Père was gone, so what?
We never grasped his human qualities nor his fortitude. Someone in the family started calling him: ‘The screen giant’. And a ‘screen giant’ he had been. Too bad we never started to think about the man himself.
When he died in 1971, he left 8 grandchildren. I was the third one. But I was the only one who received something personal from him: a notebook in which he wrote quotes from the books he used to read when I was a young girl. Because he knew I loved to read so much and that I was always filling notebooks with quotes too.
It is dedicated - ‘To Marie-Christine Normand, my granddaughter’.
There is a Marcus Aurelius quote as an epigraph:
‘The time is not far when you will have forgotten everything. The time is not far either when everyone will have forgotten you.’
Believe it or not, it took me forty years to realize that he had been so right to have written this quote when he did (shortly after leaving his old life behind him).
I was standing in my basement and I started to cry while holding this notebook filled with his writing, steady hand at first, wobbly hand in the end.
Grand-Père was a hero. But we never understood what kind of a hero he was. We never understood his suffering and his deep wounds. He was a man in pain which we mistook for anger and harshness. Maybe because he really was harsh and angry from time to time though.
*Good Luck, and Good Night*