Time is passing and the season is beginning to turn. The summer was hot but very brief and now it’s getting chilly. The parcel has finally arrived, Riri and Fonfon are grateful for the jumpers and already they are thinking ahead to the winter months when the temperature will plummet. “All the houses here have double windows … we will soon have to ask you to send us our winter coats and scarves because we have no intention of dying of cold out here.” They also ask their sisters to make them a sheet sleeping bag each and provide measurements and instructions with a little drawing in case the girls don’t know what a sleeping bag is. “Oh, and can you please send 2 or 3 sturdy combs, ours has fallen to bits, and a shaving soap and brush, which you will find in our cupboard in Arlebosc, such things are almost impossible to find here.”
Several letters from home seem to have gone astray or crossed and the disjointed communication inevitably leads to some frustration on both sides. At home the worry is that the boys are starving, so they are at pains once again to reassure the family that they are both well and still getting 3kg of potatoes each per day. That sounds a lot, but maybe it’s not if that is all you are getting. But they are tired and short of sleep: when they are on the night shift they only sleep 5 or 6 hours a day. The brothers are realistic about the coming months: “You asked us not to request that you send us things from Arlebosc but the thing is, even if we don’t spend the whole winter here, we will certainly be here for part of it …..”
Their letters are getting longer, the writing closely packed on the cheap paper which is all they can get their hands on, still neat and regularly sloping, as they have been taught. Can Toutou and Zézé picture the barrack huts where their brothers are writing, tired after their long hours of work, by the light of an oil lamp? The brothers frequently mention that there is no shortage of fuel to stoke the coal stove which heats the hut. At least they will be warm in their quarters. There seem to be around 12 men in each hut, the most recent arrivals are “French hairdressers who have been transferred from another place in Germany, so at least we can get a shave and a haircut for free,” and probably a very stylish cut into the bargain!
But they think more and more longingly of home. On September 10th an anniversary Mass is held in Arlebosc for their aunt Nini, who died the previous year. Riri and Fonfon will not be able to go to church on that day because of work, but they will be thinking of the family and their aunt. “How much it would have pained her to know that we are so far away, but we can be sure that she is looking down and protecting us all from above”. They send greetings to everyone, including cousins and “the whole tribe” with a special mention for Oncle Louis and Tante Augusta, whose health is still causing concern.
On a lighter note, they have run into FM, the seminarist from Arlebosc, who has been “sent” to Dresden. They are delighted to see a face from home and are spending all their free time together. It is unclear why this young man is in Dresden: around 150 priests were deported from France to Dachau as a result of their support for the Resistance, but this must be a different situation.
On the other hand the address that they were sent for their cousin Charles turned out to be incorrect, however his brother Dédé (André, Brice’s grandfather) has supplied another one. There is no further mention of Charles in the letters so they probably did not manage to make contact. This could have been because their cousin had already escaped from his prison camp. He was one of several POWs, including our neighbour Roger’s father, who managed to escape and made it back to Arlebosc.
On Sunday October 3rd Riri and Fonfon write a special letter to Zézé. At Mass that morning they realised that it is her Saint’s Day, Ste Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus, and they want to wish her “une bonne fête”. They have prayed for her at Mass and, although they cannot give her a present, they promise to do better next year when they will all be together and “this nightmare will be over”. Perhaps they mean the war rather than their personal situation because they are quick to correct themselves: “We aren’t complaining, we are still fine”. But they long for their sisters and they are clearly feeling homesick. They imagine the girls keeping house: how wonderful it will be to see them again; they will stay up talking all night. Letters are taking longer to arrive, up to a month, which makes the distance between them seem all the greater.
St Theresa of Lisieux, a young Carmelite nun who died in 1897, was fast-tracked to sainthood and canonised in May 1925. She rapidly became one of the most popular saints of the twentieth century and it is reasonable to suppose that Zézé, born in July of the same year, was named after her. Her feast day is now celebrated on October 1st after a revision of the Catholic calendar in 1969.
We knew Zézé, (Mme Banchet as she was then, Brice’s grandmother), very well. Until the very end of her long life she never missed sending special greetings on someone’s Saint’s Day. She would post floral cards, with a personal note in her impeccable handwriting and later sent text messages – she was a dab hand with a mobile phone. And woe betide the recipient who did not reply immediately: her nephew, an eminent notaire might be in an important meeting, peu importe, his aunt expected an instant response!
All images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.