But for the living, life goes on. By 1947 Marie, as we should now call her, had become Mme Duchamp and was living in St Martin de Valamas.
She and her husband Joseph had seven children, the eldest of whom, Jean, is now living at La Fabrique in Villevocance. A relative told me that Marie held a sadness inside her, which is unsurprising considering what she had been through. She was widowed early and died in 1977 at the aged 54, the same age her father had been at the time of his death.
Zézé (now Thérèse) married her cousin André Banchet (Dédé in Riri’s letters) and moved to Morlanche to live with her new husband and her mother in law, a situation which cannot have been altogether easy, since the lady was rather ferocious by all accounts. But Thérèse had a sunny temperament and was able to adapt to her new surroundings. The couple had three children: first a boy, Alain, Brice’s father, followed by Monique and Cécile. They grew cherries, peaches and apricots and had a vineyard, which is now the heart of Brice and Lisa’s Domaine de Morlanche.
Morlanche is just two fields away from uncle Firmin’s house where Thérèse and Marie had lived for a while during the early part of the war.
The house did not hold happy memories for Thérèse. Firmin had died in 1945 but her aunt Victorine lived on until 1961. I doubt that her niece visited more than necessary. Victorine was childless and she seems to have been very severe with the two girls. Mme Banchet told us that her aunt was in the habit of removing the bulb from their bedroom light to prevent the two sisters from reading after hours.
Mme Banchet, as she was to us, had a great deal of style, without being “stylish”. Her beautiful grey hair was always perfectly in place, as befitted the wife of a farmer of standing and the Mayor of Arlebosc, a function which M Banchet fulfilled for many years. She was sociable and friendly, sharing recipes, knitting patterns and local tips with us, and keeping us up to date with news of her children, grandchildren and later great-grandchildren, to all of whom she was devoted. If we were away at Christmas she would send us a chatty New Year card, beautifully written in curly French script and with a fountain pen.
She raised rabbits for the pot, but was too tender hearted to kill them, relying on a neighbour to do the necessary deed and in the spring we would meet her in the fields collecting lambs’ lettuce as a treat for them. Most of the rabbits were sent to market but sometimes she would cook one on the barbecue in the summer “with mustard, once they reach a good round two and a half kilos” and she always made rabbit stew for the family lunch at the end of the vendange.
The past, although never forgotten, could not be altered and she believed in living in the present and looking to the future. We became very fond of her although I, being British, felt uncomfortable for some time, knowing that her brothers had died in Dresden. But for her the thing was clear. The fault was with the Germans. Germany had started the war and if there had been no war her brothers would not have been sent away to die in the land of the enemy.
She made no distinction between the country and its people, as this little incident demonstrates. The Arlebosc Seniors’ club had organized a trip to Austria and M and Mme Banchet had signed up to go. But Mme Banchet wanted our advice on a particular problem. An excursion was planned from Innsbruck to Salzburg, which involves crossing through Germany. She asked us to show her on a map exactly what route the bus would take so that, as she said “I can shut my eyes. I have no wish to see anything of that country”. We cannot say of course if she actually did so, but it is telling.
Mme Banchet died on 24th January 2014 after, I think, a happy life. For the last few years she lived in a delightful little facility in St Félicien, at first with her husband and then, after he died, on her own. We often visited her and this picture was taken there in May 2012.
And it was here that something very remarkable happened. One of the care assistants became very close to Mme Banchet. She would come to visit on her days off and send cards and messages if she went away on holiday. Mme Banchet often talked to us about E, mentioning her kindness, empathy and sense of humour. Sometimes E retuned home to visit her family and Mme Banchet, who was a fiend for texting, insisted that she should send text messages during the journey so that she could follow her progress. She told us about it and said “Yes, she sent a message when she had crossed the border into Germany“.
For E was German.
I find it very touching that at the end of her life and after all that had happened, Mme Banchet found in this friendship a sense of reconciliation and peace, the last chapter in the story of her two lost brothers.
The header image of this final post is of an admittedly rather cheesy mural, painted on the wall behind the war memorial in Villevocance on which Riri and Fonfon’s names are inscribed. I think it may have been done in the late eighties, when the Cold War was coming to an end and it looked as though a lasting peace in Europe was finally possible.
And yet here we are again. The paint is peeling off the dove and ordinary people’s lives are being shattered once more in a senseless war raging on our continent. Families are being torn apart, brothers, husbands and fathers sent away, their wives and children living as refugees in countries far from their own. Certainly they can keep in touch via social media in real time, but the anguish and yearning for home and a normal life are the same as they were for Riri and Fonfon. Human experience doesn’t change.
I can only hope that once this conflict is over someone will repaint the dove, and that this time the paint will stick.
A Final Note
I am very grateful to Brice Banchet for allowing me to read and use his great-uncles’ correspondence to tell the story of Riri and Fonfon and for sharing family photos with me. It has been an immense privilege to re live their final years: seeing with their eyes and hearing their voices restores a little of what they were and what it meant to experience those terrible times.
My thanks also to Frau Hemm of the Neuer Katholischer Friedhof Dresden.
I am indebted to Hadley Freeman and her book House of Glass which gave me an idea of how to approach a family memoir like this one.
And of course, as always, an immense thank you to Markus for having patiently listened to me, proof-read, made excellent suggestions for clarifications and corrections and generally encouraged me to get on with it. All errors, both of fact and interpretation, are indisputably my own.