In French, the word “histoire” means both “history” and “story.”
Now that I’m an adult I realize how fortunate I have been to have several French teachers and professors who taught histoire through histoires.
The best histoires I heard about French histoire, however, came from my parents.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
My dad is no longer here to tell me another story about the war he never forgot.
Both my parents grew up in small villages in Normandy, an hour away from the coast. Children during WWII, they understood early on the meaning of the words “enemy” and “occupant” and the need to be resourceful, but they remained children, acting like children, despite the war.
My dad and his friends invented their own coded language that they used when passing German soldiers on their way to school. With polite smiles and nods, they were in fact insulting them. When school closed because of the frequent bombing, they wandered around and got to know some of the soldiers who having left kids at home missed them and played with the little French kids.
When his mother was ordered to kill her hens, chickens, and ducks for a banquet in honor of a German officer, my dad managed to hide two chickens in a box. Panicked, the birds started to cluck loudly, triggering a soldier’s attention. To distract him from searching, my father imitated a chicken and started to cackle and squawk even louder. His imitation made the soldier laugh and he stopped looking around.
During the war my grandfather hid a radio in the loft about the barn where he listened to the news that kept the French updated on the war. One day, toward the end of the war, a German soldier asked my grandfather if he listened to the radio. My grandfather said that he didn’t understand what the man was talking about, implying that the soldier spoke broken French. My dad, believing that his father would be in trouble, blurted out that he could walk the soldier to the loft. Fortunately, the soldier’s French was indeed poor and he didn’t pay attention to my dad.
On D-Day deafening sounds woke up my dad. He was afraid of storms and ran to his parents, already up and outside, eyes lifted to the sky where planes could be seen and heard.
“It’s today,” my grandfather told my dad. “The Allies are coming. The war will end.”
The battle raged and my dad told me that although he was scared, he was also a kid who believed what his parents told him. So as bombs exploded and planes zoomed through the sky, he waited and waited for the war to be over.
My mom’s stories were more dramatic because she had lost her father when she was a little girl. My grandmother was taking care of her seven children with the help of my great grandmother. Without a man at home, my mom had less physical freedom than my father.
My great grandmother had known WWI and decided to flee at the beginning of the war when she heard that the Germans were back. It was a Sunday and she loaded the family, precious belongings, the pot of hot cocoa she only prepared on Sundays in the horse carriage, and took off. She said that the Germans would never drink her homemade cocoa. However they were ordered to go home when they bumped into the Germans making their entrance in town.
Later on, the family had to evacuate a few times when bombing was too dangerous. Once when they returned home, my mom found a German soldier lying on the floor in one room of the house. She didn’t realize that he was dead and thought he was asleep. My great grandmother carried him out of the bedroom herself. My mom never asked what she did with the corpse.
At the liberation, my mom was considered too young to go dancing but she chewed her first gum and her older friends smoked their first cigarettes. Her young uncle prisoner during the war returned home. My mom was overjoyed to see him but disappointed when he called her mademoiselle. Four years had passed.
When I grew up I laughed when my mom blocked her ears whenever a plane broke the sound barrier. One day she told me why, and I stopped making fun of her.
My dad took me often for long walks on the Normandy beaches where he told me about growing up during a war. The beaches there are lovely and lively in the summer.
My children were shocked to see people play, swim, sunbathe, and just have fun, where so many young men died on D-Day.
My parents told them that life has to go on and be lived, and that it isn’t disrespectful to enjoy the beaches so many years after the end of the war.
In 1994, when my parents visited my family, recently settled in California, my dad brought something for me in his suitcase.
Histoire is alive through histoires.