Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fallen Leaves

I have loved the fall season, most especially when I lived in Sun Valley, Idaho because it was the 'shoulder season' - a bridge between the summer tourists enjoying everything the Wood River Valley had to offer and the frenetic pace of service for the winter skiers. With more rainy days, now I am spending time researching and writing, my own kind of shoulder season before the holidays.

The nights are also cooler, but not enough for me to get out my down quilt. Just enough for my pal Maksim to meow around 10 p.m. to order me to get into bed so he can snuggle up next to my legs.
Maksim, a large grey adopted cat, always has this look of
surprise, as if he should have a text cloud above his head.

The leaves have begun to turn, some curling up their edges as if burnt by the heat of summer, some proclaiming the advent of another season with brilliant oranges or red and many simply fall to the ground, pale from the lack of chlorophyll and receding sunlight.

My duties as caregiver to an elderly woman have been partially relieved as she has been placed in Assisted Living, though for her it is really much more care than that. We sit in the fading light of the afternoon and talk about when she will 'get out of this place,' and both of us don't discuss how that might happen.

Mrs. R, as I will call her, is widowed and her seasons are like the words in "September Song" where the days whittle down to a precious few as her bones resist any movement. Her son came by and asked if she had her hearing aid on. She and I chuckled privately at this potential for a silly exchange and I marveled once more at her ability to harness her wit to her will, still.  I said to him, "I wonder that she really needs the hearing aids as I have witnessed your mother's ability to almost hear the deer tiptoeing across the golf course." She smiled at the compliment and he pulled himself up and said, "I am still blessed with good hearing as well." (I thought to myself words my grandmother spoke to me: "Hearing is not the same as listening.")
Fall fog set off this ancient truck at the nearby dairy farm.

It was August, 1914, almost one hundred years ago, when war was declared by the Germans against Russia, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, in Sarajevo, then the capital of Austro-Hungary's province of Bosnia and Herzegovina. My mother, born in February of 1913, was just beginning to toddle around, the last of four children of Elsa and Alain. My mother's father was French, nobly born and an honorable man. He worked as a metallurgist in Chicago, Illinois, and was near-sighted. This history lesson does have a point, hang in with me.

Alain, learning of the declaration of war, had graduated from a French military college and told his wife that his country would need him. There was an alliance between the French and the Russians so Alain knew all the young men of France would be called up to serve. The leaves of autumn in New Hampshire at the summer house of my grandparents would soon be turning, and it was decided that the family would make that their base of operations, closer to Boston and other family members. My grandmother hired a young woman to help tend her children and began to prepare for her husband's departure.

Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm told his troops they would be "home before the leaves have fallen from the trees," and other leaders of opposing forces parroted essentially the same message - useful propaganda to encourage enlistments, to minimize the seriousness of the conflict and thus high-spirited youthful, inexperienced men quickly responded to their country's call for manpower.

Alain, too, fell under the spell of "my homeland needs me," and returned to France. Whether he fought at Ypres under Ferdinand Foch, Commander of the French Northern Armies, or someplace else, he like everyone experienced the harsh November winds blowing hard across the battlefields in Europe. Everyone was complaining about the rain and mud and it was an unusually wet and grim winter, "Not good weather for war," one newspaper shouted in the headlines. At some point, Alain sustained an injury that removed him from the battlefield. (I recall my grandmother telling me he was poisoned with mustard gas which injured his eyes, but my research shows no use of that poison until 1917. It might have been chlorine, however, as the Germans did use that gas at Ypres in the spring of 1915. His nearsightedness certainly didn't help matters.)

Grandmother Elsa left her children behind in New Hampshire, under the care of the young woman, and caught a ship for France to work in the hospitals. This was an acceptable way for her to be near her husband and to meet her own desire to be of assistance. The wet winter was not relieved by a drier spring, and the 12 make-shift hospitals in Dinard, France where she was serving were overwhelmed with injured and dying men and refugees from the war.

Once Alain was well enough, he volunteered for a return to service in the ambulance corps, acting as a translator between the French and American Red Cross and helping to move supplies around as needed.

The family story, which has some gaps, is that Alain, Elsa, and a doctor were in Paris, most likely to pick up supplies from a ship arriving from America in order to move those items to hospitals that needed them. The scheduled driver failed to turn up and they were given someone else, a young man that I had heard in this story over and over again was "driving too fast."

I found this photo of a PreWar (1913) Philos Ballot Double Phaeton for
sale. This was a French manufactured vehicle and as you can see, if it
flipped over, there was no protection for the occupants.
At any rate, the wet weather and lack of prudence along with the high-aspect cars equipped with slippery tires resulted in the motor car turning over, tossing all the occupants out. Elsa was only slightly hurt, the doctor was hurt seriously and would die much later from his injuries, but Alain's neck was broken, which he apparently knew and remarked of it to Elsa. When people came to help, not knowing how to prevent injuring him further, they moved him too roughly and he died instantly, a devastation for my grandmother.

I suspect the reason she stayed in Dinard to continue her Red Cross nursing work was so that she could be close to her in-laws, and to assuage her grief by doing something purposeful. But the stories she told of the smells of the injured, the attempts to save the hundreds who were dying from their wounds, the lack of supplies and the frustrations of being fatigued and alone left her with a permanent desire to end war forever, if possible. In her lifetime she personally wrote letters and had appointments with hundreds of world leaders believing she could single-handedly put a stop to the mayhem.

As a little girl growing up in New Hampshire I recall hearing her story more than a few times over tea and looking over at the aging photograph on the mantelpiece of my two grandparents standing next to each other in their uniforms, I could not comprehend the agony this represented for my remaining Grandmere. Or worse yet, the abandonment each of the children would feel by not having their mother around and then when she returned alone, saddened and weary by all she had seen and experienced, facing life without their father.

The war raged on for two more years and finally on November 11, 1918, Germany was forced to its knees. Many leaves had fallen in the meantime and many people had died as well. While my grandfather's death was not directly due to a bullet or gas or a bomb, his wife and his family suffered as much as the relatives of others who died in the trenches.  Really, I think Elsa would agree that we have the intelligence to avert war and we must do so.


  1. Lives that are so far removed from ours; I can't even begin to comprehend how horrible it all must have been.

    This is a great post. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Alain's injuries were to his eyes from dirt thrown up by a grenade attack while he was a sergeant in an artillery unit probably based around Arras. He did not make the First Battle of the Marne as he arrived after it. His vision was so severely damaged that he was retired from the service for good. He later joined the American Red Cross as a translator, as you know.
    Annoying Mouse

    1. I am really grateful for your help in getting the gaps filled in, Annoying Mouse... thank you again!