By Erin Byrne
Dear Madame Renaud is the story of a woman in Normandy, France who eased the suffering of American families whose loved ones died during the Liberation of France. After she had been dead for over twenty years, she did the same for me.
She took on the grief of others. Six decades later, after she had been dead for twenty-two years, she did the same for me.
Madame Simone Renaud was the wife of the mayor of Sainte Mere Eglise, the first town to be liberated on D-Day in Normandy, France. These two excerpts from actual letters to her written by American families, with all their imperfections and raw gratitude, introduce her well:
Harrisburg, Penns., Aug. 2nd. 1945.
c/o May. Renaud
St. Mere Eglise, France.
Dear Madame: —
In the issue of Life magazine for Aug. 7th, 1944 it shows a picture of you placing flowers on the grave of Brig. Gen. Theo. Roosevelt, and we have just received word to-day from the War Department that our son was buried in this cemetery, my wife has kept this issue of the magazine ever since with the hope that she would receive word and somehow or other something seemed to tell her that this was where our boy was buried.
If I am not asking to much and in order to ease the suffering of a heartbroken Mother in this country would it be possible for you to look up the grave that I am listing below and place flowers on same, also if you could let my wife know that you have done this it would help. She is heartbroken over the loss of this boy . . .
Seattle, Washington. Feb. 4th,1946
Dear Madame Renaud,
Your sweet letter arrived today. Most gracious lady, you are probably closer to us than any other person in this world, because you are so near physically and spiritually to our son . . .
Travel removes us from the robotic regularity of routine and the often numbing nature of our usual surroundings. This can open an opportunity for courageous characters of history’s great upheavals and healings to show us clearly the thirsty states of our own psyches. If we are lucky, we can, from someone far removed from us in time and space, learn new and unexpected ways to quench that thirst.
When this happens, travel heals.
I visited Sainte Mère Église, and Madame Simone Renaud’s story held up a mirror for me. Here is my own letter to her.
Auburn, Washington. June 5, 2010
Dear Madame Renaud,
Last summer, I visited your hometown, Sainte Mère Église. The sky was infused with a tinge of purple so subtle it was almost imperceptible. I noticed the mannequin of a parachutist snagged on the stone wall of the church, and went inside to see the scarlet and cobalt stained glass window showing an American paratrooper landing at the feet of the Madonna.
In a dappled prism of sunlight on stone, I lit a candle for my sister Allison’s soul. My hand trembled as the yellow flame flared on the wick. She died four years ago, but grief still sloshed inside me with the unpredictability of a rogue wave. I swallowed, feeling my throat block the tide.
Outside the church, a colorful market was set up on the village square, and I watched people from your country and mine mingle together admiring colorful coats, tasting salty bites of andouille sausage, and inhaling bunches of lavender.
I imagined you, sixty-four years earlier under a sky the same startling hue: the mayor’s wife, a tall woman whose blunt features were softened by a string of pearls, walking purposefully, your youngest son Maurice following behind in his short pants and rumpled coat.
Next I fancied I glimpsed you with freshly cut red flowers in the crux of your arm, your other hand digging in dark dirt, rows of crosses waited in the distance. Grass stains seeped into your white wool stockings and your face struggled as if your heart simultaneously sank and rose to block your throat.
Taking on the grief of another is not easily done. What made you do it?
The night of June 5th, 1944, you were inside your house on the village square with your husband, Alexandre, and three sons. That night you were probably asleep in your beds when you heard a sudden burst of gunfire, explosions, and shouts. The invasion was no surprise—you’d been expecting the Americans to come; your suitcases were packed and all five of you had been sleeping in your clothes for a week, waiting.
The town hall of Sainte Mère Église had been smothered by the German swastika for nearly four full years; there is no doubt that along with deprivation, fear had become part of your daily diet. When discussing a possible landing by the Allies, the Germans had warned Alexandre: “You can count your houses. All of your homes will be kaput.” So on this night, what you heard while crouched in the corner of your living room must have flooded your heart with terror.
The central position of your house gave you all what Maurice later called “front row seats.” American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions fluttered down like giant snowflakes. Explosions and fires lit up the falling troopers whom the Germans shot as they landed in the trees. Gunshots cracked and screams multiplied. While this chaos echoed, you must have tried to comfort your boys.
Right outside your door, boys not much older than yours who hid behind haystacks in the fields of Normandy were shot and fell with a thud. Boys far from their home were jerked out of approaching boats and sank into the icy sea, and were shoved off the cliffs they had just scaled to land in a lifeless heap on the wet sand below.
Finally, at 4:30 AM: silence. The American flag had replaced the Nazi spider. Sainte Mère Église was free.
The next day, June 6, you walked out of your house to what has been described as a macabre scene. Dead bodies littered the ground and hung from trees, each in a white silk cocoon. Townspeople used the parachutes as shrouds and hastily buried the dead; later the fabric was fashioned into dresses for the girls. After the long nightmare of Nazi Occupation, this day must have overflowed with both joy and horror.
I wonder if that night as you watched your sons sleeping, you saw safety hover like a golden halo over their soft, rumpled hair and eyelashes upon healthy-red cheeks. I can imagine you placing your palm on a small, warm chest and watching your hand rise and fall with each even breath. Perhaps you imagined the vast vacancy of a world without this son, the mingling of emptiness and pain that would slice through you if he died—and felt a great gush of gratitude to those American soldiers.
I can see you sitting on the edge of that bed visualizing the mothers of those other boys. That must have been the moment you thought of one little thing you could do.
The next day you set off with an armful of blossoms, little Maurice in tow. One by one, you began tending those graves, and the people in your village followed suit. Life Magazine ran a photo of you placing a bunch of red flowers on the grave of Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., President Theodore Roosevelt’s son. Letters began to arrive by the dozen, asking if you could find specific sites, which you faithfully did . . . and then went a step further.
You sat at your desk, which was becoming crowded with framed photos of American heroes, put a sheet of paper in your typewriter, and began to tap the keys. Soon, stacks of letters accumulated around your desk, for in the three temporary cemeteries in and near Sainte Mère Église, 15,000 U.S. troops were buried.
The families poured out their grief to you and you responded.
Every letter was answered, sending solace across the Atlantic Ocean, offering details of resting places to families who had no hope of coming to France, and no idea when they could reclaim the bodies. Inside the envelopes you sprinkled a handful of the same dirt that covered their sons, brothers, or fathers, or slipped in a pressed petal, or maybe a photo of your boys helping to dig, plant, or tidy—like the one of Maurice at four years old hugging a cross with stenciled letters identifying John J. Lavin, number 13177340.
Tending the graves was a kindness; communicating with the bereaved was a sacrifice. It seems to me that just when your energy would have been most depleted by trying to raise your own family in a village ravaged by war, you took on more strain. The moment each soldier acquired an identity, you opened yourself up to some of his family’s pain.
I wondered if grief did to you what it always does to me: sucked strength and stamina from your core, filled your chest with a swirling tornado of pain, and left a rubbery residue inside your limbs. I thought the sorrow moved directly from the souls of those mothers, fathers, sisters, friends and lovers directly into yours, and in this way alleviated their suffering.
When I was in your village, Madame Renaud, I wanted you to do the same for me —with a desperation that took me by surprise. I felt your empathy flow into me.
My inner barometer which registers grief had steadily risen over the years since Allison died; I knew it was all still in there.I’d measured out the sadness I expressed in precise doses so as not to bring people down, hiding the extent of my pain. I swallowed a lot.
Tears spilled out only when I was alone because I was afraid that the people who love me would become uncomfortable. It seemed they had: one night at dinner, I started to describe how Allison’s death had been beautiful in some ways. My husband and sons looked startled, then flustered, and I awkwardly changed the subject. On a road trip with friends, I said that I still felt attached to my sister, like we were little girls buckled together in the back seat of our car, and an uncomfortable silence descended. Lowering the mood like that always made me feel guilty; I didn’t want to overwhelm people. Grief was a poison I feared was infectious, so I never pushed beyond those hesitant moments.
But looking at the photos of you through the years made me wonder if sharing my burden might, instead of merely draining my friends and family, provide them with something else as well. I noticed a change in your face that made me believe taking on all that sorrow of others transformed you: June, 1945, you stand in the middle of a group of American GI’s, smiling, but your forehead is lowered over exhausted eyes; in another photo, taken on the frozen ground of the cemetery, your blunt features appear heavy with sadness; but years later, in your sixties, sitting on a bench chatting with General Eisenhower, you look more fresh and reflective, as if your energy had been renewed; and a 1982 photo of you wearing a beret with the Airborne insignia shows a softer look.
To my eyes, your expression changed from care-worn to content, as if easing the distress of all those families caused something to grow inside you. It’s as if because of your compassion, you gained strength yourself.
This made me think the people who love me can take it if I share a bit of my swirling supply of sorrow. I’ve had the courage to say to my friend Christina as we sat on the beach looking out at sailboats like the one my sister and I grew up on, “This place makes me miss Allison.” In the moment of unsure silence, I knew it saddened my friend; but then I described us as girls in our orange life jackets leaning over the side of the boat together, and when I opened my eyes Christina was smiling at me and we were in a place beyond that silence, a place of comfort.
I’ve revealed grieving weakness to my family, and the persistent pain of loss to my friends, and the level of sadness inside me has lowered. When tears overflow, I no longer worry about being an excessive burden. As the people in my life have moved past awkwardness, their compassion has increased, softening them.
Madame Renaud, you are someone I never knew and you’ve been dead yourself for over twenty years, yet I thank you for your sacrifice, because you gave me a glimpse of what I needed. Somehow I feel you are reading this letter, and I imagine you inside your house on the village square in Sainte Mère Église, your three sons playing in the background, sitting at your desk with envelopes, paper, and red rose petals scattered across it, and tapping out a reply to me.
Erin Byrne is a writer whose work explores travel, cultural and political themes. Her essays have won numerous awards including five Solas Awards from Travelers’ Tales Best Travel Writing, and the Grand Prize at the Book Passage Travel, Food and Photography Conference. Erin’s work has appeared in Everywhere magazine, World Hum, The Literary Traveler, Brave New Traveler, Travelers’ Tales, and a variety of other publications.
Her essay about Winged Victory is included in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2011. A new piece about van Gogh will be in the upcoming issue of Crab Creek Review. Erin is a guest instructor of the Evening Writing Workshop at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris.
Erin is currently working on Wings From Victory, a collection of essays about Paris, Solange, a novel of the French Revolution, and Siesta, a screenplay to be filmed in Spain. She lives with her family in the Seattle area. A complete list of awards and links to Erin’s work can be found at www.e-byrne.com.