It was mortifying! The chaffing was started by some dear cousins when I was about three, and went on in school right up to my A-levels. It got slightly better during my college years. Well, I survived as you can see, and finally that name turned out to be an advantage. Why? Because I married a Frenchman , of course! But that, you know, is another story or rather a serial, to follow up…
I sometimes wonder if that name inoculated me with a sort of French germ. Or had mother’s war-stories about France contributed to my liking for the French language? Anyway, in primary school I wrote; already badly understood French verse into my class-mates’ poetry-albums, where we swore each other eternal friendship and pasted in these Victorian pictures of children and flowers. Herr Oskar Platz had to correct the mistakes afterwards. He was an extraordinary man and teacher, one of those you would like to keep. I was lucky with the majority of my teachers but that is …you know how to go on!
After Elfriede’s death in 1983, we went through her papers, for she had been the family archivist. Luckily we did not work on all of them or today, after more than 23 years., I wouldn’t be making quite unexpected finds. We fished a very small envelope with two visiting-cards out of a biscuit tin. One of the cards was inscribed with the name of Emile L., the other one with that of Colette L. On both there was the same address in Rennes! And what do you think happened after that??
I wrote the name of the French department Ille-et-Vilaine on the envelope and put it back into the tin with the old photos and other things. Mum was dead, so why start a new search even if I lived in Alsace now with my husband and children? France seemed to be very large at the time, Brittany was at the other end of the country, and Colette, in spite of the visiting-cards, was more of a legend than a real person. And would she still be alive? Elfriede had always been more than half convinced that she had died, and had felt guilty about it…
In 1985 Thierry was moved to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean ( still a bit further away), for two years. From 1987 to 1992 we lived in Marseille, where Thierry bought his first computer. He messed about with it every night and soon enough, had another one at the office. In 1992 we moved to the Paris region, in ‘94 I started teaching again, and in 97/98 I had to type willy-nilly, my class-exercises on Word because my students pretended they couldn’t read my German “r” and “z”. Humph! After that we were caught in the World Wide Web. Thierry thought it was fantastic, I thought it was quite useful as long as I wasn’t expected to surf on it myself.
My father died in 2001, and in 2003 we emptied his flat. All the files and shoe-boxes full of papers, and the biscuit tin went into our cupboards and onto our shelves.
There they slept, hardly ever disturbed, until spring 2006. At that time we began to prepare for the visit of two of my female cousins, Hannelotte and Inge, whom I hadn’t seen for 12 and 42 years respectively. The main reason for the visit was Inge’s daughter who wanted to update her French for A-levels. She had never even heard about us, and we hadn’t known she existed, and so we set about explaining how we were related to each other and why her great-great-great-grandmother’s photo hung on the wall of our spare bedroom.
You will have guessed: that was the beginning of our genealogical intoxication. We discovered the Mormon and Geneanet databases on line. I had my lineage, handwritten by Elfriede at my birth, which I had copied on several sheets of graph paper in 1968. Thierry had nothing. (Well, he outstripped me there finding hundreds of his ancestors on line, within three months. But that is …and so on.) I had Dad’s memoirs, too, in his very small handwriting, on 200 A5 pages. He had started them in 1982 and abandoned them when Mother died. I didn’t read them until September 2006
They gave me the idea of writing family stories for our homepage. I had only planned one chapter about “Colette’s first name”, the second one wrote itself, after the re-discovery of the two visiting-cards, also in September 2006. We had my “godmother’s” family name now, and thanks to Geneanet, luck and Thierry’s persistence, we found her and her father on a family tree.
The e-mail contact given by Geneanet didn’t work but there was the submitter’s name and first name. I looked it up in the telephone directory in Rennes and around Rennes, and found it three times. First phone call: the guy wasn’t in, second phone call: he was in and he was the right one! Very kind he was, too, and confirmed all our conjectures. It was marvellous!
The disenchantment was quick and hard: Colette was dead. She had died years ago, he didn’t know exactly when being only the husband of a cousin once or twice removed. But he would go to a family gathering a week later, and pass the message on to a first cousin, the last one still alive. He promised to send a photo of the family and kept his promise. The photo was old, showing Emile as a young man with his brothers and their wives and children, all standing and sitting around their mother enthroned in their midst: a redoubtable matriarch in a white lace bonnet.
We waited. Another week went by, then, on a Saturday, a phone call came through from Colette’s sister.
After 62 years Elfriede’s quest was completed. We could hardly take it in. We talked for a long time on that Saturday afternoon, since then we have exchanged photographs.
For the first time I saw Colette and her sister saw Elfriede.
But what she told me then and what transpired later needs a new chapter. I will only tell you this: we don’t believe in “mere coincidences” any more…