You could say that my love affair with France and passion for the French language began in earnest, when, at age eleven, I heard French spoken, loving the soft, musical and even sensual sounds that floated into my ears.
But the truth is that the story began before I was born, when my father landed in France as part of the Normandy Invasion, June 1944. As a South Dakota farm boy who had put himself through Engineering School, he’d never been across the ocean and loved being in France. His job with the Seabees, the Naval Civil Engineering Corps, meant that he spent five months on the Normandy coast, on the cliff above the American landing beach called Omaha.
Dad used to tell stories about how his high school French was so terrible that ‘s’il vous plaît’ came out sounding like ‘silver plate’. But he appreciated the patience and kindness of the French at his attempts.
Dad’s most poignant story was about the seven-year-old French orphan named Gilbert, who lived near the camp. Their relationship began when Dad invited Gilbert to eat with him in the officer’s mess tent at lunch one day. Being a farm boy at heart, Dad hated to see anyone look hungry and Gilbert was skinny in his worn tan shorts and mended wool sweater.
That simple act of kindness turned into a daily occurrence and soon Gilbert began to tag along with Dad when he drove a jeep down to the beach for the daily task of unloading the ships that came over from England. During the five months, in the midst of the chaos and confusion of war, their relationship grew and Dad and Gilbert shared something basic and good, the love between a father and a son.
When Dad inquired about adopting Gilbert and bringing him home to America, he was told no, it wasn’t possible. When he tried to ask why, his limited French made it seem even more impossible, as he couldn’t understand their explanation.
Dad’s voice would soften and he’d become more serious when he’d talk about Gilbert and as a child, all of that made a deep impression on me.
A sense of Gilbert followed me through my childhood like a shadow, his presence slightly out of focus, but still there. When I discovered the magic of the French language and its musicality, I began to study at fourteen and never stopped. Through all the twists and turns of a lifetime of marriage, family, and career–life-I kept up my studies in classes and on my own with tapes, videos and conversational groups.
Before my father’s death in 1991, when he was speaking about his time in World War II in France, he mentioned Gilbert again.
“I wonder whatever happened to him,” he said, and seemed wistful. I realized that after almost fifty years, my father still thought of the boy he’d tried to adopt. That made a deep impression on me.
Finding Gilbert, A Promise Fulfilled
In 1993, I traveled to France and Normandy to write an article in Dad’s honor for the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, which was coming up in 1994. I stood on the cliffs above Omaha Beach and a brisk wind off English Channel dried my tears as I remembered my father and his stories from my childhood.
Being there, where it had all happened, the reality and enormity of the Normandy Invasion became vividly real and my father’s stories also became more real. My thoughts turned to Gilbert. What had ever happened to him? What if he was out there somewhere, remembering my father? And what if I could find him and tell him that my father had never forgotten him?
Those moments and those questions began to haunt me and put into motion a stream of events that would not only change my life, but would also lead me to understand why I had been driven to study French for all of those years.
And to know, with certainty, that in the end, life is all about ’who you love and letting them know’.
Diane Covington-Carter is an award-winning writer, photographer and dedicated Francophile. Her work has appeared in France Today, Reader’s Digest, Hemispheres and More magazine, among many other publications. She has written two memoirs about her relationship with France Finding Gilbert, A Promise Fulfilled and Eight Months in Provence, A Junior Year Abroad Thirty Years Late. Visit her website at www.dianecovingtoncarter.com
Read our review of Finding Gilbert