When Mom died ten years ago, dad practically did too, even though the death certificate would list his official passing with today’s date. There are couples and then there are soulmates; mom and dad were the latter. They didn’t need to finish each other's sentences because they could converse without speaking. Theirs was a love story for the ages, which is why I am completely baffled at the picture I hold in my hands.
I found it while cleaning out my dad’s dresser, in the bottom drawer hidden in a cigar box. It has to be at least 60 years old, faded with time but carefully preserved. On the front is a young woman posing on a city sidewalk; on the back, in dad’s handwriting, reads a single line—My True Love.
I peer at the woman more closely, at her high cheekbones and large dark eyes, glittering with intelligence and wit. A string of pearls is slung decadently around her neck. A Mona Lisa-smile. Her shiny black hair coiffed in glamourous finger waves. Who was she? Everything about her is so different from my mother, with her fair complexion and soft blue eyes and quiet good nature.
The most puzzling thing is that my father has scrawled this sobriquet recently. The black and white photo must have been taken sometime in the 1940’s, yet clearly my father used a black Sharpie, probably one of the ones he’s used this past week marking contents of moving boxes. He never wanted to go to the retirement home anyway, I laugh, thinking how my dad, as usual, got his way.
I feel the need to peruse the street scene, to find any clue to a growing mystery. After a quick run to the kitchen to find mom’s old magnifying glass, I am a veritable Sherlock Holmes, pondering every item in the frame. Holding mom’s trusty tool, as in the end she could barely see, I feel a twinge of guilt as I use what was hers to satiate my own curiosity.
A close inspection of the photo reveals two important clues, the sign behind the mysterious woman clearly says Hôtel Chopin, and the tag pinned to her dress lets me know her name is Lilian.
My dad loved my mom, of this I am sure. They were devoted to each other. Part of me wants to throw this picture away and relegate it to the ashcan of forgetfulness, but I am drawn to the story.
There has to be a story.
And I know just the person to call. Back to the kitchen to retrieve mom’s well-used address book, bits of paper and scribbled notations in an organized chaos, I locate a phone number I seldom called. Aunt Frances.
The most interesting thing about birth order is that people jockey for position using the power moves they can successfully carry off. The oldest child usually has the gravitas and innate leadership position bestowed by besotted parents. Second or middle children thwart the traditional order and will make peace, but on their own terms and in their own way. And the babies of the family chiefly use humor, since they are not as big or clever, but watch quietly—or not so quietly—and know where all the bodies are buried.
Aunt Frances, my father’s baby sister, is the type of relative you sit with at family gatherings to get the real backstory, the silent secrets not usually shared in polite company. Time had both loosened and sharpened her tongue. If anyone still alive could enlighten me to dad’s coquette, this Lilian, surely Aunt Frances would spill the tea.
“Auntie Franny, it’s me,” I say, hoping for the reaction I get.
“If you call me Auntie Franny one more time, I’ll hang up on you and block your number.” She’s all talk. All my cousins love her the most, but I think she loves me just a bit more than them seeing as I’m named after her.
“What can I do for you, Fran?” she says with her familiar chuckle that warms my soul. “Ding, dong. The old fart’s dead, so I know you don’t need me to nag him to eat his vegetables.”
“He wouldn’t listen to you even if you tried,” I reply, oddly comforted by her irreverent manner. “No, Aunt Fran, I am just hoping for some information about a picture I found. Who is Lilian?”
The phone goes silent as I wait—for a beat too long—before getting an answer. After a minute or so, Aunt Fran answers, her voice serious, slightly above a whisper.
“How do you know about Lilian?”
“Uh, I’m holding a picture in my hand of a very beautiful brunette on the streets of Paris.”
“That’s not Paris,” Aunt Frances says. “That’s Libreville.”
“World War II, you aren’t much of a student of history, aren’t you?”
“I’m a little rusty on my knowledge of French West Africa . . .”
“Oy vey, Fran. All right. Your father was stationed with the Free French forces at the Battle of Gabon. Around 1940 or 1941, something like that.”
“Go on,” I say, pouring myself a cup of coffee. Aunt Fran did not like to be hurried with her stories.
“Terrible fight. Frenchmen fighting frenchmen. The Vichy French eventually surrendered to the Free French forces at Port Gentil.”
“Is Lilian part of the French resistance?”
“No, she was a whore.”
I swallow hot coffee wrong and start coughing.
“Not a whore-whore, but a well-placed whore. Look, Fran, a girl’s gotta do what she’s gotta do. And Lilian was a consort to the Governor—Governor Masson. He negotiated the surrender. Big loss for the Vichy trash. A win for the good guys.”
“So—Lilian . . .” I prompt her. “How does our girl play into all of this?”
“Well, Masson commits suicide after the agreement is reached. She has nowhere to go, a pretty African girl who speaks both French and dialects of Bantu fluently.”
“And dad worked in Army communications . . .”
“But wait,” I say as the realization hits me. “Dad met mom before the war. They were high school sweethearts . . . ”
“Oh Fran, nothing in life is simple. Least of all love. Afraid she couldn’t bear the loss if your father died, your mom broke it off with your dad the day before he shipped off.”
“She did—what?” I say, sounding angry but actually feeling hurt. Betrayed. “No one ever told me any of that.”
“It wasn’t your mom’s idea,” Aunt Fran answers, trying to comfort me from across the miles. “Her father insisted she do it. She cried every night until he came home.”
“But what of Lilian—the whore?” I ask, afraid of the answer. “Was she really my dad’s true love?”
“I’ll answer that question and any others you might have, as long as you’re sure you want to know.”
I look at the photo in my hand. A lifetime ago. A continent away. Trying to understand love is hard enough, but factoring in youth and heartbreak and war and death just makes the unexplainable all the more inexplicable.
“I think I’m all right, Aunt Fran.”
“Good girl. Sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.” She hangs up.
I look at Lilian’s image for much longer, wondering what relief she felt in the arms of my father, wondering if he'd take her across the ocean to a land of rich and plenty, wondering how long she cried when she realized it wasn’t to be.
I have a daughter her age, caught up in affairs of the heart—Affaires de Coeur—in love one moment, weeping the next. I guess we forget in the fog of middle age how strong the pull of romantic love is and how much we forget to miss it.
My True Love, my father had lettered on the back of an old photograph, hands gnarled with age, eyes clouded with glaucoma. But under his old papery thin skin, a young man’s heart still beat soundly in his chest, reminiscing of the lovely girl who captured his heart so long ago.