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A Mother-In-Law’s WWII Saga

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A Mother-In-Law’s WWII Saga

A Mother-In-Law’s WWII Saga

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

NPR has its own tradition for the day after Thanksgiving. We call it the National Day of listening. It's a time when we encourage you to sit down with a taper recorder and ask a loved one to tell you about their lives. Thousands of people around the country have done this for the StoryCorps project and you've heard some of those conversations on NPR.

Today, we'll hear two stories from our own loved ones. Last week, I sat down with my mother-in-law, Marilyn Holmes. Her mother was French and in 1940, they were living near Paris while her father was away at work. I asked Marilyn what happened when the Germans invaded and she and her mother prepared to flee.

Ms. MARILYN HOLMES: She put some mattress on top of the car, then she decides that might stop the bullets, but a mattress can get wet if it rains. So being a good French woman, she goes out and gets an oilcloth, tablecloth and puts it over the mattress. A yellow table cloth. Perfect period color, you know, you're bound to be wrong in yellow.

LUDDEN: So you have four hours to leave, what do you remember? What was the hardest part for you, five years old at the time?

Ms. HOLMES: The saddest part for me was having to leave my dog. He was called Whoopi(ph) and we had to leave him with a garage man and I don't think I've ever cried so much in my life.

LUDDEN: So tell me about the journey south. You headed south.

Ms. HOLMES: Yeah, we're going to crossover into the non-occupied zone. What do you have at this stage, you have the Germans moving in, they haven't totally conquered France and they're trying to terrify the population into giving in. So, when we left the garage, we were going at about two miles an hour because it was this gleam of French people all marching south because they knew there was going to be a free zone south of (unintelligible), which is about halfway through France.

So, you have cars, you have trucks, you've got everything and you're crawling along, but you're not really crawling because every few minutes the message just comes through - these are German planes - and they strafe and they bomb, and they strafe and they bomb and then you get out of your car and you roll into the ditch and you hope for the best. And the miracle of that really is that my mother managed to always make it so that it wasn't terrifying and always answered my questions about everything. And, as a result, I have never had a nightmare in my life about the war.

LUDDEN: What would she tell you when you had to jump out of the car and roll in the ditch?

Ms. HOLMES: Just that, you have to jump out of the car and roll into the ditch, because that's what's going to help us stay well and not get shot. Because that poor lady just got shot. I mean, she's hurt but hopefully she's going to get better. She was good at covering and then she would distract me by saying, by the way, would you like to pick a daisy or whatever. I don't know she just kept me going.

LUDDEN: So, what happened when you got to Biarritz in the south?

Ms. HOLMES: Well, we got to Biarritz in the south. It was the first time we had really seen the Nazi flag up everywhere. All your life you've always seen the French flag, even as a kid you're very aware of that. We have been living in a hotel and we went downstairs one day, my mother suddenly realized she'd left her wallet upstairs, so she said, just stay right here, don't move and I'll be right down and there were about three or four German officers. And they say, oh, little girl come over here. So, they seemed very nice. And one of them gave me his hat to put on my head. So, I put the hat on my head and the other one -this is not exactly what you call security - but the other one handed me his sword and I was playing with the sword.

At which point my mother comes down. And if you ever can imagine Benedict Arnold's mother's face, my mother's face was that and worse and everything that she could load on me in the way of punishments - going to bed at 7 o' clock for the rest of year, it was an event.

LUDDEN: Did you understand why she didn't approve of that?

Ms. HOLMES: Well, she said these people are the enemy. Those are the people that were bombing and strafing and doing all these terrible things. They're going to take over this country and they have for the moment.

LUDDEN: What else do you remember from this time?

Ms. HOLMES: Being hungry. And I didn't really realize how bad things got until one day I came home from the school and I asked my mother something to eat and she just burst into tears and said I don't have anything, I have nothing. I'm looking all day. And that's what she did all day long. She would go out and go through the lines and it was just awful. So that is really the thing that springs most to my mind.

LUDDEN: Now that you have grown up, you've had your own children. I mean, do you ever think back and wonder how difficult that really must have been for your mother?

Ms. HOLMES: Oh, I think about that all the time. I can't - it's nearly hard to express. My respect, not only adoration but my respect for my mother who managed to get through this entire war and keep us all afloat and keeping our spirits up and mainly bring up a child knowing that she was suffering and yet never letting go and said: I wouldn't be depressed or I wouldn't be sad and so forth or so on. It was an extraordinary feeling.

LUDDEN: That was my mother-in-law, Marilyn Holmes, talking about her memories as a child in France during World War II.

Just ahead, another conversation for the National Day of Listening. TELL ME MORE host, Michel Martin, speaks with her best friend Athelia Knight about their enduring friendship.

Ms. ATHELIA KNIGHT: I speak with all that we have been through, I could see all the ways that you were helping me.

LUDDEN: Listening to and learning from one another. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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