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The International Writers Magazine: On the Loss of a favourite Aunt

• Lionel Darmendrail
I come from Euskadi, the land of the Basque, located on the Pyrenees between France and Spain, lapping at the Atlantic ocean, the very same place where Maddalen was born. I was named Lionel after Maddalen's husband, Lee, my uncle, who was also my godfather I was so proud of. As for Maddalen, my father's younger sister, she was also my beloved godmother. I've always known her to be attentive and caring. Very affectionate and much respected. Very generous too.


She never forgot my birthday or Xmas and always chose much appreciated, typically American paraphernalia: Indian and cowboy regalia, the two sides of the coin. Fantastic items indeed: Davy Crockett's coonskin hat and Indian buffalo horned warbonnet... take your pick... switch roles... 

I was totally ravished by such gifts, coming all the way from over the ocean, the inaccessible Rocky mountains, the great plains where the buffalo roam, the snowy forests of the Great Northwest inhabited by wolves... sights, atmospheres so well described by Jack London or James Oliver Curwood (thank you Granny for all your thrilling bedtime stories!) 

But, when I turned 10 or so, my mother, meaning well and intent on giving her 5 children the same treatment—same haircut... all dressed alike... same shoes... same spanking... no favorite—she decided—so my brothers wouldn't be jealous—to deprive me of those presents coming from the US and put them aside in the attic where I couldn't reach them. "But it's mine!" I yelled... "You cannot take it away from me! Presents from my godparents! It's sacred!" "You'll have them all back later" was her answer. 

I remember well my father, coming home after many months away, when I told him the injustice I had been done, his face showing sudden and deep disapproval, turning to my mother: "How dare you treat that kid in such a way! Give him back what belongs to him... immediately!" Justice was done and my brothers and I would play together with my toys and have a great time. 

Another landmark: When I was 12, I received a Kodak camera ('Just click, we do the rest') and that got me started in the world of photography. 

Whenever my grandmother, sailing across the Atlantic, visited her daughter Maddalen, my aunt would make sure that Granny—so called because her first grandson was Michael, Maddalen's first child—my aunt would make sure Granny went back to her French village and French grandchildren with trunkloads of clothes and foodstuff not to be found in France in those days... That's how, in the course of the '50s we discovered pancakes and maple syrup, Kellog's Corn Flakes and Rice Crispies, pop corn and the likes... What a treat that was for all of us! God bless America! 

We've always been proud of and close to our American first cousins, Michael, Lee John, Joelle, Terry and Daniel... They were, still are, the living proof of the very special bond which exists between our two countries since General Lafayette sailed over to help the birth of this nation. 

In August 1944, a young US Army officer from the 4th Infantry Division, Lieutenant Lee Fishkin, was driving down in a Jeep the Champs Elysees in Paris, having helped liberate France from the enemy after a hard fought war, when, among the massive crowd lined up on each side of the avenue and yelling "Thank you America! Thank you!!!" he noticed a young woman of 19, with a radiant smile, sparkling eyes and raised arms... He extended his right arm... and in a flash Maddalen was aboard... for the long haul, ready and meaning to go all the way... and that's what she did, through thick or thin, no matter what, to the end of her long road. 

The funny thing was that my parents also met at the same time in Paris and the next day or so, Maddalen and Lee, Ttotte and Juana (my father and mother) all went together to downtown Paris to listen to Glen Miller and dance through the night... 

What a lovely person Maddalen was! I know she's been returned all the love and care she never ceased to invest into her progeny... She's always kept in close touch with her French family as well. My wife Catherine has preciously kept Maddalen's many letters, so well composed with facts and feelings, finesse and style... a model of correspondence. 

If her body failed her of late, little by little, never her mind. I used to call her regularly and, each time the weak voice I heard when she picked up the receiver: "Allo...." very soon warmed up in beautifully spoken French, full of humour and laughter or words of wisdom.? 

She would never complain about her lot, she'd just worry about the others and see what she could do. 
Her voice, ever present, `always merry and bright` is here with me, with us, family and friends, at this moment. 

  © Lionel Darmendrail 
January 21. 2013
Images: Maddalen and the family wake at the King Street Café Old Town Washington

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