Ghislaine Clerc Lavelle sat at the kitchen table in her home on Springfield’s Standpipe Hill last week shuffling note cards and paper to piece together a story that at 87 she fears she’s running out of time to tell.
The whole tale goes back 11 years earlier, when as a child of 2, she escaped under a door and into the sunlight to follow her mother to the store.
But her starting point lat week was May of 1940, when she was a girl of 13 and the word spread through the small suburb southwest of Paris that the Germans were coming.
That morning, her grave digger father “took his bicycle and went to the cemetery he worked at to get his paycheck.”
The home he returned to in Epinay-sur-Orge, just southwest of Paris, was modest by most standards.
But to his wife, who had been given over to nuns in World War I by parents who couldn’t afford her care, it represented a dream strong enough that she was willing to forgo toys and sweets for her four children, just as she had gone without.
“She was going to have a little house in the country,” Mrs. Lavelle said.
Leaving it that day must have been as unthinkable as it was for her children to leave behind the chickens, ducks, rabbits and pigeons to fend for themselves.
“It was a hot day, no wind,” Mrs. Lavelle recalled. “We rushed to the woods and a country road.”
The family of six traveled with a wheelbarrow, their dog, Dickie, and a chicken Lavelle’s sickly baby sister considered to be a pet but their father, likely, was counting on as a meal.
The family’s goal ultimate was to travel to the mountains of eastern France, where her father had been raised. They traveled a road “packed with every vehicle imaginable,” as well as horses, and flanked by “people on foot overflowing both sides,” she said.
Knowing the Germans were on their heels, wanting to run not just for but from their lives, they soon found a yellow plane sweeping down on them, its guns roaring.
“This was an Italian plane firing at us. Everyone scrambled, falling on top of each other,” she said. “We didn’t know the Italians had just joined the Germans.”
A low, rumbling noise in the distance soon brought a deeper sense of terror when her father, who had learned to hate Germans when he was part of an occupying force after World War I, said, “German tanks.”
When they arrived “Dad was livid,” she said.
A small man with a big temper, he vented it on armed German soldiers, one of whom lowered his rifle in the small grave-digger’s direction.
“We all saw our lives ending there,” Mrs. Lavelle said. “I jumped in front of him and hugged him by the neck.”
And because the soldier didn’t shoot, the family settled down in a wheat stack near a church.
“My dad dug in there, so we could spend the night,” she recalled. “We all crawled inside, dog and chicken, too.”
“I was still crying,” worried the soldier would come back for her father, she said.
“Paul, a year younger than I, was the quiet one. He was scared, but he never complained.”
As they headed back home the next day, turned back by the occupiers, her 9-year-old sister, Ginette, complained bitterly.
“She was having a fit. She had lost her blue bonnet in the straw.”
As they neared home, they saw a pigeon fly, but most of the chickens and ducks had stayed, the rabbit had remained in his cage “and overall we were thankful.”
Mrs. Lavelle has many stories from the occupation.
Her dad, growing tired from his work and the onset of tuberculosis, nonetheless found himself rousted at night to do work for the Germans he despised.
“Sometimes, the French Underground would kill a German, and my dad was to bury him before daylight. This is what he did in every cemetery near Paris.”
The family nonetheless spurned the occupiers.
When 33 Germans moved in across the street, her mother shuttered the front door of her house to spurn them.
“We never saw the daylight until they left,” Mrs. Lavelle said.
Nor were the children allowed to take the offered chocolate they so desperately wanted. Even Dickie, her dog, showed the family’s contempt, and Mrs. Lavelle saved as she’d saved her father: by throwing her arms around his neck.
If taking gifts from the enemy was forbidden, scavenging from them was not. And so a bottle of wine found in an abandoned truck ended up in their mother’s kitchen.
Then came a more dramatic scavenging adventure.
“One day my brother and I were home alone. We heard the siren sounding. A German plane was coming our way going to Orly Airport, not far from us.”
On fire, it crashed in a wheat field blocks from their home, and the pilot, who had bailed out, wound up dead in a tree.
Running at the sound of the plane, “Paul never stopped,” she said, and managed to secure a leather satchel from the corpse.
With the help of a shoemaker their grandmother knew — it became Mrs. Lavelle’s prized German purse.
“I was so proud of that. No kidding.”
There are many other stories: Of her commutes to and from Paris to work; of her strutting mockingly in front of German soldiers; of her hiding from soldiers in fear for her life when returning home after a curfew.
There is another set of stories, too — about how, after liberation by the Americans, she first watched the girls who had consorted with the Germans have their head shaved and later G.I. Richard Lavelle to their home for a holiday meal.
Those give way to stories about marrying him in gown sewn from the silk of a parachute; her long, lonely boat ride to join him in Springfield; her wish at a statue in Havana en route for the birth of a healthy child; and her arrival in Springfield by train in 1946 to meet new relatives two weeks before her son’s birth.
Mrs. Lavelle remembers the day she left home as “the worst day of my life. I was leaving all my youth behind, my joy and sorrow. Mother said, ‘Everything from now on will be better.’ I always believed everything my mother told me. At the same time, my heart was breaking.”
And the story of the rest of her life was about to unfold.