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Leon Mathonnet died on October 2, 1914, killed in battle at Monchy-le-Preux, France. He was the great-grandfather of my wife, Sophie.
One year from now we will commemorate the centennial of the armistice that ended of World War I, November 11, 1918—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Of course, the United States did not enter World War I until 1917, long after the Germans, French, and Brits had spent years stalemated in the trenches.
Leon died in the first few months of the war. Not in the well-known Battle of the Marne, when according to folklore, Paris taxis ferried young men and champagne to the front lines to stave off the advancing Germans. Leon died in northern France, very near the Belgian border. His body was never recovered. I’m not a military historian, but just googling around, it appears Monchy-le-Preux was the front line for most of the war, and then in 1917, three years after Leon’s death, became the site of an important battle as the British and Canadians briefly gained some traction.
But this is a family story, not a military history. Leon’s story causes me to wonder, to psychologize, about how his death affected his family, including my wife, three generations later. It makes me wonder about, or more accurately grieve for, all the families whose lives have been torn apart by war, or really any tragedy—how the ripples of war, tragedy, and grief spread across the generations, virtually invisible but still very potent.
Leon was father to Rene, an eight year old boy when his father was killed. Leon’s common law wife, Rene’s mother, had died in childbirth. It’s surprising to me that a single-father would be drafted into the army, but what do I know? Perhaps considerations like this didn’t mean much a century ago.
Our attention turns now to Rene, Sophie’s grandfather. There are living people who knew him, who still remember Rene—including Sophie. And this is where my psychologizing becomes pure conjecture. There’s no way of knowing who Rene might have been if his mother had survived his birth, if his father hadn’t been killed in the war. Even more, we’re getting pretty speculative when we start to wonder how Rene’s fathering skills—or lack thereof—affected his sons, including Sophie’s father, and how any of this seeped out to touch Sophie, or perhaps even our children.
I’ll just tell the story as I’ve been told it.
Rene was an orphan at age eight. Mother dead in childbirth. Father dead in battle. He was sent to some sort of orphanage or public institution. But before long, his grandparents, Leon’s parents, learned they could receive financial support from the state if they helped with the raising of Rene. They enrolled him in a boarding school, although he would spend summers and holidays with his grandparents. Apparently, Rene was spoiled by his grandparents. That’s not hard to believe. Aging, weary grandparents, filled with grief, pity, and love, indulging their orphaned grandson.
The way I hear it, Rene never took much to responsibility or maturity. He loved horses, both riding and betting at the track. He liked the high life. Drinking was another favorite activity, although whether or not it was a “problem” by today’s standards, who can say?
He married a hardworking young woman, Marthe, stern-unto-sour. In fairness, maybe it was years of being married to Rene that made Marthe sour. She was a skilled and successful seamstress. Was Rene attracted by her firm and industrious ways? Psychology 101 might say so. Or maybe it was her dark brown eyes. To this marriage, three sons were born. The eldest, Roger, is Sophie’s father, my father-in-law.
As a husband and father, Rene was a bit of a failure, or maybe worse. Personal pleasures took priority over family. He was a player of horses and ladies. Eventually he simply disappeared without explanation. In some ways, he was so selfish and unreliable nobody in the family missed him. But of course they really did. Near the end of his life, when his sons were long grown, he returned to Marthe, asking for mercy. She took him back, as a boarder more than a husband.
Roger and beyond
Roger, Sophie’s father, grew up in a home with an unreliable, often absent father. His mother, Marthe, was busy as the breadwinner of the family, so her mother, Roger’s grandmother, ran the household. Imagine the dynamics between a negligent, cavalier son-in-law and his formidable mother-in-law who managed the home while watching her young daughter toil to support the family. Roger’s fondest boyhood memories are of his great-grandfather, Leon’s father. Perhaps the great-grandfather indulged Roger just the way he had spoiled his orphaned grandson.
Now with Roger, my father-in-law, we’re getting too close to do simplistic psychology. His foibles and the dirty laundry of Sophie’s family don’t need to be aired here. It wasn’t ideal, but no worse than many a family.
Still, when my father-in-law confounds or vexes me, I find myself asking how being raised by a bitter mother who was trying to provide for her family, an extremely unreliable father, and a doting great-grandfather made him who he is. By the time we get to Sophie, “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” It is simply too close for me to focus, too close to dispassionately analyze.
A friend of mine was a therapist for the Veterans Administration. Late last century and early in the 2000’s, he was about out of clients. The Vietnam vets he saw were aging and dying. My friend has since retired but VA therapists are certainly no longer running short of clients.
Leon Mathonnet’s story is just one of millions. One hundred years from now, I wonder what the families of the four Green Berets recently killed in Niger will be able to see and say about how those deaths seeped into generation after generation? We usually count the cost of war in dead and wounded. But the ripples go out so much wider, so much farther.
In the US, we often portray Europeans as soft and cowardly. I’ve spent a good deal of time in Europe, mostly France. My theory is that Europeans see so many reminders of the ugly cost of war all around them, they just aren’t eager to do it again. Of course, those who actually remember the wars are disappearing. But the reminders, stories, and monuments are everywhere. In France, I’m always struck by the World War I memorials in every little town, engraved with many, many names even in the smallest village.
The other side of Sophie’s family, her mother’s family, had a house that was commandeered first for German and then for British officers during World War I. When the family returned after the war, the only things they could find of their home and possessions were a wooden plant stand and this soup ladle.