Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Best Years of Her Life – Part 1

Isabelle Anne (August 17, 1916 to June 10, 2013)
On Monday morning, June 10th, I got the call from St. Mary’s Catholic Home.  Madame Mère had passed away peacefully in her sleep.  I had been with her only a few days before.  We talked about her birthday in August.  She would be 97. 
The day of her funeral was the most beautiful, sunny day we had had in weeks.  I’m sure she had something to do with that.   One by one, my friends came to pay their respects, and one by one each remarked how beautiful she still was at 96.   Whatever else she was or was not, Isabelle was always beautiful.  

Not long ago, she told me she was starting to forget some of the details of her past, so I promised to write them down for her, to the best of my ability to remember the stories she had told me over the years.  We worked on it together.  I wrote; she corrected.  The following is an excerpt I entitled, “The Best Years of Her Life.”  This was the part of her life that she enjoyed reading and rereading the most.  I’d like to share it with you now.  I think she would be pleased. 

Philadelphia, 1943…”Doing Her Bit…”

Isabelle puts her budding opera career on hold and decides to do her bit for the war effort.
Isabelle Rehearsing the Role of Yum Yum in "The Mikado"
Isabelle and her Leading Man, Frank Guarrera.  Frank would go on to have a 30-year career as a popular baritone at the Metropolitan Opera in New York

During the day she is a secretary and translator in the Commerce Department....
and evenings and weekends she is a Canteen Girl entertaining the boys on leave and doing her best to remind them exactly what it is they are fighting for.
American, British and French ships are arriving at the Philadelphia Naval Base on a regular basis to be repaired and refitted, and the Canteen Girls do their best to keep up morale, both foreign and domestic. 

 The Girls have only two Rules: 

 (1)    Don’t fall for the “I’m shipping out tomorrow and would really like to have something special to remember you by…” line;  and

 (2)    Don’t leave the British and French sailors alone together.  (As their Canteen leader puts it, “They may be fighting on the same side, but give ‘em half a chance and they’ll kill each other on the dance floor first.”)

 Rule No. 1 notwithstanding, couples are falling in love and getting married at a fairly brisk pace.  For these young men and women dancing in each other’s arms, the real enemy is not Hitler, Mussolini or Tojo -- it is time.  How much time will you have with that shy young man with his arm around your waist?  How much time does he have?  A week?  A month?  A year?  50 years?  There is no time to weigh your options or fret about the future.  You simply follow your heart.

Louis in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia
Philadelphia, 1944….”Love in Bloom…”

Being perfectly fluent in French, Isabelle is a very-much-in-demand Canteen Girl. 

She soon falls for a tall, handsome French sailor named Louis.  He has fair hair, bright blue eyes and a smile that sets her heart on fire. 

Isabelle and Louis in Atlantic City
Isabelle and Louis become engaged and spend as much time together as possible before he ships out to sea again. 

Isabelle and Louis in Québec.  Louis took this picture.
A few weeks later, Isabelle is notified that Louis’ submarine was bombarded and sunk somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.  There was only one survivor, and it was not Louis. 

In her grief, Isabelle reaches out to Louis’ family in France and begins a life-long correspondence with his only sister, Jeanette.  They share their grief.  Through the duration of the War, Isabelle will send Jeanette packages filled with items no longer available in France:  sugar, stockings and lipstick.  Some slip through, some do not. 

Philadelphia, 1949…”Local Girl ‘Strikes it Rich’…”

The war is over, the boys are home and people begin to build and rebuild their lives.  Isabelle is a contestant on a radio quiz show called “Strike It Rich.”  After several rounds, she is one of two remaining contestants.  Family and friends are listening as the final “Strike It Rich” question is asked:  “What was the name of the Count in the Dreyfus affair?” 

Clever Isabelle, always at the top of her class, hesitates not an instant before answering,   “Count Esterhazy.” 

She walks away with the grand prize.  When asked by the game show host what she plans to do with the money, she tells him she will use it to go to France to visit the family of her dead fiancé. 

The next day, local and national newspapers run the story:  “Local Girl ‘Strikes It Rich’ – Will Use Money to Visit Family of Fiancé Killed in Action.”  She is an instant media sensation. 

New York, Spring 1949…”Bon Voyage…”

Family, friends and photographers gather at the New York Pier to see Isabelle off.  She has booked passage on the SS Ile de France.  

She shares a cabin with a middle-aged woman who is clearly a seasoned traveler.  The woman’s steamer trunks are plastered with stickers from all over the world.  One enormous trunk contains nothing but hats, which she uses to great effect.  Whenever an errant child gets within arm’s reach, she removes her hat and proceeds to beat the child over the head with it while yelling, “Midgets!!!  Damned midgets!!!  I hate midgets!”  Had she been travelling in 1st Class she would have been called  eccentric; since she was a 2nd Class passenger, she was simply known as the Mad Hatter!   

During the voyage Isabelle meets a very attractive Parisian Philosophy Professor named André.  He offers to show her the “real” Paris when they land.  Isabelle sees the advantage of not passing up such an offer. 

And so, we leave Isabelle in Paris.  In part 2, she finally meets the family of her first love and finds love with a tall, dark, handsome stranger.   Stay tuned. 

For Part 2, click HERE.


  1. I'm so sorry to read this M-T. Your mother looks like a beautiful woman with a beautiful heart. I loved reading the story of her life and am looking forward to the next portion. Good for her to take the plunge and go and visit her fiance's family and I love that it was on that trip she met true love again.

    1. I'm so glad you loved her story. Believe me, it's just a small part of the life of a very interesting and accomplished woman. I hope you enjoy Part 2 as much.

      Thank you so much for your lovely comments. They mean a great deal to me.

  2. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    What a surprise to find this post with a mixture of sadness and joy for a life lived so long and well! Your 'Mère' was such an elegant and almost dreamy looking young woman. Aha, now I understand also your love for Opera; genetics at their best.
    What a fate for meeting her first love and than loosing him. And that 'Strike It Rich' quiz which landed her on an Ocean Liner to visit her fiancé's family. How noble and also courageous of her. Loved that Mad Hatter definition too.
    You have written almost a novel out of your dear Mère's life.
    A tight hug and I'd rather say to you; let's celebrate Isabelle's life since her age is such a rare blessing!

    1. Ma chère Mariette, I am so happy her life "spoke" to you. it was, indeed, an interesting and varied life. She was a tigress, who would go after anything she wanted and almost always achieved it. I wish I had her ambition and stamina. But....I do have her memory to inspire me.

      Thank you so very much for your lovely comments.

      Gros bisous, M-T

  3. Ma chère M-T, je te présente mes condoléances. Je sais que tu t'occupais beaucoup de ta maman. Elle a eu la chance de garder sa dignité, sa beauté, et (presque) tous ses souvenirs jusqu'au bout de sa longue vie. Ne sois pas trop triste. Je suivrai avec grand intérêt les aventures de sa jeunesse... Grâce à toi, qui te souviens et partage tes souvenirs, c'est un peu comme si elle était toujours là! Je t'embrasse. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

    1. Ma chère Véro, je te remercie beaucoup de tes mots si tendres qui m’ont tant touché et soulagé pendant cette période difficile. Son décès était complètement inattendu, mais c’était une mort très douce. Et j’en suis très reconnaissante. Je t’embrasse très fort, M-T

  4. What a lovely inspiring story. Thanks. Really looking forward to part 11.

    1. My Mother, who was half Brit as you know, would be delighted you enjoyed her story.

      I hope Part 2 lives up to your expectations.

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment.

      Warm regards, M-T


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