Monday, September 8, 2014
Jean Octave Sagnier
My father, Jean Octave Sagnier, died on this date 18 years ago. He was a good wise man who without being secretive hated talking about himself. He was an architectural student working as the traveling secretary of a wealthy Brit when the war broke out and he walked from the south of France to St. Malo in Brittany, then hopped a boat to England so he could join the upstart general Charles de Gaulle and become a Free French. The Free French are largely forgotten now. They were the ones, men and women, who left France when it capitulated to the Germans, and traveled to the UK and North Africa in response to de Gaulle’s call. De Gaulle assigned my father a mobile radio station which roamed occupied France and relayed Allied news to the maquis and other underground forces. He never fired a shot during the war but was nevertheless awarded the Légion d'Honneur, France's highest honor, for deeds that I do not know. He’d never told me this. After his death, I found the medal in the back of his desk drawer.
He met my mother in the summer of 1945 in Marseilles. She was Free French too and they conceived me that very night in January in the back of a US Army truck.
He was estranged from his family. I would be an adult before I was told I had uncles and an alcoholic aunt who died of the disease in the UK. He lost a younger brother during the V2 bombings of London. He never, as I recall, mentioned his own mother. I have an aged family photo taken in the 20s, three boys and a girl posing with a man and a woman standing at attention. A much later shot of my father shows a painfully thin young man wearing boxing gloves and looking not at all ready to fight.
It was snowing when I was born in the American Hospital in Paris, and the barely liberated capital was devoid of food. Regardless, my mother craved a ham omelet. My father, using the military issue Colt he had never fired, forced the hospital cook at gunpoint to go into his own larder for eggs, butter and meat. He fixed the omelet himself, ate it, made another and served it to her. She complained it wasn't hot enough, and that would be the tenet of their relationship. They were married 46 years, nursing each other through poverty, joblessness, an eventual move to the US, cancer.
He died five years after my mother. I carried his ashes in an oak box from the US to France, and when I went through airport customs the douaniers were very curious as to what I was cradling in my arms. One of them took the box, shook it. It rattled as if there were pebbles inside. When I told him he was manhandling my father's remains, he turned sheet-white, handed the box to his superior officer who in turn gave it back to me. I said these were the ashes of a Free French and the man saluted.
He was not a natural father. The growing up and education of a son baffled him. He was unlikely to give advice, and did so only at my mother's prompting. He taught by doing, showing, and patience. We never played catch, never went fishing together, did not bond in the accepted way. There were few family vacations, a limited number of father/son experiences shared. He was a good and quiet man who witnessed and took part in moments of history that are now almost forgotten.
He told two jokes, neither particularly well, but each telling brought tears to his eyes. He died a bad death and I hope he didn't suffer and I think of him every day.