My great-uncle Répaud lived on the ground floor of our apartment building in Paris, across the courtyard from his ex-wife, Jacqueline, whom he still loved and visited several times a day. He shared his space with a three-legged dog, Soldat, a snappy, irascible canine that liked no one, not even his human companion.
Oncle Répaud was a veteran of the Great War. He seldom talked about it, but I learned he had been in the infantry, wounded in the First Battle of the Marne. His was a minor wound. In that, he was lucky; 250,000 French soldiers perished in that clash in six days.
After the war, he marched proudly along with his surviving companions in the Bastille Day celebrations. Again, he was lucky. Alongside him were thousands of gueules cassées, veterans whose faces had been horribly disfigured by shrapnel, gas attacks, fire and frost.
Like many men, Oncle Répaud increased in girth as he aged. When his wartime uniform grew too tight, his ex-wife Jacqueline surreptitiously gave it to my mother, a seamstress, who retailored it. You could see where the seams had been let out; Oncle Répaud did not care. He still had the boots he had worn in the battle, and he insisted on wearing them though they hurt his feet. The local cobbler had resoled them free of charge, and Répaud shined them with beeswax once a month.
When my family left Paris for America, Oncle Répaud was ailing. The three-legged Soldat had died six months before, and though the old veteran got a new dog, he remained inconsolable. He passed away soon thereafter, shortly followed by his ex-wife. Both are in the family crypt in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
I never got to thank my great-uncle for his service.
Merci mille, fois, Oncle Répaud, je n’oublierai pas tout ce que tu as fait pour nous. Thierry