- The Touchstone of Memory: My Parents, Oberlin College, and the Second World War
These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me.—Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
In most respects my parents were fairly typical people, who led lives typical for their time. Yet, when I tell others how they met and eventually married, the response is always “you need to write about this—it’s fascinating,” and so this is the story of my parents.
I never knew my father, Jacques Henri Vasseur. I was simply too young, only a little over two years old, when he died at age thirty-three from cancer. One of my earliest memories of him is a photograph in my French grandmother’s apartment in Paris. In it he is dressed as a French sailor looking young, innocent almost, but intelligent, thoughtful, and yet curiously detached or distant (Fig. 1). My grandmother idolized him. He was her one and only child, her blue-eyed, fair-haired golden boy, and it was clear to me from an early age on that in her eyes no finer man had ever lived.
Years after my mother, Mary Vasseur, returned from France to the U.S. following my father’s death, she did not, as I remember, often speak of him, except to say “he loved you and he would be proud of you today.” His tragic and early death had to be painful for her to recall. Or perhaps I did not ask her enough about him; I suppose it was painful for me as well. I do remember being embarrassed that I did not have a father [End Page 237] like all the other neighborhood children in Springfield, Ohio, where we lived. That circumstance, among other things including my French name, contributed to my feeling different and apart from others. Yet I always wanted to know more about my father, as that knowledge seemed a key to understanding who I was or might become.
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Despite his absence in our day-to-day lives, my father was nevertheless present in small, unspoken ways. My mother kept a photograph in her bedroom of him wearing a plaid Pendleton [End Page 238] wool shirt that she took to him when she went to visit in 1948. There were also mementoes from the Second World War, which were kept in a metal Craven A cigarette box. My father preferred Craven A cigarettes—incidentally Charles de Gaulle’s favorite brand—while he was in England with the Free French Forces. Every now and then, I would open the box and inspect the contents, which included military uniform patches, an enameled Cross of Lorraine pin, and a ring made from worthless aluminum French francs. As I had no real understanding of the war these totemic relics seemed highly mysterious. Whenever though we went to visit my French grandmother in Paris, my father became more real through her vivid memories. Her 18th arrondissement apartment had not changed since my father lived there with her in the 1930s and after the war. I remember being very upset, but not showing it, when my grandmother had her apartment redecorated in the 1980s, as if the new wallpaper itself was a barrier or insult to my father’s memory.
My mother, Mary Burmeister (Fig. 2), was born on April 29, 1921, in Springfield, Ohio, a small once-prosperous city between Columbus and Dayton known for International Harvester Corporation and Crowell Collier Publishing Company. Her father, Frederick William Burmeister, was a senior salesman for Robbins & Myers Fan Company and her mother, née Ruth Heileman, had been a nurse in the early years of the twentieth century, graduating in the first nursing school class in Springfield.1 The Burmeisters had come to the U.S. in the 1890s from the region of Alsace-Lorraine, then a part of the Second German Empire, settling first in Cincinnati but later moving to Springfield, which had a large German-American community. The Heilemans, it seems, came to the...