“Mama Astrid,” Noemi said quietly. “Am I old enough now to learn more about my Mama Sabine?”
Astrid didn’t look up. Noemi had turned 15 the week before and this was expected.
“Go sit on the couch,” Astrid said. “Let me get us some tea.”
Astrid set the simple tea service on the table. She poured a cup for Noemi and one for herself before sitting down on the sofa with the younger woman.
“You cannot, of course, remember your mother,” Astrid said. “My heart breaks every time I think of that, and I want to scream. The first time I fully realized it, I kept my poor husband awake all night with my crying. But it has changed nothing.” She sipped the hot tea as a tear fell down her right cheek. “Filthy boche.”
Astrid cleared her throat. “We were in the same unit in the Resistance. We were the only women, and women were not looked upon warriors or politicians or thinkers or anything other than wives and mothers. But the men in the unit learned that sometimes a woman attracts less attention doing certain things than a man would, so we were tolerated. I was about 22 and Sabine was almost 30.
“We were an intelligence unit. We watched. We learned whatever we could that might be of use to the sabotage units or to the Maquisards. We would meet at staggered intervals to see if there was anything to pass on or to discuss options for other efforts.
“One day, we had been given some information to pass along. It was a job for the women because of how the contact was set up. After the meeting. Sabine and I walked down the street in the general direction of where we lived. We would go our separate ways after several blocks. But before that, we encountered a woman in a green and red scarf pushing a toddler in a carriage. Sabine casually pulled out a couple of wrapped sweets and gave them to the woman for her child. The woman thanked Sabine and gave the gold-wrapped sweet to her child; the other she put in her pocket for later. The wrapper contained the information to be passed on to others, and the mother was an intermediary.
“Sabine was paying particular attention to the child; she was smiling at him and said a few words to him. I didn’t think much about that until we were walking again and were just about to split up to go to our own homes.
“ ‘I’m pregnant,’ she told me. And this, dear Noemi, is where you enter the story.”
The girl smiled hesitantly at Astrid, wondering if she had been good news.
“I asked Sabine, ‘How did this happen?’ And she told me a silly, beautiful story and I knew it had to be true.
“She said, ‘A couple of months ago, I went out in the evening just to do something. I went to that hotel’ — and she pointed down the street — ‘and to the lounge. There was a boy there, not even as old as you, Astrid. He was handsome and pleasant and we got to talking as we were alone in the lounge, except for the man at the bar and he was half asleep.
“ ‘Paul and I finally took pity on the bartender and left together; he said he would walk me home. On the short walk, he told me that he was going on a mission with the Maquisards the next day. He was in the city to gather some things and then return to his unit. He didn’t say this boastfully or even proudly. I had seen all along that he was nervous. He didn’t tell me about his mission, but I was sure it was to be dangerous.
“ ‘Astrid,’ she said, ‘I don’t know what came over me, but when we reached my building, I took Paul’s hand and led him to my apartment and inside. I kissed him, gently and with growing passion. He was gentleman enough to protest that he hadn’t been trying to play on my sympathy. I told him I knew that, and that I was doing this for both of us.’”
Noemi’s mouth had fallen open at the first mention in her life of her father. “Paul.”
Astrid nodded and sipped her tea again. “That’s all I know about him. Sabine never saw him again and could only wonder. Something must have happened to him on his mission or he surely would have gone to see your mother again. After the war, I tried for years to find some sign of him, but I failed.
“Matthieu and the other men in our unit reacted predictably and told Sabine she was finished with the Resistance. But I made sure she knew when the meetings were to be held — perhaps, Noemi, you should hate me for that — and Matthieu realized that a pregnant woman could sometimes go places and do things without notice that even another woman, let alone a man, could not.
“Life continued much as before until Sabine missed a meeting. It was always frightening when a Resistance unit member was absent without arranging it beforehand. The fear was that the person had been captured by the Germans. I realized what her absence truly meant, however. I left immediately and went to her apartment. I knocked on the door and opened it, calling for her.
“ ‘In here,’ she replied weakly. I went into her bedroom. She was pale and tired, but she was smiling. Oh, how she smiled. And that was when I first saw you, Noemi, just hours after you were born.”
“Did she give birth to me alone?”
“No. An older couple lived in her building and the woman was a midwife. Sabine yelled for help when her water broke, and her closest neighbor went and got the midwife. You were both well cared for at your birth.
“Again, time went by. I checked in on you both occasionally and ran little errands for your mother. It was doubtless foolish on my part, and dangerous, but I kept her updated on what our little unit was doing. And one day, about three months after you were born, I took her, and you with her, to a meeting again.
“Matthieu was livid. The Resistance, he said, was no place for a woman with a child. ‘And certainly no place for the child itself!’ he whispered, pointing at you sleeping in your mother’s arms. It was almost comical to see him be so angry and of necessity so quiet at the same time. I began to regret having taken the two of you; what Matthieu said made sense. But your mother seemed ready for his argument, and she spoke quietly and firmly to Matthieu. She ignored the other men in the room as they would follow him.
“ ‘There is much in what you say, Matthieu,’ she told him. ‘I am a woman with only limited means of supporting myself. Yet I was compassionate enough to give a young man his only chance to live on after his death. I have been brave enough to do the most dangerous and revolutionary thing I can think of: I have given France a new daughter in the darkest of days. I am hopeful enough to think that I can raise her to be a happy, intelligent woman. But I am realistic enough to know I cannot do that if the Nazis remain in control.
“ ‘Matthieu … will you forbid me to help make France once more a free and beautiful place for my daughter to live in?’”
Noemi hid her face in her hands and sobbed softly. Astrid put one hand on the girl’s knee and wiped away her own tears with the other.
“Of course,” Astrid continued, “Matthieu caved in, and Sabine once more became a courier for the Resistance. Matthieu limited her missions and gave me more. Sabine said nothing because she knew it would do her no good; Matthieu had given in as far as he would go, and he was already unhappy about that.”
Astrid sighed and paused in her story. Noemi knew that she was about to hear the worst.
“A couple of months after your first birthday, our unit came into possession of some documents that appeared to be the locations of major fortifications on the French coast, meant to repel Allied attack from England. They were bulky. Sabine came up with the idea of putting them under you in the wicker basket she carried you in. Matthieu agreed.
“Once more, this was on our way home, so I went along. The address was a basement apartment. As we arrived, you were getting fussy, so your mother set your basket on the ground and handed you to me. She took the documents and held them close to her chest and went down the stairs to the apartment.
“I stood on the street, holding you and talking to you, looking to the world like any young mother. That is why we are still alive. Only a minute later, a squad of Gestapo came up from the basement apartment; Sabine was walking in the middle of the group, handcuffed. The Gestapo barely gave us a glance, and your mother didn’t acknowledge our presence at all. They shoved her into a car. That was the last time I saw her.”
Tears spilled freely down Noemi’s face. Astrid forced herself to continue.
“I put you back into your basket and as quickly as possible without attracting attention, I went back to our unit’s meeting place; the men were still there. I told them what had happened, and we scattered like mice before the cat. We didn’t see each other for weeks. We kept our heads down, cut off contact with all the other units we knew of, and tried to pretend we didn’t exist even as individuals.
“After a month, Matthieu gently probed for information. At first, he was rebuffed: it was too soon to risk contact. He understood this although he was nearly sick with worry over what had happened to Sabine and what might happen to the rest of us.
“Another two weeks went by, and a contact reached out to Matthieu. The documents had been fakes, bait in an attempt to catch people like us. We had gotten them from a dead drop — that is, the person giving them to us merely left them at a prearranged location and walked away; one of the others in the unit picked them up later.
“Sabine had convinced the boche that she was working on her own and had picked up the plans at the dead drop. The rest of us were safe.”
Astrid’s voice caught and she looked helplessly at Noemi. The girl nodded tearfully, understanding.
Astrid took a sip of cool tea. “You have been with us since. It would have been easier to have just told you that you were our natural daughter, but we couldn’t let you go through life not knowing that Sabine lived and loved you and died trying to restore France for you. We couldn’t do that to her, or to you. And perhaps you will now hate us for our part in her death, but know that we have loved you no less than if you were a child of our own bodies.”
Noemi buried her head in her foster mother’s shoulder and wept. Astrid hugged the teenager close and cried with her.
The door opened and two heads appeared from around the corner. Astrid looked up at her husband and their young son and smiled at them through her tears. She could barely see, but she locked eyes with her husband, and he understood.
Matthieu took Alain’s hand, leading the boy to his room to give the women the privacy they needed.
Alain had the presence of mind to wait until the door closed behind them. “Why are Mama and Sister crying, Papa?”
“Mama has just told your sister a very sad story. We must be particularly nice to them for the next several days. I know the story — it was about the war — and Noemi especially will be quite upset for a while.” He lowered himself to the floor and stared at his hands.
“Oh,” Alain said. He saw that Papa had caught Mama and Noemi’s mood. “Are some war stories sad, Papa?”
“All war stories are sad for someone, my son.”