If you’re interested in more information about the Finding Gilbert story, read the article that was published in Reader’s Digest.
I first wrote about the 1944 D-Day invasion for the D-Day 50th anniversary, in my dad’s honor. He had died in 1991. I traveled to France in 1993, to research the article and took a daylong tour to educate myself. We visited the invasion beaches, watched newsreels and went to museums. The most moving part of the day was the visit to the American cemetery, a piece of American soil in Normandy, where 10,000 American soldiers are buried.
My article, which came out on June 6th, the 50th anniversary, was called ‘Touching the Heart of D-Day’. In it, I shared memories of Dad’s stories and the power of visiting Normandy and retracing his footsteps. I also mentioned the story of Gilbert Desclos.
I have learned to follow my intuition and instincts and something told me to send the article to the Press Attaché of the French Consulate in San Francisco. I could have listened to my mind, which said something like “oh that is silly, why would you do that?” But instead, I followed what felt like a hunch, wrote a note, attached the article and mailed it off.
About a week later, I received a message on my answering machine, a female voice with a heavy French accent, identifying herself as the Press Attaché, and asking me to please call her back.
When I did, she invited me to meet with her to discuss my article. I was thrilled and we set up the time. When I sat with her in her office, I mentioned that I was leaving in a few days to tour France with my daughter Heather. As a part of our month long tour, I was returning to Normandy to accept a medal in my father’s honor.
As soon as she found out I was going back to Normandy, she became very excited and insisted that I try to find Gilbert. Her exact words were: “You must try to find Gilbert.” I told her that I thought that would be impossible. It had been 50 years. She replied firmly, “No, no, you don’t understand. The French don’t move around like Americans. He’ll still be right there, in Normandy.”
She looked up the address and phone number of the newspaper ‘Ouest France’, the regional paper for Normandy and all of northwestern France and wrote it down on a slip of paper. As she handed it to me, she made me promise that I would place an ad in the paper looking for Gilbert. I put the paper into my wallet.
The day that I accepted the medal in my father’s honor was an emotional one. My daughter and I were the only women at the ceremony. There were mostly older veterans, a few there with their sons and a few sons, like me, accepting the medal in their father’s honor. Then Heather and me.
The official stood in front of each of us and with tears in his eyes, pinned on the medal, as he said a personal thank you for the sacrifices our fathers or the veterans themselves had made. I felt moved and blessed.
I tried to hide my own tears, thinking of my father and wishing he were there to receive the medal. After the ceremony, they had a reception, where we sipped champagne and ate some cookies, everyone a bit shy.
When Heather and I went back to our tiny rental car, I told her that I wanted to go and place the ad in the paper. She was really jet-lagged and a bit cranky. At that moment, if I hadn’t promised the Press Attaché that I would place the ad, I might have talked myself out of it. But I had promised. And as much as my own mind told me it would be impossible to find Gilbert, I wanted to try.
So I pleaded with Heather. “Just put the seat back, relax and listen to your music that you brought. I’ll just be a few minutes.” (Audiocassettes, in those days, and our car had a cassette player.) She agreed, so I tore down the street on foot and found the newspaper office.
I asked to speak with someone about putting in a ‘petite annonce’ or ad related to the D-Day invasion. They ushered me into the office of a very polite and kind man. I told him the story of Dad and Gilbert and he became visibly moved. We wrote out the ad and when I offered to pay, he insisted that would not be necessary. He said that it would appear the next day.
I ran back to the car where Heather was waiting, listening to her music, and we headed out of Caen and down the road to begin the adventure of our trip.
Almost three weeks passed as we visited spas, beaches, vineyards and friends. I was writing an article about the fun and challenges of being on a month long trip around France with my teenage daughter. I had no idea about the drama that was unfolding around my ‘petite annonce’ in the newspaper.
Gilbert had seen the ad the next day. In fact, before he had a chance to open his paper, five different friends had called him and told him that he had to read the paper. When he did and saw my father’s name, he wept. After he composed himself, he called the newspaper and they transferred him to the kind man who had helped me. He told Gilbert that we had left on our trip. So that night, Gilbert and his wife Huguette wrote a long letter to me and mailed it back to California the next day.
One of the miracles of this story is how many places it could have fallen apart. I could have not sent the article to the press attaché. Then I could have not placed the ad that day because Heather was cranky. Gilbert could have waited to write his letter and missed me while I was still in France. Read on and you’ll see how many more places we could have missed the connection.
It takes about ten days for a letter to travel from rural France to rural California. Added to that, my sister Sharon, busy with three children, was checking my P.O. Box for mail, but not everyday. When she gathered my mail that day, she might have just dropped it into a pile somewhere and not paid any attention. But she spotted the return address on the large envelope from France and the name Gilbert Desclos.
I had given Sharon a copy of our itinerary with all the phone numbers of where we were staying. When I was typing it up, I added the fax numbers onto the list. I remember not knowing why I was doing this, since neither Sharon nor I had a fax machine. But I did it anyway. Another hunch followed.
When Sharon read the letter, she knew that she had to try to get it to me as soon as possible. We had one friend with a fax machine. So that night, she ran over and faxed the letter back to France. It was the last stop on our trip, the last place on the itinerary, the last fax number.
The next day, as Heather and I were just about to leave that last stop, checking out at the front desk, a woman came from the back room and said: “Madame Covington, you have a fax.” I was stunned. I had forgotten that I had given Sharon the fax numbers. Who even knew where we were? She handed me the 3-page letter and when I scanned to the bottom, I saw the name Gilbert Desclos.
I started to cry as I stood there and then realized that I needed to explain my behavior, so stumbled through the story about Gilbert. The two women behind the desk started to wipe away their tears, and the one in charge ushered me into the back office, insisting I call him right that minute. I sat down and tried to compose myself and dialed the number.
When Gilbert answered, we both had to stammer through our emotions to try to talk. We arranged to meet later that day, back in Normandy. Heather and I had about a three-hour drive, so we headed north to our rendezvous.
The meeting with Gilbert is described in the story. It still amazes me that I found him and how much he was like my dad. It was as if he had absorbed Dad into his heart and carried him for fifty years, along with the belief that someday, someone would come to find him.
It’s one of the mysteries of my life that I was that person who was able to be the link between my father and Gilbert and to help my father to complete something so deep and tender as his love for Gilbert.
The memoir that I’m writing will tell the whole story—there are so many layers– including my close relationship with my father and my passion for France and the French language that were keys to my involvement in the story.
It is a story first and foremost about the enduring power of love and kindness. It is as if unseen hands were guiding us along, helping us over the places we could have stumbled, making sure that I found Gilbert.
I want to open my memoir with these lines from the ee cummings poem, “I carry your heart with me”
“here is the deepest secret nobody knows…
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)
Thank you so much for your interest in the story. Please let me know if you’d like to follow along on the progress of the book as it is written and published.
In wonder and gratitude,