XXXI – Shrapnel

On 17 October 1914, somewhere in the north of France, Louis Edmond Henri Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait died after an explosion, surely killed by shrapnel. He was an early casualty in what later became known as the Great War. I don’t know much about this man, except that his father, Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, was the comte du Dugnon, and that his older brother, Paul Joseph, inherited the title upon their father’s death in 1907, and then so did his nephew, Jean Marie Paul, after Paul Joseph died in 1913. The second and youngest brother, Louis Edmond appears listed as the Baron Louis du Dugnon in his father’s faire-part. There is no Baronne because his wife, Jeanne Marthe Vilhemmie Rommelaere, a rather invisible character in the digital world, had died by then. On the web I have found copies of their marriage bans, so I know that once upon a time Louis lived at 24, rue Taitbout — in the ninth arrondissement, a mere two or three blocks from the Opéra — while Jeanne lived at 29 (I think), rue de l’Université — just off the rue du Bac and a few blocks from the Seine and the future Gare d’Orsay, in the seventh arrondissement. I have no idea how they met, but I know they were married, at the end of winter, on 18 March 1883. M. Vallantin Dulac tells us that they had no children — a branch without twigs. Several sources show that Louis was born on 30 November 1855, so he was almost sixty at the time of his death. Like his brother, he was born in Lille, but I don’t know why their parents, who appeared to be well established in Pau, ended up living so far up north, by the Belgian border, at one point. Perhaps it had something to do with the father’s business; Vallantin Dulac tells us that Pierre Paul — who became a count only in 1882 after the death of Joseph Edmond, a childless cousin — was “commissaire de surveillance administrative des Chemins de Fer” until 1872. But all these names and dates are forking paths distracting me from my linear plotting, a military death over a century ago.

On a site solemnly called Mémoire des hommes, run by the Ministère de la défense, there is an entry devoted to our Louis Edmond Henri V. du D. de P. It states that he was a captain and that his unit was the 143rd Infantry Regiment, and there is also a mention of unqualified military glory: “Mort pour la France.” A resident of Pau, he died in a place called La Bourse, in the département of Pas-de-Calais, not far at all from his native Lille, which had just fallen to the German Army. I believe La Bourse is the town now known as Sailly-Labourse. The impressive website of Commonwealth War Graves Commission has a page dedicated to the Sailly-Labourse Communal Cemetery, featuring pictures of gray skies, green grass and gravestones, and providing an overview of the graveyard: “Rows B to G and parts of H, J, O, P, Q and R contain French graves of 1914-15, and Rows H to R contain Commonwealth graves from August 1915 to April 1917.” I don’t known whether Louis is buried there; I suspect his body was eventually transported to Pau. The CWGS also recounts the town’s role in the war: “The village of Sailly-Labourse was used for rest billets and by field ambulances for much of the First World War.” We also learn that it is close to where the Battle of Bethune took place, but that only happened in 1918.

Indeed, what remains a mystery to me is what battle Louis was wounded at. On yet another website, connected to the Bibliothèque nationale de France, we read these solemn words about him: “Officier très brave, dirigeant avec beaucoup de courage les travaux de sa compagnie, chargée d’organiser des points d’appui en arrière d’une troupe exécutant un mouvement offensif. A été tué d’un éclat d’obus le 17 octobre 1917, à Mannequin.” Despite interminable googling, I have not been able to find a place named Mannequin, either town or battlefield. Perhaps toponymy is trumped by fashion; this is France, after all, and one must know where to purchase a mannequin. Perhaps there is a typographical error, and it would be one of many on that website. All things considered, judging from the date and place of his death, I would venture that Louis was wounded at either the First Battle of Arras or, more likely, the Battle of Armentières, and then, I would imagine, transported by field ambulance to the tiny village of La Bourse, where he finally died, far from the peaceful Pyrenees.

Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, LouisOn the web, where he resides in hard-to-reach nooks and crannies, the ghost of Louis Edmond Henri wears forever a soldier’s uniform. The language that tells of his death is sweet and decorous — the old lie. Bravery and courage give way to the horrors of combat, but it all remains rather abstract. At this very moment and place in which I write, 3:14 a.m. in a preternaturally silent Los Angeles, I try to see and hear the éclat d’obus, the exploding shell, that killed my distant relative in the autumnal fields of France, and I can’t. The web has yielded a card — a “Partie à remplir par le corps” — from 1915, posted here, that transcribes the original record of his death in 1914. The military document is as laconic as Louis’ father’s faire-part is profuse. The grammar is different; instead of one long subject composed of relatives’ names coming together from France, Cuba, Spain and the United States, here we have mostly blanks to be filled in with cold clinical facts. Most frightening is this: “Genre de mort: tué à l’ennemi.” It is a strange phrase, this kind of death, this being killed by the enemy, an idiom from an old war, or, as Wikipédie would have it, “l’expression militaire utilisée en France sur les documents administratifs des soldats tués lors de la Première Guerre mondiale.” When everything is said and done, what we have is the skeletal record of a solitary death. The shrapnel that destroyed his body also detached him forever from the family in Pau. But not only him. The war, it seems to me, would also mark the end of a transatlantic family: there are no more faire-parts, as far as I know, where all, if only through the protocols of mourning, are reunited as one body. Fanny G. Vidaud would still cross the ocean several times, and letters would arrive in Cuba from Barcelona telling the stories of those who lived in France, and Nunú would make a record of some of these things. But the long nineteenth-century story in which persons surnamed Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait knew of each other, even if many of them never met in the flesh, would finally reach a quiet denouement.

At the idyllic La Reunión, in the distant forests of the Sierra Maestra, my grandmother, a nine-year-old girl in the first few months of the war, would hear news of the European conflict from her French-speaking grandfather, a citizen of France who, as far as I know, never once crossed the Atlantic. A few months later, as the war raged on, a Swedish botanist seeking to catalog the flora of Cuba would arrive at La Reunión and gather and label a few modest leaves, which he would then send to a herbarium in Massachusetts. Decades later, a willful insomniac not far from the Pacific, the Blogger would find an image of those luminous leaves online. It is my own private botany, and through its means I’m seeking now to revive poor L.E.H. V. du D. de P., dead for more than a century. In digital fields the poppies blow and grow, but these rows and rows of letters can do little to give some flesh to the man.


XXX – A Grammar of Mourning in France

Jayet, Luce - PortraitWhat is a family? The question has been on my mind for the past few months as I research and write on these close and distant relatives — figures ranging from my own mother, with whom I speak on the phone every evening, and, say, Fefa, my great-grand aunt whom I knew a little in Cuba, to Fanny G. Vidaud, who was Fefa’s third cousin or my second great-grandfather Alberto’s second cousin… Let’s face it, this family thing includes perfect strangers. The twigs in the family tree are so expansive that sometimes it seems as if they were growing in altogether different and far-flung woods. The Vidaud tree grows in Brooklyn as strongly as it does in Pau or in Guantánamo, but is it still one and the same tree? Can the arts of genealogical botany encompass all of us in any meaningful way? The fact, such as it is, remains that Fanny, for instance, and I do share a common ancestor, but what to make of it? As I recounted earlier, five French brothers went to Saint-Domingue during the Reign of Terror, and two of them, François Vidaud du Dognon de Boischadaigne (a.k.a. François No. 7) and Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait (a.k.a. Pierre No. 10), were married and had children on this side of the Atlantic. The story, of course, is far more tangled and full of gaps than the sentence I just wrote would suggest. As it turns out, it seems that both brothers may have returned to France, yet later found themselves in Cuba, and suddenly they were back in France or… Be that as it may, Fanny, who descends from Pierre, and I, who descend from François, may be said to share some remarkable leaves in the book of botany. Through the work of other arboreal researchers who have posted their findings online, I can tell you that two of Fanny’s sixteen second great-grandparents and two of my two-hundred and fifty-six (yikes!) fifth great-grandparents are one and the same couple. His name is André Martial Vidaud and hers is Luce Jayet de Beaupré. (That’s her picture posted here and, truth be said, I detect a certain air de famille with both Fanny and me.) According to M. Vallantin Dulac‘s “Généalogie de la famille Vidaud du Dognon,” André Martial was “chevalier, comte du Dognon, seigneur du Carrier, de La Dourville, etc.,” and Luce was the daughter of Barthélemy Jayet, seigneur des Bauries, identified as “un des commensaux du roi,” by which are meant some prestigious things related to dining with the king… As the reader can see, the Blogger is crafting some elective affinities here; I’m strangely fond of Fanny, so I’m willfully sending a drone into the sky to take a global picture of our distant forests and, hopefully, perhaps even a quick snapshot of our gnarly common trunk.

Vidaud de Pomerait, Comte du Dignon - Faire-partThere are indeed documents from the past in which many of these figures I’ve been invoking are made to perform a collective act whereby one can confirm, if not the existence of a family, at least a familial make-up. A death in the family, so to speak, may trigger such an act. Consider the mournful faire-part posted here. On 20 October 1907, in Pau, Pierre Paul Vidaud de Pomerait, the comte du Dugnon, passed away at the age of 81. As the two final lines state, the Count was someone’s husband, father, father-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, first cousin, or yet another kind of cousin. If one reads the faire-part closely, one notices that it consists of just one sentence — one long sentence consisting of more than two-hundred and fifty words, elegantly punctuated by semicolons. What’s more, in a stunning feat of grammar, these multitudinous relatives, whose names occupy most of the faire-part, are the seemingly endless compound subject of the little single verb ont — “they have.” In fact, the subject of the sentence — the family members reunited here — contains sixty-three proper names, and that’s not even including “leurs enfants” (an untold number of children), plus a few other surnames thrown in vaguely at the end. The predicate of the sentence invokes a circumspect tale of universal mourning — an act of carefully orchestrated sympathy and mourning. All who are mentioned — this Monsieur, and that Madame, their proliferating “enfants” — “ont l’honneur de vous faire part de la perte douloureuse qu’ils viennent d’éprouver en la personne de Monsieur Vidaud Pomerait, Comte du Dugnon.” All of these variously interlocked names have the honor of sharing the painful loss that they have just suffered in the person of the Count.

The person of the Count, alas, lacks a full proper name, but the faire-part itself, it must be said, is the pinnacle of propriety. As one of our French distant cousins mentioned in an email to one of my Miami not-so-distant cousins not long ago, families back then were “très protocolaires.” The person of the Count, I repeat, is an octogenarian body casting a last autumnal glimmer over a vast number of figures performing the action of a common verb.

But who are these figures? The first three paragraphs — if those initial phrases can be called that — invoke the six members of the Count’s immediate family. Madame Vidaud de Pomerait, the Comtesse du Dugnon, was at first a mystery to me because, according to M. Vallantin Dulac’s “Généalogie,” the Count was a widower, his second wife having died by 1889. I wondered whether there could be an unaccounted-for third wife, but as it turns out, another genealogy inverts the order of the Count’s two marriages. It appears that his second (not first) wife was Delphine Chagneau, whom the Count married in Bordeaux in 1874, after the death of Claire Louisa Gallot Delesalle, his first wife and the mother of his two sons, in 1868. Listed next in the faire-part, the Baron and the Baronne Paul du Dugnon are the Count’s oldest son, Paul Joseph, who will now be the Comte du Dugnon until his death in 1913, and his wife, Herminie Ubelhart Lemgruber, who, according to Vallantin Dulac, was born in Rio de Janeiro into “une riche famille de banquiers brésiliens” and lived on 36, avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne, rechristened avenue Foch after the Great War. The Baron Louis du Dugnon is Louis Edmond Henri Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, the Count’s youngest son and a widower; like his older brother, he too would die not that long thereafter, on 17 October 1914, killed by shrapnel — “un éclat d’obus” — at the onset of the war near the Pas-de-Calais. Two children, Claire (after her paternal grandmother?) and Jean du Dugnon, are listed next. They are Paul Joseph and Herminie’s children; according, again, to Vallantin Dulac, Rosa Paule Claire would go to live in Brazil, while Jean Marie Paul, only fourteen upon his grandfather’s death, would become the comte du Dugnon after his father died. Jean himself did not have any descendants; more on him, the childless count, I hope, in an upcoming entry.

The Count is then mourned by two widowed sisters and two widowed sisters-in-law, in that order. Their biographies and those of their dead husbands tell the transatlantic story of the Vidauds. Madame John Durand is Marie Anne Méloë Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, born in Gradignan, near Bordeaux, and married to a man from Brooklyn; I still don’t know what John Durand’s relationship to Étienne Octave Vidaud (Fanny’s father and the Count’s and Marie Anne Méloë’s late brother) might have been, but his name suggests deeper ties between the Vidauds and the United States than I was aware of. Madame Henri Lafont (not Lafond) is Marie Joséphine Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait; she was born in Santiago de Cuba, where she married Henri Lafont, who was later a doctor in Pau, where he died in 1905. Madame Ernest Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait is Marie Bernadac, whom we have seen before wearing a formidable headdress; her husband, also a doctor like Henri Lafont, is the rather handsome man whose face I tried to read several months ago in a belated and improvised act of physiognomy. Madame Émile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait is Mariana de Arce, born in Santiago de Cuba. Émile too was born there, but lived in France before returning to his hometown.

Vidaud, Pierre HenriNext on the list of mourners are the Count’s nephews and nieces, plus the children of these, as well as some in-laws. First are the children of Étienne-Octave, the Count’s eight nephews and nieces born in Brooklyn: Robert, plus wife and children; Édouard, or Edward, a bachelor; three sisters married to men surnamed Van Nostrand, Clarke and Hunter; and three unmarried sisters, including Fanny, who — unlike her siblings, probably — must have met the Count and his immediate family on her European trips. Then comes John Durand, Marie Anne Méloë’s husband, followed by his son, Maurice, plus the latter’s wife and son. Suddenly there appear the rather mysterious Colonel et Madame Ulpiano Sánchez-Echavarría. Their name invokes the realm of operetta, but she happens to be Emilia Vidaud Arce, daughter of Émile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait and Mariana de Arce, and he a Teniente Coronel de Infantería, according to the Anuario militar de España, who fought for Spain during Cuba’s War on Independence. Then comes a solitary Mademoiselle Aguirre, who must be, following M. Vallantin Dulac, a certain Lola, the daughter of the Count’s sister, Fanny, who in turn was born in Santiago de Cuba and married one Elías Aguirre; Lola would die in Pau, but I don’t know why or when she moved there. (Our Brooklyn-born Fanny must have been named after her late aunt.) But one figure that stands out, simply because of the number of words attached to his name, is “le Capitaine d’Artillerie Henri Lafont, officier d’ordonnances du Général commandant la 14e division d’Infanterie.” Like his mother, Marie Joséphine Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, Pierre Henri was born in Santiago de Cuba, but died far from there, in Romania, on 29 November 1918, only less than three weeks after the Armistice. There is much about him on the Web. We know that he lived at 9, rue Montpensier, in Pau; that he had chestnut hair, gray eyes and a dimpled chin; that he died from an illness acquired on the front… The phrase “mort pour la France” often appears next to his name, and his name also appears on a plaque at the Invalides in Paris. I have also found his picture, reposted here, on several genealogical websites. It’s a melancholy countenance, that of General Lafont. I’m not sure how old he was when he arrived in France, and I wonder whether he had any memories of Cuba when, far from Pau, in the city of Iași, in eastern Romania across the border from present-day Moldavia, he knew he was dying.

The next paragraph, which is also quite long, starts with various figures whose names are only vaguely familiar to me. But their connection to the Count can be ascertained by googling and clicking with a measure of intelligence and sang-froid. Yes, you must be alert not to lose your way in the forking paths, and yes, you must be willing to trespass in other people’s woods and climb their trees. Take, for instance, Monsieur et Madame de Masfrand. Who could they be? As it turns out, she is one Marie Henriette Clara Durand, who married Léopold de Masfrand, and her parents are Jean-Michel Durand and Marie Marthe Théophile Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait (ah! who?), who in turn is the deceased sister of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, the Count’s father — which, if my botany doesn’t fail me, makes Madame de Masfrand the Count’s first cousin, right? That Marie Anne Méloë, the Count’s sister, is married to John Durand (or is it Duran?) of Brooklyn only serves to further entwine the windblown twigs. In the end, what matters more than absolute clarity is that all are reunited in the act of mourning and the faire-part’s grammatical subject.

And then, in mid-paragraph, the faire-part invokes the various descendants, many living in Cuba, of François No. 7 and his two sons, Adelson and Adolphe. Marking Adelson’s primogeniture, his four daughters are listed first: the Mesdemoiselles Clémence and Louise Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, both unmarried; Madame de Carlos Lecumberri, whose name was Josefa, and whose husband was a lieutenant-coronel for Spain who appears to have died in Cuba’s War of Independence; and Madame Lucciardi, Suzanne, whose husband, Eugène Lucciardi, was a French diplomat stationed in La Paz, Santiago de Cuba, Sydney and Prague. (I shall come back to some of these characters in the future.) And then, finally, almost last and not quite least, are Adolphe’s two sons and five daughters: Alberto, plus his wife and children; Severo, the eternal bachelor; María, with her husband, Rafael Llopart i Ferret, children and grandchildren in Catalonia; Juana Amelia, also in Catalonia, whose husband, Rafael Calbetó i Sambeat, had already died; Carlota, who I believe may have lived with one of her married sisters; Magdalena, a pianist, who spent time in France and Spain (where she studied with Enrique Granados) before returning to Guantánamo; and Matilde, the youngest, married to Fulgencio Gonzales-Rodiles and the mother of María Magdalena, nicknamed Nunú, the notebook writer.

Vidaud Caignet, Alberto & Felicia Trutié GautierWhat remains of all these names? The Count died more than a century ago, so the likelihood that anyone still alive knew him, or knew any of the various other figures mentioned here, is little. Fortunately, the children — those enfants mentioned over and over again — and even grandchildren are a different matter. Consider the phrase “Monsieur and Madame Albert Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait et leurs enfants.” Those names and nouns invoke my second great-grandfather, Alberto Vidaud Caignet, who owned (or not) La Reunión; his wife, Felicia Trutié Gautier, about whom I know little. This is their picture here, sitting on some veranda. They had four boys and three girls, and those children, all long dead by now, included Alberto Vidaud Trutié, whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren I’m just beginning to meet online; María Vidaud Trutié, or Maluya, my great-grandmother, whose picture I posted earlier; and Josefa Felicia Vidaud Trutié, our beloved Fefa, who took care of me and whose memory is still alive on both coasts of these United States, if not in Cuba itself. Those children lived in a provincial city in a newly independent republic in the Americas and, by an act of grammar, they, now young men and women, crossed the Atlantic and became subjects in the death of an old man — a nobleman yet, like in some uncanny fairy tale — who lived in another provincial city in a far older republic that once upon a time had been the mightiest kingdom in Europe, and… The rest, I’m afraid, is blogging, by which I mean imagining things, making up stories.

If every story has a narrator and a narratee, as a distinguished Frenchman once put it, inquiring minds may want to know who tells the tale told in the faire-part and to whom it is addressed. I don’t know who authored the announcement of the Count’s death, but the their-person voice in the text fashions itself as omniscient. It knows all in the family and their degree of proximity to the Count’s person. It speaks to a figure succinctly identified as “vous” — a “you” to whom the multiple names that make up the subject of the sentence communicate the news of a painful loss. As fossilized as its formulaic language may sound, the faire-part still speaks to me. But if I identify with the “you” to whom the sad news is told, I may well assume I’m not a member of the family, if only because I was born decades later. Yet, even as I undertake the announcement of the Count’s death to you, whoever you may be, I become its new narrator, perhaps even a new subject in this ancient grammar of mourning. Strangely, belatedly, I too become a melancholy figure not unlike any other member of the family, whatever we may mean by family.