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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

WILLEM | Laval Gravesite, 1954

The Marlin Family just before leaving for Europe. We
all went to Willem's gravesite ten years after D-Day, 1954.
JUNE 4, 2014–Alice and I are in London, on our way to France to visit my Uncle Willem's gravesite in the D-Day battle zone on the 70th anniversary of the invasion.

The gravesite ceremony will be on June 10, 2014, 70 years after he, his crewmates and the crew of another plane from the same squadron were shot down. They were two of ten bombers on the same mission the night.

Meanwhile, in New York City, an organization called The French Will Never Forget will remember D-Day by releasing from the air one million rose petals over the Statue of Liberty tomorrow, June 6, 2014.

Two AS365 helicopters will execute the petal drop and a third helicopter will film it, about 100 feet above the statue. This drop will take  5-7 minutes. In addition, the French Naval Frigate, appropriately named Lafayette, will position itself adjacent to the Statue of Liberty in the Hudson River and will conduct a 21-gun salute around noon. The U.S. Coast Guard will provide a safety zone in the Hudson River.

My Uncle, Willem J. van Stockum

My uncle Willem, Hilda van Stockum's brother, was shot down on June 10, 1944,  over Laval, and is buried there with the six other members of his crew and with another seven airmen from a second plane that was shot down on the same mission (and, on he other side of the cemetery, four others who died in the region, including one aviator).

A new novel called Time Bomber has just come out, by Robert Wack, a pediatrician and U.S. Army Major whose interest in Normandy and time travel intersected at Willem, who is considered a"father of time travel". Willem is the first person to have written for an English audience about the "time-like curves" implicit in Einstein's equations for relativity. Willem found a scientific basis for time travel.  Willem was a superior mathematician and won a gold medal in mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin that was infrequently awarded because the standards were so high.

For purposes of nostalgia, I am attaching here the Laval segment of the diary (originally in the form of letters to friends, especially Joan Dowling and Evie Hone) that my mother wrote about our trip in December 1954-January 1955. It would prove to be the last time we all traveled together, because Olga did not come on the next trip. It was right around Christmas, ten years after Willem was killed. I don't think my mother ever went back to her brother's gravesite, but I think she did see pictures that Randal took of the tombstone that the Dutch Government sent. It is slightly different at the top and can easily be picked out from the line of tombstones.

The six Marlin children mentioned in this travelog are, in age order: Olga (20), Brigid, Randal, Sheila, Johnny (me, 12) and Liz (9). When we first moved to Canada in the summer of 1947, our ages went from 12 to 2 and we were called "the lunch-hour Marlins".

FAMILY VISIT TO LAVAL, 1954
by Hilda van Stockum (assembled from letters)

December 26, 1954 - Laval

It is now about 6 pm and we have arrived [via Volkswagen bus] at our first overnight stop. When I discussed this trip with Spike I asked whether we’d be able to see Willem’s grave in Laval and he said we could - we’d go there first shot.

I’d had a letter from the English government when I was still in Montreal saying that they were putting up stones for the 14 airmen who were buried in the cemetery and they asked what I wanted inscribed.  I wrote back that I wanted “Greater Love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friends.” I was looking forward to seeing it.

When we heard about his death in 1944, we were in Washington and Laval seemed the other end of the world. Now we’re so close!

This morning there was a feverish getaway from Sceaux [where we lived outside of Paris]: "Daddy" had told us to be early, so we’d set the alarm for 6 am – but what with one thing and another (chiefly sleep) we only made the 8 am Mass – that is to say, the girls and I – and we got confession as well, which was lovely considering possible accidents. François came in time to be told the last frantic instructions and faithfully promised to do everything.

The boys didn’t hear Mass – they were counting on Chartres. They pick their churches – they insisted on Notre Dame for midnight mass and now Chartres for St. Etienne’s (as St. Stephen is called here).

There was some trouble fitting in all the luggage – I discarded a suitcase and folded blankets on the seats to save room. Then we left, waving goodbye to François, and were on the road. Spike has a knapsack full of guidebooks and maps, which he consults constantly.

It rained and Johnny’s nameplate, which he had made laboriously out of silver tinsel and cardboard and pasted over the Volkswagen sign, to hide the car’s German origin (the French made clear they did not like seeing a German car), didn’t last very long. He gave his father all sorts of pennants to fly – from Germany, Holland, Iceland, Ireland etc. - but we didn’t use them.

The road was wet and glinted pearly against the saturated green of the fields and the purple-gray sky. We went through little pastel villages and when we arrived at one with a church we got out in search of mass for the boys – but we only found the tail end of the 10 am mass. There was no 11 am, and knelt a moment by the crib. It was the usual plaster one with straw, but it had six or seven figures cut out of paper. On the whole there is not the same devotion to the crib here that there is in Ireland. The one in Notre Dame was unvisited – and when I think of the quarrels in Ireland over getting to see the crib!

The figures were most artistic and beautifully expressive, but there was no love spent on the crib – the figures were plunked down in a bare stable without any sort of greenery or straw.

In the church back at Sceaux there was an extraordinary contraption – a babe made like modern painting – just a scrap of wood painted white with a pink over for a “face”, and cloths were draped around it to suggest the figures of Joseph and Mary in a futuristic way, with wine halves where the heads should have been – it would have been possibly effective if the proportions had been right – but the baby was much too small for the figures. Further, there was a basket of fruit and a jug to suggest offerings. Very weird and modern, and of course nobody looked at it. What price chic!

Well, anyway, we managed to make Chartres at a little before noon and came in at the sermon. It is a beautiful church – so simple and purely gothic – towering columns tapering off towards the roof, windows like sparkling oriental carpets and their vivid colors emphasized by the dignified gray of the stone. The organ played “Silent Night” and somehow that hymn seemed to blend in and join the soaring of the columns.

After Mass we walked around the church. Sheila had her opera glasses, which enable one to see the mural designs in the windows and the faces on the sculptured groups – the whole life of Christ is exquisitely done, on the screen around the main altar. We also lit candles at a shrine where Our Lady holds her Christ child in one hand and a scepter and heart in the other. She is in a stiff gold mantle and has a gold crown on her head – and so has the baby. It is of almost pagan splendor.

But Spike hurried us along, as we had to get to Laval before dark, so we decided to pay a special visit to Chartres another day and really look at it. Spike bought some bread and local sausage (replete with garlic) and cheese and we had our lunch on the way, with some fruit I’d bought.

Then we drove around on and on – first over the long flat sketches of land then gradually along rolling country wooded – with gorse flowering in the hedges and along the ditches. Everywhere exquisite silhouettes of bare trees against a now lowering sky and presently the clearing sky of evening while they were finally etched on primrose as the sun decided to stay! The children sang and quarreled and slept and played games and I slept a bit myself.

We got to the Laval cemetery just before closing time. It’s a pretty, well-kept cemetery outside Laval with impressive rows of tombs, all with crosses exactly alike of blue iron. We had some trouble finding the “Tombe Anglais” with the 14 air force officers – it is beautifully looked after with fresh red cyclamen on all the graver – but it had stones and our Willem hadn’t any, just a bare cross with scarcely legible name on it.

I almost cried.

We are staying the night here to investigate this. Spike has already found out that he has to go to the Mairie about it. We said our rosary at the foot of the grave and I stole a little flower somewhere and kissed it and put it down and I felt utterly unreal.

Willem is still so alive, so vivid, so present to me – yet ten years ago he was stuck into the soil I was standing on and now probably only his bones are left. It just shows you how unreal our bodies are – and how little they matter. It was almost as if I could see Willem laughing at me! “What are you looking there for, you clots!”

But he will have liked hearing the rosary. When he left us the children were so small – and here they towered above me, and Randal’s deep voice rumbled as a background to our female ones.

We left the cemetery then and drove into Laval, an incredibly beautiful town. Parts of it are so old we could not enter it with the bus – uphill with houses almost touching on top – the old kind you associate with Germany. A bridge arched over a lazy river, which reflected the pink evening sky and behind rose musty towers.

Then we went into the shopping district with bright colored lights and Christmas trees everywhere. Spike wanted to find a hotel and asked a restaurant keeper to tell him of a clean good place. We hooted at him: “They’ll have sent you to the most expensive one in town!” Spike wouldn’t believe it but found out we were right. It had the “Ye old country shoppe” look, Yule logs and timbers and a porter at the door. We fled.

Now we have a quiet little place with the “Traveling salesman’s home” sort of look where we get 3 double bedrooms for £2 – not bad. The girls sleep in the first with two double beds and Spike and I in the next and Randal and Johnny in the last. As the beds are small it’s a toss up who’ll be more uncomfortable, Johnny or I! But one must suffer on a pilgrimage (Randal is actually as tall as Spike now). So we are all writing out our accounts now – and Spike has been trying to hurry us up, as he wants his supper and our company.

We have been discussing the possibility of adventures with Spike in town. There is something about efficiency that is death to adventure. A certain leisureliness, a laissez-faire, a “I don’t care if I get there” spirit is better. I always feel I am out with a grownup when he is along. But he is willing to learn, and as we were all telling him how fatal good planning is, he is resigned and is practically down there with us.

December 27 Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist 

This morning I got up early (after a surprisingly good night) and woke the girls (I didn’t wake the boys but I will in future, they should have come along). It was about 7:30 am when we were ready and still quite dark. The little waitresses were up and edified by our wish to attend mass. They showed us with great cordiality how to find the Cathedral. Apparently there’s no lack of masses; this town is well supplied. We found our way through the dark streets with here and there a lamp and up the hill, past more of those old, steep gabled, timbered leaning houses to the enormous Cathedral, which we entered by a side door.

I’m sure Willem was buried from it as it is certainly big enough to hold 14 coffins.

We came in at the tail end of a side altar mass and joined communion. Then we prayed for a moment at the crib, which was very lovely, a round stable with a baby in French Normandy dress – with a little cap on – lying in a brown wooden crib. Mary and Joseph and the shepherds were all in French peasant dress and very simply carved by a modern sculptor with fine feeling. One shepherd plays the pipe, and another kneels with a lamb in his arm. St. Joseph is simple and dignified with a green dark, a red hat in his hands and big hobnailed boots. Mary is enveloped in dark blue cloak. Unfortunately the French enthusiasm for electricity made them have lights that popped about from red to yellow, which was rather disturbing. All the same it was interesting to me to see the origin of the Canadian French monstrosities. There the love of ornament has got completely out of hand and has become ridiculous – gesticulating marble stones, meaningless gold twirling, endless electric effects, fairy lighting, etc. Here it is held in proportion by the dignity of the architecture and the natural good taste. But the Louis XIV influence is noticeable and there is a lot of gilt about.

We then saw an 8:00 o’clock mass starting on the other side altar and we joined in. I was again impressed by the general participation in the mass – everybody said all the responses – the Gloria, the Creed, the Confiteor, the end prayers, all in Latin. I read through the epistle and something from the Gospel of St. John, and I thought of all my Johns and Jeannes – a tremendous collection of them.

Towards the end the monks came in on the middle altar and took their choir seats and began to chant their office. And I thought what a wonderful thing the Catholic faith is, and how it makes of a trip like ours, which could so easily be a completely superficial and meaningless “visiting of natives”, a deeper and more rewarding Odyssey. I thought that instead of visiting merely the surface of things we are, by joining at mass each different village and town, participating at the very heart of their lives. For the space of an hour we four were “In Laval” in the true sense of the word. And it had that timeless quality of peace and knowledge – we felt at home, at one with the people there who would have been complete strangers in the street, and in a sense by visiting this way church after church we are following Christ as he comes to all the different places – as surely – perhaps more surely, than the apostles did. It has very much consoled me. 


Last night I felt melancholy – very much in a strange place (and I don’t like strange places) and I thought “what is the use of raging through a country in a bus – one doesn’t get into contact with the people – one might as well be in an airship hustling towards Mars (as I said to Mr. Selsly – who has dreams of being able to visit another planet one day: “How homesick I should be there!!”). It is a strange thing that homesickness has been so great a part of my life – even as a child I was wrenched from my surroundings continually as my mother and father got ill. Now it’s time for breakfast – later more.

Saintes – 9 pm 

Where was I? Oh yes, we were still in Laval. We had breakfast of croissants and coffee and Spike discovered that three of the croissants were stale. He told the children not to eat them and went to complain. He had a long argument with the lady of the hotel in which he was defeated. As he walked off to give battle he asked the children the word for “stale”. “Antique!” cried Johnny. But apparently the hotel’s proprietors would not admit the antiquity of her buns. “They had been brought that morning by the baker,” she said. When Spike retired defeated and told us that we weren’t hungry any more, she came to investigate and discovered that indeed, “vraiment”, they were stale! A terrible thing, due entirely to the lack of gentility in the baker. She would have a long chat with him about it.

She was still explaining when we moved off in the VW bus. First we went to the Mairie, where we arrived at the same time as a wedding party. A beautiful young bride went up the steps, with an enormous tulle veil and a sweet little boy in a white suit with long pants preceded her, while six bridesmaids with blue flowers in their hair and white and blue dresses held up her veil. The elderly members of the party were all in their very best – the ladies with fan and black velvet ancient dresses and the men in full dress with top hats. We had to wait for the wedding to be over before we could go and investigate about Willem’s tomb.

So Spike went off in the bus with Randal and Sheila and Lizzy to take a picture of Willem’s grave and Olga, Brigid, Johnny and I went into Laval to do shopping. We first bought Olga shoes she badly needed, and then we went looking for lunch. Spike had asked us to lag in some provisions. We passed such enchanting old houses that Brigid insisted on drawing them. I made some quick sketches but Brigid wanted to do one in color, so we left her while we bought pains and the local pâte and a cheese the monks we had listened to that morning made. Meanwhile the church bells were ringing, presumably for the wedding, which must be moving from the church. In the shop we heard that it is not a popular wedding. The bride is only 17 and the bridegroom very old. It is all arranged by the parents, and the town is indignant about it (what tragedies everywhere!!).

We also saw a shop with rabbits and a whole fox – apparently they eat fox here. We bought the cheese there and they wanted to know were we Anglais. They said it coldly as the Anglais aren’t popular. But Olga mentioned Ireland and they immediately warmed up to that, and told us there were many Irish religious in Laval.

Olga, Johnny and I then hurried back to the Mairie, where Spike was already talking to the required official. I was ushered in after him and learnt that the trouble was that the English had sent the wrong tombstone and had never corrected their error though the French officials of Laval had agitated about it several times. Then the Dutch had come with a proposal to take Willem away and bury him with the Dutch.

So at Spike’s dictation I wrote that I was opposed to this and wanted him to remain with his crew. Spike is going to investigate the matter when he goes to London next month.

That finished, we wanted to hurry on to Nantes but Brigid wasn’t there. Johnny was sent off to find her but also didn’t return. Meanwhile I did a sketch of Spike trying to be patient. (Actually he is very patient and this is a wonderful way of getting a homogeneous family, to be tossed up in a bus together. I have been lecturing that every impatient word is going to spoil the atmosphere and we’re really managing to be cheerful and tolerant. The ones that make all the noise are of course Brigid and the boys!).

Finally Brigid and Johnny came back and of course Brigid had produced a masterpiece – a perfectly delightful drawing, which mollified her father considerably.

By the way, I’ve been regaling Spike with stories of the Dowling children and Eoin’s joke
Q. What’s Maude Gunn’s father’s name?
A. Popgun. 
This provoked a terrific burst of laughter, also Colin’s “Don’t waste my time”. We went off then with a wise-cracking group of children, everybody very merry.

The scenery was more interesting this time – we passed lovely little villages with yellow trees like poor little bare fists stuck in the air. I noticed that what I had thought were crows’ nests in the trees were really mistletoe – most exciting! There’s an awful lot of it there. I also noticed the many ditches, like Holland, and a windmill. There are very few cars on the road as it is out of season, which is just as well, for I am worried by traffic.

At Nantes we visited the Cathedral and wrote and sent some postcards. It was a beautiful Cathedral with a marvelous crib. Not that the figures were particularly good – the usual plaster stuff – but they had made so much of the landscape, huge paper rocks – a whole painted background, river etc. The church itself had obviously been damaged and restored; some parts were quite new. There were some lovely old windows reminiscent of Chartres.

After Nantes the landscape changed and became very like Holland with willow trees reflected in ditches luminous with water – and oxen! It was such an excitement to see yokes of oxen everywhere – sometimes two yokes in front of a load. They look really picturesque.

But the people are not very picturesque and Brigid said she’d thought of a marvelous cartoon – us looking at “The natives” and the “Natives” looking quite ordinary while we’re the weird ones. Actually we are. Spike looks sporty but not exotic and I’ve just my gray coat and the hat with the panache, but Sheila looks a regular German with a Tyrolean hat on and embroidered Mexican yellow shirt and Canadian ski sweater and big thick boots over socks. Then Randal is wearing ski pants, Johnny is always flamboyant and half undone, Brigid has another embroidered skirt and manages to deck herself up with red scarves and doodah hats and Lizzy is just plain untidy. Olga alone looks more or less respectable but she is rather subdued and feels sick.

We have lovely times together, though. The children play spelling games in which Lizzy manages to hold her own – and we said the rosary in the car and then sang hymns. It was dark when we arrived at Saintes but we have found the same setup here and a really delicious meal around a round table – hors d’oeuvres of mussels (shades of Molly Malone), beets, carrots, onions and mushrooms – wine from Bergerac – veal and fried potatoes and then fruit, delicious.

I’ve asked to be called for Mass tomorrow at 6:30 am. We’re all going (except Spike). There was another interesting thing I noticed today – the vines everywhere – all pruned away – which made me think of “the vine and the branches” – the vine being everlasting, the branches temporal.

HvS's Conversion (Superseded)

Young HvS (L) with Willem
van Stockum (R) and their
parents, about 1914.
[I am leaving this post up because people may have linked to it, but the entirety of this and the comment that follows have been added to HvS's biography.]

One of the wonderful things about the Internet and Google in particular is that connections are made for you that are illuminating.

My mother Hilda van Stockum always told me that G. K. Chesterton's book What's Wrong with the World was an important influence on her decision to join the Catholic Church.

But John Beaumont's new book on Catholic conversions in the United States mentions another book that clinched the decision.  His book is The Mississippi Flows Into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Converts to the Catholic Church (South Bend, Indiana: Fidelity Press, 2014), 1014 pp., $69, Hardcover.   

I reached the quote via a review of Beaumont's book by Anne Barbeau Gardiner. She says:
throughout these pages we see the influence of certain books on conversions, such as the works of Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Newman, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Gilson. Then, too, some entered at an early age, like Marco Rubio who at thirteen told his parents he wanted to be a Catholic, and others, like Wallace Stevens, waited till their deathbed. Some inched their way into the Church over the course of years, like John Sparrow Thompson, the first Catholic Prime Minister of Canada, and others converted in a flash, like Hilda van Stockum, who finished reading Arnold Lunn’s Now I See and exclaimed, “I’m not thinking about being a Catholic, I am a Catholic.”
This is not a good time for me to order Lunn's book or try to find it online, because I am about to leave for D-Day memorials, including one to HvS's brother Willem van Stockum. I am posting this in the hope that someone will know the book and will contact me.