“Sit down Daniel, I have something to tell you,” my mother began. The next sentence she spoke was, “I’m not your mother. Your real mother (Sophie) lives in France and you have another family there with two sisters.” – AN EXTRAORDINARY LIFE
In 2002 my father, P. Frank Freeman passed away at the age of 80.5 years. A week later I found myself in the boyhood home my father built trying to decide what we, my brother, sister and I, should do with a lifetime of materials our father had accumulated. In the hallway closet we found neatly wrapped hundreds if not thousands of his left over “Powerful Force For Freedom” posters/lithographs of the aircraft carrier art work he did for the United States Navy. In and amongst those posters were approximately 3,000 historical and 25th anniversary poster of the USS Enterprise that were never sent to the ship, although they were neatly crated and addressed for shipment. Those particular posters were the last ones my father would every paint and they were never sent to the ship. Going through his correspondence with the captain of the ship, I came to the conclusion there had been a change of command to the USS Enterprise just as the lithographs were rolling of the press and the new commanding officer refused to take them or pay for the art work that was requested by the former commanding officer and his staff.
From the hallway closet I made my way down to the garage to open military trunks laying next to the outer wall. Opening one of them I came across a bundle of letters as well as file folders of government correspondence. The neatly bundled letters intrigued me, I had never seen them, probably because I never looked in the trunks – those were my father’s private storage facilities and we were forbidden to look in them on penalty of “death,” not really. As a child, you learned that your parents’ “stuff” was their stuff and you didn’t go rummaging around in them. Anyway, as I unbundled these stacks of letters I began to notice that many of them were written in French, some of them 10-15 pages in length.
Along with the letters written in French were letters written in English by my father. These letters appeared to be in response to letters written in French. There were also documents from the US Army, US State Department, friends of my father, family members, lawyers and judges, and the NAACP. I couldn’t get a clear picture of my father’s life during the time these letters and documents were written unless I could get the French letters translated. I knew from the English written documents, that my biological mother (which I didn’t know about until the age of almost 19) had several lovers during her marriage to my father and that she had an abortion to terminate the pregnancy originated by one of her boyfriends. At the time, she was still married to my father. I didn’t know that she had tried to elope to Canada to be with this boyfriend. I didn’t know that I had been registered as a French National at the French Consulate in German. I didn’t know that I was listed on my mother’s French Passport. And, I didn’t know my father had been rifted from his civilian US Army position based upon discriminatory practices that manifested itself in his department.
As I tried to piece my parent’s life together based upon the letters written in English, I began to ponder how best to tell the story. As the letters written in French began to be translated, first by my son’s high school French teacher, then a coworker, and finally my sisters in France, did I begin to get a more complete representation of my biological parent’s tumultuous life. As my sisters began to translate the letters, a one sided picture began to emerge in that the thought was my father would beat his wife, my mother. This picture of domestic violence was the result of letters written in French. However, once the letters were translated and placed side by side to those written in English, did a different scenario begin to appear. One or two letters stated my father slapped his wife once and he admitted to that incident. My mother went to the military clinic claiming she had been hit in the eye on one occasion. However another letter states that the doctor said my mother’s eye condition was the result of her rubbing it. With this said, other documents from a witness stated that when my mother got mad at my father, she would throw pots and pans, shoes and toys at him – he would have to to find refuge in another room.
It took 13 years to get all the letters and documents translated and placed in chronological order before I was able to get a complete picture of my father’s and biological mother’s life together, prior to 1955. Now, as I pieced the puzzle together, I began to think about how best to tell this story. Should I write it as a romance novel, which are usually fictional relationships between two lovers – the letters in the beginning certainly fit that genre, but the relationship is true. Should I write the story as family history, or a love story, or a story of racial discrimination, or should I write it as a fictional novel. I had a very difficult time writing this story/novel if you want to call it that. It took an emotional toll on me, and sometimes I still weep when I read the letters. Ironically, during the summer of 2018 I came across a vinyl 78 rpm record. When I digitized the record, there was my father’s and step-mother’s voice from 1954 sending me their love – it was difficult for me not to shed tears. I had been sent to the States to live with my paternal grandparents and this was their way to communicate with me. I could only imagine how I must have felt as a four year boy living apart from the only family I had known.
In the final analysis I decided to take a narrative epistolary approach and let the letters and documents tell the story. I didn’t want to interject any of my own prejudice or bias cloud the reader’s interpretation – I believe I accomplished that objective based upon the following 5 star review by Romuald Dzemo of Reader’s Favorites (paid review):
An Extraordinary Life by Daniel C. Freeman is a memoir based on the writings, legal documents, and letters kept within a family between 1945 and 1969; a spellbinding memoir of love and betrayal, of lust and hurt, of infidelity and a man’s struggle to remain sane in the midst of human injustice and cruelty. They met casually in 1944. But a few days later, U.S. Army draftee, the Afro-American P. Frank would be back at Pharmacie De La Nation in Paris to get another glimpse of Sophie, but things turned out to be far more promising than anything he’d ever dreamed.
The reader is plunged into a love story that begins with great fervor, but one that quickly faces far more challenges than normal. Follow this family saga as one man has to fight for justice on a dangerous path that would lead to lawsuits, infidelity and the battle for custody of their son. What made things horrible for young P. Frank is the fact that he’d be dealing with an international case. Years will roll by and a moment comes for the once-upon-a-time passionate lovers to face each other again. Could there be more room in their hearts to accommodate each other? And can they reconcile their long-time differences?
This is a gritty story with powerful racial underpinnings, a story of how the law can become an instrument of oppression where color lines are visible. The story is beautifully told and I enjoyed the brilliant use of the epistolary style. There are instances where the reader feels as though they are given the choice to get the facts by themselves, to make their own judgement from letters, published as they were originally written. Daniel C. Freeman’s An Extraordinary Life is an impassioned story, well-plotted, and filled with powerful historical and cultural references. Although it deals with a man’s struggle, it is still a story with lessons on hope and reconciliation.
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