“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.” – The Letters: How A Mixed-Race American Child Learned About His French Mother And Heritage
In May 2002, my father, P. Frank, passed away at the age of 80 years. About a week after his passing, I found myself in my boyhood home designed and built by my father. My brother, sister, and I were trying to decide what to do with a lifetime of materials he had accumulated. In the hallway closet, we found neatly wrapped, hundreds if not thousands of his Powerful Force For Freedom/lithographs of the aircraft carrier artwork he painted for the United States Navy. Amongst those posters were approximately 3,000 historical and 25th-anniversary posters of the USS Enterprise that were never sent to the ship. They were neatly crated and addressed for shipment. Those particular posters were the last ones he would paint, and they were never sent to the ship. After reading the correspondence between my father and the captain of the USS Enterprise, I came to the conclusion there had been a change of command to the ship just as the lithographs were rolling off the press. And the new commanding officer refused to take them or pay for the artwork that was requested by the former commanding officer and his staff.
By-the-way, these posters are still crated, packaged, and addressed, ready to be sent to the ship. But the USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, has since been decommissioned.
From the hallway closet, I made my way down to the garage to open military trunks lying 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 those stacks of letters, I began to notice that many of them were written in French, some of them 10-15 pages in length. Since the invention of email, people don’t write letters like these anymore.
Along with the letters written in French were letters written in English by my father. Those letters appeared to be in response to letters written in French. There were also documents from the U.S. Army, U.S. State Department, friends of my father, family members, lawyers and judges, and Congressman John Dingell Sr. I couldn’t get a clear picture of mine and my father’s lives. I knew from the papers written in English that my biological mother 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 flee 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 Germany. 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 U.S. Army position based upon discriminatory practices that manifested itself in his department.
As I relayed the history contained in these letters to family and friends, the one underlying comment from everyone was always when does the movie come out. Since I have no access to that field, my reply was “probably never.” But the story was and is fascinating for there are a lot of historical references contained within those documents. For instance, there is a reference to one of the judges that served at the Nuremberg trials, who was consulted by my father’s sister concerning his impending court case. There were letters to and from Congressman John Dingell Sr., a New Deal-era congressman, and the father of the Congressman John Dingell Jr., who recently passed away.
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 complete representation of my parents’ early tumultuous life. As my sisters began to translate the letters, a one-sided picture began to emerge from them, they thought 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, a different scenario begin to appear.
It took 13 years to get all the letters and documents translated and placed in chronological order. Only then was I able to get a complete picture of my family’s life together. 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 is usually fictional relationships between two lovers – the letters in the beginning certainly fit that genre, but, the relationship was real. Should I write the story as family history, a love story, or should I write it as a fictional novel? I had a difficult time writing this story/novel if you want to call it that. It took an emotional toll on me, and sometimes I still shed a tear or two when I re-read the letters. Mainly because I never got the chance to really know my French family (uncle, aunt, grandparents, cousins, etc.) and heritage.
Finding these letters and documents led to my brother obtaining dual citizenship with Germany due to the relationship my step-mother had with our father, and the circumstances surrounding his birth. And with me recently obtaining my French birth certificate and possible French citizenship. All of this occurred post 2015 and based upon a chance conversation my brother had with a female friend, and I, a chance viewing of the Sunday program “CBS NEWS Sunday Morning.“
As I researched the best way to write this story, I came across the epistolary writing method. After reading about this method for telling a story, I decided to take a narrative epistolary approach and let the letters and documents tell my story. This form of writing provides the reader with an intimate view of the characters by allowing the reader to feel a direct connection to the characters. Readers can feel the emotions and thoughts, as expressed by the characters. In using this method to tell the story, I didn’t want to interject any of my own prejudice or bias to “cloud” the reader’s interpretation. Based upon the following 5-star review by Christian Sia of Reader’s Favorites, I believe I accomplished that objective.
“The Letters: How a Mixed Race Child Learned about His French Mother and Heritage by Daniel C. Freeman, Ed.D. is a compelling memoir that powerfully documents the love, the joys and thrills, and the heartaches experienced between the author’s father and a Frenchwoman, a mother he never knew. The premise of the book establishes the background that sets it on an emotional roller-coaster. The author is about to discover who his mother really was and in an unexpected way. It is after the death of Frank, his father, in 2002 and at the age of eighty that the author stumbles on a bundle of letters and file folders of government correspondence. The letters contain correspondence between his father and mother, and curiously, there is a vinyl record that turns out to be an audio letter from his father and mother to him.
In this memoir, the author takes readers on an exploration of a family life he never knew, of a mother who’d been in the shadows for years. They are poignant and intriguing, and it is hard not to shed tears of joy, at times, and experience the emotional pain of the author. Readers are introduced to Frank during WWII, an Afro-American draftee enlisted during the war. From courtship to strong and burgeoning love, through marriage and separation, the reader is pulled into a story that is as enticing as it is entertaining. The unfiltered letters offer powerful glimpses into the souls of the lovers and allow the cultural nuances to come out through the narrative. I loved the epistolary style, which provides authenticity to the writing and allows the characters to come out neatly through the writing. While The Letters is a personal story, it has a strong appeal to fans of romance and readers who find interest in well-crafted and emotionally rich stories. Daniel Freeman allows his characters to speak through the art of letter writing.”
Reader’s Favorites holds an international author’s competition each year in 146 different categories
NOTE: If you are not familiar with the epistolary approach to writing a story, Jesse Doogan has as good an explanation as any of the other’s I have come across:
“There is something pleasantly, innocently voyeuristic about reading an epistolary novel. They give you the feeling of stumbling on a box of letters left in an attic, but there are no consequences or hurt feelings if you read them. Actually, the author prefers that you read them. Epistolary novels, books told through diaries or letters, have a way of making you feel even closer to story’s characters than the average first-person point-of-view story. You’re not in the character’s head, but you’re reading words that they are writing for the eyes of only one or two other people.”
Ironically, during the summer of 2018, I came across a vinyl 78 rpm record hidden within my father’s documents. 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 to escape kidnapping attempts from my biological mother; this was their way of communicating 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.
1954 audio recording from P. Frank to his son Daniel
1954 audio letter from Johnnie to her stepson Daniel.