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A West Marin author last month released a fascinating bookAutrefois to Today. Autrefois is French for “In the Old Days.” The book consists of a series of stories from the life of Laure Reichek née Guyot, who lives along the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road near McEvoy Ranch.

The cover photo shows Laure at Toby’s Coffee Bar, where I first got to know her. That was before the mural on the wall of the neighboring post office was painted over. An anonymous tourist snapped this photo and gave it to Toby’s Feed Barn owner Chris Giacomini, who gave it to Laure.

Laure was born in Paris in 1930 and in 1951 moved to the US with her husband. He was an American veteran she met after the war when both were studying in Paris.

Laure at 19 in Paris.

As a child, the author saw the disaster of World War II at close range. In one story, she tells of German bombing forcing her to move to the countryside and change schools. The French had previously erected the Maginot Line of fortifications to block any German invasion, but in 1940, the Germans went around it and went on to seize Paris. As a nine year old, Laure saw the French retreat.

“First we saw French officers in cars driving south, the foot soldiers, those who had gone to war with flowers in their guns to fight the war to end all wars…. Now the French army was walking it did not know where, heads down, eyes vacant, hungry, dirty, stinking, dragging itself like mangy dogs, begging for food and water, hugging walls in case of enemy air attacks. We watched as stunned as they.”

The French army retreating in what they called La Déroute (the rout).

“One day, as I was taking food in a small metal pail from my grandparents’ house to my great-grandmother’s for her pet — just stale bread soaked in hot water we poured over the plates before washing them, just to give the bread a little taste — it was snatched from my hands by a hungry soldier. I kept saying, ‘But it’s for the dog!’ and the soldier replied, ‘But I’m hungry too.’ I was shocked — shaken and deep down humiliated by the sight of a man gulping down dog soup without a spoon.”

Laure’s grandfather, Dr. Guyot, with two pets and two hunting dogs.

Laure’s parents were poor and lived on a barge moored along the Seine. It had no electricity, running water, heat, or sewer, and when she was 11 days old, she went to live with her grandparents, whom she treated as her real parents.

She liked her grandparents but also tells of being violently abused at the age of 10. Her grandparents had arranged for her to receive private tutoring in Latin and when Laure missed one tutorial session, she claimed to have lost track of the time. Her grandfather didn’t believe her.

“Grandpa was furious. His voice was angry, loud, uncontrolled…. Before I knew what to think, he was hitting me in the face. The left side of my face hit the doorknob several times. He would not stop. After my initial surprise at the depth of his anger, my head began to hurt, and I could feel blood running down my face and into my collar.

“I must have been screaming for Grandma, and Suzanne, the maid, appeared yelling, ‘Stop, stop, you’re going to kill her!’ I just stood there, crying in my pain….I thought perhaps I would die. Wished I would…. When he finally stopped, his anger exhausted, all he said was, ‘Take her to surgery.'”

Laure ended up with a bandage around her head, but instead of apologizing for his assault, her Grandpa told her to now go to the tutor and apologize for missing her Latin lesson. Laure was “speechless…but I dared not disobey Grandpa.” It was a lesson learned the hard way.

Laure as seen in a May 5, 2019, posting here. (Photo taken in 2018 by Marna Clarke)

One of her amazing stories tells of a pair of well-liked twins who ran a saddlery and who both became infatuated with a Madame Pitault when she brought them her horse’s reins for repair. “They must have felt thunderstruck, as in front of perfection, looking at an apparition. That was it. Instantly. Forever. Unfortunately, for both of them at the same time.

“We know nothing of Madame Pitault’s reaction, whether she was aware of the earthquake she had just created in those men’s lives. We know nothing of the twins’ suffering, their discussions, if they had any.

‘What we know is that a week later, a customer, finding the store open but empty, went upstairs and found the twins hanging side-by-side from the rafters of the attic where their father had hung himself 20 years earlier…. Since the twins had been respected for their hard labor, exemplary lifestyle, good humor, and the quality of their work, not to mention the curious circumstances of their death, every able-bodied person in the town of 2,000 went to their funeral.”

Laure as a happy 81 year old in 2011.

As Laure notes in the ending of her book, she has been “actively involved in the creation of a senior center, a homeless shelter, and an organization to help immigrant working women. I have worked as a volunteer in public schools as a mentor and volunteered in a restaurant as a prep cook. I have tended the land on which I live and formed relationships with animals. Lucky me.”

And lucky me for having just read Autrefois to Today. (Publisher: Equity Foundation, Berkeley CA)