The enduring power of letters
FRANK METHE PHOTOGRAPH
“Fame is the scentless sunflower, with gaudy crown of gold; but friendship is the breathing rose, with sweets in every fold.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
One oft-seen poster among the many that bedecked countless walls all over the homeland during World War II warned that our own big mouths could get us all into trouble: “Loose lips sink ships!”
Richard Bayhi, a GI from New Orleans who was fighting his way across Europe at the time, must have missed that poster when a Frenchman, battered by the war, but grateful to all Americans, invited him into his home for a bit of rest and relaxation. Though the Vaillant family of Reims, France had little, Marcel Vaillant offered Bayhi the comforts of his home: supper and a glass of wine … or two. As the evening progressed, Bayhi and the Vaillant family members talked about the progress the Allies were making against the Nazis, the future, the Bayhi family back home in New Orleans and hopes of the Vaillant family in France. More than once, Richard Bayhi dropped the name of his younger sister, Betty, or Betty Lou as she was fondly called. Marcel’s sister, Paulette, took note and a ship was not sunk, but instead christened that night: a friendship that has spanned the Atlantic ocean for more than 65 years now and has been kept alive by thousands of letters that have traversed that ocean between Betty Lou Zimmerman and Paulette Vaillant over the decades:
New Orleans September 4, 1945 My dear little friend, Paulette.
I was so happy to receive your sweet letter; I just had to answer it right away. I am answering in English because I do not know how to express myself very well in French. But if you find it too difficult to read, I will do my best to write to you in French.I, too, dear Paulette, have always desired to have a friend write to me from across the ocean – especially from France. I have always loved France very dearly, almost as much as my own America …”
The paper on which that letter was written so long ago is stiff and has yellowed over the decades, but the soft, almost metronomic prose gently probing a then unfledged friendship separated by 5,000 miles, has spawned a bond since the letter was written by Betty Lou Zimmerman to Paulette Vaillant a lifetime ago that hasn't withered, but rather has blossomed with age.
“Paulette’s friendship has been one of the great joys of my life,” says Zimmerman, a widow who now lives with her daughter and granddaughter in Metairie after having been blown out of her New Orleans East home by Hurricane Katrina. “Paulette and I have shared so very much of our lives with each other over the years. It seems so hard to comprehend now. We’ve shared the births and deaths of family members and so many other milestones in our lives.
Paulette and I are as close as any two sisters could be.
“There was a language barrier,” Zimmerman says, “Still, it has not kept Paulette and I from communicating over the years. When it came down to it, we always found a way to translate … or understand what the other was saying.
Somehow we just knew. A lot of time I read Paulette’s letters with the help of my French dictionary and she told me she had often read my letters with an English dictionary close by. This difficulty in communicating has never once deterred us from communicating over the years … and miles. And we spoke of so many things. We covered details of each of our families, the good and the bad.”
Over the more than 65 years since the two began writing to one another, they have met only twice: once when Vaillant came to America for a brief visit in the 1970s and again when Zimmerman traveled to France in 1991 to help assuage Vaillant’s grief on the death of her husband.
“The visits were all too short,” Zimmerman says. “No one can imagine what it was like when my family and I went to the then Moisant Airport, and I saw Paulette come off that plane and I met her for the very first time. It is something I will never forget. It was…and is a joy I carry to this day. For both of us, the memories of each of those visits have gone on and on …”
Then it happened: August 29, 2005.
“Like most people in New Orleans East, Hurricane Katrina wiped us out,” Zimmerman says. “We lost everything!
And I mean everything. Every picture ever taken of members of my family, every keepsake and every family treasure that had sentimental value that could not be replaced. The water just rose and rose and took everything.”
With her daughter and granddaughter, Zimmerman evacuated to Houston, fully expecting that “we would be there about two days and then we could go home.”
A full month later, the Zimmerman home was still filled with water and mud. Betty Lou Zimmerman’s odyssey took her and her family from Houston to Baton Rouge where they lived for another four months. Finally, seemingly a “lifetime later” they all returned to Zimmerman’s New Orleans home and stood ankle deep in mud and water as she surveyed the damage.
“I just cried,” she says. “I had hoped that something, a few things, one thing could be salvaged from all of that. But the destruction was complete. Family photos, photos of my late husband, Lloyd, lovely gifts sent to me from Paulette, all that I treasured was gone. All of my furnishings – it’s hard to describe just how awful it was to see my home in that condition.”
As the horrific news of Katrina and the monster hurricane’s aftermath flooding reached Reims, France, one woman placed her hands together and prayed knowing that a very dear friend was somewhere in all of this and that friend was devastated and needed help. A few days later, the full scope of the tragedy was personalized when Vaillant received a letter from that friend in New Orleans.
“I tried to explain the horror of it all…how many people had died…how we, as a family, had lost everything,” Zimmerman says. “Words just seemed so inadequate, but I know that somehow, some way, Paulette would understand.”
The days turned into weeks and then it happened.
“Before I knew it, Paulette and members of her family had sent funds to assist us,” Zimmerman says. “And a few days later, a package arrived. It was from Paulette, a huge box. I opened it and I could not believe what I had found inside. Paulette knew that I had lost everything and now she had sent back to me all of the treasured pictures I had sent to her over the years. Pictures of my children, my grandchildren, baby pictures. Pictures of my late husband.
School pictures! Wedding pictures! My dear, dear friend in France had given pieces of my life back to me. I had lost them all and all at once, I had them back! Tears welled up in my eyes. I couldn’t believe it! Not only did she send pictures, but she also sent all of my letters back to me, all the ones I had written to her over more than six decades and that she had so carefully saved. More than 60 years! I sit and think of the long distance friendship Paulette and I have had for so long now, and I realize that everything the poets say about friendship is true!”