Omaha beach, Paris 1944

‘The Bag Lady’ by Michelle Gunnin

Recently, I read an article by Terry Gassett on Two Drops of Ink entitled: Finding Inspiration. As fate would have it, I was to be in Paris the next week, and so I looked for the inspiration Terry wrote about, and I found it!  This historical fiction short story is the result of my whirlwind 24 hours in Paris, where inspiration sits in cafes waiting for writers to arrive.

~Michelle Gunnin~

Paris, 1944

Rose shuffle-stepped down the cobblestone street in front of a cafe.  Her white hair stood out from her head in a way that looked as if the wind had blown it all day, only there was no wind in Paris in June.  She didn’t know when she had grown so old.  The German occupation didn’t help, she was sure.  In the past few years, everyone in France had aged while the battles of the war continued endlessly.  She passed her neighbors on the street, and it seemed to her the smiles had gone away when the Germans had arrived.  She knew which day hers had taken flight.  Remembered it well.  It was the day her evening walks had begun.  Her son, injured in battle, was nearly dead in a hospital and there was no way she was going to stay away.  She smiled at the memory of the first time she stood up to the German soldiers trying to stop her.  She certainly had some guts on that day.  But then, her son was most likely going to die, and with him her world.  She had not been afraid on that day of joining him, and so she had told the soldiers to move out of her way when they tried to stop her.  For some reason, they had had pity on her and let her pass.  She carried a green cloth bag filled with what little she could find to eat for her son because she didn’t know what else to do.  It had earned her the title “the bag lady” and soon they ignored her as she passed, deeming her not worth the trouble to kill.

She crossed the street as the sun hung low over the city.  It was one of her favorite times to see Paris.  Sunset had a way of bringing back the days before the war.  The pink sky reflected off of the ancient buildings. The Eiffel Tower seemed a beacon of hope, encouraging the people to hold on in the midst of dark times.  The glow on the clouds made it seem like peace was right on the horizon.  If only.  If only, it were true.

Her walks had gone from the hospital to the bars.  Her son recovered physically, but never in his mind.  He had turned to drink to ease his pain.  She couldn’t blame him.  Wouldn’t.  It was not his fault.  The war had turned him into a shell of his former self.  As far as she knew, when he left the apartment each day he started his dowsing, and by sunset, he was sleeping deeply in one of the bars.  She began her walk to find him each evening, searching each place until she found his slumbering body draped over a table.  She woke him, just as she had done when he was a boy – getting him ready for school.  Oh, how her boy had grown, so handsome – like his dad had been before him.  The stories of romance in Paris were true.  Newly arrived in the city, she had been a young woman swept off her feet by a handsome Frenchman.  In days, it seemed as if love had captured her heart.  She had been beautiful then, and naïve, thinking love lasted forever.  Foolish girl! she chided herself.  But she had to admit to herself, it had been a glorious season, and it had resulted in her son who was the light of her life.

The first establishment she came to was full of old men with nowhere to go. None had seen her Charles, though they all knew who he was.  He was a regular and the pity in their eyes pierced her mother’s heart.  They knew his mind was lost and broken and that her heart was equally so.  She moved on then, to avoid their gazes and whispers.  The light of the moon on the Seine was mesmerizing tonight.  The silver glow created a pathway across the water.  She imagined walking across it and into a world where peace was possible.  Peace for her son.  Peace for herself.  Peace for her country.

Her walk to the bars seemed to take longer each night.  She knew her body was wearing out, her shuffles and hunched back made her appear small and insignificant to the roving eyes of the Germans. The days of her childhood work on the farm, out in the country, were long gone.  In those days, a walk like this wouldn’t have slowed her down one bit.  Her father would have seen to it by adding more chores if she seemed to be leisurely strolling.  Maybe that is why her flight to the city had been so exhilarating.  It was freedom.  She could still feel it lying under the surface.  War could not stop the sense of independence which rested on this place.  Paris was her city, a part of her soul.

Her second stop found Charles, head on the bar, empty glass in his hand.  Even passed out, he was a handsome man.  She knew she was biased as a mom, but the way girls had always chased him let her know it was true.

She nodded to the bartender and he said, “Bonsoir, Rose. He’s had quite a few tonight.”

She tried to wake him gently, but it was obvious it would require more than that.  She gave him a hard shake and he roused.  “Charles, it’s time to go.”

He tried to stand without much luck. She took his newspaper and shoved it in her bag. She put his arm around her and supported him.  Always supporting him.

“Night, Charlie.  Night Rose,” the bartender called from behind them.

She offered her wobbly son a crust of bread from her bag, which he pushed away.  “You know, son, eating something will help you.”

“No mama!”

It was the same each night.  He leaned on her heavily, but he always seemed to try to take care not to crush her.  The first checkpoint was ahead and the German soldiers began mocking them before they even arrived there.

“Here comes the bag lady.  Look at what she has drug in…a boy who cannot hold his liquor.”

The spunky woman of the first walk was long gone, replaced by a mother whose son needed her.  She tried always to shrink into the background.  Avoid being noticed.  It was the simpler way.  Tonight, the soldiers seemed to be a bit agitated.  Who knew by what?  They always took their troubles out on the people. They pushed her around a bit and grabbed her bag.  Charles came to her rescue by falling to the ground and drawing them away from her. Even in his drunken condition, he looked after her.  Once they had kicked him around a bit they lost interest and moved on.  She scrambled to lift him up and they continued on their journey home, just ahead of curfew the two of them, mother and son.

Once inside the apartment, his mother fell in the bed with exhaustion.  Once Charles knew she was sleeping soundly, he could tell when her deep breathing turned to snores, he retrieved his newspaper from her bag.  It had been a close call tonight.  The Germans had been inches from unraveling the truth.  The fall and the subsequent kicks had been the most he could do to prevent them from digging into his mother’s bag.  Fortunately, it had worked. This time.

Charles looked in on his mother.  There were days where he longed to tell her the truth, but it was dangerous if she knew.  Much safer for them both that he kept his secret from her, plus, the story was so unbelievable he was not sure she would accept it anyway.  Parachuting away from his plane, he had been a sitting duck.  The searing pain of being shot numerous times was burned into his subconscious, as were the thoughts that he was going down in the middle of the battle.  He was praying to die rather than be captured, and as he felt the darkness overtake him he thought his prayer was being answered.  But, as luck would have it, his parachute floated down onto the battlefield like a sheet, covering him like a corpse. He was presumed dead and had ended up on a truck being returned home for burial.  Only he wasn’t dead.  He had no memory of anything until he awoke, groggily next to the corpses of other soldiers.  He was in a dreamlike state, not sure if he was alive in a nightmare, or dead in hell. As he was being removed from the vehicle, he moaned, alerting the man unloading to his condition, while also scaring him to death.  That is how he had ended up in a civilian hospital in Paris.  Somehow his mother had been notified and had come to him every single day, nursing him back from the grave. He watched her now, hoping that one day she would understand why he had kept it all from her.

The rustling outside brought him out of his thoughts.  He crept to the window and looked into the courtyard below the apartment. Had someone followed them?  This part was always the hardest.  Knowing.  Knowing who was there.  Was it friend or foe?  Waiting by the open window he slowed his breathing as the well-practiced soldier he was.  He stood in the shadows listening intently.  The bush below his window moved slightly…he thought.  He held his breath and pressed his body against the wall.  A scratching noise reached his ears as they strained to hear the signal.  A long scrape, followed by two shorter ones.  He waited.  It repeated again.  He waited.  One more time – he knew it was his contact.  Always three times.  He slid the newspaper down into the bush.

It had not been his idea to join the French Resistance.  His battle wounds were real and the ones in his head far outweighed the ones all over his body.  He had turned to drink to numb himself.  Going from being an ace fighter pilot to a cripple had been a long fall.  His purpose gone, watching his fellow soldiers coming home in body bags, he felt useless.  Helpless.  He would have drunk himself to death had it not been for Eddie.  Eddie was the bartender who watched him slipping away from this world. When he heard the stories of Charlie’s military exploits an idea came to him, and he had approached Charles one afternoon, before he was drunk, to suggest he join the Resistance.  At first, Charles had thought him mad, but the more he thought about it the more he knew he might still be of use to his country.  The plan was to continue his nightly trips to the bars to allow everyone, including his mother, to believe he was a washed-up soldier with injuries and mental problems.  No one would suspect otherwise.  It was the perfect cover.  The only drawback was the fact he had to lie to the one who loved him most.

He watched from the darkness of the apartment as the bush rustled and then went still.  He never knew his contact, not a name, or a face, only the bush moving.  He did not know how long they waited, or if it was even the same person each time.  It was safest not to know anything, except that you could be killed on the spot if you were discovered.  He knew there were secrets written in the newspaper Eddie gave him.  Military secrets.  Of the enemy. He was the perfect choice because as he “read” the paper in the bar he could determine if the information was real or false based on his training.  He had learned the code and where to look, if the information appeared off in any way, the newspaper fell to the floor in his drunken stupor.  If it was likely to be true he slumped over the pages once he was ‘drunk.’  He hadn’t taken more than one drink in the year or so he had been passing information. Just enough to smell like alcohol and play the part. He had actually become quite the actor and no one had suspected he was sober and in his right mind, not even his mother.  The job had saved his sanity.  Now, with the latest information he had passed about the beaches of Normandy, he had hope that the war would be ending soon.  Very soon.

Photo: Omaha Beach

Monthly Contributor Michelle Gunnin

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Michell Gunnin, an everyday woman who is a writer, a wife, a mom of four nearly grown children, a teacher, a colleague, a sister, and a daughter. She is also a cancer survivor, a caregiver, and a recovering Pharisee. She has more questions than answers, and she writes to explore both. She is determined to be in the moment and live fully…both things life has taught her. You can follow her blog at

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  1. Michelle, I have been waiting to see what Inspiration you found from your time in Paris, and what creation emerged from it. This does not disappoint! I really enjoyed this piece of historical fiction. THe mother and son’s love for each other touched my mother’s heart. I didn’t see the twist at the end coming at all! I love the way you weaved the story together and I have enjoyed being taken back in time and history for an intimate look at your character’s lives.
    Thank you for you kind mention of my post as well.

    • Terry, I literally saw this woman while I was sitting in a cafe. I wondered at her story. I came home and still wondered, so I made one up for her. Once I sat down it started writing itself…and there may be more to it still…at least in my head. 🙂 Thanks for your article that inspired me to look around!

  2. Hi, Michelle. This was so enjoyable. You took me to a Paris before and during the war, and more importantly, into a mother’s heart, and a son’s courage.

    You were only there for 24 hours? You certainly absorbed the feel and rhythm of Paris. Thank you for sharing this with our readers.

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