‘It’s not cinema; it’s realite’

Before Andree Hemmerle returns home to France on June 23, she’ll visit the grave of her father — a father she never met.

Gerald Byron Ball is buried at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, Ore.

An Army veteran who served in World War II, Ball was 54 when he died in 1966, leaving his wife, Genevieve, and their four children.

Hemmerle is the child he didn’t know. Her story is like something out of an old movie, a saga of love and war. It’s also a story of forgiveness, acceptance and the meaning of kinship.

“It’s not cinema; it’s realite (reality),” Hemmerle said Wednesday in the blend of French and English that she’s been speaking since her arrival June 1 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

At 62, Hemmerle carries the sorrow of never having known her father’s love. It’s a burden now lightened by great joy. Hemmerle will go home basking in the warm embrace of a family she never knew she had.

With her husband, Hubert Hemmerle, helping translate, Andree Hemmerle and two of her half-sisters explained the past and reveled in their new family at the Edmonds home of Jeri Cusimano.

Cusimano, 60, and her sister Victory Grund, 65, of Whidbey Island, have taken turns hosting Hemmerle and her husband. The French couple will soon travel to Vancouver, Wash., to stay with another half-sister, 61-year-old Carol Anderson. Hemmerle’s half-brother, John Ball, 58, also lives in Vancouver.

So does Genevieve Ball Erickson. She was Gerald Ball’s young wife and already a mother when he went off to war. Now, she is 86. Andree Hemmerle affectionately calls her “Mother Jean.”

“My mother wants her to know she was loved, and that she is sorry she didn’t bring her into our lives,” Grund said.

Imagine, though, what it was like for Genevieve Ball. It was 1947, two years after the end of World War II. In the mail, she found a letter to her husband from France. Inside was a picture of a little girl, a child with a remarkable resemblance to her own daughter, Victory — the women still look alike today.

It wasn’t until a dozen years ago, at the family’s cabin in Oregon, that their mother told Grund and her siblings about their father receiving the letter, and about the strong possibility that they had a half-sister in France. Cusimano called it her mother’s “mortal moment.” She wanted her children to know the truth, and that they had her blessing to search for a lost sister.

“My mother has had her ups and downs of emotions, and guilt that he passed away without knowing her,” Cusimano said.

If the daughters know what words passed between their parents regarding a relationship in France, they didn’t share them. In short, Genevieve prevented Gerald Ball from contacting the woman he knew during the war. As far as his children know, he never did.

Imagine, too, their father’s pain. “In the back of his mind, I’m sure he was always, always thinking of that little girl in France,” Cusimano said.

When their mother finally told them about the letter, she remembered the French woman’s name incorrectly. “In her memory, it was Bertha Jolet, from Strasbourg.”

With that name being all they had, the American siblings hired someone in Europe to launch a search. For a decade, they searched unsuccessfully.

The maiden name of Hemmerle’s mother was actually Bertha Goeller. Today, she is 84. She married several years after Andree’s birth and went on to have other children. Hemmerle declined to share her mother’s married name. “Andree has a tremendous amount of respect for her mother,” Grund said.

Hemmerle did share that early in life, she was called only “Girl.” She wasn’t given a proper name until her mother married and had other children, and she said she was treated as a “black sheep,” she said. “At the time, there was shame to have a daughter without a husband,” Hemmerle said.

She did know her father’s name. When Hemmerle’s daughter, Christina, had a son, she named the baby Gerald Ball. When Hemmerle’s grandson was born, her mother showed her what she’d kept locked away for decades — photographs of the American soldier, who served with the Army’s 649th Engineer Battalion.

Stymied by searching for the wrong name, the American family at last decided that their half-sister might be looking for them. On the ancestry.com Web site, they put up their family tree, including their father’s name.

The breakthrough came in April. With the help of Mary-Ann Vandaveer, who has an international searching service, and a flurry of e-mail, they began an online conversation with Hemmerle that quickly progressed from exchanging pictures to making travel plans.

From tears at their airport meeting, the sisters now laugh while trying to decide who looks most like Andree. They’ve walked the beach on Whidbey, met with a French club on the island, and been treated to the Hemmerles’ exquisite French cooking.

“From the first e-mails coming to us, she has never found so much love,” said Hubert Hemmerle, Andree’s husband.

“The past is past. It’s a story of tremendous good from something very difficult,” Grund said. Hemmerle used her best English to agree: “This is a story about now.”

Even so, none of them forgets the man no longer there.

“I feel our father’s presence,” Grund said.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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