He lost his French accent early, but Michel Remy never lost his French name.
He didn’t change it to Mike or Michael, even when he was living his life and driving a truck and raising his four kids just outside Cape May in Lower Township. He never stopped calling himself Michel even when his mother, who brought him to Cape May — and who never shed her thick French accent — remarried and became Ida Smith, a name that sounded right at home in her new country.
Michel’s wife, Barbara, and two of their children told his story this week, about a month after Michel died at 76. It took a while, because this isn’t a simple story — or a standard South Jersey life, by any means.
Michel and his mother came to Cape May after World War II with Jonathan Smith, who was a U.S. Army colonel during the war in France. And Ida was a single mother when she met Smith, a Cape May boy, because Michel’s father, Lucien Remy, was a French resistance fighter executed by the Germans in 1944.
Ida was in the underground resistance herself, so during the war, she left Michel — her only child — with Lucien’s parents in Le Thillot, a tiny mountain town in Alsace-Lorraine. So the boy was being raised by his grandparents and aunt, Marie-Louise, when his mother reappeared with a new man, and with plans to take Michel to America.
The boy had other plans. He ran away, said his youngest son, Steve Remy.
“He had formed a very special bond with his grandparents,” said Steve, who adds that Michel’s aunt “looked at my father more as a son than a nephew.”
But Ida’s Col. Smith was military police, and Michel’s escape attempt didn’t work.
He and his mother came to America by ship and “moved directly to (Smith’s) house in Cape May,” Steve said. “So my dad faced the battle of being this little boy from France — and his name was Michel, so he had a girl’s name — who didn’t speak any English, coming to the very cosmopolitan place of Cape May, N.J., in 1948. ... You can imagine the strife — over his name, his accent, the way he spoke. He was different, and the other kids let him know it.”
Still, by the time Michel met Barbara Cox about 10 years later — she was a nursing student from Williamstown visiting friends in Cape May — Barbara couldn’t hear a trace of French in her future husband’s voice. He had gone to high school and played football, the American kind, in Cape May, and he sounded like everybody else, except for that name.
They were married in 1959, and the kids started coming along a few years later. The oldest, now Michelle Phillips Cottrell, also of Lower, still distinctly remembers the first time she heard her father speak French. She was in high school and her dad was on the phone to France, booking travel arrangements for Barbara’s friend from work.
Cottrell and her sister, now Suzanne Larcombe, of North Wildwood, just stopped and listened, fascinated because their dad seemed to be “this person we never knew talking on the phone,” Cottrell said. “It was like somebody turned a switch on in him, and his accent came back.”
But Michel lived a very American life, and gradually fell out of contact with his French family.
He was trained as a mechanic and had his own car-repair garage for a while, but then he started driving a truck to deliver Cape May-caught seafood from North Carolina to New England. He liked to take his two sons — the older is Mark Remy, of Egg Harbor Township — on his runs to show the boys their country, and not just its tourist spots.
Michel also liked to eat in the truck stops along the way — which, Steve believes, was probably a factor in the heart disease that plagued him later in life.
And although he resisted leaving France, Michel never went back — until his youngest son, who moved to Europe in 1999, was marrying a French girl in 2004. Michel clicked with his new daughter-in-law, and the French-American branch of the Remy family helped Michel track down the side that never left France, including the aunt, Marie-Louise, who helped raise him.
“It was a very emotional meeting,” Steve said. “When my dad came back, it was like the prodigal son had returned. He was the only child of the only son in the family — and here he disappeared for almost 60 years.”
With help, Michel also found a memorial to his father, Lucien, and his resistance compatriots in their old French village.
Marie-Louise died a few years ago — just a few days before her beloved nephew got back for another visit. Then when Michel realized how sick he was, he decided that no matter where he lived his last 65 or so years, he wanted to be buried back in the family cemetery. So when Steve Remy went home, now to Switzerland, after his father’s memorial service in Cape May, he carried his dad’s ashes with him to deliver to Le Thillot.
Or he took most of the ashes. Barbara Remy said a few of her husband’s remains stayed with the family in New Jersey. Michel never lost that French name, but he lived an American life.
A Life Lived appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Contact Martin DeAngelis: