It is said that love is the universal language, and for a Norlina family it is what overcame an inability to communicate and united them with relatives they didn’t know they had until last year.
Their story begins during World War II, when Norlina native Alfred Coleman was serving as a cook in the Army. While stationed in France, he worked alongside other cooks as well as French girls who helped out in the kitchen. A single 20-year-old far away from home, Coleman had a relationship with one of the young ladies and didn’t get to say goodbye before he headed back to the U.S.
“It was early one morning after I had worked all night and I was asleep, and they came and woke me up...and we were loaded onto a ship to come back,” Coleman said.
About three years after finishing his military service, he wed his wife Esther, and they settled into a home on Kearney Street in Norlina. The Colemans went about their lives, raising three sons and three daughters.
At some point over the years, a letter addressed to Alfred Coleman at an earlier address on Kearney Street arrived in the mail. It was written in French, his daughter Sandra Williams of Warrenton said, so he was unable to read it.
Many years passed before, 4,000 miles away, Frenchman Jean-Claude Lambot, at age 60, decided to ask his mother about his biological father.
“In France, you don’t talk about things like that,” Jean-Claude explained. “The only thing my mother told me was that Alfred Coleman lived in Carolina, but she didn’t know North or South.”
Enter Jean-Claude’s daughter-in-law Laurence Guichard, a determined young woman who began searching online 10 years ago for information on an Alfred Coleman who had served in the U.S. Army around 1938 to 1940. Not having much luck, she abandoned her search until last year. Through a blog and a contact she made in Canada, Laurence ran across information on an Alfred Coleman who lived in the Norlina area. That August, her cousin, who speaks some English, called the Colemans’ home telephone number. They answered, but the language barrier was too much to overcome, and the call ended.
“After the phone call, things stopped,” Laurence said.
She resumed her research in January, and a man responded to a photo she had posted online of Alfred Coleman, while stationed in France, standing beside Jean-Claude’s mother. The man knew him and told Laurence that the WWII veteran lived in Norlina.
Laurence found a picture of Alfred Coleman online through his church, First Baptist of Norlina, and noted a strong resemblance between him and Jean-Claude. Then she entered a Google search for Alfred Coleman, found one of the Coleman daughters, Sandra Williams, and sent her a “friend request” through the social media site Facebook. Williams, thinking this person was a friend of her son, accepted the request. But Williams said she started to receive strange messages from the French woman, so she “un-friended” her, cutting off all contact.
Laurence also located a picture of Sandra’s brother, Charles, and showed it to Jean-Claude. The two men could be twins.
“Jean-Claude thought it was a picture of himself,” Laurence said. “He realized this was definitely the right family. After that, we tried to prove we had good intentions. We were just trying to unite the two families.”
Laurence continued to communicate on Facebook with Williams’s daughter-in-law and waited with hope to hear from Jean-Claude’s American family.
Sandra said that she and her siblings have known about their French relatives for about 10 months, but continued to gather information before telling their parents four months ago.
They told their father privately that he had another son, then they told their mother. After the Colemans took in the news, the long-awaited invitation was extended.
“(Sister) Karen said, ‘Come on over. We’ve talked to dad and mother,’” Jean-Claude said.
So on Aug. 15, six family members - Jean-Claude Lambot, his wife Edith, daughters Magali Saviard and Sara Bidard, son Karim Lambot and daughter-in-law Laurence Guichard - flew across the North Atlantic to meet their American relatives in the small, rural town of Norlina, North Carolina. There were hugs, smiles and tears at the first meeting. Greetings may have been hard to understand, but one thing was certain: the language of love, which brought them together, was all they needed.
During the course of the next 12 days, the French family met East Coast relatives in multiple states, toured the sites and cities of ACC rivals N.C. State and Duke University, dined on Southern country cooking, shared photos, took photos, communicated using hand gestures and other visual clues, and spoke in broken English while teaching the Americans some French. They also laughed and loved a half-century’s worth and then some.
In a final Facebook post before returning to France, Laurence summed up the visit this way: “Que de moments inoubliables, que de rires et de larmes d’émotions partagés avec cette famille merveilleuse: notre famille,” translated as, “Unforgettable moments, laughter and tears of emotions shared with this wonderful family: our family.”
Editor’s note: Local resident Magnolia Clanton, a French teacher by profession, graciously served as interpreter for interview questions with the Lambot family, for which the newspaper is grateful.