Saturday, June 6, 2009

remembering the longest day

Three winters ago my little family scrimped and saved, and cut and downsized in order to save enough money to go on a very budget trip to France for three weeks. For years it had been a dream of ours to go, and finally we decided to stop talking and plan. I took a French course at the community college, bought some books, and the glorious day finally arrived.

Being that this was a budget trip, we went during the winter over Christmas break, which is MUCH cheaper than summer. After spending a week in Paris and then Nice, we took the TGV to Normandy. I had always wanted to visit the ww2 sites over there, and so we tucked it into our itinerary. I can never express properly how grateful I am that we added it. As dramatic as it may sound, these three days had a profound impact on my soul. This experience changed who I am.

We stayed in Bayeux, the first city to be liberated on DDay+1. It was a beautiful city, with the feel of stepping back in time. Bayeux, unlike Caen, was thankfully not destroyed during the invasion by a chaplain who made sure the Allied forces knew that German headquarters were not stationed there.

On an absolutely frigid day, we set out to visit the sites. We bundled up with all our might, trying to coax our tropical Floridian bodies out the door. We were staying at a gite, owned by an elderly woman who rented out rooms in her beautiful 200 year old Victorian house to tourists like us. She was kind, but refused to speak English, so we communicated in my sad, tourist French. She watched me carrying Laura, then barely two, out the door. "C'est froid!" She protested. "C'est froid pour la bebe!" I sheepishly looked at her. "Oui, c'est froid." I didn't know French for "I know it's freezing and I'm a bad mom, ma'am, but this is our one shot at visiting Normandy. I don't know if we will ever be able to come back, so the baby's got two layers of clothing and some chocolat chaud, and here's hoping she's young and tough."

our little home sweet home in bayeux. laura with my maman et papa

a view through the front window on our drive to the sites. Normandy has remained virtually unchanged over the past couple centuries. If it weren't for things like asphalt roads, telephone and electrical poles, you might be unsure of the time period.

We pulled up to the American Cemetery in Coleville-Sur-Mer in the freezing rain. My mother decided to stay in the car with Laura. She doesn't do ww2 well due to the aftereffects of a father permanently affected by his time in the Pacific theater. I decided to leave Emma, my then-kindergartner, in the warm and cozy van as well.

Five steps away from the van I stopped. I turned back and opened the door to the van.

"Emma, I'd like you to come with me, honey."

"But Mommy, it's cold."

"I know baby, but I have this feeling it's important for you to see this. I don't know when we'll ever be able to come back and I really want you to have this memory."

She nodded, hopped out, and took my hand. As we walked, I explained to her about the cemetery and it's meaning. I told her in simple terms that these men here were someone's father, son, husband, uncle. I told her they fought so we could leave a free and peaceful life. As we turned the corner to the cemetery the sun came out and the rain stopped. And I was hit with the sight of 10,000 crosses and Stars of David.

There is a feeling there that cannot be duplicated. You cannot see that many graves and know that it covers such a short time period and not be affected forever. I took it all in, the beauty as well as the stark contrast between that much death and one of the most beautiful views I've ever seen. The cemetery sits on a bluff overlooking the English Channel, not far from the beaches of D-Day. It is sovereign American territory, and on an irreverent side note, due to this it has the best bathrooms in all of France.

I wish I had better pictures to do it justice. There were just so many graves.

The English Channel

The Memorial Chapel

On the wall of the chapel: Lady Liberty guiding the American soldiers

Mother France, watching over the dead

Then, just as we finished our time in the cemetery, it began to hail...freezing, cold, hail...time to move on...

poor, sweet Emma

We moved on to Pointe du Hoc where the Army Rangers bravely climbed the face of a cliff with ladders borrowed from London firefighters. At the end of two days, their force of over 225 men was reduced to 90.

The land here is like swiss cheese, holes everywhere due to the heavy bombing by Allied forces.
Even after 65 years, it is amazing how deep these holes are.

the remains of a German bunker

the cliffs the Army Rangers had to scale. Incredible.

Finally, we ended our day at Omaha Beach. For a family used to happy, boisterous times on the beach at home, this was markedly different. Quiet, somber Omaha Beach requires you to stop and know what happened here. I kept thinking that if I looked again I would see the human carnage that once was here. I apologize for not being a better writer. If I were, maybe then I could describe for you the experience of being there in person.

The positive side of visiting in the winter is that the sites were easy to tour. They were not full of the crowds that swarm here in the summer.

Remnants of a caisson brought in by the Royal Marines

Monument built for the 60th anniversary of D-Day in 2004, "Les Braves"

do they look cold?

At the end of the day we climbed two flights of these stairs to our amazing room in the attic of the house.

On the way up I noticed the prints on the walls; full of poems and tributes to the parachutists, infantry, pilots, and sailors who liberated them after painful years of occupation.

I ran into her the next morning. In our basic, halting conversation her eyes shone as she told me she grew up in the house, that she was a child during the occupation. She remembers D-Day still. So do the French in Normandy. One thing I took with me were the many French families who had brought their children to these same sites as well.

On our last night in Normandy, before moving on to the Loire Valley, we tucked our little ones in. After everyone was asleep I sat in the window that overlooked the small, quiet town. So much history in this small place. My heart overflowed with gratitude at being able to see it.

On this day, may we ever remember those who made our children's peaceful nights possible. May we teach them these things so that their legacy lives on.


  1. Wow, just wow. Beautiful story. Loved looking at your pictures!

  2. AMAZING! what a great trip you were so privilaged to take! it's so neat you were able to take your children too!
    what priceless memories!



  3. Thanks for that. I too am a WWII buff; my dad was a veteran and could never bring himself to talk about it because of the friends he lost on D-Day. He was Army Air Supply stationed in England and stayed behind on that fateful day. I want to do this trip some day. I need to stop hoping and start planning.


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