(Originally posted June 13, 2018) Today, one hundred years ago, Eben “Bunny” Bradbury, a marine corps private, was killed by machine gun fire “just before reaching the woods”. In the ensuing chaos, someone failed to report his death correctly, or, if I’m feeling like a conspiracy theorist, someone chose to obscure his death. In any case, his family was informed of his death only when his father’s letters to his only son, written in May, June, and July of 1918, were returned to his Bromfield Street home three months later marked “killed in action”.
These letters left Bromfield Street, traveled to France, made their way back to Newburyport, were taken with the family when they moved to California, were found at an auction in 2016 and sent back to Newburyport. Today, they completed the journey for which they were originally intended, and were read at Eben’s grave in the Aisne Marne American Cemetery in Belleau Wood. The letters are strikingly ordinary. Eben’s father talks about the weather, baseball scores, and the progress of his garden. Each letter marks the time since they had last heard from their son – “It will be seven weeks tomorrow…” Knowing that these letters were written in their calm and measured tone, as Eben’s father was beating down the door of every politician or military official he could find for any information about his son, and that it was all for naught since he was already dead – well that’s enough to break your heart. Bringing these letters to him, all these years later, is all of the closure I could offer.
It has been raining for the last three days – an off-and-on drizzle mostly, but last night it let loose and poured. The rain pounding on the roof, and my own anticipation and anxiety about reading the letters today and the importance of being here, halfway across the world, on this day, kept me up all night. In the morning, it was raining, though more lightly, as we made our way to the cemetery. The rain had stopped when we arrived at the gatehouse, and although the letters are in plastic sleeves, it was far too damp to take them out into the field. So we waited. We watched Constant Lebastard lead a group of French schoolchildren through the misty headstones, his cheerful voice commanding their full attention. We chatted with Shane Williams, the superintendent, about the rain, and flooding, and local politics, and Cynthia ran out during breaks in the rain and spent some time with the gardeners. I asked about the church in town, and one of the guards suggested we should go look, and handed us the key.
The tiny village of Belleau was in ruins by the end of June, 1918. The men of the 26th “Yankee” Division from New England had relieved the Marines after the end of the Battle of Belleau Wood, and German troops had been pushed back into the town. On July 18, 1918, the 26th was ordered to advance. The village church, which had become an observation post and machine gun position, was destroyed – blown in half. Unlike at Reims, where the Germans were accused of unspeakable cultural savagery for destroying the cathedral, the Yankee Division apologized to the French people, promised to rebuild the church, and were hailed as heroes. Ten years after the war the Yankee Division made good on its promise, and the church at the entrance to the village was rebuilt with donations from veterans of the 26th as a memorial to their friends. The Yankee Division church was dedicated on October 10, 1929.
I knew this story before I walked into the church, but I was not prepared for what an experience it is to be in a space that is both the center of religious life in a traditional French village, and a memorial to the nearly three thousand dead New England men whose “blood is mingled with your soil”, in the words of the Brigadier General who spoke at the dedication ceremony.
The church was rebuilt as close to the original as possible, using local materials and measured drawings from the old structure, but the names of the Yankee Division dead line the walls. The altar is flanked by the Massachusetts and Rhode Island state flags. In one of the side chapels stands our old friend Saint Therese of Liseaux, the Little Flower of Jesus, whose basilica we had visited by chance two days ago. Part of her gig, apparently, is that roses appear as a sign of God’s love, at unexpected times and always attached to an act of kindness. Cynthia shared that throughout her life, particularly when she is missing her mother, roses appear – it’s part of the Saint Therese juju. In the church, dried petals appear in every crevice, and in the corner, a bouquet of roses and wheat speak to the men, like Eben, who died crossing these fields. We spent hours in the church – we were alone there as the street outside flooded and the rain kept coming down. We climbed the bell tower, found an old gravestone from the original church behind the confessional. Cynthia found a brush and dustpan and removed a dead sparrow.
We went back up to the gatehouse as the rain began to ease, made sandwiches in the parking lot, and ate our fill in full view of the guards, who now only waved and smiled. I noticed that I was breathing deeply, slowly. All the anxiety I had felt about the importance of this day had vanished. It was beginning to feel like home, and I had work to do. I took my blanket, an old tablecloth borrowed from our hosts, and made my way out to Eben’s grave.
The rain stopped, but tendrils of mist hung from the trees. I sat down, organized my thoughts, and then began to read the first letter. For the last three days we had been nearly alone in the cemetery. Even though most of these young men died in June and July, I had only seen two decorated graves, and no family visits. Now, just as I began to read Eben his letters from his father, the Ross family from California showed up.
We were first alerted to their presence when a tall woman in high heels went striding up and down the paved path in front of the stones, clicking purposefully. When she found what she was looking for, a stone about four rows over and three down, she called to a group of four men, who hauled over the largest memorial wreath I have ever seen, complete with a green and gold sash that draped over the stone itself. The group was all business, fussing with the drapery and arranging the stand on which the wreath was displayed. They ignored me, sitting with my un-decorated stone on my sky-blue tablecloth. And why do we have a picture of the Ross family? Because of course we had to be friends, those of us whose loved ones died on the same day a century ago. They were there to visit the older gentleman’s uncle, Keith Ross, a Marine, who was seventeen when he died at Belleau Wood. We chatted for a bit, and then the Ross family took their leave of Keith and went on their way. Before I took the letters out and began to read to Eben once again, I sat for a minute thinking of how differently we had memorialized our loved one. I had brought him nothing – no flowers, no flag, but myself, and a book, and a new friend in person, and a thousand new friends back home. It was wonderful to see another young man remembered on this somber date, and I was so glad to know one the story of one more young man here in Eben’s neighborhood.
So, finally alone, I read to Eben of peach trees and baseball pitchers, of his mother and sister and the weather in Newburyport and visitors to his dad’s store, all of these little news items so infused with love and worry and hope. I knew it was going to be very hard to leave, so I lingered on the wet ground for an hour, then said my goodbyes, promised to be back and to never forget him, and then I made the long walk down the allee back to the gate house where Cynthia was waiting.
Constant came out of the office with an armload of flowers, a box of sand, a sponge, a camera. Cynthia took the box and sponge, and we went back out to the field. One more marine from the June 12 club had been sent flowers, and as Constant washed the stone in sand from Omaha Beach, carefully placed French and American flags, adjusted the flowers, took a picture, I felt so peaceful, so grateful for their kindness and care, and ready, at last, to go home.
We went back to the Palais de Marrakesh for dinner, and as we are now regulars, the owner greeted us both with two kisses and let us sit outside, even though the chairs were soaked from the earlier deluge. I had a gin and tonic and a Gauloises Blonde, and a beautiful Bordeaux. We told our new friends we were leaving in the morning, and they put up a delightful protest. As our meal came to an end, and we prepared to leave, he emerged from the restaurant with an additional bottle of wine and two souvenirs from his hometown in Morocco – an ashtray and a ceramic shoe. And then, as Cynthia wiped away tears, he gave her a single red rose.