(Originally posted June 10, 2018) We drove 472 miles today, or to be fair, Cynthia drove and I looked up the passing French towns whose names all sound like designer purses or skin cream, and occasionally navigated. It is 1:30 in the morning and I am so tired I am slumped over nearly in half, but I’m buzzing, spinning, pondering. My sleep cycle is still totally whacked.
Today began at 6 a.m. with a bird scratching around on the skylight that is three feet above my bed, as I am in the eves of an ancient attic here in Chateau Thierry. Since there was no cat to chase it away, its tiny footfalls blended in with my alarm – a mash-up of Carl Sagan’s celestial pondering, and so I slept for five extra minutes and had a very odd dream. In case you were interested in this insight into my bizarre inner life, here’s my alarm…
Once up and washed, we grabbed several plate-size pain aux raisins and very good, very strong espresso, and headed for Normandy. I hadn’t intended to go there on this trip, but everything kept pointing in that direction. The night before we left, I finally made the connection between Belleau Wood and D-Day (June 6, 26 years apart), and then the young marine with whom we shared a drink from the Devil Dog fountain urged us to go, and then Constant Lebastard reminded me that he began his career at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. I think Cynthia and I both needed a break from walking the bloody paths of Belleau Wood. Some people would go shopping, take in a movie. We drove for four hours to a scene of even greater carnage and another American Battle Monuments Commission cemetery.
But first, imagine screeching tires as our intrepid adventurers see a sign for Liseaux, and Cynthia exclaims “that’s our family saint!”, and since I was raised a Protestant, and have very little idea how this works (rather like a house elf?), I just looked up aforementioned saint, the baby-faced Therese of the Child Jesus, and since there was a basilica to her, and it was mere minutes off the road to Normandy, how could we not? The basilica is massive and modern – work on it was necessarily halted during World War II, and it was dedicated in 1951. All things considered, Therese is a modern woman. She was born in 1873 and died in 1897 of consumption at age 24. She is known to her friends and fans as the Little Flower of Jesus. We entered through the gift shop, with an astonishing array of impulse-buy items for the religiously inclined. Vials of Myrrh from the Holy Land sat next to local goat milk soap and cartoon books about D-Day. The rosary section though…these are my people. Row upon row of gorgeous faceted glass beads lined one wall in every imaginable color and shape. I picked up one strand of multi-colored Czech crystal, and…dropped it on the floor. “What have I done?” I squeaked to Cynthia. “Pick it up and kiss it”, she said, matter-of-factly. “And then put it back.” I picked up the beads, turned them over to look for the appropriate place to plant a kiss, and then in one movement raised the silver cross to my lips, bumped my arm on a display stand of rose-shaped soaps, and shoved it up my nose. Jesus drew first blood. With one hand dabbing my bleeding nose, I made my way to the register and purchased the offending item, since it seemed like we had made a real connection.
After a wander through the massive basilica, past what looked like Boy Scout troops lined up to take confession, we realized that the vast majority of the mortal bits of the Little Flower of Jesus were not there, though her arm bone (a godly instrument) rests in an illuminated gold case in a side chapel. To be near the rest of her bones, one must travel to the Carmelite Chapel down the street, where a full size statue of the saint in repose contains her rib-cage and spine. The rest of the bones are in the box underneath the statue, where they can be easily accessed by staff when it’s time for them to go on tour, as apparently they often do. We sat with her for a moment, Cynthia bought a medal to protect her car, and then we continued on our way.
For a smart girl, I can be pretty dense, so when I exclaimed upon encountering the rural architecture of Normandy, “wow, this really looks more like England than the rest of France”, Cynthia patiently reminded me of the Norman conquest. But of course. William the Conqueror left here in 1066 to take over the British Isles, barely visible on a clear day across the Channel. In 1940, British troops were pushed back against these shores and evacuated at Dunkirk, and it was here that in 1944, my grandfather and 156,000 of his closest friends landed back on these beaches and fought a terrible battle to push the German army out of France. Normandy hasn’t forgotten its its long and perilous history. Garlands of French and American flags snap in the breeze over every courtyard, and road signs offer artistic renderings of nearby memorials. We pulled into Omaha Beach just as a pelting rain began to ease, and walked out onto the sand. The amount of land between the waves and any kind of cover is impossible to capture. We walked for a good twenty minutes down the beach, and it was not at full low tide. As the rain let up, the fog remained, shrouding the hills above the beach, but it was clear that this vast stretch on a clear day would have been nearly impossible to cover without coming under direct fire.
It was cool and damp, and I was aware that my feet were getting wet, and this concern about my own over-fed, petty comfort seemed suddenly ridiculous. I waded into the water, noticed that the fine sand sucked up around my shoes even when standing still. It must have been hell in boots with a heavy pack.
There are reasons to go to the place, at the time of the year, the hour of the day. We humans are creatures who, for all of our grand philosophies and dreams, are forever tied to our physical bodies. The sensation of sand completely enveloping my shoes as I counted to twelve taught me more about Omaha Beach than I later learned in our hour in the nearby museum. We left Omaha Beach, made our way to aforementioned museum, charming and informative, though the department store mannequins in the battle vignettes looked delightfully ready for a dinner party.
In June, the days are impossibly long, with lingering light until after 10:00, but we needed to be back in Chateau Thierry before then. Stalwart driver that she is, Cynthia was not excited about navigating the narrow roads of rural France in the pitch dark. Our last stop was the Normandy American Cemetery, with its 9,385 immaculate white crosses, and we arrived, true to form, just an hour before they closed.
The white marble crosses are so familiar, particularly since now I know that each of them, as surely as Eben’s cross in Belleau Wood, marks a complicated, unique life. Normandy American Cemetery feels very different than Aisne Marne. Many more stones at Normandy are laid with wreaths and ribbons, and many more people walked up and down its pathways, even though it was a rainy day. The 26 years that elapsed between the Battle of Belleau Wood and D-Day marked a generation, and many more people alive today personally remember someone who fought at Normandy. But still…there’s something else. D-Day has become a part of our national identity in a way that Belleau Wood, despite its equally desperate fighting and the personal bravery if its combatants, and, I would argue, its importance to the outcome of a world war, never will. I blame Hollywood. If Tom Hanks shot a film where he crawled out of a hastily dug scrape to say something heroic and then throw himself across the wheat fields at Belleau Wood, more people would visit the dead boys there – more would care. If any of you know Tom Hanks, tell him I’ll write the screenplay. 🙂
172 acres of white crosses in perfect geometric rows becomes a blur after a while. I tried to read every name in the third row away from the road, since I figured that most people read the first and maybe the second. There were young men named Johnny and Guillermo and Fredrick from Texas and North Carolina and Utah. As I walked, I said a sort of a mantra to myself, a reminder that these are people.
This isn’t an art installation. These are mothers’ sons, their bodies as sacred to someone as the arm bone of the Little Flower of Jesus. There are bones. There are bones. There are bones.
We walked to the top of the cliff overlooking Omaha Beach before we left, climbed down a treacherous path to a German bunker, now littered with Heineken bottles and candy wrappers, and saw the beach from the viewpoint of its defenders. In his description of Belleau Wood, Lieutenant Samuel C. Cumming, a platoon leader attached to the 51st Company described men “mowed down like wheat.” It is easy to imagine this image coming to mind at Normandy as well. They were even more exposed.
The sun was long set when we reached Chateau Thierry four hours later. We white-knuckled down sunken farm roads with no light for miles, knowing that the locals whip around the countryside like they’re in a Bourne movie. We were exhausted and famished, and made our way to Le Palais de Marrakech, under the medieval walls of the original chateau. The man clearing tables outside told us that we had just missed dinner, but was overtaken a moment later by an older gentleman who insisted, with an extraordinary series of hand gestures, that we should sit down and he would bring us food. Bread appeared, and gin and tonic, and water, and soup. and couscous, and salad, and then he brought out the tea, poured it exactly into the cup from a ridiculous height, and set it down in front of us. The sweet, minty tea was delightful, but perhaps we were a bit too effusive with our praise because he returned a moment later with two pots and two cups on a tray. And then there were outfits we had to put on, and the staff assembled and laughed heartily as we received a lesson in master Moroccan tea service while wearing bedazzled polyester robes.
After a day of sorrow and bones, it was so lovely to feel silly again, to dance and clap and make friends. In a new place, without a reliable grasp on the language, surrounded by the memory of death and destruction, I was able to remember another element of the human experience – the ability to connect, and communicate without language, and laugh and laugh and laugh…
The gorgeous photographs here were taken by Cynthia August, www.cynthiaaugust.com.
The silly selfies and blurry bits were taken by me.