It was a fitting day to pay our respects at the American Military Cemetery in Normandy, France. Red, white and blue American and French flags adorned every snow white marker in the cemetery. Clouds made scarce appearances in the sky. Mother Nature had rolled out her best weather. It was Memorial Day 2010.
As we walked through the countless rows of headstones, I overheard a young girl, who was dressed in baby pink, asking her mother questions. Her mother had obviously tried to explain to her daughter that this was a place where men were buried. Still, the concept must have been abstract to the little one, who was squirming on the ground, peering at marker after marker.
“Ooh, ” she exclaimed, while pointing to a headstone with not a cross but a Star of David. “This one must have been really important! He has a star!”
We did not linger to hear what the mother said to her child, but the moment was striking. We could only imagine what other difficult questions the child posed to her family about this place where the souls of so many men slept.
How do you begin to explain this chapter of history to a child?
We divided our time between the memorial structures and the emerald green lawn where 9,387 individuals are buried. Flowers had been placed by American and French visitors. There were bright red geraniums, wilting roses, poppies, and wreaths with messages. Some flowers had been delivered by French schoolchildren. Others had been placed by community organizations.
A dedication was inscribed in French on one panel of the monument:
1941-1945: Les Etats-Unis d’Amérique, fiers des exploits de leurs fils, humblés devant leurs sacrifices, ont erigé ce monument, à leur mémoire.
Mirrored on the other side of the monument was the English translation:
1941-1945: In proud remembrance of the achievements of her sons and in humble tribute to their sacrifice this memorial has been erected by the United States of America.
As we walked away from the cemetery, the beaches of Normandy fell into the background. Then we paused, took a deep breath, and remembered.