I went to visit Genvieve for a quick café after finishing shopping in town.
I always forget until the door opens, that there is no such thing as a quick café in a friend’s home in France. It becomes stay for lunch … then stay for dessert and (another) café … then stay for the pause between conversations … then would you like an apero to aid digestion … then an afternoon full of conversation and sharings — all in French, mind you — and when departure is finally appropriate for all parties, I go home and take a long nap, saturated.
This day, over café, she wanted to share a story.
Story-telling is not new. It’s normal.
But what was new for me as an American, was 90% of the time, the stories are about the War raging through their lives, always spoken of quietly ~ ever-present ~ in the way that opens and leaves you at the table with an empty cup — but listening intently.
Excusing herself, she left the room, went down the hall to a bedroom, and returned with a single sheet of old stationery.
She had been sorting through her mother’s effects in the attic, and had opened a box of letters. Inside was one from a young man to his mother and family.
He had been part of the French Resistance.
It was his last night on Earth. The German SS had given him pen and paper.
He wrote his family to bid adieu.
She showed me the handwriting.
One full page in length, strong, perfect penmanship; every letter exactly placed, I heard, witnessed, his farewell.
He told them how much he loved them; how important it was to him they took care of one another; how if he was to die the next day, he would die proudly knowing he had defended his country. He wanted them to know he was at peace.
Genvieve explained that the letter had been given by this young man’s mother, to her mother because she could not bear to keep it — but nor could she bear to get rid of it. It was given in trust. And so her mother kept the letter in the attic where it was nearly forgotten. This attic was now our home in France. What a small world.
And, here I am, telling you the story.
Normandy is geared up and ready — actually, all of France — not to mention the rest of the world — is geared up as commemorations, celebrations, will be going on all summer.
This is the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy.
From Pointe du Hoc where the rangers first cracked the German casements, to the village of Vierville sur Mer, named Omaha Beach, to Colleville-sur-Mer — one of many resting places for the too many lost, to the young Frenchman whose last words I was privileged to hear; it is in walking the land, listening to our friends, visiting and honoring the lost and the earth that holds them, which changed my life forever.