"Now," our French guide Rosine said as we drove through the quiet hills of
Normandy, "I imagine you will be moved by what you will see on our next
stop." Her voice drifted off until she added, "Most Americans are."
We had left Mont St. Michel a few hours earlier after stopping for lunch.
I was happy to leave the overcrowded, noisy site and relax as the Norman countryside drifted by outside the window of the bus. The pink wave of apple blossoms on the
hills and the sense of vitality in this fertile part of northwestern
France seemed comforting. After a time we turned west, off the main autoroute,
and began to follow a slower two-lane highway. The forests became deeper
and a gauzy look to the distant sky made me realize we had turned toward
I had misplaced my itinerary
so I didn't know what lay ahead, but it didn't matter -- I always prefer unexpected
It was July, mid-afternoon. The sky was a delicate blue, and the breeze
carried a spicy fragrance of fir and pine. My nose pinched and I stifled a
sneeze as we stepped off the bus.
"This is the only piece of land in France that is owned and maintained by
the United States," Rosine said in her heavy accent as we collected
cameras and sunglasses. Some people wandered into the
Visitors Centre. I read the formal, black lettering on the glass doors:
The American Cemetery and Memorial at Normandy.
No formal tours were offered, Rosine said, so we were free to visit the site on our own. Some travelers drifted off singly, some moved forward in pairs, and
others became engrossed in the small guidebooks they'd bought at the Centre
and carried with them as they headed out of sight behind a high row of
"Want to go inside?" I asked my mother.
"No. We can walk around a bit. It's such a beautiful day."
We followed the others along the hedges and turned. "Oh my God!" I gasped.
Rows of stark white crosses swept up and across the low hills in
every direction as far as we could see, arranged in perfect lines on the
bright green lawns.
I had seen photos of this sight, but even knowing what I was about to see had in no way prepared me for the emotional intensity of the place.
I clutched my mother's hand; she was shaking.
I could not reconcile feeling terrified and stunned in the midst
of this beautiful setting. We stood still and stared, and my jaws ached from the effort not to cry until
it was impossible not to. All those lives lost ...
"Should we go back?" I finally asked.
"No. Let's keep going. Walk straight ahead."
"I can't look."
"Neither can I."
We walked quickly toward a distant stand of trees, staring straight ahead.
I could not bear to see the silent, stony slopes to my left. I tried to
look once and caught a glimpse of people walking between the white rows,
pausing or bending, perhaps to read a name.
The slight sting of sea air both relieved and surprised me.
We had reached the edge of the woods and stood on a high cliff above the
A man appeared suddenly. He'd come up a
narrow, rocky path that led from the beach below. Burrs were velcroed
to his tan trousers and his dark brown windbreaker was zipped to below his
chin. He carried a sturdy branch that he used as a walking stick.
"That's Omaha Beach," he said. "It's beautiful down there."
We nodded as he started to move away.
"It's beautiful here, too," I said, surprised not only because I had spoken to
this stranger but also because of what I had said.
"Have you visited the fields?" he asked.
We shook our heads.
"I think my father is there."
Rather than leave, he turned back toward the sea and the sand-shingle
beach below. The surf lay like lace on the sand, scalloped and uneven. A
family was picnicking there and children were building sand castles near
the 10-foot-high sea wall. It was a scene of solitude, contentment and
peace, one that could lull you into an easy embrace of beauty
"Nine thousand three hundred and eighty-six Americans sleep there," he
I watched my mother from the corner of my eye. Her mouth was tight. Were
there tears behind the dark glasses?
I was afraid to speak, unsure now if
I even had a voice. The horrifying statistic hung in the air. I closed
my eyes and tried to see the numbers: nine, three, eight, six, but
they meant nothing to me. How would this man ever find the cross that he
thought bore his father's name?
The three of us stood on the cliff for what seemed like a long time.
A slip of fog had begun to move in from the horizon, quickly
changing the sea from blue to steely silver. The tide was going out, leaving a sad swath of beach pockmarked with
shells and debris. I thought about the ocean I live by, how I casually
collect shells and pieces of driftwood, then discard them as easily as I
"Are there shells on the beach?" I asked the stranger.
"Some." He continued to stand with us, quietly
watching the changing light. "I found some fragments that might be shell casings but I wasn't sure, so I
threw them back into the ocean."
I thought about the military cemetery near my home, the Presidio of San
Francisco. I zip past it two or three times a day but notice it only on
Memorial Day, when tiny American flags ripple in the damp air that pushes
under the Golden Gate Bridge and across the freeway. My friend, Rocky,
wanted to be buried there but his wife used her influence with important
people in the military to have him buried at Arlington National
Cemetery in Virginia.
"Where are you from?" My question trailed like smoke in the still air.
I wanted him to say Virginia so I could talk about Rocky and another
cemetery, another hero. Actually I wanted to find a way into this
experience -- and this stranger, coughing now a bit from the sea breeze but
clearly reluctant to leave, seemed to be my best hope.
"I want to go back."
My mother's voice sounded small and sad. I realized we had been holding
hands the whole time yet hadn't said a word to each other since reaching
the cliff. We always talk about everything; the company of this stranger
had interrupted our trying to make peace with our emotions.
"I hope you find your father," I said, then, "Goodbye." My words
"Enjoy your holiday." His smile was tentative but friendly as we turned away.
"Funny he called it 'the fields,' isn't it?" I said to my mother as we
walked more slowly toward the Centre.
"It's just too sad," she said.
We walked a few steps before I turned back to see if the stranger was
still there, but the cliff was deserted except for the trees that bent
away from the ocean in a silent moan.
I turned toward the field of crosses looking for a figure carrying a
walking stick, bending in the late apricot light in search of his father.
I looked hard but didn't see him. Instead, for the first time I really
looked at the field of white crosses. There was no one there for me to
seek out, no lost father, brother or lover. I saw people pause to balance
a memento or flowers against a cross. I realized that in this place
of extraordinary loss, grieving becomes a force of life.
"Do you want to go?" I asked my mother.
"Yes." She sighed deeply and I realized she'd been standing silent in her
own thoughts, looking at the terrible beauty before us.
"I'll never forget this," she whispered.
"No," I said. "Neither will I."