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Walking in the Shadows of Heroes

Sometimes travel takes you to sacred ground, a place you don’t realize is part of you until you arrive. This is a story of one of those places. Where this American girl knew her history was interwoven with the world’s history. From the section Legacy, chapter Heroes from my book The Artist’s Daughter: A Memoir on this 4th of July:

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Before we took the train to see my father and his growing family, we wanted to make one small detour. To see the beaches at Normandy where Derek’s grandfather, Papa, had landed on D-Day many years earlier. A World War II battle scene would never have been on my travel schedule in the past, but this was our trip and this spot was the one thing Derek wanted to see. It was only a few hours by train off our route, so how could I disagree?

***

“Here, take this with you.” Months earlier, Papa had handed Derek a patch with an Indian head inside a star. Papa sat in his recliner in the living room of the assisted living facility in rural Colorado where he lived with his wife of sixty years, Eva. A retired physician, he’d served as a medic in the war. “It was from our infantry.”

Derek looked down at the patch and wrote down a few numbers as Papa talked. The infantry division, platoon number, regiment—it all breezed through my brain, but Derek wanted to have his homework done when we got there. Papa was in his nineties, and though usually slow getting out of his recliner, he was mentally sharp, as able to make jokes about the current president as he was to recall the details of waiting in the boat to go up the beach.

“I was one of the oldest ones,” he told us—already married, a trained physician when he’d enlisted. “Some of those boys lied about their age so they could go fight.” His eyes watered. “We were all so seasick. We were delayed a day out there on the water because of the weather. Boys were throwing up over the sides.” As he hunched over in his chair, I saw history alive in front of me.

A few years after that, my father-in-law would stand at the top of a ramp at Union Station in downtown Denver. He would point to it and tell me that was where he met Papa as a two-year-old boy. Where he met his daddy for the first time as he returned on the train from war. I imagined a young, handsome Papa walking up the ramp in his uniform, taking his boy in his arms. And a young Mama so relieved her doctor husband was home.

***

We carried our backpacks through the cobbled streets of Normandy to the youth hostel we’d emailed weeks earlier. Flags from around the world hung from the second stories of stone buildings. Later, as we walked to the center of town to book a tour for the next day, signs greeted us in windows. In English they read, “Veterans welcome here.” Tours were based on language and country of interest. Those standing in line to purchase the German tours shifted their weight from side to side. We splurged and signed up for a small-group semiprivate tour for Americans.

“Do any of you have a personal connection?” the Frenchwoman driving the van called over her shoulder as she turned down the road that would take us toward the Normandy beaches. Her dark hair and obvious French accent reminded me of my father’s girlfriend.

The three middle-aged couples who shared our van shook their heads. Based on their ages and collared dress shirts, I suspected they fit the profile of the typical tourists in this history-saturated town.

“My grandfather was here on D-Day,” Derek spoke up. The attention in the van shifted toward us as the other couples stared at him, a little bit in awe.

“Oh! Did he come back for the anniversary?” Our tour guide talked to her rearview mirror as she drove. “I got to host a group of veterans for the week. It was fantastic!” (pronounced fantastíque).

“No. He came back. But not for the anniversary.”

“Oh.” She lowered her voice. “Well, tell your grandfather ‘thank you’ from us. We owe him our freedom. Do you know what regiment he was in?” The pep was back in her voice. “I could take you to where he landed.”

My cynical side guessed her friendly nature was her attempt at a bigger tip at the end of the hour. But her enthusiasm didn’t seem contrived. Maybe some French could tolerate Americans.

Pulling the piece of paper from months earlier out of his pocket, Derek started throwing out numbers. Our tour guide shook her head, saying, “Non, non.” I could tell Derek was frustrated, disappointed. He thought he’d written the numbers down just as Papa had said, but the tour guide insisted, “There was no regiment with that number.”

Then Derek pulled the patch out of his pocket and handed it to her over the seat. “I have this.”

She pulled the van to the side of the road and stopped, took the patch in her hand, and turned it over to reveal the Indian head symbol.

“Oohhh!” No need for translation, this universal exclamation said there was meaning behind what she held. The entire group was now looking at her with eyebrows raised, leaning in with expectation.

“This is for the 2nd Division. I know right where they landed.”

I expected everyone in the van to start giving each other high fives. Papa was no longer just Derek’s grandfather; within minutes he had moved into the position of van hero.

“Shall we go there?” she asked our group. There was no question as everyone nodded furiously. The tour had quickly changed to a personal interest story that we all wanted to claim as our own. Our tour guide did a U-turn, and we headed south along the rocky coastline.

In a way, Derek’s story was becoming mine. And mine his. Our lives were not just crossing, they were melding, creating a new legacy built from both our histories. This trip was evidence of that. Unlike the other passengers in the van, I had a special claim on Papa’s story. He was part of Derek, so in a two-lives-becoming-one kind of way, he was part of me.

Pulling halfway up a slope, our new French friend stopped the van and put the parking brake on. Turning around in her seat, she looked Derek directly in the eye.

“Here we are.” She motioned to the van door with her hand. “They walked from the beach up this hill.”

We looked out the window to see a small stone marker with the now familiar Indian head symbol on it. We climbed out of the van one at a time, and the wind wrapped around us and snapped of men who had died climbing on their bellies up the hill. Derek stretched his long legs out of the van and stopped. He looked down at the ocean below with its gray water and churning waves. He turned and looked up the hill with the grass blowing sideways. Tears began sliding down his cheeks, and he looked down at me. I smiled back between my tears.

The other members of our group stepped aside to clear a path between us and the stone mini monument. Derek faced it with the ocean in the background, picturing his grandfather waiting an extra day past the breakers in the choppy water, scared for his life. He looked up the hill, imagining Papa crawling between downed soldiers to see if he could help.

It was a moment where history of country, family, and self came together and created a sacred place. I watched Derek’s face and heard the rhythmic crashing of the waves in the distance.

There is a reason we say they stormed the beaches at Normandy. They didn’t simply run or meander or stroll. They charged with a passion for country and freedom, knowing their lives would likely be sacrificed for a greater good. Standing on that hillside, I saw part of the legacy my future children would be born into.

Neither one of us wanted to get back in the van, but we were shivering from the wind. Our van mates were patiently waiting in the vehicle, watching us through the windows. A few of them wiped tears from their cheeks.

As we drove away, one of the other passengers, a rotund Midwestern kind of man, broke the silence. “Tell your grandfather ‘thank you’ from us too.”

As I looked up at my husband, I thought I might explode from pride.

This is an excerpt from The Artist’s Daughter: A Memoir published by Revell Books in 2013.

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