Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day

This is a post published last year on Memorial Day.

Since 1999, my view of Memorial Day has been profoundly different. That year, my wife and I spent the first 2 weeks of May in France visiting missionaries from our church who had returned for a station relief assignment. The highlight for my wife was the Louvre, Versailles, and Giverny, the home and studio of Claude Monet, her favorite artist. Of course, being the dutiful husband, I tried to feign interest, but after 25 years of marriage (at that time), her expectation level was low. I will admit to being impressed with Giverny. We could have spent more time there. The house and gardens were beautiful.

The highlight of the trip for me, however, was more personal. I was anxious to visit the American Cemetery at Normandy to see the place where an uncle I never knew is buried.

As I a child, I remember seeing his photo on the wall at my grandparent’s house. There were 4 pictures: my mother as a teenager, her youngest brother’s high school graduation picture, and her 2 older brothers in their army dress uniforms. Of course I knew 3 of them, but I remember asking about the 4th one who bore an uncanny resemblance to a younger version of my grandfather. The only answer I ever remember receiving was this: “That’s your uncle James. He died in the war.” When I asked why grandma was riding in the Gold Star Mothers car with several other older ladies during the “Decoration Day” parade, it was: “Uncle James died in the war.”

I confess that I was not very curious about the affair, maybe because around the kids it was not a topic of discussion. It was only as we planned the trip to France that I was determined to find out as much as I could. My aunt had learned that he was buried at St. Mere d’ Eglise, in a temporary cemetery. All else that they knew was that he died on June 10, 1944 – 4 days after the D Day invasion. In Caen, we were told by a missionary (Dan Lacy, a great guy, now with Lord) that the remains at all the temporary cemeteries were reburied at Normandy.

In the final analysis, we have learned no more about the circumstances of his death. I have questions that, 65 years later, will likely never be answered. How did he die? We heard a rumor that he was last seen driving a jeep (I wonder if this is borrowed from the Patton story. My grandparents loved George Patton). Did he survive the initial landing on Omaha Beach or did he come later after the beach was secured?

I can only imagine the pain that my grandparents felt when the black sedan pulled up in front of their house in tiny Mogadore, Ohio. This was not an uncommon occurrence during that time, and the whole town knew when those official-looking men showed up with the horrible news.

Today, there is only one member of that immediate family left, my uncle Ken, the youngest. Grandma & Grandpa, uncle Harold, and my mom are all gone. So far, I have been the only family member to visit the grave at Normandy. That visit was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was made all the more poignant by a remark spoken by our friends; “Ron, your uncle gave his life so I could preach the gospel in France for 33 years.”

Uncle James was weeks shy of his 19th birthday. He lies besides hundreds of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for for a cause greater than himself.

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