Normandy 1944-2024: Eighty Years Later The Memory Lives On

I climbed into the steel reinforced bunkers overlooking the Normandy landing beaches on Pointe du Hoc eighty years after the Rangers overtook the strategic German lookout 90 feet above the English Channel. I pictured a 19-year-old American boy jumping out of a PT boat into icy waters, with nothing more than a gauze bandage for comfort on a stormy dawn illuminated by gunfire.

I imagined him staggering across the dunes, dodging bullets and booby traps, clawing at the red cliffs, crawling through the hedge rows, groping for life in a foreign land, shooting at the shadows that could be his own comrades. He was an American soldier killing boys/men, who would have been his friends in another time and generation.

Here rests in honor glory a comrade in arms known but to God

I am of another time and generation — an American with a French-Normand spouse and German friends. Though I’ve been to Normandy hundreds of times, I visited the Normandy American Cemetery (outside St. Laurent) just once.

Only when standing on the hallowed grounds, where Americans lay under a blanket of emerald earth, marked by 9,386 white crosses, could I truly understand the enormity of their great and tragic endeavor on June 6, 1944.

On a rainy day, Normandy’s landscape offers a bleak reminder of her sad past, but on sunny ones the murky coastline, black sea, and gray fields are transformed into a tapestry of colors. Orange cliffs drop off into purple waters. Inland reddish-brown Norman cows and pink apple blossoms dot verdant hills under powder blue skies. Soft light white washes half-timbered houses and solid stone farm houses that remain as they were centuries ago.

The beauty and tranquility of Normandy today could drive a full-grown man to tears. And I, who am too young to have understood the impact of World War II, get a lump in my throat every time I return to the dairyland of northwestern France on one of those pinch-me-I-am-dreaming days of sunshine.

my husband's village on Normandy shores

Decades ago, on one of those sunny days, I pedaled my bike past red poppy fields and green valleys where newborn calves and lambs romped. I devoured veal “à la Normande,” Camembert cheese and berries in cream. Somewhere between the first and last course, I fell in love with a Norman.

Now the sacrifices of the men of the great war, their silent testimonials of white crosses that cover the rich green hills above the beaches Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword and Omaha have taken on special meaning for me.

They are my countrymen laid to rest in my adopted country. In a sense they saved my family.

freedom for the next generation

Every time, we used to visit Dieppe, (France) to see my grandfather-in-law, he’d greet me at the gate chanting the Star Spangled Banner.

“Ah, ma petite Pat,” he’d say recounting the highlight of his career as a trumpeter in the Garde Republicaine “I’ll never forget riding Lustucru (his horse) across the courtyard. The Allies landed in Normandy on June 6, but didn’t make it to Paris until the end of August. We waited for four long years…never quit believing they’d make it.”

He’d stop and pull a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wipe his eyes, before continuing, “Never forget how I blew the trumpet that day to welcome the Americans — greatest day of my life.”

The old heart does not forget. Now even though my generation never knew the horrors of war, my young heart will remember. When I stood in front of a sea of stark, white marble crosses, I felt overwhelmed by a debt that can never be repaid.

Suddenly I knew the unknown soldier — he was my father, my brother, my countryman, who died so nobly and unknowing, so that today I might live in freedom and peace in a land whose magnificence offers its own thanks to the skies.

Rest in peace my comrades-in-arms. You have not died in vain. I wish my words could transcend time so you could know. Because of you Normandy today, like the true Normans, remains proud and gracious.

Women’s History Month, March Madness, Acknowledging Ghosts of Women’s Basketball

Half a century ago, no one paid any attention when my friends and I played basketball. We got kicked off the court, but shoved our way back in the game, clearing the lane for Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers, Juju Watkins and the contemporary stars of today.

Over the decades, women’s opportunities grew thousandfold because the cultural landscape changed with media exposure. Today girls never question their right to play basketball; they have female sport icons to emulate.

Born at the turn of the twenty-first century, Caitlin Clark grew up idolizing role models. As early as second grade, she wrote about her goal to play in the WNBA. As Caitlin reached the pinnacle of her college career at Iowa, she helped pack arenas. America watched, mesmerized by her engaging personality, athleticism, and exciting style of play.

In the sixties, in my own second grade story I wrote about the lockers playing a basketball game against the waste baskets during recess. Back then, I imagined inanimate objects in school had a greater chance of competing in the game than girls. Yet, like my sports loving peers, we shot hoops anyway creating a path so new that no one envisioned its existence.

The female hoopsters of my era grew up invisible in a vacuum of time.

As a high school junior, we were allowed to compete in three basketball games. My senior season, we played 14 games and won a conference title, which at the time was more than most schools where girls’ sports remained nonexistent. No one registered my Sterling High school records. Why would they? Still, I know the next generation, including my biological little sister, wanted to play basketball like me. They did. In 1977, they became the first IHSA Sterling Girls State Championship team.

Back in my day, without specialists, and pre/post season programs, girls like me had to be our own personal trainers, dieticians, strength coaches and shot doctors. My dad, Coach Jim McKinzie, gave me a head start by perfecting my jump shot and fundamentals. Workouts with coach, Phil Smith, helped me reach the pro level.

ISU Coach Jill Hutchison presenting Wade Trophy Finalist 1979. Best national basketball player award named after Coach Margaret Wade, 3-time Delta State National Champion.

I attended college in the 70s and received Illinois State’s first athletic scholarship (1978.) Right place. Right time. Right people. My coach, Jill Hutchison and her ISU colleagues paved the way for the groundbreaking reform Title IX that mandated equal opportunity for women in college athletics. Her graduate research dispelled the myth that women’s hearts would explode by playing full court. Hence the girl’s 3 on 3 half court game gave way to full court play in 1970. In 1972 Hutchison, along with ISU’s Women’s Intercollegiate Athletics director, created the first women’s national basketball championship.

This year, when Caitlin Clark, broke the all-time NCAA scoring record, she acknowledged Lynette Woodard’s scoring record during the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) era.

“By 1981 the AIAW staged 41 championships in 19 sports and put women’s basketball on national television,” Sally Jenkins wrote in the Washington Post February 24, 2024. “Which is exactly when the NCAA swooped in with a hostile takeover, pressuring universities into abandoning the AIAW, to absorb what the women had built.“

I played ball in the AIAW era. In the infancy of Title IX, as collegiate athletes, we pushed our bodies, played hard, pulled all-nighters and still made it to class. We drove ourselves cross country in campus station wagons to compete against Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State and today’s Big Ten schools.

Charlotte Lewis ISU star center 1976 Olympian

In the mid 70s, we knew women could star in showtime. Our ISU center, the late Charlotte Lewis, dunked in practice. Our point guard Vonnie Tomich, a WBL All-Star, knocked down treys from downtown long before the three-point shot was added to the rule book.

Marketing? Sh**! No one in corporate America wanted to promote brands with no names like us. Name Image Likeness (NIL) did not exist. Social media, zilch. Media exposure, nada. Our only fans - loyal families and friends.

Today thousands of people tune in to women’s basketball obliterating the old records of attendance and viewership.

By comparison, in the late seventies, WBL (precursor to the WNBA) players’ paychecks bounced months before the league declared bankruptcy. Back then, no one wanted to watch a bunch of “amazon women” play men’s favorite game.

My sister, Karen, first Illinois State High School Championship basketball player, daughter, Hannah, Minnesota High School State Champion rugby player at sold out Iowa - Nebraska women’s basketball game.

We sacrificed our bodies to chase a dream so farfetched and ahead of its time that we were ridiculed. Those scars of scorn remain etched in our souls. But without us, Luisa Harris, Lynnette Woodard and the superstars of the AIAW and WBL era, there would be no Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Paige Bueckers or Juju Watkins. For decades women’s sports have been an afterthought, if considered at all. Thanks to media exposure and exciting play, fans now argue about the officiating, players trash talk opponents, and the women’s game is the talk of the town.

Gender disparity still exist in colleges, corporations, and societies, but the icons of the Caitlin Clark era have demonstrated women’s sport will grow if given a chance.

“Build it and they will come,” said Hutchison, Illinois State University’s winningest basketball coach, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame recipient (2009) and a true visionary of the game.

After a long, arduous journey from the AIAW to Title XI to the NCAA Final Four to the WNBA, the ghosts of the game are hooting and hollering and dancing in the rafters. Forget bracket standings. Ignore NCAA results. Celebrate Final Score. Women Win!

Keep Walking

 

“I considered my options
There was only one I knew
There was always only one.

To keep walking.”

from Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed

 

 

So simple, yet so profound. Trapped in my royal blue funk, regretting, lamenting, mourning for all the things I can no longer do, I take comfort in the words of a woman who walked the Pacific North Trail solo and chronicled her journey in her best selling memoir Wild.

I can’t ski, skate, bike, play basketball, or pickle ball or any kind of ball game. I can’t hop, skip, or jump. But I can stand tall. Shoulders back, chin up, head high. I can put one foot in front of the other.

Why is that so hard to do? I feel like rigor mortis set in while I sleep. When I wake up each morning, I am caught by surprise. So I roll out of bed, crawl onto my yoga mat, stretch my stiff limbs and marvel.

I am still here.

Alive.

Each new day is a clean slate. A chance to get it right.

I remember to smile, be kind, offer encouragement. Someone else is in much worse shape, facing far greater trials, struggling to survive in tougher circumstances.

Today I had an epiphany.

I am an athlete. Still. Only now I am training for life.
Though I will never again play my beloved ball games, I can raise my arms, clap my hands, stomp my feet, wiggle my hips, shake my booty. I can still dance.

I inherited the iron will of my ancestors whose footprints I try so hard to emulate in spite of setbacks.

My father and grandfather, good sportsmen, great coaches, dedicated their lives to helping others find their way and offered me stellar examples of resiliency. They remained athletes at heart, determined to stay as active as their bodies would allow until their final hours.

I can still move.

I may be slower, stiffer, clumsier, but I can sit, stand and even roll over like Rover.

I’m lucky to be here!

Right now.

Today.

We, human beings, take so much for granted until it’s gone.

Aging can be a losing game. Combined with bad luck, terrible accidents, and bizarre ailments, no one can perceive what challenges await.

Today is our only guarantee.

Seize the moment.

Be brave enough to take another step.

As a child I hated to walk, I would rather run. Walking was too slow, too boring. Now walking saves my soul.

We are all just walking and walking, trying our best to find our way.

To stay the course.

To step forward.

To believe.

Eventually all roads lead to the mountaintop.

 

Happy New’s Year Eve 40th Wedding Anniversary

Forty years ago on New Year’s Eve 1983, I said, “I do,” in a seventeenth century chapel in France, not far from the famous WWII Landing beaches. What are the odds of a small town girl from the cornfields of Illinois meeting a French boy raised by the sea in Normandy?

 

 

Where else could we have fallen in love at first sight?
At a basketball game in Paris, of course!

We had just lost the finals of the French championship by one point. I met Gerald in the aftermath, so he witnessed my storm after a big game loss. He asked me out anyway.

Our wedding feast, so French, pheasant pate, fish in cream sauce, "trou Normand" sorbet, leg of lamb and pastries, with different wines and alcohols went on for hours. When the clock struck midnight the crazy uncles handed out party hats and pea shooters and turned the event into a New Year Eve party.

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We had no clue what we were getting into.

Challenges await across cultural marriage…endless official legal paperwork, les faux pas, the misunderstandings, the sacrifices, the compromises.

Opposites do attract. Gerald was a steady, pragmatic, realistic businessman with his feet planted firmly on the ground; I was an intuitive, impetuous, irrational dreamer living in the clouds.

But we were so alike in other ways. Both of us are ultra competitive, hyper-intense Type A’s. Our arguments could rock the roof off our old apartments in Paris, but though we do disagree at times, we are also fiercely protective and supportive of one another’s goals.

Together we endured heartbreaking losses — my career ending car accident, my miscarriages, my brain injury.

But our rewards were great; none greater than watching a bright, adventuresome daughter and a clever, witty son grow strong on basketball courts across Switzerland and go onto become doctors.

Gerald is so dependable, loyal, trustworthy, a man of integrity, but equally intimidating with his French sarcasm and quick temper. I am an overly emotional writer type that wears her heart on her sleeve.

Gerald, not a big talker, is the strong silent type. I compensate for his lack of verbosity by babbling nonstop.

I stood by his side when we laid his parents (our dear Papie & Mamie) to rest; he cradled my heart the day my dad died. As the years go by, we appreciate even more how much grandparents enriched our children’s lives and our own.

Though getting from one continent to the other has never been easy, we shared the best of both worlds. I learned to savor his French family dinners that went on for hours, he grew to appreciate my Midwest America at its best — corn on the cob and backyard BBQs.

We learned to compromise. He’ll never love burgers, but found a recipe for meatballs with ground beef that he enjoys too. I’ll never appreciate fois gras and raw oysters, but I savor the French art of savoir-faire when it comes to fine dining.

Over the years our love grew stronger strolling the beaches of his homeland Normandy and walking through the woods of our family cabin in Wisconsin, traveling throughout the Old World and sharing the bench on basketball courts, cheering on many kids, our own and others.

Whenever I crawled in despair, ready to give up, he pulled me back up on feet and encouraged me to keep fighting. When my book, represented by 3 agents couldn’t find a home, he made sure my story got published. When the school where I taught and coached wanted me to be a keynote speaker at graduation, he persuaded me to rise to the challenge. After my brain surgery, when I feared my words would jumble, he urged me to speak at Illinois State University’s Title XI celebration as a part of US women’s athletic history.

I supported him through seven different moves from assistant director to CEO, helping our kids readjust and remaking our lives.

He applauded my success as a coach and supported our children by volunteering as a score table official and team chauffeur.

On our wedding night, we united different generations of American, French and Germans, once enemies, to a shared table in Normandy, in the very land where their countries had fought each other. In our marriage, raising two bicultural, international kids as global ambassadors, we always strived to bring people together.

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Gerald made me a better me. After forty years of triumphs and tribulations, I helped bring out the best in him. We became more together, than we could ever be alone.

I raise my glass to us, and to our family and friends around the globe!

Happy New Year!

Do It Yourself Home Projects so Fun (Not)

Between our old furniture falling apart after three years in storage and builders mistakes, each day in our new house brings a challenge. One morning, I opened the closet and the hanging rod broke, burying me under an avalanche of clothes. The next day the drawers collapsed, stripped from the support rail.

Meanwhile, Gerald struggled to assemble the innovative Swedish do-it-yourself home furnishings and shelves. IKEA is like Lego for adults.

“I need more shelves,” I whine, “Move it higher. Lower. To the left. To the right.”

We nearly split up over the process of making do known as “bricolage,” which is derived from the French verb bricoler (“to putter about") and related to bricoleur, the French name for a jack-of-all-trades.

Bricolage projects can put any marriage at risk.

A trip to a Swiss equivalent of Menards or Home Depot does my head in with its rows of wood, tile, kitchen, bathroom and plumbing fixtures and endless racks of tools, clamps, brackets, bolts and shelving.

While Gerald headed down aisle five to find a specific size screw out of a billion choices, I meandered down thoroughfare where I’m sideswiped by a motorized vehicle hauling lumber across the store. To escape traffic, I ducked into aisle three where I breathed deep and touched my toes ten times.

Then I wandered over to the luminaires department where hundred of different light fixtures blink. Imagine the spectacular light show? There were suspension, platform, ceiling, wall, desk, and table lights in three categories - incandescent, fluorescent, and high intensity discharge - all with various strengths of bulbs to choose from.

We needed to buy twenty-two different light fixtures and I can’t decide one!

Home improvement retail stores are Candy Shops for the amateur bricoleur, but they make me feel discombobulated. It’s as if I am taking psychedelics and trapped in Disneyland. My brain short circuited from the sensory overload of bright lights and cacophony of voices and canned music.

Gerald, once a successful CEO, managing a big company, has a meltdown trying to figure out which hook to buy to hang one light fixture. He gave up and bought a dozen in different sizes.

I can distinguish between a classic nail and a screw, but there are 25 different kinds of nails and 26 different types of screws in dozens of sizes. Even worse, Swiss measurements are in the metric system (ie. centimeters, millimeters), but my poor brain is stuck in inches, feet, and yards.

I never ask for help. A French speaking salesman will tell me where items can be found, but I can’t translate his words to English. I have no clue what a “lathe” is in any language. I can differentiate a hammer from a screw driver, but I’d never know a Phillips from a flathead. Learning the lingo for DYI terminology is like trying to master Chinese.

Ever the good sport, back at the house, I tried to help Gerald put together shelves and hang light fixtures. All I learned was that “I hate bricolage!” But now I can appreciate why guys swear so much when doing home improvement projects.

I still have no idea when our house will be finished, but no worries. In the meantime, I am broadening my French vocabulary.

 

Living in a Construction Site Called Home

We officially moved a month ago, but we keep having to relocate within our walls. We continue to rotate tables, chairs, dishes, books and clothes from place to place, so builders can replace broken fixtures and access faucets covered by dry wall.

Instead of looking for Waldo, the cartoon character hidden in a crowd of people on the pages of “Where’s Waldo?” books, we hunt for the little artisan and mistakes concealed in our house!

From the get-go, an incompetent project manager created chaos, then made it worse by jumbling the order of jobs to be completed by subcontractors. For example, the dirt road up the steep incline to our building cannot be black topped until heavy trucks deliver boulders to construct the back wall.
The master bedroom had only 1 outlet because the dry wall person covered the others. For the electrician to access the wall to drill for a line, we had to move our furniture and belongings. Again.

The plumbers installed bathroom fixtures; water flowed into the pipes, but they forgot the shower doors. If we take a shower, we flood the bathroom! Water from the sink leaks into the vanity drawers. Cabinets had to be emptied again, so that electricians could separate wires between the overhead and the mirror light, which went on and off simultaneously.

In the meantime, new crews of craftsmen traipse in and out, drilling, dry walling, painting, plastering and pounding in an attempt to fix everything that was done wrong the first time around.

Our unfinished front terrace, built over the garage, has flooded, the outside stairs go nowhere near our door, and the retaining wall has not been started. Some walls slant; doors don’t close. Tile had to be ripped out to install electrical wiring. A workman chipped the sink mirror that had been moved umpteen times to access the wall for repairs. Fortunately, Gerald noticed the break when the new project manager was on site, so he reordered a mirror, along with shower stalls, remote controls and broken window replacements.

On a positive note, workers systematically remove shoes at the door and clean their work area. Naturlich, tidiness is a Swiss trademark. However, they still leave behind a trail of drywall dust, sanding dust, and other airborne particles.

Though gains have been made to the interior, our exterior premises should post warnings — attention toxic debris, danger falling rocks, beware avalanche risk.

And who ever heard of a new home with “provisional utilities?” (including heating and plumbing). Our room temperature fluctuates anywhere between 45 and 90 degrees.

provisional mailboxes

We also have a “temporary” mailbox - a leaky, tin box stuck on a post that vehicles keep hitting.

And what exactly is our new address?

We have an alphabet soup house identification. Originally, our building was designated number 1. Numbers 2 and 3 were attributed to the buildings below us. Then architects switched the timetable constructing our home last changing our building from number 1 to 3.

To complicate matters, the postal service labeled our complex as “3" to identify the street number. To distinguish the nine family dwellings, we became 3a, 3b, 3c… d, e, f, g, h, and i. After several calls, the Swiss national phone service discovered, “Aha! Your optic fiber line was connected to the 3 i, instead of 3 c.”

To add to the mess, it has rained for 40 days and 40 nights.

We are considering moving again.

Noah’s ark here we come!

a view from our neighborhood