Normandy Today

IMG_3372_copy

the beach in winter.
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

I have seen Normandy at it’s best and worst. I married a Norman. On stormy days, like June 6, 1944, waves crash the shoreline, icy winds whip off a black sea, rain falls in sheets and every joint aches with the cold. But in a ray of sunshine, Normandy is as beautiful as an Impressionist’s painting.

Orange cliffs along the coast drop off into purple waters. Inland, reddish brown Norman cows and pink apple blossoms dot a velvet green hillsides under powder blue skies. Soft light whitewashes the gabled, half-timbered houses and solid stone farms that remain as they were centuries ago. It was on one of those perfect days, over three decades ago that I pedaled a bicycle through red poppy fields behind my new beau. Later a table with authentic Normans in a Trouvillais fisherman’s flat, somewhere between courses of scallops and roast, cheese and salad, strawberries in cream, I fell in love with a Frenchman.

Millions debark on the beaches to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day following the circuit du débarquement and traipsing through the museums. But in my opinion the countryside, itself, is even more inspiring than any landmark.

The narrow, winding back roads, shaded by a canopy of trees, run into the “route du cidre” which intersects the Calvados region, my favorite part of Normandy. It is famous for history, art, architecture, seafood, smelly old cheeses, (Pont l’Eveque dates from the 13th century and Camembert from the 19th), and Calvados, a strong apple brandy. I love the area not so much for its regional specialties, but for the special family that lives in the region. They embraced me like lineage, when I, the foreigner with the funny accent, married their very French son.

Normandy, a feast for senses, is best appreciated at mealtime when land and sea are perfectly marinated. After a platter of seafood served so fresh it look like the crabs could crawl off the plate, Mamie presents la pièce de résistance, leg of lamb. Papie carves the tender meat of a newborn that was romping on the rolling green hillside only days before. A garden of vegetables -beans, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes – sprout out of the linen tablecloth.

IMG_3361_copy

Trouville’s fishmarket
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

Trouville, the seaside resort of my in-laws, retains a sense of timelessness. Sea gulls swoop and dive above the fishing boats bobbing in the waves under azure skies. Daffodils dance on iron wrought balconies in the briny, spring breeze. As I walk on the beach, lined by 17thcentury mansions, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. Young couples stroll the boardwalk with their arms intertwined. Parents with toddlers in tow pick up seashells; small children dig castles in the fine, white sand, school age kids race the waves as they crash the shoreline.

Thanks to yesterdays’ heroes, throughout time’s passage, nothing changes. Normandy, like memories it holds, just grows older and more beautiful. And I thank my lucky, fate-filled stars that crossed paths with my Norman.

fishermen's wharf

fishermen’s wharf
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Normandy 70th Anniversary of D-Day June 6, 1944-2014

 

Pointe du Hoc

Pointe du Hoc (Photo credit: Gérald Lechault)

I visited the Normandy landing beaches on a cold, rainy, miserable day, a day much like the stormy dawn when 200,000 Allied personnel debarked on D Day, June 6, l944. A fitting day for remembering the 10,000 Allied soldiers who died on the “longest day” of war.

Normandy Invasion, June 1944 U.S. Army Rangers...

June 1944 U.S. Army Rangers storm the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A half-century after the Rangers overtook the strategic German lookout at Pointe du Hoc, I stood on the steel reinforced bunkers and peered over 100-foot drop off above the English Channel. I could picture a 19-year-old American boy jumping out of a PT boat into icy waters illuminated by gunfire. I could imagine him staggering across the dunes dodging bullets, clawing at the red cliffs, crawling through the hedgerows, groping for life in a foreign land. He was one of ours. Disorientated in fields criss-crossed by trees and hedges, trying to maneuver tanks through stone villages, shooting at the shadows that could be his own comrades, he was an American soldier killing Germans who could have been friends in another time and generation.

IMG_3294

Normany – fields through hedgerow (Photo credit: Gérald Lechault)

I am of another time and generation, an American with French-Normand spouse, and German friends. Knowing the fair-minded, kind-hearted, Europeans as I do now, I cannot fathom how such an atrocity could occur. The war-ravaged countryside is not the Normandy I know. On rainy days, Normandy’s landscape may offer 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. The beauty and tranquility of Normandy today in a ray of sunshine could drive full-grown men to their knees in tears. I, too young to have understood the impact of WWII, get a lump in my throat every time I return to the land of my in-laws in northwestern France.

Today the sacrifices of the men of WWII, their silent testimonials of white crosses lining the hills above the famous beaches Utah, Gold, Juno, Sword and Omaha hold special meaning. My countrymen, laid to rest in my adopted country, saved my family.

If those soldiers were to land on the Normandy beaches this June, they’d be surprised. Parasols have replaced Rommel’s asparagus (spiked metal posts preventing ships from landing). The 400 miles of wide white sand and dramatic cliff line extending from Le Treport in the east to Mont St. Michel in the west, is strewn with half-naked, live bodies worshipping the sun and sea.

Millions of visitors follow the “circuit du débarquement” along the coast from Pegasus Bridge to Cherbourg stopping at every WWII historical spot and all eight museums. The one in Arromanches gives a general overview and explains how the artificial port was made. The Museum of the Battle of Normandy in Bayeux, containing ration tins, tattered letters, faded photographs, and other mementos of WWII foxholes, is the most affecting one.

Colleville cemetery

Colleville American cemetery (Photo credit: Gérald Lechault)

In Upper Normandy, my late grand father-in-law, Marcel Elie, a Gendarme, used to welcome me to his home in Dieppe by greeting me at the door playing the American national anthem on his trumpet. He blew that same trumpet while riding his horse leading the Allied troops down the Champs Elysees celebrating the liberation of Paris on August 24, 1945.

Unknown soldier

Unknown soldier – Colleville American cemetery (Photo credit: Gérald Lechault)

His old heart never forgot. Now, even though my generation never knew the horrors of world war, I too, will remember. When I stood in front of a field of 10,000 stark, white crosses, I felt overwhelmed by a debt that I can never repay. I know the Unknown Soldier. He is my father, my brother, my countryman, who died so nobly, so that today I might live in peace in a land whose splendor offers its own thanks to the skies.

Rest in peace my comrade in arms. You have not died in vain. If my words could transcend time you would know that because of you Normandy today, like the true Normans, remains proud and gracious.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Memorial Day-Paying Last Respects to A Beloved Caretaker, Friend, and Veteran

images-1For as long as I can remember Clarence and Nita’s home on the corner of route 45, across from the gas station, was imprinted in my mind. The modest, one story house was the final landmark, a signal to turn left and begin winding around our beloved Summit Lake. Clarence not only watched over the lake cabins, he was caretaker of our childhood memories. With his passing, we are losing the link to Summit Lake’s history and the innocence of days gone by.

Clarence was a good man. He served his community and his country. In WWII as part of United States Army, he participated in the Asiatic-Pacific Theater and the European-African-Middle Eastern Theater from February 3, 1943 until March 9, 1946.

He was the unofficial local historian having witnessed so many changes during a lifetime spent beside Summit Lake. His old family homestead, a dark chocolate log cabin, once serving as a resort for wealthy city folks, still stands on the east side of the lake. The old ice house has long since been remodeled into another cabin.

I feel fortunate to have grown up listening to the stories of simpler time; days when the train whistle signaled the arrival of the “tourists” from Antigo (a mere 18 miles away). Campers, too, arrived by rail on the Chicago North Western line, back in the days when my grandparents owned Camp Ney-A-Ti on the point across from the island. My dad loved reminiscing about those days when he and Clarence played on the local summer baseball team; they could still remember specific games.IMG_3147

In addition to fixing any custodial crisis befalling the cabins, Clarence did a bit of, well, everything. As town treasurer, member of the American Legion, and fire squad commander for 65 years, he unofficially ran the village, even though, technically, Summit Lake is unincorporated.

During his stint as owner of Palace of Mirrors Tavern, he overheard it all when locals gathered to exchange stories. Never one to gossip, secrets were safe with him.

As an adult, he drove the Elcho School District bus, which ironically he never rode as a kid. As a child, Clarence trudged 4 miles home from school and football practice even during snowy weather.

Oh, he was cherished, not only by family, his late wife, Juanita ‘Nita’ Eaton, his sons, Joe and Randy, his grandchildren, and great grandchildren, but also by all the locals and summer folks, who appreciated his dependability, his honesty, his industriousness.

054 (2)

Clarence King Memorial Day 2012 Wisconsin

As a society we make a big fuss over the lives of movie stars, musicians, politicians, and pro athletes, when we should really be honoring the contribution of our everyday heroes. Like the down to earth, law-abiding, upstanding citizens, who spend their lifetimes serving others, doing the odd jobs with valor, just to make our world a better place.

Unfortunately, I live abroad, so I could not attend Clarence’s memorial service on Memorial Day weekend. How fitting is that – Clarence was always putting flags on veterans graves on Memorial Day and whenever a vet was buried he was part of the honor guard. This summer I will put flowers on his gravestone. With a hand on my heart, I’ll stand in front of the veterans flag waving in the summer breeze and pay my last respects. At the age of 89, Clarence King was laid to rest at the beautiful Lakeside Cemetery Summit Lake, Wisconsin. Always devoted to his community, I image he’ll continue to work overtime, keeping a benevolent eye on our beloved lake.

We should all be so blessed to have a “care taker” like Clarence as a part of our lives for so long.flags-ceremonybrue-1

 

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Happy Retirement: My Sister Was Born To Teach

IMG951132_copyAs children, while I was still busy beating up the neighborhood boys, my sister was training to be a teacher. With hand-me-down teaching materials from our parents, both educators, she lined up stuffed animals and dolls in front of her chalkboard. Even back then, she never raised her voice. In an old grade book, she recorded only As and Bs making sure that every Connie doll and Teddy bear in her classroom passed with flying colors.

With a soft spot for the underdog, she befriended the child with a limp and made sure the class misfit was included in games. While I was an ornery, hard hitter looking for a fight, Sue, the peacekeeper, inherited an extra kindness gene. Never has a more compassionate soul walked the earth.

As if she couldn’t wait to get started, she graduated a semester early from Illinois State University with a degree in special education. Her first job was so challenging, she questioned her calling, but she didn’t give up. She moved on to Yorkville High School, becoming the first fulltime LD teacher where she dedicated the next 34 years building the special education department, one brick at a time. When she arrived she was the only LD teacher, now nine teachers in her department serve the needs of about 120 students and co teach in 45 classes where they reach additional students. YHS has 4 other special needs programs with another 80 plus students and Sue and her staff sometimes work with those students though they aren’t on their caseloads.

Sue has been honored with Teacher of the Year accolades and the Fox Pride Award but what makes her proudest is hearing about the successes of her former students. And she does find out because her students keep in touch. Several of her students have been inspired to go into teaching.

Most people embrace retirement with open arms; my sister’s heart is torn. If one could put the state testing requirements, curriculum writing, and administrative demands aside, she would remain in education forever. She never really wanted to give up the teaching.

In her magical way, she made every child who felt stupid and hopeless believe that he had something special to offer the world. She unlocked the key to his heart, unscrambled his mind. Then sitting by his side, she taught him tricks to interpret the world in a way that made sense to his brain.

In Sue’s classroom, students never felt uniqueness was a deterrent. She helped dyslexic kids learn to read and ADHD children to understand concepts while on the move. She counseled distraught parents and troubled teens, and won over colleagues and administrators. As a catalyst, she united families, educators and support staff to work together for the best interest of the child. As an advocate, she implemented the best accommodations and individualized education plans to give her students every tool to succeed. She never pampered special needs kids through the program, she merely leveled the playing field and made sure every child in her department was prepared.

IMG_0762_copyAs if preordained, my sister was destined to teach, born with a gift. She set the bar high and served her school with excellence. She earned her rest, yet I imagine she will continue doing what she does best, giving back to her family, friends, church, and community. Though she retired from her position at the head of the class, her legacy continues in students and colleagues and family members whose lives she touched as a teacher.

The greatest proponents of education theorize that kids learn best by modeling behavior. Sue set a shining example, sharing her time, her energy, her wisdom and her heart, not only with her students, but also with the rest of us. She taught each day in a state of grace and went out of her way to make the journey easier for anyone who crossed her path. In her book, we were all special and gifted.

 

Extra Special Moms Remain Best Friends Forever

images-1_copyTraditionally, women have been uprooted from family to follow their husbands’ careers, though that may have changed today, back in the 50s it was the norm. Women welcomed one another to town and friendships solidified over back porch chats, coffee clutches and church circles. There is no greater testimony to friendship than my mom, Lenore, and Shirley DeJarnatt, who have been BFF ever since they met half a century ago.

They met when my folks moved to Sterling and they have been friends ever since. Like sisters they talk on the phone almost every day and stop over at one another’s homes to drop by this or that just to chat. They have shared hundreds of meals, thousands of cups of coffee, and millions of stories.

When my mom was leaving the hospital with her newborn, Shirley was arriving to have her first girl. Born just days apart, naturally, those girls, Karen and Michelle, went to become friends to this day even though they now live 400 miles apart.

Shirley raised 3 boys and a girl, whereas my mom had 3 girls and boy. As kids we shared hand me downs and potluck dinners. My first bike used to be Barry’s and I coveted Mark’s fringed, cowboy vest that he finally outgrew so that I could inherit. Eating at DJ’s house was a special treat because they had a “cow machine” where milk squirted out of the spigots and they served homemade ice cream from the hand turned buckets.Lenore & Shirley_copy

When we were in high school, my sister was hired to clean the DJ’s house and Shirley was always calling to ask where Susie put the frying pan, the hair dryer or the phone book.

In later years, long after Shirley’s mom had passed away, she adopted my grandma when Grandma moved from the east coast to live in Sterling. When my mom was out of town, Shirley would check in on Gram Olson and take her to lunch or give her a ride to church.

Whenever my parents returned from long trips, Shirley would fill their refrigerator with groceries, so they wouldn’t have to run out and shop. And oh no, it was not just any ol’ store bought stuff, but extra special treats, homemade chili and BBQ, banana bread and blueberry pie.

When Shirley’s beloved husband, Carson, died, my folks were there holding her hand, helping her let go and staying by her side through the lonely days to follow.

To my own children she became known as the Bear Lady. During Christmas holidays, we visited Shirley’s beautiful home to see her teddy bear collection. Though Shirley had her own 10 grandchildren and 9 great grandchildren, ever so generous, she spoiled my kids too bringing them books and Beanie Babies on their trips to Sterling.

For over a half a century, they belonged to same church where Shirley directed and my mom played the chimes. Both kindergarten teachers, married to high school teachers/coaches, they had so much in common especially kindness. It would be a toss up to determine who was more thoughtful.images-2_copy

During every celebration or setback, birth, or death just like sisters, they have been there for each other to share in the joy or heartache and endure whatever life threw their way. Divided by two, no problem was insurmountable.

Happy Mother’s Day to two wonderful moms and BFFs

Enhanced by Zemanta

Family, School, Town Combine to Create Distinguished Alumni

Image 7_copyIf you have the fortune to live in the world’s richest and arguably most beautiful country and can open your door to a stunning view of the Alps, why would you ever miss an industrial, farm town on the Rock River in the flatlands of Illinois. But I do.

Creating a sense of community in Geneva, international hub of the world, is the like building the foundation of the Taj Mahal in quicksand. The nature of the typical expatriate is transient; due to job relocation, everyone you meet eventually moves on. Though my friends include people from around the globe, few call Switzerland home and plan to retire here.Geneva

Sterling, Illinois offered more stable roots. Yet, other than lying in the richest soil in the USA, my hometown didn’t have much of a calling card. Sterling is not so much about the place; it’s about the people.

Next Saturday, May 10, some of those people will be inducted into the Sterling High School Distinguished Alumni Class of 2014. The Distinguished Alumni Award honors former graduates for their outstanding contribution to society. It is a tribute to a small town, to public education and to a community that teaches its own to pay it forward in their fields.

Some of the award recipients I never knew as individuals, but I knew their people. I don’t remember meeting Ruth Cooperrider, but I remember her family.

Every member of David Schrader’s family graduated from SHS and though I never knew him, his sisters and my sisters’ lives intertwined every step of our school years.

This year the award also goes to three inductees that I am proud to call friends. In each case, their families, too, have been a stalwart part of the community and, like me, they dedicated their lives to looking out for the underdog.

Carol Fitzgerald ‘68, CEO of the YWCA of the Sauk Valley since 1985, advocates for the national YMCA’s mission “empowering women and eliminating racism.” Her siblings all attended SHS and her mom, Dian, was a beloved English teacher at the high school.

Amy Eshleman ‘80, was my surrogate little sister in basketball and a member of the SHS 1st state championship team in 1977. She became the Assistant Commissioner of Chicago Public Library and helped develop the resource sharing partnerships for the 79 public libraries in Chicago. The Eshleman family was a pillar in the community.

Image 4_copyPhil Smith ‘67 and his family rose above the evil legacy of Jim Crow. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, he turned the other cheek and gave back to the community becoming the first African American coach in the conference. At SHS he inspired hundreds of athletes –including me- to believe in themselves. His loyalty to SHS is parallel to none. Like he always said, “I bleed Blue and Gold.”

During the turbulent 50s, 60s and 70s, at a time of civil unrest, gender inequity and social injustice, our community gave us stability. Through our families, our schools and athletic teams, we learned to work hard, demand excellence, advocate for equality, and give back to society. No matter if we moved to the opposite coast like David in California, or Ruth across the state border line, or regardless if we remained in the local area, like Amy in the greater Chicago land or Carol and Phil in the Sauk Valley Region, we carried the lessons from our community into our careers.

Unfortunately, I can’t be there on May 10th to shake their hands in person, but today I’m giving a special nod from abroad to our distinguished SHS alumni, to my hometown, and to the families that laid the foundation of our lives. Rock solid, Sterling.Sterling H.S. photos July 2011 029_copy

Enhanced by Zemanta