A few years ago, my father asked me to find the cemetery where his Uncle Leonard was buried in France and to visit if possible while I was in Paris for a conference. The cemetery turned out to be the Lorraine American Cemetery in St. Avold and too far to travel on that trip. I always regretted that. Now, our home in Germany in just a two-hour drive from St. Avold, which sits just over the boarder in France. We waited for my sister’s visit to make the drive and I’m so glad we did. Having her there to share the moment made it a family memory. It happened just as it should.
Before the trip, Ryan did a little research to learn where my grandmother’s brother died and what he may have been doing at the time. On the way to the cemetery, Ryan reminded us that the very farmland we were driving through was the same land where the 21st Tank Battalion would have been advancing into German territory. At that moment, I realized that I’m living and working in the same country that our Great Uncle Leonard gave his life to defeat 66 years ago.
Of course we didn’t know Leonard Clark but I remember my grandmother talking about him and I remember the black and white photograph of him in his Army uniform that hung in my grandmother’s home always. I do not remember the details of the stories but in my eight year old mind, he was a good man. he must have been. He was in the Army and he was my grandmother’s brother. When you’re eight, that is enough. No matter how much I remembered, I didn’t imagine this would be an emotional experience. I was wrong.
The first glimpse of the cemetery itself is that of any other military memorial or cemetery and growing up near Washington D.C., I’ve seen plenty of those. I wasn’t prepared for this. The overwhelming feeling of pride, patriotism and sadness as we entered the cemetery to see the enormity of the space that contained just a fraction of the men and women who died in that war, took my breath away.
We left the visitor’s house, escorted by a retired US Army First Sergeant, rounding the shrubs to see 10,287 white crosses and 202 stars of David marking the graves of Americans who gave their lives in World War II. It was difficult to take it all in at once. As we walked through the graves looking for the row were Leonard was laid to rest, our escort gave us a brief history of the cemetery and American Military cemeteries overseas and shared his personal experience of visiting his grandfather’s grave in Belgium. This retired First Sergeant carried a red bucket with the contents covered by a cloth. When we arrived at the grave site, he cleaned the white cross and took out a container of sand. He explained that a caretaker at Omaha Beach goes down to the beach every couple of months and shovels sand into containers to send to each of the cemeteries that hold the fallen of WWII. He took a bit of sand and rubbed it across the letters on the cross. As he wiped away the excess sand, we saw the name Leonard Clark stand out. The dark sand in contrast to the white stone.
The First Sergeant offered to play taps and invited us to take our time and then stop back at the guest house to sign the Next of Kin registrar. When he left we took pictures to share with family and moments later, we heard the first notes of Taps. We stopped and bowed our heads. Standing there with my husband who has been to war himself and my little sister, who I know was thinking of our grandmother, my sister and I wept together. This experience touched us far deeper than either us of imagined. We stood together thinking of our grandmother and the loss she and her family experienced 66 years ago. I trying so hard to remember his face from that old black and white picture and how hard it must have been for my family to have him buried so far from home, to never see this sight. We thought of the all of the families of the men buried in Lorraine. We thought about the parents, widows, and brother and sisters sacrificed so much so that people they would never know could live free.
As we walked back to the guest house, I noticed that red and pink roses lined the cemetery. I thought roses were a unique choice for a decorative scrub here and I felt my grandmother’s presence even stronger than before. Elsie Clark-Goodwin loved her roses. She always had the most beautiful rose bushes lining her yard. She would have loved these roses and the perfectly immaculate space where her brother Leonard is laid to rest.