My Personal Encounter with Memorial Day

One summer in the early 90’s I was talked into hosting a foreign exchange student for a summer program. There was nothing on the agenda of their program, so the family had to commit to do things with the student so they could take in American culture and language. Though I had young children at the time, I wanted them to see that the world was filled with all different kinds of people and languages and thought the experience would be a great one for them.

We selected Anne-Katia, a French high schooler from Normandy, France among the portfolios and she was a great match for our family. She accompanied us to all the fun outings we had planned for our children, such as a trip to Sea World, a trip to Galveston and lots of touring around. Her English was halting, but better than my high school French, and we were able to communicate enough to be comfortable with one another.

Anne-Katia had such a great experience with us, she called me her “American mother” and her own mother started writing me letters begging me to visit them in Normandy, France so they could repay my kindness from that summer.

Two years later, we were fortunate enough to arrange a dream trip to France that would include a visit to Normandy. Aside from catching up with Anne-Katia and spending time with her family, we found a world of difference in the French attitudes towards Americans in Normandy as compared to Paris and the French Riveria.

In Normandy, Americans were heroes. It was the Americans who led the allies on D-Day to the incredible landing on Normandy Beaches to defeat the Germans who were occupying France.

Sadly, like many people of my generation, I did not know enough about D-Day or the landing on Omaha beach in Normandy. There was an entire museum devoted to the landing outside of their town in Colleville-su-Mer. We spent a half a day receiving the most incredible and up-close and personal history lesson we had ever had, including newsreel and movie footage.

After that, they took us to the famous American soldier’s cemetery there, where the vast number of graves with neat white crosses goes on as far as the eye can see. Every once in a while as we walked through the rows, we would see a white Jewish star as well.

The site brought me to tears as I read the names of the very young soldiers who lost their lives in one of the bravest invasions to rescue a country. Everywhere we went in those small Normandy towns during the visits, when the natives found out we were Americans, we were thanked. The reverence for what our brave soldiers did had lasted fifty years beyond the event, and I felt ashamed to take any credit at all.

For many, Memorial Day weekend is a three-day weekend and kick-off to the summer season. It is a time to picnic, or go to the beach. Yet ever since I witnessed the cost of freedom and democracy in Normandy, I reflect on the real meaning of the holiday.

To all of our brave soldiers past and present who gave their lives for our country, there are no words to describe your bravery and sacrifice. To merely say thank you is not eloquent enough, but let me personally say thank you with all my heart and soul.

One comment

  • Very moving story, Arlene, thanks for sharing. It is nice to know the people in France appreciate Americans! My experience in Paris was totally different. :(

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