On our first day of touring Normandy, our guide ended the day at the Canadian cemetery.
I can’t tell you how many times over the course of the day, as Colin told us stories of the D-Day invasion, focusing that first day on what the British and the Canadians were doing, I said, “Really?! I had no idea that the Canadians were here!”
I confess, I did NOT do my prep for this trip. I was so focused on getting my father there and thinking about the details of that, that I didn’t finish any reading on it. In all truth, I barely began the reading.
“Did you watch ‘Band of Brothers’?” Colin asked more than once.
“Have you seen ‘The Longest Day’?” he asked.
I probably made a pretty tough audience.
“Just focus on him,” I told Colin, indicating my father. The rest of us — we were just filler.
But yes, our lovable neighbor to the north — the most kind, friendly, big-brotherly people — the ones who, in the course of our vitriolic election, let us know that they think we’re great — those guys fought in World War II for the Allies. They took Juno Beach on D Day.
While I was still trying to wrap my mind around that, Colin brought us to the Canadian cemetery.
Military cemeteries are sobering places. France donated the land to all the countries for their cemeteries, even the Germans.
I heard a couple discussing that fact — and the husband said, “The French don’t hold grudges.”
But Canada’s was the first we visited — and I watched my sister wipe tears from her eyes. I watched through the fogginess of my own.
Rows of stones with names and ranks and divisions and dates of death etched below the maple leaf that decorated each one. Some families had other words, often about self-sacrifice, engraved as well. The Canadian government made the provision for families to do that.
The grounds were so beautifully tended. Wisteria climbed the arches near the entrance. A variety of flowers bloomed between the stones.
Visitors left small tokens. Pebbles on the tops of Jewish soldiers graves – to signify the permanence of their memories. Loonies and other coins on the tops of others. Paper poppies and wreaths at the center cross.
Our heritage, our freedom, rested on the backs of these brave young men.
It’s a debt that can never be repaid.
All we can do is remember.
And whisper a little “thank you.”