Memorial Day in Brittany: Finding our Family
Last year my grandfather died on the anniversary of D-Day. Pop was never in the military, but his older brother Chester, was and he fought on the fields of France. He’s buried in Brittany and it is him who I choose to honor in this Memorial Day blog.
As clear as if I’m looking at it now, I can remember Uncle Chet’s picture hanging in Pop’s bedroom on the family farm. When I last saw my grandfather, he was bedridden but completely coherent. He pointed at the picture and looked at me and said, “go see him.” So, for the year I’ve lived in Germany, it has been my plan to visit Uncle Chet’s grave; but life happens and other things came up and I hadn’t made it there. But my chance has come and I’m not missing it this time. My parents are here to visit and my mom insisted that we go (she told me last night it's on her "Bucket List")…and to make things even sweeter, we’re in Brittany for Memorial Day.
I learned about Uncle Chet only after marrying an Army man and more so after deciding to move to Europe. It seems that there was a lot of confusion regarding his death. The family story goes it that when my great-grandmother was notified, she insisted the unit was wrong. Adding to her heart break, she continued to receive letters from Chet after she had been told he died. To try to piece the puzzle together and glean some more information about his service, Chet’s nieces and nephews later tried to get his official records, only to learn they were lost in the 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Mo.
All we have are his picture, his service cap, his medals, the letters to my great-grandmother, a headstone in a France, and the stories Pop told us about Chet. His letters are especially poignant. The farm boy who liked cars was in a foreign country, wondering why he was there, and seemingly devastated that his beloved mother and siblings weren’t writing to him. I can only imagine the loneliness he must have felt. The first time I read his words, I fought back tears. Pop loved his brother heartily until his last breath -- Chet’s picture was always on the wall within sight of Pop’s bed -- but I fear Chet died not knowing how truly loved he was. This Memorial Day it is our mission -- my mom, my dad, and me -- to “go see him” and maybe, hopefully, let our souls (and his) rest easier knowing we have made the journey to properly tell him good bye.
The day didn't really turn out as expected, but we met up with a gentleman from the American Battle Monuments Commission who helped us to find Chet. As we were nearing the plot, we realized that the marker we were looking for was right there in front of us; we found the section and row and there he was right on the end! I think it goes without saying that this was a rather emotional moment for all of us. Finally, there was some sense of rest for this long awaited reunion of sorts.
While we lingered there, a Frenchman came over and looked at all we had laid out at the grave site and noted how moving it was for him to see. We came to learn that he was one of the people who volunteers to care for the grave markers at the cemetery. He's probably only about 40-years-old and of course did not know any of the men buried there, but he expressed his gratitude for the Americans. He told us bits of history he knew about Chet's unit and offered to help us get in touch with his friend, a historian, who may know more to help solve our family puzzle. It was truly an amazing coincidence to run into him and to have the chance to talk to someone who tends to the men like my uncle when our families cannot.
It is good to know that Chet has been cared for all these years, and as I looked around me at this beautiful cemetery in this beautiful countryside, I cannot help to think that he's been resting in peace all this time, it has been us -- the ones who followed -- who haven't had that rest; but now we can.
I am glad I was able to take my parents to Brittany. Had my earlier plans of visiting panned out (or even the plans for the day), there is not chance it would have been as magical as the coincidental meetings we had with the people there today. I know my grandfather is proud of us for going, but I regret not having gone sooner to be able to tell him this story in person.
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