Day 19: Father’s Day comes early

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
From “in Flanders Field” by John McCrea

Today was the day. We drove dad’s cremains to the place where he wanted to spend eternity. The logistics of getting all of us to France at the same time made it difficult and explain how almost eleven months after he passed away, dad finally came home. Julie, Warren, David, Trish, and I came together and came across the Atlantic to bring dad home. Julie had contacted as many of dad’s friends who she had remained in contact since he had retired 1998. Almost immediately a very close friend of dad and Julie’s who lived in Paris, Ritva, said she wanted to join us. There was no discussion; it was a great idea. Ritva would join us. As the trip came closer to happening, Ritva offered to arrange transportation to the area. Two other friends of dad’s also wanted to come; it was wonderful that old friends wanted to be part of dad’s final trip.

Poppies growing wild alongside the road in northwest France

We met in the lobby before 10:00 AM and greeted Ritva. I had met Ritva before and heard stories of their friendship. Warren and David had just heard the stories. Ritva had hired a van and driver for the day and we were waiting for him. Dad’s two other friends, Jack and Bruno, would meet us at the site. The driver arrived and we loaded the van and were off. Traffic was better than the day before with the protest but the streets were busy and it was difficult going. Once we reached the expressway we got moving much quicker – about 90 – 110, km/hr that is, which is about 55-66 mph, a reasonable speed on the expressway. Soon were in the outskirts of Paris and then farm fields. Fields planted with wheat, soy beans, and with field crops, I was not familiar. The rolling hills and narrow roads made looking out the windows necessary, as I never knew what I might see. As we got closer to Chateau Thierry, our destination, I began to see little orange flowers growing alongside the road. They were poppies, a flower, which is a symbol of sleep and death dating back to ancient times. It has become synonymous with World War I. In addition, poppies are distributed by veteran’s organizations in the United States during Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day gatherings.

A panoramic view of the Marine memorial in Belleau Wood. Click to open

We were meeting at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Chateau-Thierry, which is northwest of Paris. Much of the region was a battlefield in World War I. The Germans and French fought each other for over four years from 1914-18 and the battle lines did not change much until late in the war. The United States joined the war in April 1917 and really did not get into the fight until 1918. The graves I saw were from 1918. The road we took brought us to the Belleau Wood US Marine memorial area. There is a bas-relief stone commemorating the US Marine force that fought here in 1918 and surrounding the memorial are field guns from the battle. There was a car waiting for us – it was Bruno. We got out, stretched, and took pictures of the area. We called Jack, who had not arrived, we learned that traffic had delayed him and we would meet him later for lunch. The memorial surrounded by woods with trails leading into the woods was peaceful. The brothers gathered and we had our pictures taken by Ritva and Trish. Several photos were taken and we prepared to spread dad’s ashes. We were careful to show respect for the marines who had fought in the battle; dad had served in the Marine Corps wanted to remain here. We had not organized a ceremony per dad’s request but I started with a few words, that I wanted to remember dad for the things that he taught me as a young man and the experiences he shared. Warren followed and David, too with their remarks and reflections. Julie finished with her remarks and the three of us walked over to edge of the woods and began to sprinkle dad’s cremains in the woods. I began and said a silent prayer in remembrance of dad, I handed the cremains to Warren who followed, and he finished by handing them to David. Julie had asked to save a small amount and we did. We stepped back and reflected silently about dad and the today’s event. We finished as Jack arrived, he got out, and we introduced ourselves and they greeted one another. Dad’s three friends had known each other or of each other but had not worked together. Julie showed Jack where dad’s cremains were left and they talked. The three of us talked quietly with Trish and waited.

Dad was home, but we had two more stops – the main cemetery and lunch. We loaded into the cars and drove over to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and entered, parked and got out. We all took off in different directions. I was sad, I wanted to spend more time here than we would get. It was a beautiful day and the pictures I took do not do justice to the area. Earlier we heard the chapel bells ring at noon and they began again. It was peaceful, just what dad had wanted. I walked toward the graves area. The graves topped with crosses and arranged in neat rows and columns are impressive. Over two thousand American soldiers and Marines rest here in peace. Each cross is engraved with the soldier’s name, rank, and the state from where they entered the service.  Words cannot describe place. We all took pictures and we walked back to the visitor’s center. We made certain to sign the visitor’s log and we loaded the cars and drove to Chateau-Thierry for lunch.

Charcutrie Gaston – it was delicious!

The car was quiet and we drove over the hill and down into the valley along the Marne River. We arrived at the restaurant – Restaurant Gaston Labroche – it was surrounded by farm equipment and other shops it was along the road into town. It was the sort of restaurant you would find near Versailles, Ohio, Sycamore, Illinois or any large town in a rural area. After all, France’s farm country surrounded us. Ironically, almost a century before this region had been the battlefield of World War I. We sat down, lookedat the menu. Julie, Jack, Bruno, and Ritva helped us with the menu and we ordered. I looked over the menu and Julie pointed out Charcutre Gaston and it was decided! We ordered. We talked and listened. They, too had dad stories, today was about dad. Julie and Ritva passed photos they had brought of dad from his time in France.

All of us at Restaurant Gaston-Labroche remembering dad

We laughed and thought of dad. The food arrived and my food was wonderful. It was a good lunch. My food was especially delicious and I washed it down with two Alsacien beers. It was great to sit enjoy lunch with some of dad’s friends. It was peaceful and just what we all needed. We finished our lunch said our goodbyes, got back in our cars, and headed back to Paris. The driver stayed on the expressway and it went quickly. Soon we were back at our hotel. We thanked Ritva said our final goodbyes.

Sacre Coeur in Paris

It was five o’clock, but the day was not done. We all went back to our rooms to change and think about what we wanted to do with the evening. Warren and I decided to head to Sacre Couer in Montmartre. We walked the steps to the top taking pictures along the way. We entered the church and looked at the stained glass windows and interior. It is beautiful. We lit candles and said a prayer for dad and for ourselves. The church, sitting high on top of a hill, is beautiful and can be seen from all over Paris. It is always a place to see when I visit Paris.

Warren and I walked down the hill toward Montmartre. We looked for a place to eat but decided on taking the Metro to another part of town for dinner. We decided in a little restaurant near Avenue Wagram and Place due Ternes where dad had lived in the 1980s. We both had tomatoes and mozzarella with bread. Dinner was just what we needed – time to talk and think about the day. We took the Metro back to the hotel and ended the day. Warren quickly fell asleep and I worked on the blog.  The trip has gone quickly and it has been fun to be with my brothers and Julie. The day counted and we have one full day remaining.

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