Seven summers ago Garrett and I returned from work to share a meal. In the course of dinner conversation one of us mentioned an article we had seen in the local newspaper. Not unlike a Humane Society appeal that pulls on your heartstrings with appeals to adopt forlorn animals, this article featured two international students hoping for an American family to sponsor them. We had generically talked about hosting an exchange student without pinning down details But we both had been drawn to the young woman in the article who was from the French island of Reunion. We dusted off our globe (do kids still use those today?) and located a dot in the ocean between India and Madagascar. How exotic! We made the call to the listed number and were busily preparing the guest room for Berenice by the end of the week! Things fell into place so easily that we knew God was at work expanding our family with a girl who claimed home on the other side of the world!
Berenice lived with or near us six of the past seven years. Her parents visited twice and our time with them was enjoyable. It gave me a great opportunity to use my long-neglected French language skills and they pulled out some English as well. Garrett and Louis are masters at Franglais, which made for some good laughs. Their second visit was to celebrate Berenice`s graduation from Grand Valley State University. She had four proud parents cheering her on! They thanked us for the Christian hospitality we extended to her over the years. We thanked them for sharing their daughter with us. In a time of international tensions and national myopia, we knew our mutual trust was a rare gift.
An early stop on our Nourishing Roots journey this summer was to visit Annie and Louis in their hometown of Villerville. It`s a charming hamlet in Normandy where Annie owned and operated the well known Cabaret Normand for five years. This bar/restaurant became a destination point when it was used as the location for the movie, Singe en Hiver, released in 1962.
They treated us to a wonderful dinner at a favorite seaside restaurant and reserved rooms for us in the nearby town of Honfleur. This port town bustles with tourists and is delightful!
We drove together to see Omaha Beach, about a 1 ½ hour drive. Not unlike Gettysburg it is a sobering battleground where words seem superfluous. We learned that the French have given the land that the American cemetery is on to our country as a gift. Over 9,000 of our soldiers who lost their lives in the battle on Normandy beaches are buried there. Four nationalities of soldiers fought together courageously to oppose the Nazi regime, many of whom were still teenagers. The French sacrificed from their own people to bring Hitler`s regime to an end and to assist our military. 18,000 French citizens were killed during the fighting in Normandy. One marquis read, “Even before the invasion began, Allied bombing raids inflicted casualties on the French Civilian population. Many more would die after the landings, caught between Allied and German forces as the battle raged deeper into Normandy. Yet the French yearned for liberation. They welcomed, fed, and protected the Allied troops entering their towns, and members of the French Resistance continued to harass the enemy despite reprisals against their neighbors.” After four years of occupation the Allied troops made their way to Paris to reclaim the city. Our men were celebrated as heroes as much as their own.
The cemetery closes to the public at 6PM. We had wandered quietly through the countless rows of tombstones bearing the shape of the cross or the star of David. Then a woman in a Naval uniform began to play a trumpet. I expected taps but it was something equally mournful. She stood at the edge of an area of the cemetery that we noticed was blocked off. There were folks with cameras and a wooden box on a stand. We learned that the family of Julius Pieper was there for his burial next to his twin brother, who had been laid to rest in Normandie 74 years earlier. https://nypost.com/2018/06/19/twin-brothers-reunited-74-years-after-world-war-ii-deaths/
They were identical twins sons born to German immigrants who had moved to Nebraska before the war. They enlisted together and were on the same boat when in shattered on an underwater mine. They were 19 years old. Ludwig had been found and identified early on. Julius’ body wasn’t found until 1961 by French salvage divers. He was identified only by a number until 2017 when they determined his identity. The family chose for him to be joined next to the one with whom he had shared space his whole life: first in the womb, then in the boat and now in the warm embrace of the earth. They are the 45th pair of brothers buried at the cemetery but are the only set of twins. Even though we were only able to witness a bit of these military honors, we and the Lagardes found this occasion to be very moving.
We made our way back to their airy home that sits amidst the lush green of Normandie. Annie prepared a lovely traditional meal for us of fish in cream sauce with capers. Several courses were enjoyed with good conversation, beginning at 9PM and lasting almost until midnight. The French phrase, en famille, translates to be in, with or among family. That was our experience on a long summer day with the Lagardes who have, by God`s grace, become family to us. Not all roots share DNA, like Julius and Ludwig Pieper who are finally reunited on earthly soil. Some of the best claims of family come from shared lives and trusting spirits no matter where we call home. For us this experience of being “en famille” began because of the decision of one courageous girl to cross the ocean and claim us as home. A bientot, Annie and Louis! Merci pour votre hospitalite!