Our Story: from the D-Day Beaches to Rainy Strolls along the Seine

Some stories have a starting point that you don’t even realize is a starting point for sometimes as long as 70 years after the fact.

Our story truly began in June of 1944.

My grandfather landed on Utah beach on June 6, 1944 and began the long struggle through to Munich and the end of the war in Europe. George’s grandfather was a pilot who was shot down a few days after D-Day who was saved by the French underground, particularly a family who put their lives on the line to hide him from the Germans. Both our grandfathers’ stories are much longer and amazing than I’ve mentioned here. However, George and I reconnected because of their stories. I wanted to see Utah beach and George wanted to visit some dear friends, the French family who saved his grandfather and had become like family.

Let me back up a little though.

George and I actually first met at a church meeting in Memphis, Tennessee, on New Year’s around 2009 or 2010, neither of us can remember the exact year. It was so very brief as he just sat down and started singing with some of us who were singing between services. I remember thinking when I first saw him, just how handsome I thought he was and loved how “professorly” he looked. However, we never talked beyond introducing ourselves, and though I saw him at the same meeting in years to follow, we still didn’t have much of an opportunity to interact. Fast forward to this past March when he sent me an inquiry about a trip to France and well, that’s when this whole love story with a French twist began.

It’s a long story full of answered prayers of exactly how we got from his inquiry about a trip to France to my boarding a train in Grenoble to meet up with him at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on May 27th, but for the sake of time, I think it would suffice to say that God worked in all those details. We both had a strong desire to conduct ourselves in a God honoring way, otherwise, I don’t think either of us would have been okay with this sort of a venture. We met up, and our adventure began as we made our way from the airport to Saint Lazare train station to catch our train to Lisieux.

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At Normandy Cemetery the day after we met up

As we met up and stayed with the granddaughter of the man who saved George’s grandfather, that’s where our story really began to unfold. God knew George would need a translator and though I have no professional training as a translator beyond being able to speak French and English, I’m thankful I could be there to help. It was truly remarkable to me how the French family just took me in, a complete stranger, as family. It had been many years since they’d seen George, and they were overjoyed to have both of us over that weekend. We were able to attend a family celebration and eat one of those long traditional French all day meals with them. They told George and me over and over that we were always welcome and that the ties between their family and his were as strong as chains. They did all they could to help us, feed us, and make us comfortable while we were in the area. It was truly an experience I will never forget.

George and I grew closer as we drove through the French countryside and talked about the Lord, and I picked his brain on various Bible questions I had. He was so sweet and willing to answer my many questions. He gave me a much-needed hug when I felt overwhelmed at the Normandy cemetery. He was also there when I knelt down to put sand from Utah beach in a bottle to give to my mom who has always wanted to see where her father landed. I was able to be there when he again saw the field where his grandfather’s plane crashed as well as the stables and houses where he was hidden. God began weaving our love story as we sang a hymn in the car as we left that field. He brought us closer as we prayed for each other and yes, also did lots of laughing together.

He first offered me his arm as we were walking up to Mont Saint-Michel. We enjoyed stacey-and-dewey-mont-saint-michelwalking up to see the old Abbey and eating at a café there. I’d always wanted to see it, and it felt like a dream come true being there and getting to share the experience with him. The next day, we boarded another train and were back in Paris to spend a few days. I feel like things really started falling into place as we strolled along singing and walking arm and arm under an umbrella next to the Seine. Those moments were some of my favorites despite how unseasonably cold it was. So much of it seems like a dream or something out of a musical. We explored Paris together just enjoying being there without getting too mixed up in all the touristy stuff. We went to museums, sang some Sacred Harp with some of the French singers I befriended, had some amazing French cuisine, went up into some of the monuments, and tried to get more of the local feel of Paris. I practically floated down the Champs-Elysées when he offered me his arm and later took my hand. It was on a cloudy, bitterly cold night after standing in line for quite a while and waiting for the lights to come on at the top of the Eiffel Tower when we officially decided that we both felt that we wanted to pursue a relationship. I never knew what it meant exactly to feel like you’re the only two people on earth, but that night, I knew. We were surrounded by a huge crowd of people hurrying this way and that, but it all faded around me as he held my hand while we got onto the metro.

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On top of the Arc de Triomphe after that unforgettable walk up the Champs-Elysées and just before eating wondrous goblets of ice cream.

The night before he left to return to the US, and as I sat there willing myself not to cry as he was getting ready to go, he told me to not feel sad because this was just the beginning of a beautiful story. I’ve never forgotten that. It helped us both through those weeks dealing with a seven hour time difference. We talked quite a bit over Skype and Facebook up until my return to the States. I bid farewell to France in July and was sad to go and to say goodbye to my friends there, and I did cry for part of that plane ride back.However, I arrived in the US and walked right into the arms of George at the airport. Life truly is filled with mixtures of joy and sorrow.

This beautiful love story has continued through a long distance relationship as we currently live about 400 miles apart. On our various visits together, we’ve enjoyed hikes, coffee chats, perusing art galleries, speaking in French together, talking for hours and hours and hours, sitting next to each other in church, singing together in the car, studying the Bible together, Skyping, laughing until we can’t breathe, visiting family, and most of all, learning the true meaning of what it means to love someone but love God more. The Lord has blessed us in so many ways and has been so good to us. In fact, we love to sing the hymn “The Lord Has Been So Good to Me” together.

The story that began way back in 1944 when both our grandfathers bravely went through unimaginable experiences still continues as we remember them and do our best to honor them and give thanks to God for sparing them both.

And…

Just a couple of weeks ago on a rainy, beautiful night on New Year’s Eve, George got down on one knee and asked me to marry him.

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Copyright 2016 -Taken by Rebecca Grimmer Photography

I said yes!

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Copyright 2016 -Taken by Rebecca Grimmer Photography

He planned it all so well taking me to a botanical garden and proposing in an art gallery. He had our friend Rebecca Grimmer shadow us without my knowledge to capture the moment and take pictures afterwards. Though I know rain wasn’t in the plan, I don’t think it would have been right not to have rain since I started falling for him as we walked in the rain under an umbrella in Paris…

I know neither of us know what all is ahead as we soon begin our life together, but, oh, mon cher Georges, I look forward to being with you through all of it.

It’s only the beginning of a beautiful story…

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Copyright 2016- Taken by Rebecca Grimmer Photography

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Utah Beach

Is there a name for the emotion one feels when one visits somewhere which holds so much meaning? I felt emotions which didn’t seem to have a name.

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As I stood on Utah beach just trying to take in the enormity of what had happened there, all I could think about was a farmer from Alabama who landed there. He was scared as any soldier would be as he got his first taste of war. The bullets were flying around him, and as he landed and dug a foxhole he prayed for his wife, his family, and that God would give him courage to never run away or do anything cowardly before the enemy. That brave man was my grandfather on June 6, 1944.

I personally cannot fully fathom what it must have been like for him and the other thousands upon thousands of soldiers who landed on the D-Day beaches that day. As I looked from the sea to the beach, I was struck by the short distance between the two. How in the world did anyone survive?

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It’s one thing to read about these events in history. It’s entirely another thing to go to where this event took place and to have had someone there who left a firsthand account of what he experienced. I was looking on scenes he had looked on although granted the landscape has changed quite a bit in the 72 years since the landing. I wondered where he was exactly on this beach, where he dug his fox hole, where he ran when someone yelled that his best friend had been hit though thankfully, he discovered his friend was okay. I can only just imagine how traumatic it must have been for him to witness the devastation and the horror of war all around him as he tried to find a path forward.

As I stood there, I yet again thanked God for sparing him and protecting him just as I had when I went to see the Hürtgen Forest back in February which was another bloody battle he took part in. I thank God that He blessed him with the grace to overcome the trauma after the war, and that he lived to have a wonderful, blessed life following the Lord and raising a family. I know he never forgot that day he landed nor all the experiences which followed, how could he?

There is one thing I regret for him. I regret he never saw or heard how thankful the French were and are for what he and his fellow soldiers did. He had a very low opinion of the French because they fired at him, and he felt that they were overall ungrateful for the sacrifices of the Allies to liberate them. During my various stays in France, I have been moved to experience the complete opposite. Any time I have mentioned my grandfather’s story, I have seen the French nearly moved to tears and most have asked if I my grandfather were still alive to be able to thank him themselves. The French are grateful, and they do wish to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to free them from the oppression of the Nazis. This was a plaque at Utah Beach:

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“From the French in memory of the valiant soldiers from the United States who fell for the liberation of France on June 6, 1944”

I have seen firsthand the bond of an American family and a French family who have remained close through the years because a Frenchman risked everything to save an American from being taken by the Germans. I hope that this bond I have seen can be a testament to not just the friendship of two nations, but also the reality of human compassion and resilience in the midst of horrible circumstances.

I’m glad that our family can at least know that the French do honor my grandfather and those like him who risked their lives and futures that this nation might be free. Of course, I’ve heard all sorts of commentary on the economic and political reasons of why the U.S. got involved, but, my friends, don’t ever forget that life is precious and valuable and that the cost of war is insurmountable. There were men, young men, who never made it home, who never fulfilled their dreams, who left an empty place at their family’s table and in their loved ones’ hearts, who breathed their last breath on a foreign land. Looking upon those rows upon rows of crosses is mind boggling because each of those men, many of whom were around my age, had their own personalities, loves, hopes, fears, dreams, and yet, they laid it all down in the ultimate sacrifice and here they rest.

Many were gone before their lives truly began.

Let us honor them.

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Let us never forget.