Haunted and Hallowed by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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My wife and I were in France last week—Normandy, to be more exact—to celebrate some significant family birthdays and a wedding anniversary. The word “Normandy” comes from “north men,” the Danes and Vikings who “visited” (surely not as tourists like us!) the west coast of what is now France in the 9th and 10th Centuries. (Today, the five cantons of Normandy account for about 5% of the total territory of France.) On our visit, we were blessed to have beautiful weather: unseasonably warm days, cool, clear nights, and almost not a drop of rain so on the surface of things, Normandy seemed bucolic: a place of peaceful villages, verdant fields, cows dozing under apple trees heavy with fruit. (More on those apple trees later.) But all-too-sadly, we know better because only 73 years ago, Normandy was anything but peaceful and bucolic. It was a place of unimaginable cruelty and chaos; of destruction, devastation, and death. But it was also the beginning of the end…

Omaha Beach is a expansive place, a graceful arc of sand almost four miles long. At low tide, the beach, scoured by the sea and the wind, stretches out for nearly a thousand yards, as beautiful a beach as there is in the world. But it is a haunted place—haunted and hallowed by all the souls that died there on that longest day, June 6, 1944. Even as I write this, I am moved to tears by the bravery and sacrifice of the more than 19,000 soldiers who died on the five beaches of Normandy (Sword, Gold, Juno, Omaha, and Utah) on that first bloody day of the liberation of Europe. And I wonder: is there more to come?

On the following day, we visited Bayeux to see its famous tapestry, a 700-foot long piece of embroidered linen that recounts in more than 30 stunningly detailed panels the bloody story of the Norman conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy, henceforth known as William the Conqueror. Marvelously preserved since its creation in 11th Century and miraculously spared in the fiery aftermath of D-Day, the Bayeux Tapestry is another reminder of our centuries-old dance with war and death. And I wonder: is there more to come?

Another day, Mont Ste-Michel rose like a dream out of the bay that surrounds and protects it. Since the 8th Century, it has been a place of strategic fortification, albeit one with a veneer of monastic life. At one time, it was only accessible to pilgrims at low tide but that tide also made it a highly defensible place because the rising tide would either strand or drown all assailants. During the Hundred Years’ War, a small French garrison fended off an attack by English forces in 1433 and to this day, the Mount has never been taken by force. (By the way, the natural tidal defense of the Mount was not lost on King Louis XI of France who began imprisoning his enemies there more than a thousand years ago; it only ceased to be a state prison in 1863.) Protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1979, Mont Ste-Michel still amazes and inspires more than a million visitors a year while also reminding them of the utter folly of war and the cruelty of kings. And I wonder…

So what about all those apple trees? I must confess that not all our time in Normandy was spent in sober reflection. There was a little Calvados, too. Calvados is Normandy’s famous tipple, an apple brandy that pairs well with lingering lunches and bibulous dinners. So well, in fact, that Calvados creates something known locally as “le trou Normand,” or (in English) “the Norman hole” because a little Calvados midway through a meal aids the digestion and makes room for more food, and, of course, more Calvados! And I wonder: how is it possible for life to be so hallowed and so haunted at the same time?

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was released in May and is already in its second printing. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. As usual, Jamie’s essay is thought-provoking, educational, and inspiring.
    On the question “is there more to come,” man’s history, unfortunately, says “yes.”

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