Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Empirical
It is bitter cold on Omaha Beach two weekends before Christmas, and so my daughter, Sionann, sits in her car, watching her Paris friends survey this site she knows so well, having brought a succession of visitors from her Normandy house here to this old killing ground to share in the homage she pays to all the young men who died on this stretch of sand so long before she was born.
Her friends sprint near water’s edge, running against the cold wind that cuts across the channel and through their winter coats. Even in the car, she can feel that wind. She turns up the heater, and she turns up the music, too–Joan Baez singing “Ave Maria” in German. It is music my daughter has known since she was an infant, a Christmas album we bought when she was three months old and have listened to every Christmas since then, more than forty years. She is, at first, swept up by nostalgia and it takes a few moments before she even realizes the language Joan Baez is singing in, and how that particular song sung in German must resonate with the ghosts who inhabit this gray seaside terrain, all those young German men who died here more than half a century ago, calling out for their mothers with their dying breaths.
Then her friends–the four of them part of a choral group Sionann has invited here to sing carols in her village–run back up the beach to where she sits in the car. Their cheeks are red with the cold, and they bring that salty Atlantic cold into the car, a gust of it on their coats and the surface of their exposed skin, but they are all aglow with laughter and vitality as
Sionann starts the engine and they turn away from the beach to drive inland where they are expected, where they will sing carols at the retirement home in my daughter’s village, just a block from her house in a town called Cerisy Le Foret–Cherry of the Forest–a place liberated by some of the men who survived the landing on this beach weeks after their comrades fell here, turning the water crimson and staining the sand where they bled their young lives away.
The place my daughter drives to is on a street renamed, in fact, for the infantry division that pushed the Germans out in that summer of 1944–Avenue 2 “e” Division Indian Head, an unwieldy name, but an honor no post-war Norman would speak against.
At the retirement home, the old people are assembled in the large common room, in wheelchairs and on sofas, awaiting the arrival of this odd American girl and her friends–British and American ex-pats, and a Parisian, plus a couple of people from the village who spent the evening before rehearsing the songs in my daughter’s living room, singing around the fire in her hearth, all those old songs of hope offered up for so long in the dead of winter, songs sung against the cold and the dark–“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Away in a Manger,” “Petit Papa Noel,” “Stille Nacht.” And they sing more recent holiday songs, too–“Blue Christmas,” for example, with my daughter vamping an Elvis impersonation that makes the old people clap their hands together and exclaim in French.
And, when they pause in their singing–this unexpected invasion of young people come to sing them the season–one of the old women begins to sing a song in French that translates to “We’ll Never Be Twenty Again,” and when her singing is met with delight, she sings the song again, all the way through, with the visitors joining in, the sentiment as true for them as it is for the octogenarians who live in this place.
There is a tree in the corner, sparsely decorated, but the lights blink on and off–red, blue, golden–and the pine smell does battle with the odor of urine and antiseptics that hangs wherever the elderly are warehoused, in France just as everywhere else.
Then there is an interlude for punch and petit-fours and my daughter, who is–you’ll forgive a father his pride perhaps the sweetest human being in either France or the country of her birth, notices a stricken old woman, well over 90, slumped in a wheelchair, her face an utter ruin, tears spilling down the slack flesh of her wrinkled cheeks.
Many would ignore those tears, of course, and many would turn away from the obvious pain in this woman’s face. Many would join the conviviality of the nurses and the attendants around the punch bowl, would pretend not to have seen those tears, would avoid the uncomfortable proximity to a stranger’s sorrows, especially the sorrows of an elderly woman who may be addled, and who is, in all likelihood, beyond solace. But Sionann, bless her heart, is not such a person. She goes and sits next to the woman, hears her muttered calls for her mother–“Maman, Maman”–and takes the woman’s bony old hand in her own while she tries to think of what to say, of what there is to say.
Finally, she says something, words in French meant to be soothing. They are universal, the sentiments my daughter expresses in that moment, words meant to bring comfort, though they feel dry and hollow in her mouth.
“But,” the old woman replies, her voice hoarse and hushed, “I am so very sick.”
Sick enough to call out for her mother, long, long dead. Sick enough to grip the hand of this stranger who, though not her mother, has come to her in answer to entreaties that echo those she made when she was a little girl with a scraped knee, calling for her mother to come and take away the pain and make the fear go away, back when her mother was alive and young, long before German soldiers came to this place, or American soldiers either, and clashed in places near here where she had played as a child.
“It’s all right,” my daughter says, “you’re going to feel better soon.”
And then, in the way such words get spoken, she says it again, and still again, stroking the limp and mottled hand with each repetition, herself now become, in this moment of grace, the mother to this now motherless old woman.
The choir re-gathers at the front of the room, beckons my daughter to join them, and she bends to kiss the old woman’s cheek before taking her place with her friends who sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria” in Latin, though none of them knows exactly what the words mean.
The young people who came to sing in this place raise their voices again for those who draw near death, for those who live less than a stone’s throw from an abbey dating back a millennium, where people of this region have gathered in the dead of a thousand winters to raise voices in song and supplication, singing praises to a child, and to that child’s mother.
In Greek meter, in Russian mate, in German mutter, in Sanskrit matri, in Irish mathair, in Spanish madre, in Mandarin ma, in Swedish mor, in Arabic umm. Across the sorrowing globe we call out for our mothers in prayers secular, or prayers religious, offered to our mothers, or our idea of mothers, or to the mother of us all.
Then it is time for the residents of the home for old people in the cherry of this forest to go to their separate rooms and their beds, and then it is time for the younger ones who came to sing for them to leave, to return to the world where the young will gather for a late dinner around my daughter’s table before they, too, take themselves to bed and offer their whispered or unspoken prayers in the darkness, just before sleep, seeking comfort, seeking peace, seeking to push back the bad and troubling things for yet another night, yet another day. The hopes and fears of all the years. The prayers of untold billions of hearts on thousands of unrecorded winter nights like this one my daughter knows on that cold Norman coast so far from her own mother, so very far from home.
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