Iowa, October 1997
No one in the family has ever been to see where Danny Wilson is buried in eastern France.
But at age 76, Aunt Darlene announces that while she can, she wants to see “where brother Danny is buried.” Older brothers Delbert and Donald–both living on the West Coast—would like to go, too, but they are in their eighties and not sturdy enough to make the trip.
“You and Doris go,” they urge Darlene. But my mother Doris, at 79, has never been on a plane. Even though my dad Warren was also a pilot during the war, after losing her three younger brothers, Mom wouldn’t fly anywhere.
“Joy, you ought to come with me,” Aunt Darlene nudges. “You’ve done all the work on our family history.” Yes, I’d transcribed all the letters and telegrams, researched military records, and located a picture of Danny’s wrecked plane. “Visiting Danny Wilson’s grave” was on my bucket list, but going there with one of his sisters seems too wild a dream.
”Mom, I’m going with Aunt Darlene. How are you going to feel, thinking about us at Danny’s grave without you?”
”But I’m afraid I’ll fall and ruin things for everyone,” she says.
Yes, she’s had hip replacement, but after trying out a few more excuses, she eventually agrees to go with us.
Two white-haired farm widows, with my husband and me as support crew, fly to Paris, my mother praying the plane across the Atlantic.
Our travel agent had suggested that since this might very well be Doris and Darlene’s only trip to Europe, they might like to visit Paris.
“Oh, yes,” says Darlene. “I’d like to see the Eiffel Tower.”
“Is Versailles very far?” asks Doris. “We studied that in school.”
“What else?” the agent urges. “Any other countries?”
“Well, would it be hard to get to London?”
“My grandson has been to Stonehenge,” said Doris, “I’d like to see it, too.”
So, we hire a driver to visit Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, ride on the Seine, take a day trip to Normandy and Mont St. Michel— Doris with her cane, Darlene with peripheral neuropathy in her legs—all the while thinking of the grave in eastern France, the reason we are there.
When we arrive at Lorraine American Cemetery, we place a bouquet of gerbera daisies and roses on Danny’s grave in Plot C, Row 3, just one among row upon row of white crosses and Stars of David–over 10,000 of them. Under umbrellas in a drizzle, surrounded by lush chestnut groves, we hold our own private ceremony for Mom and Aunt Darlene’s younger brother Danny, who lost his life February 19, 1945.
And at the end we sing the words to “Taps.” Still subdued and teary, we travel in steady rain through Luxembourg and Belgium to the Chunnel station. It is even raining when we get to London.
The next morning, the powerful organ and soaring voices at Westminster Abbey’s Sunday service are surprisingly soothing, helping to bring closure to our journey. Then the sisters tour the Tower of London, Madame Tussaud’s, and ride on the Thames. One evening, as we sit on flowered chintz counterpanes in our London hotel, Doris says, “Can you believe where we are? We’re sitting in London! Eating Belgian chocolates!”
“And can you believe,” said Darlene, “that someone in our family has finally been to where Danny is buried?”
Well, Doris did take a tumble, just the third day of the trip. It took both my husband and our driver to get her back on her feet. Laughing, she threatened to sue the driver for not taking better care of her. He shot back that he’d have to counter sue for causing him a heart attack. Mom still had to pray the plane back across that ocean, but she got to see Bath and Salisbury first. We all have framed pictures of the four of us, under umbrellas, with the sarsens and lintels of Stonehenge behind us.
All because of the tug of a single grave for a younger brother in a far away cemetery.
Danny Wilson was one Darlene and Doris’s five brothers who served, and only two came home. The family story is told in Leora’s Letters: The Story of Love and Loss for an Iowa Family During World War II. See also: What Leora Never Knew: A Granddaughter’s Quest for Answers