Doris and Darlene Visit France and Belgium and England

Iowa, October 1997

No one in the family has ever been to see where Danny Wilson’s remains lie.

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, hasn’t been on a plane since the war. 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 even located the only photo of Danny’s wrecked plane. Visiting Danny Wilson’s grave was on my bucket list, but traveling 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.”

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, Doris 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?”

“How hard would it be 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 plodding 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 the Lorraine American Cemetery, we place a bouquet of gerbera daisies and roses at Danny’s grave in Plot C, Row 3, just one among row upon row of white crosses and Stars of David–more than 10,000 of them. Under umbrellas in a drizzle, surrounded by lush chestnut groves, we hold our own private ceremony for Doris and Darlene’s younger brother Danny, who was Killed in Action 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.

(Alain, our driver through France and Belgium, with Darlene and Doris. Bruge.)

After seeing Bruge and Brussels, we take the Chunnel from Brussels. It is even raining when we get to London.

Sunday morning, the powerful organ and soaring voices at Westminster Abbey’s Sunday service are surprisingly soothing, helping to bring closure to our journey.

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!”

(Westminster Abbey and Tower of London)

“And can you believe,” said Darlene, “that someone in our family has finally been to where brother 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.

Doris still had to pray the plane back across that ocean, but she got to see Bath and Salisbury first. We all enjoyed 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 in a far away cemetery.

Lorraine American Cemetery, St. Avold, France. More than 10,000 Americans are buried there, including Danny Wilson of Minburn, Iowa.

22 comments

  1. I’m glad you all answered that “tug” of history and enjoyed the experiences that awaited you “over there.” It’s the tug that leads to the telling, which you’re now doing so well. Keep it up!

    • I’m the same age as Darlene was then, and Doris (Mom) was three years older. They were amazing women, as was Grandma Leora. We’re so thankful we were able to make the trip with them. Later, when I gave a program about the trip, I was amazed at how many other Iowa farm women had been to Europe!

  2. enjoyed your piece about your trip… have been several of those places… England twice to visit my pen pal of 75 years of writing, now phone calls…she has been to US 3 times and we met once in Florida.

  3. I wish when I went to the Lorraine American Cemetery, St. Avold, France, I would have known your kin was buried there! It is such a wonderful place and so thought provoking! Isn’t it wonderful that the American cemeteries all over the world are kept so meticulously!

    • I didn’t even know it until 1988, then didn’t get there until 1997. Cousins Dick and Jan Scar have also been there, and Bob and Judy (Neal) Johannsen were there right after the 75th anniversary of D-Day, where their son-in-law was part of the paratroopers.

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