Stones of Remembrance

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Omaha Beach, January 2017

This landscape reminds me of home. The winter sun, the relatively warm weather, the golden grasses catching the light, the high cliffs and rocky beaches, the slight tang of salt in the air, the clearest blues and the deep, coniferous greens: I could be at Salt Creek on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Even the flora and fauna are the same: salal and Scotch broom, wrens and willow warblers.

It is strange to feel so at home, so at peace, in a landscape where I know so much terror and suffering once destroyed peaceful homes.

We have spent the past few hours moving slowly through the magnificent Visitor’s Center and wandering solemnly through the pristine cemetery, the endless white crosses and Stars of David glistening in the clear light of morning. Now we are headed to the beach itself. The main trail is closed for repairs, so we make our way down a steep gravel path. The mood of our students is cheerful but reflective.

When we reach the beach we scatter. Some move in small groups down the coast, talking quietly about history and the movements of armies and the dead. Some wander to the shoreline and look out across the Channel, imagining the incoming ships and parachutes and artillery. Most of us begin to sift through the smooth rocks that cover the tideline. I try to remember my geology enough to figure out whether they’re granite. Invisible evidence of the battle remains in the sand to this day—millions of tiny shards of shrapnel pounded into smooth, near-oblivion by the tides and time.

I fill my pockets with stones and pray for the dead. Memory eternal.

***

A student sits across from me in my office, weeping. It’s just before Spring Break, and while home awaits, home is a complicated, troubled place promising not rest and joy but anxiety and fear.

I reach for the bowl of stones on the table between us and hand it to the student.

“Here, choose a stone that speaks to you. If you put it in your pocket it will be warmed by your body’s heat.”

Then I tell the story of Omaha Beach as dramatically as possible: the boys spill out of the LSTs; the water stains with blood; the bodies, the bodies, the bodies cover the sand; the cliff looms grimly above; the machine gun nests fire ruthlessly into the living, the dying, the dead.

“Those boys did something that seemed impossible but was desperately necessary that day. And it was impossible—until they did it, until they changed the course of history. You’re going to remember them each time you touch that warm stone in your pocket, and you’re going to know that this impossible thing you have to do is possible. And you’ll do it. You’ll climb the cliff.”

We sit in the quiet together for a few moments, honoring those boys and men and honoring our own Omaha Beaches. Then the student wakes from reverie and says, “Dr. Moore, you’re the most New-Agey professor on this campus.”

I laugh. “Yeah, I’m a big sap, aren’t I?”

“It’s okay. I need more sappiness in my life.”

***

Someday I will run out of stones. But perhaps the student will pass along that stone to someone else and tell the story of Omaha Beach, of a personal Omaha Beach, and the ripples from that moment in my office will extend into time in ways I cannot imagine.

Or perhaps that moment will be forgotten–perhaps the stone will be lost, caught by the tide, tucked back into the ocean of time.

And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
Christina Rossetti

 

Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. 

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