Journey through Widowhood

A journal of one woman's journey to and through the unknown territory of widowhood.


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TRIP TO NORMANDY: THE REST OF THE WAY

We were so packed with activity the last several days of the trip that I have not had the opportunity to post. I am in Chicago now and today will return home to Florida. Once I have my own computer I hope to post some of the almost 200 pictures I took while on this incredible journey. Just to catch up with the itinerary: on Sunday we spent another full day with our English guide, William Jordan, seeing Utah Beach, the village where the film THE LONGEST DAY was set, the German cemetery and the wonderful museum in Caens. On Monday we left early in the morning for the long bus ride to Mont St. Michel–an incredible place rich with centuries (dating back to the 8th century) of history and wonderful places to explore. Our guide here (*and indeed for all the sites we had yet to see) was equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the topic as William had been. They brought history to life. My impression of Mont St Michel was that J.K. Rowling must have visited the site while inventing the setting for her Harry Potter series–the church on top of the rock as well as the village with its narrow streets and charming little shops was Hogwarts come to life. I kept expecting to run into Harry himself!!

On Tuesday we spent the day at the home and beautiful gardens of Claude Monet. Because it is truly spring in France, the gardens were exploding with tulips of all colors, daffodils of all varieties, fabulous lilac and other flowering bushes and of course the wonderful Japanese gardens that so inspired his work — including the famous painting of the water lilies. I learned two important things about the Impressionist movement–the painting is all about the reflection/play of light on different surfaces from water to fabrics to buildings, etc. and 2) Monet was inspired by the art of Japanese woodcuts, many of them hanging on the walls of his colorful cottage. We had lunch at the museum and then a lecture by a member of the museum staff showing how in so many ways Normandy had been the “birthplace” of the Impressionist movement.

Back to the hotel for our farewell reception–how we had changed since that first night when we were all strangers–and to pack for a five a.m. departure for Paris and the airport. I did not sleep much because my mind was so full of thoughts about the trip and how much L would have loved everything about it (except perhaps the strong coffee and long bus rides). I thought of how proud he would have been that instead of burrowing into my shell (as is usually my habit when in a group) I had made a real effort to get to know almost everyone in our group and in the process made some connections that have the potential to last beyond Normandy. And I knew that L had been with me on this incredible journey when as we walked back to the bus after touring Monet’s gardens I spotted a single perfect feather on the ground. Since his death–nearly two years ago now– I have often found feathers like that when I was missing him and wishing I could tell him all about my adventures. The feather–along with the lilac in bloom reminding me of the lilac he used to gather for me every spring–made me smile and allow the peace and comfort of knowing he was indeed there and that he knew all about the trip…because he is watching.


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TRIP TO NORMANDY: THE LONGEST DAY

On Friday we traveled by bus to a number of places connected to the D-Day landing including Omaha Beach, the American cemetery and a battlefield that the USA has preserved as it was at the end of the battle (minus the dead and wounded, of course). It was a long day with a lot of walking but hard to feel sorry for ourselves when we saw what those brave young men had to face on that day. We had our usual wonderful diverse b’fast and then boarded the bus. William Jordan was once again our guide and the man is a veritable fountain of information on the topic of D-Day and all that surrounds that event. His enthusiasm for the topic makes it hard to resist trying to take it all in and he also does a creditable imitation of Churchill, FDR and others.

General impressions: We stopped first in a small beach town where the Brits came ashore on what they called “Gold” beach. The Brits named their three landing places for fish–i.e. goldfish, etc. The story of how the Allies kept the entire plan secret and fooled the Germans into thinking we would be coming ashore at a place more toward the East is beyond fascinating not to mention brilliant. They prepared hundreds of thousands of servicemen for the invasion and NONE of them knew until the last moment where they were headed. Eisenhower was in. Charge and had to make the decision to go. The invasion was planned for June 5th but because of weather had to be called off; the weather wasn’t much better the following day but Ike decided the danger of the plan being discovered outweighed weather and gave the order. As someone fortunate enough to live in a country that has never been occupied by foreign powers it is hard to fully understand what the French in Normandy were facing in those days. At any moment they might be accused of something and shot or sent to a concentration camp. The area where the Allies landed covers about 50 miles of beach with bluffs and villages and farms and open fields and hedgerows and all sorts of geography to be navigated. They travel 100 hundred miles of rough seas with sometimes eight foot weaves to reach those beaches… and face the possibility of immediate death from drowning, friendly fire, German fire, etc.

The cemetery is both what one would expect and at the same time daunting in his tight rows of white marble crosses and Stars of David. Two things I learned: 1) this was not the original resting place for these service people (including four women) and 2) when the bodies were moved the families were given the option of having the remains brought back to America for burial–no other country offered that option. The setting is park-like and beautiful. I was put off by the ongoing narration from our guide and the p[presence of so many people–I wanted and needed quiet. So I switched off my listening device and wandered away from the group to take a stroll down just one of the long rows, reading the names, states and rank as I went. There is no distinction between ranks–a colonel lies next to a private and in the next row there might be one of hundreds of graves with a body but no name. They are indeed a band of brothers.

We went on then to Omaha Beach again driving down narrow streets lined with fields, hedges, farmhouses and such–a peaceful bucolic part of the country. The beach is covered in a sort of golden caramel-colored sand and many visitors take sand from the beach and press it into the engraved letting of a grave marker in the cemetery to make the letting stand out. Of course eventually the sand falls out or washes away but it does make a difference. I was able to walk on the beach and pick up a few shells to carry home.

Our last stop was the battlefield and in many ways I felt the closeness of those young brave men more there than anywhere else. The Germans were in the process of setting up huge artillery guns on turntables that would allow them to fire in all directions–when the invasion happened. From the sea and air the Allies blasted their positions and now there are these enormous rusted pieces of the guns and their mountings plus huge craters that have over time filled in with grass and flowering shrubs. And there were cherry trees in blooms–again that sense of quiet and serenity in a place that once rumbled with the thunder of bombs and artillery shells and the cries of wounded and dying young men.

Long bus ride back to hotel and then a short walk to a restaurant for sinner and then back to try and solve the undelivered baggage dilemma. I was told when I got back to the hotel (on FRIDAY) that the bag would be delivered either Monday or Tuesday (I leave for home on Wednesday!). Called United and while they were enormously sympathetic they also appear to be quite powerless in this little drama. I decided to remind myself of O’s mantra–IT IS WHAT IT IS–and forget missing luggage inn favor of thinking about how he would have loved this day and been moved probably to tears by it.

 


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TRIP TO NORMANDY: HONFLEUR

 

4/3: Lost a day there–the flight to Paris is over night so began on 4/1 and we arrived on 4/2. Other stuff I forgot to mention about the bus ride… we saw many trees with these balls oaf greenery hanging down. At first I thought these were nests of some kind but then I guessed (and guide confirmed) that it was mistletoe! Was L sending me kisses? I choose to think he was. Also not to worry there’s a MacDonald’s in Honfleur but why anyone would choose that over a wonderful crepe or local fish is beyond me. Also I did go shopping–two days in the same clothes was my limit!

So on to this first truly full day in Normandy. I pretty much missed b’fast (another lovely spread offered by hotel) because I overslept and had about 15 minutes to get dressed and down to the lobby for our walking tour of the village. We were each given listening devices so we could hear her clearly even with traffic and other tour groups along the way. The village has a fascinating history that dates back to the Middle Ages and has some buildings still standing to prove it! During the D-Day battle the town was spared because there was far more interest in a larger port nearby (Le Harve).  So there are wonderful buildings from as far back as the 13th Century plus a LOT of cobblestone streets (do NOT bring your high fashion shoes to Honfleur!!!) Our guide was full of information about history and architecture and the shifting of the town’s priorities over the centuries…a fishing port turned military stronghold turned Impressionist art community (Monet painted a LOT of scenes in Honfleur and all the Impressionists loved the way the light came over the horizon on clear days and clouds gathered on dreary days.) But more about Monet and his pals later in there week. I took over fifty photos on the tour but of course forgot the proper cord for downloading so we’ll have to wait for that show.

We had lunch at another charming bistro (the town is full of eating places!!!) called le Chat que peche (the cat who fishes)– we had beef burgundy plus a wonderful dessert called a “floating island.” Later in the afternoon I will admit to stopping for an éclair…after all this is France! After lunch most businesses and museums close for a couple of hours so I cam back to the hotel to check on my luggage (not yet here) and take care of some e-mails. The afternoon was. Ours to do as we wished so I went to the museum of Normandy (showing artifacts of historical life/costume in Normandy and located in a former prison (as in line from the 16th century) and the Maritime Museum (located in a former church). I also went back to some of the places the guide walked us past on the tour and took pictures…a couple of wonderful churches included.

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Got back to the hotel just in time for wonderful lecture by D-Day expert William Jordan–an Englishman who has done wonderful research and is exceptional at bringing the story to life. He will travel with us tomorrow as we head for the beaches. I’m not sure some of my fellow travelers liked that he let us know that Americans–because we were fighting TWO wars at opposite ends of the world– actually had a lot fewer men storm those beaches than did the Brits. But he gave us full credit for–as he put it–coming up with  huge amounts of  “stuff” necessary for the invasion to be a success.

We were on our own for dinner so I chose to come back to the room–wait for the luggage that United assures me is “out for delivery” and catch up on my blog. Tomorrow we start our tour of the D-Day sites and I am so looking forward to that and know L will be fascinated!!! Sleep well–I know I will.


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TRIP TO NORMANDY…STARTING OUT

3/31: Our 44th wedding anniversary seems a good time o begin this adventure. I anticipate that it will be bitter and sweet b it will be something I can add to the memory bank of moments L and I have shared for he will be with me every step oaf the journey. I flew from FL to Chicago and stayed in an airport hotel for the night mostly because the weather in the Midwest has been so unpredictable that I did not want to take a chance. Hotel was surprisingly quiet given its proximity to one of the busiest airports in the world!

4/1: Hotel nice enough to give me late checkout since flight does not leave until 6pm but by noon I was so bored I decided people-watching at the airport beat TV watching in my room and the weather was low 30′s with an 18 degree wind chill so not great for getting out and walking. So off I went. Again going through security was unexpectedly easy–apparently it helps to be old. Even for an international flight I did not have to remove shoes, unpack electronics, etc. Spent a long day wandering the concourses of the airport after checking my one bag…a mistake that I will come to later. Finally time to go. No sign of others from my group at least that I could identify so found my seat next to a nice young man who clearly did not plan to interact during the flight. I was fine with that. No WIFI on board so read my book and tried to sleep (failed) and watched the map of our progress on the little TV screen— six hours to go; four hours to go…. etc.  Finally about 90 minutes from Paris they served b’fast–a stale manufactured croissant and a little mixed fruit. Suddenly my seatmate became my best friend. “What is this?” he asked holding up the croissant.  He was French, a freelance journalist working in Chicago who loves basketball and is interested in WWII history so we had a lovely chat for the remainder of the trip. Arrived in Paris only to learn my bag was still in Chicago. Met the group and boarded bus for 2 hour trip to Honfleur, Normandy. Our guide is Mia. She’s Dutch and lovely and very very well organized. The bus ride (I was trying hard to take it all in and not fall asleep) went through Paris so we saw Eiffel Tower from a distance and then countryside… beautiful woods coming in bloom for spring. I saw those woods filled with the ghosts of all those who fought that terrible war–soldiers from both sides, members of the Resistance, ordinary people just trying to stay alive. Arrived at the hotel–modern and with a super staff. Myth room is large and faces the street(and Bay of the Seine). I had been told by United’s lost luggage people that I could shop “for necessities and be reimbursed so I set out shopping…lost luggage is not so terrible after all I guess. Met all of the group (35 of us) for a welcome reception then walked to a lovely local restraint for a fabulous(One nice thing about this trip is that most meals are included and we are talking local restaurants (not box lunches).) Finally to bed after following the recipe for avoiding jet lag by staying up until “normal” local bedtime and to sleep!


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Women on Their Own

A couple of weeks ago–sometime around Valentine’s Day– attended a Sunday afternoon jazz concert that L and I used to attend regularly. It was one of his favorite activities when we were here in Florida. The concerts are held once a month ‘in season’ and feature a trio plus a guest. The event has grown so popular that it has been moved from a small chapel in the downtown church that hosts the concerts to the main sanctuary. What has this to do with the title of this post? Well, actually a lot…

As I took a seat at the end of an empty pew to wait for the concert to begin I observed others arriving. There were couples and couples with other couples; there were a few men–sometimes alone and sometimes with another man; and then there were the women. And it was the women who interested me the most. I watched their expressions and body language as they arrived, chose a seat (or had it chosen for them by the strongest in their pack if they arrived with other women), and settled in. Some chattered to their neighbors or perhaps recognized someone across the way and waved or carried on a part-vocal-part-sign-language exchange. Others sat quietly–alone even if they had arrived with others. Some looked a little sad, others a little lost, many a lot lonely. I had the sense that some had come because…well, what else was there to do? I know that feeling–that sense of not really want to take part in something and yet feeling that it is somehow necessary if I am to continue moving forward as L so wanted me to do. I tell myself that I am doing it for him–because this is what he would want–because this is what I promised. And as I looked at those other women I wondered how many of them were there–not really for the concert or because they loved good jazz but because it was another Sunday afternoon and this at least was something that would fill an hour or so.

In the movie FUNNY GIRL there’s a song titled “Who are you now?” Mostly it’s a song about being in love and begins with the lines..

Who are you now,
Now that you’re mine?

It was on my mind that Sunday as I walked home after the concert except I realize now that I had changed the words to:

Who am I now? Now that you’re gone…

My promise to L was that I would move forward, be strong, embrace life, be open to friends and their caring and new adventures…and I am trying, but sometimes….

 


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Strange Winter…

Back home in Wisconsin the weather has been really cold with sub-degree highs and wind chills that are almost impossible to believe. Here in Florida where I am so blessed to spend the winter months it has been cooler than normal and there has been more rain. The shelling has also been affected–very few shells on the beaches compared to previous years but sometimes wonderful discoveries like the number of live olive shells I have seen this year. The olive is a favorite of mine with it’s shiny brown shell–to discover the animal that calls this beautiful shell home has been a special treat. I do not take live shells–ever! Instead I delight in watching them make their little trails across the sand as the tide comes in.

Now that my Wisconsin home is an apartment I will not have a “home” there as I have in the past for the shells I have collected and carried back north with me each year. But I have this wonderful new home here in Florida and just below my balcony is a little park bench under a wonderful and enormous live oak tree. I have planted the two abandoned planters that sit at either end of the bench and every year before I head north I plant the bromiliads that I have nurtured on my balcony under the tree.  I have spread mulch under the bench and around the planters and perhaps in time I will cover the mulch with shells. My neighbors are of two varieties–they have either praised or ignored my efforts so I continue until someone tells me to stop. Even when we rented here I would plant the plants I had accumulate during the season (and could not take home with me) and many of them are thriving on the beautiful grounds here. There is one bush with bright yellow flowers that I see every time I leave the complex–it reminds me of the wonderful times L and I shared here and makes me smile every time I see it.

I know that one day it will probably be gone in favor of some landscaping change but for now it is a source of comfort and that is the point. Knowing how brutal the winter in Wisconsin has been I am grateful every day (in spite of the chilly rainy days here) that L brought us to this wonderful community. Seeing that flowering bush brings back memories that remind me of the love story I was so blessed to play a part in. And this new home here that L never shared with me is nevertheless filled with his spirit.


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Rainy Day in Florida

First post of a new year. The start of a new year is always a time for reflection regardless of your age or current life situation. I am certainly no different and frankly 2013 was a whirlwind of a year!

I completely changed my living arrangements in two moves that a few years ago I would not have imagined I was capable of handling. I bought a property on my own…and I sold another property on my own. Such massive decisions and changes were things I always relief upon L to handle. Oh, I might be the driving force urging the change and I might pick out the place BUT when it came to the business end of the matter, that was L’s expertise. This year it was mine. No doubt L would have been more thoughtful and cautious–he always was the voice of calm and reason. But the truth is now that I am back in Florida in the place I bought shortly before leaving Florida last spring,  I am satisfied that I made the right decision and I have a strong sense that L also approves.

It took several weeks for me to adjust to the idea that this place is mine (and not the rental we shared for eight years). It took lots of moving of the furniture (inherited from the former owners) and eventually the sale of some pieces in favor of pieces that were more “me”. But this Sunday I will officially open this house to friends and family in celebration of this new piece of my life without L.

In thinking about this last year I understand that I have made some enormous changes, but I have also made some smaller (and perhaps more significant) changes. I find that I talk to L a lot and feel his presence (and his absence) more strongly than I did in year one. I have moments where I am hit broadside by the loneliness of his absence. I have times when I am in a room filled with the laughter and love of dear friends that this loneliness washes over me like a wave. It is these little moments that seem insurmountable, most challenging and far more significant than buying or selling a house could ever be.

When I first got down here last November and began the truly fun part of “playing house”–decorating and fixing things to my style, etc.–I was so very restless. I could not seem to be still for a moment much less a couple of hours. Something as simple as sitting down to read the newspaper (yes, I still read a physical newspaper) was impossible. I paced and roamed and leapt from task to task, sometimes making up the need to do something just to be able to leave whatever I had been working on.

This restlessness has not entirely abated but it has lessened over the last couple of weeks.  And when it does come back I calm myself by knowing that: L is always with me and that I will make a life without him–one that he would not only applaud but give a standing ovation.

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