Our Christmas tree is decorated. Our main tree is a live tree bought in record time. My husband and I have devised a sort of game of picking out our tree each year. It is a decidedly unsentimental approach. We realized a number of years ago that we have an uncanny ability to choose just the right tree in virtually minutes. We don’t agonize; we don’t obsess. If it looks right, that’s it and we live with the results. This year I think it took a whole five minutes to declare the winner out of a field of hundreds and hundreds of trees. Some will find this process blasphemous but it never fails to make us giggle. Only once can I remember a tree bought using this methodology that did not live up to our exacting standards. Dear reader, if you have been following my blog for a few years you may recall the tree with a crooked trunk that fell over in our family room destroying some of my ornaments https://revelinginretirement.com/2017/12/17/christmas-tree-oh-christmas-tree/
Beyond the tree itself, which is a beauty, our ornaments are the stars of the show. Ornaments are still one of my favorite gifts to get or give. Look at this beauty from Poland gifted to me by a friend.
Our trees have gone from my quasi-country period about forty years ago when our tree was decorated by 100-plus red and white gingham bows. Sadly, any pictures I might have taken of the trees in that era are long since gone.
Throughout the years, my tree decorations have been either multicolored, or they’ve been one color. There was my Christopher Radko period using ornaments that I still love, still use and that never fail to make me smile.
About ten years ago, I decided that a more sophisticated look might be to use ample greenery throughout the house and use only white, gold and silver in my ornamentation scheme. Then more recently, I augmented that look with pearl and glass garland. Even more recently bouquets of chrystal branches have been poked within the real branches of the tree – sort of my version of hair extensions to fill in places where a hurriedly-selected tree was not as full as I may have liked it. But in the last five years, I realized that not all of my beloved ornaments fit that subdued color pallate and I’ve started to add a bit more color.
Christmas is a time when I get very reflective of the year gone by and the one to come. Over the years, we’ve collected ornaments from our various travels as well as those gifted to us by friends and relatives. The best ones for me represent the love of family and friends or a special place visited. Thus it is when I unbox and decorate the tree, I think about each of the ornaments and the people and places that capture a special place in our lives. Think of the loved ones now gone with whom I had a special, fun relationship – my father in law who teased me mercilessly about a real bird house brought into the house during my overly-rustic period. His response at Christmas that year was to buy me a porcelain bird house to hang on our tree.
Italian “confetti” distributed at a 50th anniversary party in Italy sent to us by my husband’s aunt and uncle, that became an ornament that year and has been hung ever since. This lovely anniversary “favor” below has a prominent place annually on our tree.
There are family pictures – of our son and daughter-in-law, of our grandkids – made into ornaments.
Ornaments that commemorate such destinations as Copenhagen, Slovenia, Bald Head Island, Santa Fe, London, Mount Vernon and the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama (bought at the African American History Museum in Washington, D.C.).
My husband’s favorite ornament is one just bought in the regular scheme of things quite a number of years ago. He says it reminds him of a Faberge egg. No sentiment attached for him! He just likes it – and that’s OK.
A friend just posted on Facebook: The best things in life are the people you love, the places you’ve seen, and the memories you’ve made along the way. Revisiting memories through our ornaments on our tree really kick starts the meaning of Christmas for me! I hope your ornamentation, however you choose to do it, bring you much joy and happiness this season.
There’s a certain level of comfort that comes from vacationing at the same place numerous times. Lecce in the Puglia region of southern Italy or, to a lesser extent, Rome come to mind when I think of that. How familiar they’ve become, so many parts of the city we already know and yet there are so many places yet unexplored for one reason or another. Our familiarity with Lecce brings a sense of ease wrought only by being in a place where we have developed a certain history of our own and have locals to guide us.
At the end of our trip through the Battlefields of World War I this summer https://revelinginretirement.com/2019/08/28/our-stay-on-the-western-front/, our son, daughter in law and grandkids traveled on to England while my husband and I left for Lecce in Italy where my mother in law was visiting her family. Our short trip to Italy this year was a last minute add-on so that we could escort my mother in law back to Chicago.
Lecce https://revelinginretirement.com/2017/08/08/lecce-and-la-sicilia/ is the principal city in Salento. Salento, a designation that I’ve only heard being used for about the past ten years or so, comprises numerous towns, villages and cities. Salento is a geographic region at the southern end of the province of Puglia, or the “heel of the boot,” a sub-peninsula of the Italian Peninsula. In Salento, arrid land is covered in wild flowers and thousand-year-old olive groves, unique architecture, surrounded by picture postcard beaches and the turquoise waters of the Adriatic and Ionian Seas.
Since 1980, we’ve been to Lecce at least eight times. It’s my mother in law’s home town, the place she met her husband during World War II, the place where she got married and the place she left while still in her teens. https://revelinginretirement.com/2017/02/10/90-candles/ Her large family – her two sisters and nieces and nephews and cousins and their families – still live in the area. When we go there, we have the benefit of being with these relatives who are all native Leccese. From them we know about the best places to shop, to eat (when not eating at their homes), what concert is being held in the ancient amphitheater in the center of town. But there’s no mistake about it, the primary reason we are in Lecce has always been to be with the family so any deep exploration of the region has been sporadic and only done when it was something we could fit in.
This year we found pockets of time in our ten-day stay to get a taste of what we have yet to see throughout Salento. My husband and I took the opportunity to venture around a bit. Our time was so limited or maybe our planning so poor that we sometimes felt like the Clark Griswold family at the rim of the Grand Canyon: taking in the site for about 5 seconds, our heads bobbing appreciatively (“Uh-huh, Uh-huh”) and then leaving! So I can only characterize the nature of our travels during this trip as providing the basis for research for our next stay in the area.
Such was the case with our trip to Alberobello to see the Trulli houses that we’d read and heard so much about. The 1500 or so Trulli beehive-shaped homes made of local limestone can date back as far as the 14th Century. One story I heard as to why they are built the way they are is so that the homes could be easily dismantled centuries ago when the local financial police would canvass the area, searching for people who had not paid their taxes. I have no idea whether that story is true but it survives to this day. As we drove the hour or so distance from Lecce, I thought we would have a pleasant day meandering through the hills, have lunch, some wine, take in the scenery. That was not to be, unfortunately, because we went on a major holiday called Ferragosto, in the middle of August, the major tourist month, when everyone is off of work and families are enjoying beachtime. We started out at 9 a.m. – too late to get a parking space anywhere in the town. So we drove around as best we could through the narrow streets to see what we could see. I got the impression that the town was lovely but a bit overcommercialized. Still, it would have been interesting to see what the inside of a trullo looks like – and maybe find out the true story behind the legend. Next time.
The beach we normally go to near Lecce is San Cataldo on the Adriatic Sea coast. It’s characterized by some as not the most beautiful beach in Salento but I think it’s pretty enough and it’s ideal for our grandkids when they are with us because the sea depth increases gradually making it perfect for the kids to be in the water safely.
One amazing discovery this year is that the sea of San Cataldo hides the remains of Port Hadrian. The original structure dates back to the second century B.C. and is now almost completely underwater. The emperor Hadrian apparently ordered the reconstruction of the small port already existing in previous times where Octavian had landed a few decades before, following the death of Julius Caesar. I’m always astonished when I write things like that – the antiquities here are incredible. The port had apparently been neglected and was recovered during the Fascist era. You can see remnants like this throughout Salento.
The downside of San Cataldo is that it can be very windy. But on this trip I learned a little something about how to read the wind and then determine which beaches might be best to enjoy on any given day. For example, with a southerly or south-easterly wind the sea in San Cataldo will be calm. With a northerly wind, the sea will become extremely rough and lying on the beach becomes a virtual sand blast. If the winds are coming from the north in San Cataldo, a better choice for beach time that day might be on the beaches of Gallipoli where the sea is likely be calmer.
The peninsula of Salento has over 50 beaches to enjoy. In other trips we went to the towns of Otranto and Gallipoli, where we walked the streets and back alleys but never swam their beautiful shores.
I had also been told about the beaches and vistas at Santa Cesarea Terme, on Salento’s eastern coast, about an hour and a half drive south of Lecce. This year we had the time to go. The beauty of the drive down was spectacular. It was August but, like our trip to Alberobello, it was the middle of the week so we thought we might be able to beat the crowds. What we found in this case was that it was still bit crowded but manageable. The deep blue sea jutted out from rocky coves. Unlike San Cataldo, the water was deep even close to the shore. But it was literally a picture perfect location. My one problem was navigating the rocks down to the sea, frankly because I had on the wrong shoes. Again, poor planning or just not knowing what to expect. I should have had my water shoes, instead I had on flip flops, the soles of which were too slippery to climb rocks.
On other days during our stay, we took a guided tour, along with some cousins, of the ancient walls of the city of Lecce. We considered ourselves pretty familiar with the old churches and cathedrals in town, but on another day, we decided to have a knowledgeable guide take us on a walking tour around town and inside some of the major baroque churches. Time well spent.
We have always said that you don’t get to Lecce by chance. It’s far enough from the major tourist areas of Italy that it takes deliberate effort to get there. We knew that certain celebrities from Spain, Germany and Britain have long known about southern Italy, including Lecce. But significant on this trip were the number of English speaking people we met all around Lecce – Canadians, Americans, English-speaking Europeans. Lecce had generally been undiscovered for most of the 40 years we’ve been going there. Now Lecce, and Puglia and Salento in general, are being written up in magazines, newspapers and apparently on ads on European TV as a new kind of paradise. The owners of the guest house in which we stayed told us that normally Lecce has about 100,000 residents, but during summer months, especially July and August, that figure increases to about 400,000. In many ways wonderful for the local economy but, selfishly, our well-kept secret is a secret no more! Seriously, southern Italy is worth going – it’s still a pretty untapped jewel!
Memories are made of small moments and large ones. A favorite memory of my childhood is the trip I took with my grandmother and cousin to Chicago to visit my aunt. There are so many parts of that trip that I remember in detail to this day. Along with the memories is another little side note that little did I know that I would eventually live most of my life, not in the Pennsylvania of my childhood but in one of the very Chicago suburbs that I visited all those years ago. So when we had grandchildren I wanted to be sure that we would have similar times shared with them – new adventures, new and different places, new things to learn. And, happily, we have been fortunate to be able to travel with them many times since they were born. This year’s trip, however, was an experiment in holding their attention for six days about a pretty serious topic – the beaches of Normandy and then five days spent visiting the battlefields of World War I.
We had experience planning a similar type of vacation a few years ago. Since my son and my husband are also both avid runners, two years ago for my husband’s 70th birthday, my son came up with the idea of going to the PreFontaine Classic, held annually in Eugene, Oregon. It is one of the premier track and field meets in the United States. Initially my daughter in law, our grandkids and I were going to join them. As the planning took shape, however, we realized that this was going to be a relatively short trip over Memorial Day weekend that year with running events happening back to back. The kids had limited interest in track and field at that point, and we were going to be together later that summer visiting family in Italy, so we thought it might be best for my husband and son to take that 4-day trip without us. And it seemed to work out very well.
As we proceeded with planning this year’s trip, the thought again occurred to us that trudging through fields and landmarks of events that they had not yet studied in school might not capture the interests of our grandkids, ages 9 and 11. We took note that their studies of the American Revolution had sparked an interest so there was the hope that introducing them to the events surrounding the First World War might leave them with memorable impressions about what they were seeing but also about history in general. For kids whose vacations usually involve swimming, skiing, or hiking, this one, most assuredly, was going to be another type of vacation. And unlike the trip two years ago, this one was going to be their summer vacation. Maybe more importantly, we really wanted them to be part of their dad’s milestone birthday celebration trip.
We proceeded to research things other than the battlefields throughout the trip that we thought would engage them. We went through books, plowed through Google and also asked our guide, who is very familiar with the area, to recommend some entertaining spots for kids. Also being a retired teacher, he had a good sense of how to engage and hold a child’s attention, but also knowing when the subject matter would be too serious, too vivid, or too in-depth, for them to participate. We knew that we could be flexible in that my husband and son and our guide could go out on their own on certain days and my daughter in law and I could be with the children and entertain them with sites in whatever town we were along the way. For example, the first day out during the World War I part in the city of Arras, my daughter in law and I stayed back in the town with the kids as the men went on to the Somme area. We arrived on a Friday evening in the charming city of Arras with its Flemish building facades, and settled in to enjoy the large town square, called the Place des Heros.
The kids had ample room to run around, then enjoyed the bocci court that had been set up in the center of the square. The next morning, Saturday, the square had been transformed from a plaza with wide open spaces to a very large, active French market, jammed with stalls, selling everything, including toys, gadgets, clothes, French food delicacies, flowers and live roosters and chickens. My daughter in law and I and the kids took total advantage of sifting through all they had to offer.
We followed up the market with a tour of the majestic town hall, originally built in 1502, exploring the labyrinthine network of quarry tunnels used by soldiers during World War I, and then we soared up many stories to a spiral staircase to the Gothic bell tower which offered an expansive view of the entire city! The trip up the narrow, curved staircase was an adventure in itself since as we were going up, other people were coming down! In between taking in the tunnels and going up to the bell tower, there happened to be a beautiful bride on her father’s arm going up a long staircase in the town hall to an area on the second floor where presumably her groom waited. My granddaughter was excited to see the bride with her beautiful gown! The one disappointment in Arras was not being able to find any gelato (or even an ice cream shop) after dinner, which is always an end-of-evening staple for my husband and the grandkids!
Upon leaving Arras, the next day we went on to the Flanders and Ypres area in Belgium, memorialized in the John McCrae poem, Flanders Field. Here, the children, my daughter in law and I stayed with the tour during the morning where we walked through battlefields, saw the remnants of 100 year old artillery, had lunch (along with my husband and son and our guide) in a lovely outdoor cafe and then went on to an amusement park while the guys went on to the battlefields around Ypres.
I didn’t know what to expect when the park was recommended by our guide – maybe a sliding board and some swings? No, what we found was a full scale, pretty amazing amusement venue with a giant roller coaster and other major rides. The only thing I would have changed is that I think we should have gone to the amusement park earlier because we didn’t have enough time to see and do everything.
Next was Chateau Thierry in the Valley of the Marne. There were woods and craters that the kids could wander through. But, since this area was part of the Champagne region, we also planned for a side visit to the Pannier champagne vineyard. This was undoubtedly the kids first visit to a vineyard! They listened to the short introduction of the hostess, the film shown to us about the process of bringing the grapes to the bottle, the walk through the cellars and, my granddaughter brought the glass up to her lips, took a sniff, and, thankfully, at this tender age, she was not a fan of the bubbly!
Next, we went on to our final destination, Verdun, whose history goes back about 30 centuries. A quaint city, 85% of it was destroyed during the war, and subsequently rebuilt. While the guys went on to the battlefields, we wandered the historic heart of Verdun, climbed to the top of the monument dedicated to victory and to the citizens of Verdun and visited an art museum dating back many centuries. But, frankly, by this time, the kids were pretty tapped out so we found a cafe and had a nice, leisurely lunch.
What did they like or not like about our trip? My granddaughter told me that she liked seeing the tapestry in Bayeux while in Normandy and also the many craters we saw.
They seemed horrified and fascinated by the Ossuary at Douaumont. My grandson loved the giant roller coaster in the amusment park we went to; my granddaughter, not so much.
I feel so blessed to be able to travel to the places we’ve seen around the world and, now to share some of those experiences with our grandkids. For anyone reading this who may be planning a trip like this with their kids or grandkids, I don’t want to leave the impression that they were always fascinated and mesmerized. There were undoubtedly times, maybe many times, when they were bored since this was a long and mostly serious trip. But following this part of their vacation, my son and daughter-in-law went off on their own for a couple of days in Paris, where the kids got to enjoy some sweets at Angelina’s, then it was on to London, via a trip on the Chunnel, for a few days before returning to Chicago.
I believe there is no amount of reading or classroom study that can compare with actually seeing a place, talking with the local people, learning about their culture and how they do things, first hand and in person. Even before they had kids, inveterate travelers themselves, my son and daughter-in-law always said that when they had kids, they wanted to show them the world. I hope our grandkids enjoyed the lighter parts of this trip, but maybe more importantly, that in coming years when they do study these historic places and events in school, or even when someone mentions something that we saw – a town, a monument – that they will remember interesting facts about it and that they were there. I don’t know how many times my granddaughter had been watching something on TV where they show something familiar from one of their trips and she’ll say, “We saw that!”
And you will think that this is just too coincidental for it to be real but trust me this just happened! As I’m writing this, my grandson is watching a rerun of The Simpsons. Its an episode where Grandpa Simpson is imparting his wisdom to the family and he says something along the lines of “And let me tell you something about D-Day, the troops were landing on Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, Juno Beach………” To which my granddaughter eyes bulged and she exclaimed to me, “We know this!”
As for my son, I asked him if this trip fulfilled what he had been hoping to see and learn, he responded with an enthusiastic “Absolutely!” In fact, he is now listening over the course of many days to a 15-hour podcast about World War I.
Happy and safe travels, everyone! Until next time….
Before we arrived at the First World War battlefields, our trip actually started with a stay in Normandy, where on its beaches during World War II the greatest amphibious landing in history took place on June 6, 1944. My husband and I had gone to Normandy for five days twelve years ago for his 60th birthday. On that trip, one of our most memorable, we stayed at the Chateau du Sully, situated between Bayeux and the D-Day landing beaches. We had not hired a guide 12 years ago, just visited the various beaches and sites on our own: Honfleur, Utah and Omaha Beaches, Aramanches, Pointe du Hoc where the troops struggled to make their way up the iconic cliffs and sealed their place in history, the American cemetery and its museum, the Roosevelt Cafe on Utah Beach and its radio room used by the GI’s as a communications bunker (all their equipment is still there as it was), and, then took an unrelated side trip to see the Bayeux tapestry.
Since our son and daughter in law had not yet been there, Normandy was added to the itinerary of this current trip, an easy drive from our arrival point in Paris. Easy, that is, except for the fact that their flight was cancelled in Chicago and they had to wait until the next day to catch another flight to France. We had our Normandy guide set up for the second day of our stay. Unfortunately, our son and his family missed that day. We took the tour with the guide because we could not reschedule for the following day. My husband has studied quite a bit about the Allied Landing and the invasion. In addition to his knowledge, my husband also took copious notes when we were with the guide which he could then impart to our son and his family.
The valor, tragedy and drama of D-Day have been well documented in classrooms, on film, in books. The challenge: The Allied troops were charged to pry Western Europe from Hitler’s grip and free the occupied nations. The troops had a clear mission and were committed to seeing it through. Even today, when one says that a relative landed on the beaches at Normandy, it evokes an immediate sense of courage, reverence and honor for that individual and the event in which he had participated. The people of France and more specifically Normandy, living with the aftermath, the sites, and among the remnants of that fateful time, remain aware of the magnitude of what occurred. Twelve years ago when we visited, we heard the story of an old man who was a boy in Bayeux during that war, encountering a visiting American. The old man handed the visitor a brochure about the site they were about to see. The American thanked the old man for the brochure. But the old man said, “No, thank YOU!” to the visitor who represented the Allied forces that ensured his country would be liberated from tyranny.
What struck me this time was the fact that Omaha Beach is now considered a recreational beach. I was somewhat taken aback by that. Would we make Gettysburg recreational? My mind scrolls back to the newsreels, the books I’ve read, the movies I’d seen about the horror of the invasion. It’s not hyberbole to see this as hallowed ground, that civilization was saved on these beaches. To me, it’s sacred. As I looked around, though, I became aware that if this is a recreational beach, it was a solemn recreation. No beach blankets or neon colored umbrellas dotted the landscape the day we visited. Small numbers of people quietly walked the beaches, or stared out at the surf, possibly envisioning the terrified boys scrambling out of their landing craft to face the enemy, their crossfire and, very possibly, death 75 years ago. I was reminded by my family that time moves on, and it is a beach after all, and that it was probably OK, possibly even part of what the troops fought for, that kids fly kites here, that maybe families swim here.
I was overcome the first time I saw the massive panoramic view of the white crosses and Stars of David blanketing that hallowed ground in the American Cemetery.
This current visit was no different. The scars on the earth from the artillery are still visible. Since this year is the 75th anniversary of the beach landings which essentially ended in Germany’s defeat and foreshadowed the ultimate end of World War II, it was still gratifying that the French people recognized and honored America and its allies for ending the German occupation. Throughout this stay in the Normandy area, we saw the American flag being flown alongside the French flag. We saw store and restaurant windows decorated with messages of thanks. It was heartwarming to see that the enormous sacrifice of “the boys of Pointe du Hoc” and the solemnity and significance of what happened there had not been forgotten.
In addition to the beaches, we had gone to Bayeux on that first trip to see the Tapestry but didn’t spend any time roaming the town itself. This time, Bayeux was our first stop and our base for our visit to the Norman coast. We stayed for three days. Bayeux was the first town liberated after D-Day. As we explored the town in our brief time there, my daughter in law and I were both enchanted. She characterized it as simply one of the most charming towns we saw on the entire trip. Yes, some stores down certain streets are dedicated to selling kitschy souvenirs and tee shirts. They also sold sweatshirts (of course emblazoned with “Bayeux” on the front) which were a blessing to me since, although there had been an unprecedented heat wave in Paris, it was pretty chilly by the time we got to Northern France at the end of July and early August.
In Bayeux, the incredible Bayeux Tapestry was a must see again for my husband and me, and a first time visit for our son and his family. The Tapestry, measuring twenty inches high and almost 230 feet in length, depicts through meticulously embroidered linen the struggle for the throne of England between William, the Duke of Normandy, and Harold, the Earl of Wessex in 1066. The details down to the tiniest facial expressions captured by the artisans a thousand years ago are truly something to be seen.
Our Normandy guide asked us if we had seen the cathedral, called The Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux. We said that yes, our hotel was just down the street from the cathedral. “And you saw the light show?” he asked. “I think we did; we saw the church lit up at night,” I responded. “But did you go into the courtyard for the actual light show on the trunk of the tree?” No, we had not seen that.
So that evening, we first took in a Vivaldi concert inside the cathedral. Following the concert, we joined an ever increasing crowd in the courtyard outside the church. What we found was an enormous tree, called The Tree of Liberty, whose branches extend over the entire large courtyard. It was planted over 220 years ago during the French Revolution.
When it was sufficiently dark, the show began. There, on the trunk of the tree were moving lights, symbols, music and dialogue sequences depicting various aspects of freedom.
Such disparate events as the Allied Landing, the liberation of women, the French Revolution, the visage and quotes of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama and a montage of the 1967 Summer of Love shown against the backdrop of the anthem of the time: “If You’re Going to San Francisco.” The show was so enthralling and seamless that we and everyone else who was there stood for the better part of an hour and a half, rarely taking our eyes off the massive tree trunk. It was beautiful, thrilling, emotional, all in all spectacular! And so unexpected!
Twelve years ago when we went to Normandy I came back with the impression that the French countryside looked exactly as I expected it to look. Stone walls, lovely little cottages with flowered window boxes, large agricultural fields, growing produce and housing cattle of various kinds.
I had guessed to our guide this trip that tourism was the paramount industry in this part of France. He said actually both agriculture and tourism were primary. And as you see the productive fields, the prevalence of agriculture becomes apparent as you drive around on the narrow roadways. A stroll around Bayeux also showed us a perfect tableau of French breads, people casually munching their baguettes, and a gorgeous, gigantic rainbow.
All in all, Bayeux was a lovely surprise to us, a respite from the reminders of war.
Last November, our country and the world observed the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice ending World War I. World War I – the war that probably should not have happened, the war whose aftermath reassigned European borders, eliminated centuries-old monarchies, established the United States as a world power and led an embittered German corporal to launch a campaign that would lead to him being the chancellor of Germany, and all the horror that evolved from that.
Last December, we celebrated our son’s fiftieth birthday. My husband and son have been avid readers of history for a very long time. We had a party on the weekend of his birthday but we felt that this birthday called for more of a marking, something more special. In our house, wars and military history had been a source of fascination for a very long time. Being history buffs, the one thing that my son and husband had talked about over the years was a trip to the sites of the World War I battles. So with the convergence of these two milestones -the armistice and our son’s birthday – the idea of traveling to the sites of the First World War emerged and soon the planning was underway.
For us as a family, including our grandkids (this, not the first venue one necessarily thinks of when vacationing with a nine and eleven year old – more about this in a later blog), this was not going to be an average vacation. It wasn’t going to mean just setting an itinerary, buying a plane ticket, taking some guided tours and ooh-ing and aah-ing over things that we saw. This was going to be an epic, emotional journey. I’m an avid reader of many things but I’m not much of a student of military history. If I’m going to read about a war, I would rather that it be the letters, shared with me by a friend, between a son and his mother written from the Front in 1917. This humanizes the story for me. Very aware of the gap in my subject matter knowledge, if we were going to hire a credible guide, I knew I was going to need to turn myself into a credible participant. This adventure we were going to embark upon required homework, reading up and trying to become familiar about this complex topic. I knew in broad brush strokes that this was a war for which there does not seem to be much concensus about why it was fought, but ultimately it was responsible for an unthinkable number of deaths. In addition, the ramifications of that war and its aftermath were the underpinnings of the the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. The United States was a latecomer to World War I, having joined its allies in April 1917, but was essential to ending it and indeed, this war seems to have solidified the United States’ place in the world. More than 2 million U.S. soldiers fought in the battlefields, under Major General John Pershing’s command.
Our planning for this trip continued for about six months. We hired our guide to be with us for the five days that we would be moving from place to place along the way.
This is not an essay to explain the reasons for this war, nor to introduce the time and thinking leading up to it. For that I’ll refer you to books on the subject such as “Guns of August” (1962) by Barbara Tuchman and “The First World War” by John Keegan. A wonderful remembrance article in the Smithsonian (October 2018) elicited the following observations about how the war came about: John Keegan in his aforementioned book called the war “a tragic, unnecessary conflict.” Some described the war as one of “defense and self protection” given that Germany was threatening to overtake France. Philosopher Bertrand Russell apparently commented that “Anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety percent of the population.” Trotsky apparently remarked that “for people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness, the alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise.” Boredom, was that the cause? Others cite diplomatic incompetence, hubris, or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Some lay the cause in the lap of Kaiser Wilhelm with his “insecurites and military fetish.” Twelve years after the war ended, British military historian Liddell Hart made the case against the Kaiser bluntly, “By the distrust and alarm which his bellicose utterances and attitude created everywhere, he filled Europe with gunpowder.” All of these perspectives are still matters of debate today.
We hired a wonderful well-versed, very flexible guide who stayed with us for the five days of our journey. By training, he had been a math teacher in England, but spent much of his time becoming a military historian and author, specifically regarding World War I. He was extremely well-informed not only about names, dates and places, but background and idiosyncratic vignettes that happened during the course of the war. In the five days, our Itinerary included France starting with Arras and the Pas-de-Calais, the Somme Valley, the Marne Valley; West Flanders and Ypres in Belgium; back in France, we visited Douaumont, Belleau Wood, Chateau Thierry, and finally, Verdun and Argonne Meuse (which my son characterized as the most “raw” of all the sites), all areas where the most important fighting took place. This sounds like covering a lot of ground and we did, but it was very manageable, moving from place to place. We actually stayed in only 2 different hotels along this part of the trip and drove between the sites on a day to day basis. Again, here is where our guide was invaluable since he set the daily itinerary to make sure we made the best use of our time and he knew the roads so there was no backtracking due to getting lost.
As we proceeded along the Front, I was taken with the beauty of the countrysides along the way, the sloping hills, tranquil rivers and villages. All is now indeed quiet on the Western Front. We visited on beautiful, peaceful days, looking at the very places that endured such mayhem, chaos and tragedy 100 years ago. Belleau Wood is now a serene meadow with its 100-year old trees. When we visited, birds were singing overhead.
The Somme Valley, now idyllic, is also the site of the bloodiest battle of the Western Front. In fact the Battle of the Somme which began on July 1, 1916 (The Battle of Albert) is characterized as the darkest day in the history of the British Army. Nearly 60,000 men would become casualties by sunset that day. And indeed at the Thiepval Memorial at the Somme, listed are the names of 72,104 British and South African men killed there who have no known grave. All in all, there were 620,000 British and French casualties at the Somme, with another 600,000 killed or wounded Germans .
In 1914, some of the first clashs between the Germans and the British happened around the town of Ypres, in Belgian Flanders, which would remain a battlefield for the rest of the war. We toured the battlefield of Passchendaele where another 70,000 British soldiers were killed and 170,000 wounded. These are staggering numbers. In the center of Ypres, on a Sunday evening we observed the Last Post military ceremony at the Menin Gate, which every evening at 8 p.m. honors the British soldiers who died in and around Ypres with a very moving bugle call.
In Douaumont, a magnificent edifice, the Ossuary in Douaumont, holds the skeletal remains of 130,000 soldiers killed during the Battle of Verdun and who could not be identified. Walking around the outside, you can see at ground level, windows showing the bones of the dead. You see the sheer volume of those who could not be identified.
Why were there so many unknowns in this war? One explanation could be that early in the war, the soldiers wore metal dog tags, but it was found that, if injured, the metal tags often tore up soldiers’ chests, creating another wound with which to deal. It was decided to change to cloth dog tags which of course disintegrated if the soldier was left for a time in the wet fields. Some, if they were identified at all, were identified through their battalion insignias on their headgear or sleeves.
Arras (pronounced Ar-RAS) today is a charming city. Its center is a lovely large town square called the Place des Heros, encircled by Flemish facades, restaurants, shops. The Battle of Arras was originally intended to be a diversionary assault on a larger French offensive. But the battle grew in size and scope and essentially was involved for the full expanse of the war.
Again, the sheer number of graves we saw was incomprehensible. Also striking was the vast amount of crosses and Stars of David with no names. I can’t adequately describe to you the enormity of this – field after field of gravesites. It seemed around every corner, no matter our location along the Front, there was a monument and a sea of graves.
More than 61,000 Canadians (Canadian War Museum) gave their lives during the First World War. The Canadian National Vimy Memorial in a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in Northern France is one of the most impressive we saw. It is dedicated to the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Canadian soldiers who were killed there. Carved into the walls of the monument are the names of about 11,285 Canadians who died in France and whose final resting place was unknown. In addition there are 30 other war cemeteries within a 12 mile radius of this Canadian Memorial. It is said that even today if those fields were excavated, more bones would still be uncovered. But digging is not done because uncharged munitions would also be found.
I have to say that what also struck me about the various monuments we saw, was the magnificence and the sheer beauty of them. These were not afterthought monuments. They are majestic, breathtaking structures, showing the will and commitment of the country to honor the war dead that once the architect was chosen, the vast amount of money was found to build them to bring the monument to fruition.
When I could no longer stand it, grave after grave, in my frustration and naivete I asked, why when they knew that the war was so ill conceived didn’t the plug get pulled to stop the carnage, to end the war (sounds like Viet Nam 50 years later, doesn’t it?). It seemed it just strung along until finally, due largely to the food shortages caused by the Allied blockade, the failure of a Spring Offensive and the loss of its allies in mid to late 1918, Germany surrendered and the Armistice finally was signed on the 11th day of November, 1918 at the 11th hour.
What had I learned about the Great War? That it seems a war that had at best a tenuous mandate for occuring at all. That from 1914 to 1918, millions of men fought each other across a brutal 475-mile long “No Man’s Land” that stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss border. In 1919, France, like many other European countries, suffered from the ravages of WWI. Many towns and villages were completely destroyed and devastated. Interestingly, a number of the monarchies who advocated for the war, sewed the seeds of their own demise. At the time of the Armistice, the reported number of dead varies but seems to be between 8.5 and 10 million military lay dead. No military historian am I, but having gone on this trip and having heard how this war came to be, how it unfolded, seeing the size of the craters from the bombings, the unspeakable misery of the trenches, the poison gases, and, most importantly, those acres and acres of cemeteries with the unimaginable loss of life, I cannot forget.
It wasQ & A time.The gentleman from the audience started his question with an exclamation, “Talking to you is like talking with a Beatle!” She laughed and shot both her arms in the air in triumph, genuinely happy to be designated as an icon of pop culture – a Beatle! We all laughed in the audience, knowing what he meant!She is indeed a rock star!For many of uspresidential history nerds, we have our favorites: Jon Meacham, Michael Beschloss, Douglas Brinkley – great storytellers all – but this woman is the queen, a standout among historians. Here she is, in a packed house at a local college, sold out, SRO – the person we’d seen on TV, whose books we’dread with delight and learned from.She is Doris Kearns Goodwin.
My husband and I have been following her for about twenty years. When we found that she would be speaking locally, we rushed to get tickets. We initially saw her in San Fransisco years ago, we catch her many interviews on Meet the Press, This Week, and any number of news shows.We want to hear her because she always seems to have something new to say about old topics. And she is almost always the one who is called upon to compare and contrast between the current situation in our country and times we’ve already been through, and the leaders who took us through them.
But she’s not an historian of dates, names and places. She’s an historian with a narrative, with an actual story. She honed her knowledge as a graduate student and later burnished it as a professor of government at Harvard.Her talent was recognized early when shewas chosen as a White House Fellow, one of the nation’s most prestigious programs for leadership and public service,and, at the age of 24, she worked with Lyndon Johnson, and later assisted him in the writing of his memoirs, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She won a Pulitzer Prize for No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II,to this day one of my very favorites.It’s a wonderful story of what was going on in this country while our military were fighting the war in far off parts of the world. It talks about the enormous influence of Eleanor Roosevelt on Franklin during those times. It tells of the story of the uncommon friendship of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who spent vast periods of time living in the White House during the war. It tells about the efforts of all Americans to help in the war effort, from Rosie the Riveters to families planting victory gardens, to rationing of foods and other goods.An amazing story, wonderfully told.
How she learned the art ofnarrative comes from her lifelong love of baseball – first, with her idolized Brooklyn Dodgers and then when she moved to Massachusetts, her beloved Red Sox. She’s had Red Sox season tickets for 40 years! She actually wrote a memoir about growing up in the 1950’s and her love of the Brooklyn Dodgers called “Wait Till Next Year.”She tells the story of her father teaching her at age 6 how totrack of the score of the game. She would listen to the game on the radio and when her father returned from work each day, she would run to him and scream, “The Dodgers won!!!” not realizing that her dad already knew who won by listening to his radio. He patiently sat as she described in minute detail each score. She learned early that, in baseball as in history,even when the audience already knows the outcome, it’s the backstories that bring the pieceto life.
She delves, she interviews, she researches and brings us a story that entertains as well as teaches. She becomes so familiar with her subjects that she believes she really gets to know them intimately as friends, but none more so than her beloved Abraham Lincoln, the subject of her 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincolnwhich was described by the Los Angeles Times as“the most richly detailed account of the Civil War presidency to appear in as many years.”It won numerous awards including the prestigious Lincoln Prize and was the basis for the 2012 movie, Lincoln,nominated for 12 Academy Awards.Throughout her presentation the other night, she referred to Lincoln as “my guy” because of her intense and extensive research into his life, foibles, and character. He’s the president she’s studied most closely. She talked about how Lincoln’s one overriding goal from a very early age was that his life would have purpose and that he would be remembered for something. Dr. Goodwin tells the story of his journey throughour country’s gravest moment and how ultimately Lincoln would fulfill his life’s ambition beyond his wildest dreams.
The true basis for her presentation on Thursday was her lastest book, published in 2018, and for which she won another Pulitzer Prize,Leadership in Turbulent Times. In her presentation,she used bothLeadership and Team of Rivals to illustratethe traits of great leaders, such as:
The ability to communicate: Franklin Roosevelt used his fireside chats so that people across the country came to believe that the president was talking directly with them
Choice of close advisors: In Team of Rivals she shows how Lincoln didn’t pick yes men who would rubber stamp Lincoln’s own beliefs. He chose smart, experienced, knowledgeable men, some of whom were adversaries, but who had a point of view that they would readily express to the president, giving him the food for thought to formulate his own path forward to win the war, to save the Union and to end slavery.
The ability to legislate: Lyndon Johnson was a masterful legislator. He had the temperament and experience to bring together differing sides of the aisle and demand that they not leave the room until they had achieved a resolution to be brought forth for a vote. By the end of his time in office, he had achieved more for civil rights than any leader since Lincoln, clearly a gutsy move for a longstanding Texas politician.
Working for the good of the country: Recognizing that a president’s mission is larger than any one person, the office demands work on behalf of the good of the entire country and not to satisfy just the motives and ambitions of one person.
In all she has written seven books, including those already mentioned and The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, The Bully Pulpit about the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
The thing about Doris Kearns Goodwin is that you don’t need to be an historian or even just a knowledgeable history buff. It’s enough to want to know interesting things about the evolution of our country during challenging times and to learn about the men who got us through them. She writes in a style that is intellectually satisfying to those who have a working knowledge of history but she has kept the common touch for those who want to be enlightened while also being entertained.I would strongly encourage anyone interested to read all of her books and, if you do, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Until next time…..
I’ve been gone from my blog for a while. Several of my blogfollowers have asked me where I’ve been, that they had missed reading the blog. That was very sweet of them.I too missed writing for thesefour or five months. Wherehave I been? What have I been doing? It’s been time away but far from time wasted.As I look back I smile at the joy, pride and inspiration I’ve witnessedthese past months!I want to share with you three vignettes that account for some of my time away that have reflected back to me the joy of what life is all about!
It all started in July at my beloved Jersey shore of all places! My mother-in-law contracted asudden bout of pneumonia at the shore and thatwas the catalyst that drew the conversation from “what if”, to “maybe it’s time.”It was becoming apparent over time that her four-bedroom colonial house, which is 800 miles from us,is too big to manage, even with the various workmen that she has supporting her.She loved the house but it was also a burden. Driving is getting more worrisome.Acuteillnesses like the one that precipitated the thought ofthis moveare likely to become more frequent and more chronic.And even with her close friends relying on each other, it is difficult because each has her own things with which to deal, eachwith children, like us,living hundreds of miles away. And even with their vibrancy, it is unrealistic to expect that they can continue to prop up each other as time goes on.
We brought her to Illinois to recover and after she was well, we started taking her to visit independent living retirement communities but only those with a continuum of care should she ever need it. I thinkbecause we had been back East only by chance when she got sick, this illness scared her. She was suddenlyvery receptive to the idea of thinking seriously about a move.Her son and Iwere asking her to dig for that spunk that’s always been within herone more time. It was first shown in the teenage girl who, in 1946,left Italy for a new worldthat was foreign to her in every aspect, who knew not one person in the new country other than the young GI she had married in 1945.She’s lived her life for these seventy two years with her heart divided, planted solidly in two countries. While she ached for her Italian family, she learned the American ways, she made close friends who became her family, shelaughed easily and she fashioned a big wonderful life.It was a life not without heartache as she missed milestones in her birth family, as sheburiedtwo husbands, and as she has lost friends and family back in Italy and in America. (90 CANDLES) .So she was no stranger to reaching for the grit within her.
August and September were spent visiting and revisiting four different retirement communities.Ultimately in September she chose the unit with the largest footprint and a beautiful view of trees out of the back windows of her third floor apartment that somehow mimicked the sunroom she would leave behind in the old house.She went back to Pennsylvania and immediately told her close friends that she would be moving to Illinois right around the holidays.There was shock, there was sadness but there was also the feeling that this was the right time. Some even saidthey too realized they were going to have to make a similar decision soon.
She had chosen the hard wood flooring that would be installed throughout the apartment but entrusted the decisions about the wall paint colors, the kitchen cabinetryselection and the backsplash to me. I know her taste very well and proceeded with the choices.I also added crown molding throughout and door casings at entries to the kitchen and the sitting room.By the end of November it was virtually ready for her to move into.
Saying goodbye which happened just before Christmas of all times was excruciating.For her at age 91 toleave the place that had been her hometown for seventy two years to chart a new life, to makenew friends, to settle into a new place, to try to call it home is testament to all that is in her.There was lots of laughter but also lots of tears. The woman leaving and the ones being left hardly grasping at this age what life will be like without the other.Everything between them has been so familiar, ashorthand.In their early nineties,they call themselves the YA YA Sisterhood. In our hearts , we knew it was time but there was stilla sense of guilt felt by the two of us – my husband and I – advocating for and managing this move as we watch the farewells unfold. They never sit still, this crew. If there’s party, they are there.If there’s a play to see, they will see it. Is it too late in life to hope to ever establish that again?
Apparently not. Here we are two months in – she is now part of a new pinochle group, has signed up for a series of concerts, she has established friendships with a number of women with whom she visitsand has dinner every night. She walks inside the buildings that are connected so she doesn’t have to brave this cold until the weather changes and she can go outside and walk the grounds.She has told me that she loves her new apartment and is surprised by how she really doesn’t miss the old house. And we were able to celebrate her 92nd birthday on the actual day with her here and in person for the first time ina long time!
She enjoys the new people she’s meeting but misses her friends back East.She misses the freedom and independence represented by her car even as she realizes that the traffic here is so much more daunting than in her area of Pennsylvania, she wouldn’t drive anyway. But she continues her relationships by phone callswith her familyin Italy and withfriends in Florida, New York and, yes, her sisterhood in Pennsylvania.
They say you don’t make old friends. In October, back in Pennsylvania to help my mother in law mine through seventy years worth of accumulating, a dear childhood friend and I finally were able to get together.We literally hadn’t seen each other for probably twelve years – since our last eighth grade class reunion. We were the closest of friends in grade school and high school. My granddaughter has taken to reading my diary (with permission!) and has commented on my friend’s name in almost daily entries during our high school years. When we met we reminisced and laughed about how much time we had spent together as kids, and things that happened back then that only the two of us would recall. One of the first things she said to me when we met was “You look just like your mom!” Only a childhood friend would know that. I can’ttell you the feeling I had when she said that because it’s absolutely true, and she is one of very few who now remember my mom. She told me that when she came to my house as a teenager she would marvel at the sister-like interaction between my mom and me after my father died. The navigation she saw between my mom and me was more of a negotiation between the two of us than my mother actually directing me to do something. I laughed when she said that because a number of my aunts made the same assessment back then. “Remember when we all went to the Golden Ox [a very nice local restaurant in those days] for your seventeenth birthday?Do you remember that?”Indeed she and I did remember that night in minute detail! We remembered that there were a number of us, all friends, that went. In those days, our comfort level was going tolocal diners after high school football games rather than grown up restaurants.We laughed about havingno real idea of how to maneuver around a restaurant like that since until that night mostly we were with our parents who did the paying and tipping.
When we parted we took a picture.Our 71-year-old selves quickly reverted back to our 14-year-old selves: “We’re not going to post it if we don’t look cute!” And we burst out laughing!
I left our lunch with such a feeling of nostalgia, of regret that we don’t live closer to each other and yet happiness that we were able to meet and reminisceand pick up our friendship as though no time had passed at all. We stay connected through messaging.
Finally, in November, we met again at my mother in law’s home for our final Thanksgiving in her house.It was a wonderful bittersweet gathering, this Thanksgiving.
The boys sitting across from me at the table arefull-on men now but sometimes it’s hard not to see them still as boys – one is my child, my son, and the other, Rich,is my mother-in-law’s stepson.My son and his family live in Chicago near us, and Rich and his family live in Texas.They both have high powered successful careers and talked about all the stress, tension and reward that comes with that. Their children became immediate friends, as kids do, remarkably having met for the first time on this trip.
Their wives had already known each other and chatted away.
But wait, there’s more about these boys. They both turned 50 years old this past year! Impossible! Before my mother in law had even met or married Rich’s father, my son and Rich were friends, having first met in Kindergarten! So I watch them across the table and see them as five year olds. No, no wait, now they’re twelve year olds. No, no, they’re teenagers, sneaking down to the bar in this very home and having some beers!Now they’re in Philadelphia going to different colleges but then graduating on the same day!It was at Rich’s wedding rehearsal dinner in Texas that we were all gathered and he toasted his friend from childhood, “To Paul, one of my oldest friends, who through fate and a series of marriages, became my nephew!” Life’s twists and turns are surely remarkable!
So there you have it – part of how I spent these past five months – watching resilience play out firsthand, reconnecting with a cherished friend, and marveling with the pride and satisfaction of watching my son’s and all of his friends’ lead wonderful lives.
Until next time….which will be much sooner than 5 months from now……