I was a little apprehensive to visit Omaha Beach with my young kids. I didn’t really want to contaminate their innocence with the knowledge of war and the horrors that man can inflict on man just yet. At ages 4 and 6, do they really need to be aware of world events like D-Day and WWII?
However, we were exploring the Normandy region in northern France and figured we shouldn’t bypass this significant landmark just because it made me a bit uncomfortable. History is full of “uncomfortable” moments, and signs of conflict, war and revolution were all around us.
All summer long my kids were learning about – and being fascinated by – French history as we visited sites around the country. They loved the needlepoint comic book of William the Conqueror on the Bayeux Tapestry. They cheered the “girl power” of Joan of Arc during a side trip to Rouen, where she was burned at the stake. They latched onto tales of Catherine de Medici – the wicked queen who poisoned her own son to further her royal ambitions – during a visit to her Loire Valley chateaux. They loved hearing all about Marie Antoinette’s encounter with the guillotine and rise and fall Napoleon.
These real life yarns from yore captured my girls’ attention like epic adventure stories and fairy tales. We might have sugar-coated the more gruesome details to keep things age-appropriate, but we didn’t shield them from learning the broad strokes about these historical happenings – so why not give them a bit of an introduction to the allied invasion of German-occupied France?
Turns out there aren’t many visible scars of history on Omaha Beach these days, one of the main landing beaches of that frightful battle. There’s just a small commemorative plaque, a few flags flying proudly in the breeze and a haunting stainless steel sculpture emerging from the sand. A symbol of strength and courage, Les Braves was commissioned as a temporary exhibition for the 60th anniversary of D-Day but it’s now on permanent display.
It was hard to for me to reconcile images of the chaos depicted so vividly in movies like Saving Private Ryan with this quiet beach-scape before us. We sat down and told the girls a bit about what had happened here, and as we had already visited one of the memorial cemeteries they had a basic understanding of the casualty consequences of this war. They politely listened to and absorbed the dark facts as well as kids can be expected to.
And then they wanted to go play.
At first I felt it was a little disrespectful to have the girls run and dance and sing and play upon the sands of Omaha Beach. Shouldn’t they be somber and contemplative? It seemed that smiles had no place on this site of so much suffering. I didn’t want to offend the few other visitors who may have wanted a quiet moment to reflect.
However, wasn’t that what all those fallen soldiers’ sacrifice was for? So that people young and old could be free to run and dance and sing and play? I realized this was a fitting tribute after all, so I sat back and watched a moment as my blissful kids indulge in their joyful life-affirming merriment before joining in the fun myself.