Last month, my wife Karen and I set out to visit father's grave in the Canadian cemetery at Bretteville-sur-Laize, off the road from Caen to Falaise. The absence of visitors against a background of trees losing their leaves and a grey sky lent a melancholy loneliness to the cemetery. At first, the ordered rows of headstones imposed an impersonal solemnity to the some 3,000 gravesites, but that same orderliness brought home the enormity of the losses to gain such a modest amount of ground. This visit was to set off a series of coincidences that gave us cause to think that some hidden hand was guiding us to connect in unanticipated ways with a father I had last seen in 1940.
At father's headstone we peeled off a red maple leaf, and then a second, that were stuck there by the early morning dew. We thought no more about our find until it dawned on us as we went through the rows of headstones that no more red leaves were to be found, making our two unexpectedly precious, to be dried and brought home to Canada. We paused at many of the graves thinking that a visit even from a stranger can have meaning. We realized then that we had to make more than a passing visit and that for it to be more meaningful we should retrace father's route from his last day at Clare Tizon to Bretteville-sur-Laize.
We drove many kilometres and queried many people as to the location of Clare Tizon without success. Anticipating the need to move on, we decided as a last act to plant a flowering shrub beside father's gravestone, and selected at random one of the two florists in a nearby village. As an aside, we asked the florist whether she knew the location of Clare Tizon and explained our interest. She became quite excited and informed us that her assistant was from that village. He gave us detailed instructions on how to find it.
We returned to the cemetery to plant the shrub with the willing assistance of the caretakers. The following morning we set out to find Clare Tizon, but again to no avail. By early afternoon we had given up and were returning to our hotel by a circuitous route when out of the blue a sign post for Clare Tizon sprang in to view and we were through the hamlet before we could even brake. We turned around and stopped at a plant nursery to ask about the hamlet's role in the events of August 1944 and to find out whether any of the older villagers might have recollections of those days. The nursery man knew little, but his mother rushed forward to tell us that the local citizens have virtually turned their community into a memorial to the Canadians killed on the 13th, 14th and 15th of that August. She instructed her son to leave his work and to take us to a local historian who lived a few kilometers away.
We found monsieur Bernard Flais in a centuries-old farmhouse, built around the traditional Norman square with house and outbuildings forming the sides. He immediately invited us in and informed us that he, as a 17-year-old messenger, and his father as a combatant for the French underground had participated in the fighting that preceded the invasion of Normandy and after. He recalled that the Germans had targeted the bridge and were waiting for it to be crossed. The Régiment de Maisonneuve were to be the first and were mauled in the barrage that followed, but other units and regiments suffered casualties as well, notably the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the Calgary Highlanders, and the South Saskatchewan Rifles. Monsieur Flais remembered seeing father's aid post, tucked in against a stone house, and seeing it blown apart. The aid post was but 100 metres from the bridge and in a direct line of fire from a hidden .88 battery overlooking the village from less than a mile away. Monsieur Flais brought out a hand-written inventory of the 41 Canadians who were killed in that fighting. The list named each Canadian and identified the exact location where each was temporarily buried. Father's name was on the list and Monsieur Flais volunteered to take us to his burial site to ensure we were given access to the garden.
When we explained once again the purpose of our visit, we were invited on to the property, and the occupants retold the story of the battle for the bridge from accounts they had from their parents. They remembered that a hedge once surrounded the garden and confirmed that two soldiers had been buried together, my father Capt. Marantz, and a Pte. Wheeler of the Cameron Highlanders. As Karen strolled through the garden she noticed suddenly that the very same flowering shrub that we had selected for father's grave at Bretteville-sur-Laize was growing as a mature shrub over his first burial site. The eerie coincidences of the maple leaves, the happenstance selection of the florist and the locating of the hamlet and finally the co-existence of the flowering shrubs had become too much and we knew then that we had to return once more to father's grave.
Our visit had come full circle and was now complete. I crouched by dad's headstone, holding on to it with both hands while reflecting on the visit. My emotions threatened to overwhelm my self control and I could barely hold back my tears. Reluctantly, I let go. The forlorn thought came to mind that perhaps I had connected with the past through the transmittal of some of my warmth. We looked around one last time, hoping that at some time or another each grave had received or would receive a visit similar to ours. Bretteville-sur-Laize remains a very eloquent but lonely resting place.
Dennis Marantz is a retired senior federal civil servant who now lives in Prince Edward Island.