In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Every Memorial Day, the lines of this poem interrupt my thoughts, popping in at odd moments as I watch my children jump in a pool or take a bite of a burger. In eighth grade, I had to memorize a poem from a photocopied packet of famous poems as part of an English assignment. In my fuzzy memory, I am sitting at our kitchen table while my mom makes dinner. My dad, home from work, is sitting at the table with me, reading the Philadelphia Inquirer. I tell them about the poetry assignment, and my dad, who is usually not our go-to homework helper, grabs the packet from me and says, “Lemme have a look.” He pages through quickly, pausing a couple times to consider some options, smiles or nods at the familiarity, then turns the page. He pauses midway through on a page, handing it back to me.
“There you go. Flanders Fields. That’s the one you should pick,” he says. He then goes on to recite by memory those famous first few lines. I have no idea why I went with his suggestion, as it was so unteenagerly of me. Maybe I was struck by his conviction, maybe I was relieved to have the choice made for me, and maybe I knew most of my classmates would choose Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but no one would choose “In Flanders Fields.” Whatever the reason, I had my poem.
In April 2019, nearly thirty years after memorizing “In Flanders Fields,” I took my kids and husband on a pilgrimage to Anzio, Italy. Our family vacation marked my fourth visit to Italy. I studied abroad in Florence for a month during college, went to Rome for a weekend in my twenties, and Rich and I spent our honeymoon in the Aeolian Islands and Amalfi Coast. I was aware that my grandfather fought in Italy, but with all the other options – Venice, Cinqueterre, Sienna, San Gimigniano, Capri – Anzio must not have seemed, I don’t know, chic enough or interesting enough to visit in the past. With my grandfather’s death four years earlier and my grandmother nearing her ninety-ninth birthday, there was suddenly no place in the world I felt more compelled to go. Rich would be in Europe for work, and I planned to fly and meet him in Rome with the kids. From there, we would explore. Cities and towns rich in culture, beautiful views and delicious food awaited us. I learned more about the battle of Anzio, researched its distance from Rome, checked out hotels, and built the rest of the itinerary around this stop. I found out about the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery in Anzio which, along with a small museum dedicated to the Battle of Anzio tucked away on a side street outside of the downtown, became my non-negotiable target on this journey. Along with Anzio and Flanders Fields, these cemeteries exist all around the world, waiting for us Americans to visit them and experience our past. This was my first time visiting one.
The differences between the Trip Advisor planning for Anzio and every other Italian destination on our trip was remarkable. Anzio had only a handful of hotels, not much to do, and few reviews. Things had plenty of availability and the prices were beyond reasonable. Translation – not many people go there. I made a mental note not to mention this to Rich and booked two rooms with sea views at the most upscale hotel I could find. 78 Euros a night.
We arrived on a Sunday in April and set out to explore the town and find a lunch spot. In a sleepy seaside town where fresh fish restaurants line the rocky beaches, we stood looking out at the sea. My three children climbed the rocks and took off their shoes to wade in the water. My older son Robert and my daughter Eliza joined a soccer game with children of mixed ages, none of whom spoke English. They cheered each other on, and Robert clapped for Eliza when she scored her first goal. Their sibling battles were on hold as they fought on the same team, barefoot and sandy, cartwheeling and shouting between plays on the same beach where Allied and Axis soldiers once fell at each other’s hands. I looked out at the water, imagining my grandfather, a nineteen-year-old, much closer in age to Robert now than to me, arriving by ship with the other soldiers. They disembarked in the water, paddling to shore carrying guns and canteens and fear as they faced the young men they called the enemy. My grandfather had never left the country prior to enlisting, and already he had survived the landing in Sicily, where many Allied forces died from enemy fire. Others drowned in the water off Sicily’s shore in July 1943, unable to swim with the weight of their equipment. These amphibian invasions, as they were called, presented new risks and dangers as soldiers fought to survive against the forces of man and nature. On the beaches of Anzio, we walked in my grandfather’s footsteps. In the Sicily-Rome American Cemetery, we would honor the soldiers for whom these steps would be their last.
An important detail of traveling in Italy is confirming when the sites are open. The cemetery and the museum were both open on Sunday afternoon, and I had printed copies of the visitor information from their websites. After our lunch and walk in town, we planned to drive to the cemetery at 4 p.m. to have an hour before it closed at 5, and then zip over to the museum before it closed at 6:30. In Rome, where we stayed for a few days before Anzio, I had had that feeling of obligation and anticipation that one often has when traveling through Europe, with days driven by must-see lists and admission times, trying to achieve that balance of what one wants to do on vacation with what one must do so that upon return, we have the right answers to the questions, “Did you see the _______?” In Anzio, the sight-seeing was of no relevance to anyone but me. When people asked where in Italy we were going prior to our trip, their eyes kind of glazed over during the Anzio part as they waited for a pause to tell me how much they enjoyed their time in Ravello or Lake Como.
After lunch, soccer, and a stroll through the piazza in search of a gelato and souvenirs, we wiped off sandy feet and piled into our rental car, entering the cemetery address into our iPhone. As we approached on unremarkable streets lined with apartment buildings and gas stations, I had a feeling that maybe I had built this up too much, it may be only another box to check. Unable to find the cemetery’s visitor parking on our first try and a bit tight on time, we parked in the grass next to a McDonald’s across the street from an entrance, pretending not to see the Customers Only signs in the empty parking lot. From that dry, dusty parking lot with golden arches, brown grass and a chain-link fence, we caught our first glimpse of the cemetery gate.
Waiting for small Italian cars and giant buses to pass, we crossed the street and walked through the gate where a guard stood to welcome us. Entering that space, we were transported. Every time I go into a log cabin at Valley Forge, I picture myself as a young man, fighting for freedom and nearly freezing to death during a long, cold winter. In Anzio, I could see soldiers among these crosses, men in fatigues with names and dreams. My children ran around the reflection pool and wandered on the pebbled paths. The white gravel paths matched the white crosses and Stars of David of the graves, a sharp contrast to the lush green grass. The crosses did not surprise me – I had seen them in a picture online as I researched our visit – but the stars did. With almost no prior knowledge of these cemeteries, I had not realized that the designers designated a star for each Jewish soldier. The stars were few and far between, and my children immediately scanned the rows to be the first to spot a new one. How did it feel to be a Jewish soldier fighting in this war?
In those fields, and in those rows, the number of white stones was overwhelming, each marking a life lost. Every step we took altered the angle and the arrangement of them, creating a constantly shifting geometric pattern. The stones were so beautiful, symmetrical, pristine, and durable. They were not vulnerable to the elements; they were not alive.
The five of us strolled through the careful architecture of the landscape, sticking to gravel paths and only occasionally veering off course to take a closer look at a cross or a star. The soldiers’ names and home states were engraved in each, names we never knew, would never know. We knew none of the names in this cemetery. If the name we knew, Albert Frank Humlhanz, had been engraved on a cross, then none of us would be standing here today. Like that Sadie Hawkins dance in Back to the Future, our family photo could have been erased so easily, by one change in the angle. The shrapnel that lodged itself in my grandfather’s shoulder, close enough to the spine and central nervous system to leave him numb in his leg and unable to walk, could have hit a few inches higher, in his neck, or a few inches to the side, severing his spine. The soldiers who carried him off the battlefield could have been killed or wounded themselves, unable to hear his cries for help or do anything about it. He could have bled to death on the way to the makeshift hospital or suffered from an infection. So many circumstantial details had to fit together for things to unfold as they had, for his name to be spared from this long list of over 7,800 men and women, each with their own stone that forever gives them a place in this world but took from them a future.
Despite the stones, the cemetery is full of life. The greens and blues of the sky and trees, those Italian trees that resemble giant bonzais, give homes to the birds flying overhead, singing their sweet songs of spring. When the beaches and fields were filled with dead bodies, those same indigenous birds sang in the sky one day after another. The Italian larks, I think, still bravely singing. In the quiet cemetery, their song set the soundtrack as we walked from the entrance through the graves to the monument at the far end. My children were growing restless, choosing to walk quickly through the exhibit detailing the history of the war in Italy and the memorial for lost soldiers, but Rich and I took our time. He studied the maps explaining the battle in the north wing while I read the names on the wall in the memorial’s south wing. The names of over 3,000 missing soldiers line the white marble walls beneath a ceiling of Renaissance-style constellations, an aesthetic choice that bridges the gap between these American names, American lives, and their disappearance here in coastal Italy. These are the lost – bodies never found, lives instantly vanishing, the hows and whys that families of casualties use to make sense of their pain never answered. These names are engraved into the walls, alphabetical and uniform in type, like a telephone directory of thousands who will never answer a call.
We walked out of the monument, past the statue of Brothers in Arms, and joined our children in the memorial garden where Eliza and Ian busily played hide-and-seek with their new souvenirs, Monchichi dolls that were a throwback to my childhood in the 1980s. I nearly told them not to play in the garden; with the somber mood, it felt wrong at first. Looking at the smiles of other visitors passing by, it seemed their play, like the birdsongs, were reminders of life. After snapping a quick photo, I realized it was nearly 5 p.m. and the cemetery would soon close. We gathered the three kids for the walk back to the gate. The blue, white and green of the sky, graves and grass shimmered and sparkled, the sky dotted white with the high-pressure clouds of another sunny day in Italy. As the kids zigzagged along the path, expending as much of their youthful energy as possible, I slowed my steps as the threshold of that gate drew nearer. We passed the last few rows of graves, then froze at the sound of a single trumpet from the far end of the cemetery. Turning to face the graves again with the statue, memorial and garden in the distance, I felt my breath and tears flowing in harmony with Taps, that singular closing tune that carries the weight and pain of war. Rich steadied the kids and whispered in their ears, turning their little bodies to face the music. I stood looking at their silhouettes, outlined by the sun and surrounded by life and death and beauty and poetry.