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Last summer I spent a week in a lighthouse on the coast of Normandy. I was traveling with my husband's German and American relatives after gathering to celebrate the marriage of our German niece, Leonora, to her beloved Ingo, also German. We'd be staying near the D-Day landing beaches where Allied troops had begun the liberation of France from German occupation. Whether or not this occasion would provoke hard feelings or regrets from the former enemy combatants, I was preoccupied with a grief of my own.

My husband had died four years earlier. I'd begun to feel that talking about my husband was odd, that my daily life should have moved on. It had, but our marriage of 30 years was in many ways the foundation of who I was. While Dan's brothers and sisters had been wonderfully supportive since his death, I didn't know whether being with his family would ease or sharpen my lingering sorrow.

Reading in advance of the trip, I discovered many tours that focused on the D-Day invasion. Tourists could visit 30 important sites: beaches where Allied troops had landed as German guns blazed down from embankments; cemeteries for the fallen American, British, Canadian, French and German troops; monuments and museums. I was glad to see that our town, Port-en-Bessin, was not on the tours, and I assumed it had not been part of the invasion. I would do my best to avoid D-Day. I had had enough of death.

The first morning I walked down the bluff to the tiny village, a fishing port still active with small craft and huge trawlers. Across from the cheerful cafes, a boulangerie and tiny post office, lampposts carried banners that fluttered in the ocean breeze. They showed large black-and-white photos of young men with smooth cheeks, neat haircuts and confident expressions. Small flags — British, American and French fluttered around them, and the banners read: "World War II Hero. Ne Jamais Oublier — Never Forget." Port-en-Bessin, I soon discovered, had in fact been an important battle site where British commandos had crept behind enemy lines to overtake German fortifications. I felt dizzy.

Death was everywhere. In a shop called "D-Day Militaria" I caught a glimpse of drab green uniforms, German helmets, crosses, rifles, knives. I hurried past. Low tide in the harbor revealed strange remnants of battle including the hull of a landing craft covered in barnacles and seaweed. When we drove to Colleville-sur-Mer to swim, we watched lines of tourists struggling up a steep path in the heat to visit the vast American cemetery. We were actually swimming at Omaha Beach, the scene of "Saving Private Ryan." When some of the brothers and sisters organized a trip to the American cemetery, I said I'd stay home and help make dinner with Christophe, my sister-in-law's German boyfriend who had also declined the invitation. He spoke of his experience as a hotelier for the last 40 years working across Europe encountering anti-German sentiment wherever he went. When the brothers and sisters returned from the cemetery, it was the brothers who were in tears.

In the evenings we set up tables in the little yard outside the lighthouse. Dan's absence at meals had made me sad, but there had also been funny stories about him that had made me laugh. That night in the long northern dusk, everyone was talking about the American cemetery. Suddenly I looked across the tables and saw that Ingo's stepfather, an engineer, was crying. He spoke to his family in German. Later Ingo translated for us. The stepfather had lost his own father in the war fighting in Hitler's army on the Russian front. I realized that 80 years later there are tears still being shed on every side of that war. And every war.

In an odd way I came to feel at home in this foreign town. I was deeply touched by the decision to honor their liberators on the main street, the young men whose courage had laid the foundation for the bustle of daily life that the townspeople now enjoyed. I felt at ease on the edge of a continent where living and dying has danced across the millennia, where reality embraces the striving of humans and the deep mystery of death. I decided I could fly my own banner of love and gratitude whenever I liked.

Margaret Todd Maitland is a St. Paul writer. She's at