We’d been in the Netherlands for a few days, hitchhiking and sightseeing. One of our local rides suggested we visit the Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery, so we let him drop us off at the red-brick and marble entrance.
Once we entered the grounds, I was overwhelmed. It might be the most beautiful cemetery, and maybe one of the saddest, in the world. We spent hours walking past the tall, white-marble headstones, reading them, wondering who these men were, how they died.
My boyfriend gripped my arm as we came opposite a marker that read, “A Soldier of the 1939 – 1945 War… Known Unto God….” To the side of the incised words grew tall spires of purple hollyhock that swayed in a swirl of air. “That’s the Parachute Regiment insignia,” he said, pointing to the carved glyph of wings and a crown. “Why don’t they know who he is?”
“Some of the bodies were buried by the Germans in mass graves in 1944, or were covered by the rubble of the houses where they perished, and weren’t found for years,” said a man who had come up beside us. “People around here are still finding remains, to this day.” He was momentarily diverted by something beyond us, but then made eye contact again and resumed the chat. “What I like best about this place are the perennial flowers; the local children plant them, and tend the graves; it’s like a garden of the dead.”
We stared at him as he spoke. We were relieved to hear English, but unsure of how to behave; he seemed overly friendly and anxious at once. I finally perked up, “Hi, I’m Hillary Tyson, this is Pete Greer. We’re from the United States.”
“I figured that,” he said. “Will Blevins, from the UK.” He reached over and shook my boyfriend’s hand first, then mine. “My father fought at Arnhem Bridge, helped hold it for days against hopeless odds, but when the Nazis overran their position he hid in an attic in the town and barely escaped. Out of ten-thousand men who dropped or landed here in 1944, only three-thousand made it home.” As he said this, he glanced downward at a polished, white-veined black container that rested in the crook of his left arm. He smiled up at us, then said softly, “This is him … he’s in here. Not quite according to the rules, at the moment. He spent his entire life … well, he was a difficult, solemn, deeply troubled man. My family paid for his guilt, you understand? All he ever wanted, what he talked about over and over, was to return here, to be laid to rest with his comrades who never made it out alive….” A sharp voice, then shouted commands came from behind us, breaking the placid silence, catching Will Blevins’ immediate attention. He stiffened and peered over our heads at the opposite side of the cemetery. “My dad passed away two weeks ago,” he added, his voice barely audible, his eyes fixed.
We turned quickly and tried to see what the disturbance was all about. We could make out a younger man — no more than a teenager — and an old woman. She was moving as fast as she could along a palisade of headstones, using a walking stick to balance and pull herself forward. Two uniformed guards were following her, hailing her in Dutch, then broken English. “You were told … not permitted … please, madam!…” came to us in snatches. We watched, kind of amused, as the young guy — who was apparently with her — stood between the guards and the granny, waving his arms and yelling, “Leave her alone! Her husband fought here, she’s ninety-two years old!”
“That’s my mum … and my son,” Will Blevins offered quietly, and then added, “if you’ll excuse me….” and he abruptly took off at a brisk pace, away from us, away from the old woman and the boy, striding in the opposite direction towards the outer perimeter of the rectangle of graves shadowed by mossy oak trees.
We both were rooted, surprised. A queasy feeling in my gut made me yank Pete by the wrist. “Don’t look at him,” I whispered close to his ear. “Turn around and watch the old lady again,” I insisted.
Within moments, the old woman was apprehended, and the boy too. We observed in silence as the two — elder and youth — were escorted from the area and disappeared in the direction of the entrance. I reflexively glanced over one shoulder, looking for Will Blevins, and nearly jumped into the air and yelped as he was right beside us again.
“What the….” Pete bit down on the last word.
“Thank you,” Blevins said, and nodded his head. The container — the urn, as it appeared now — dangled from one of his hands, his ash-caked fingers inserted into the open neck.
A vigorous breeze broke suddenly, making my hair fly. I looked skyward into the sunshine and squinted, shaded my forehead — a bird flew across bits of gray-white clouds that scudded overhead. I felt a sense of peace, of release. When I lowered my head again, Blevins was far away. We watched him until he moved out of sight, around a hedge and some tree-trunks.
“What was that all about?” Pete asked.
“I’ll explain it to you some day,” I said, and gave him a hug. I felt unaccountably happy.
We stayed at the War Cemetery a little while longer, saying nothing, holding hands as we walked along the rows of gleaming white markers.