Flickr photo by mcmrbt, creative commons
As I remember it, she was around 19 or 20, about my age at the time, and as she led us through the military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, France, past the thousands of crosses to my grandfather’s grave, I sort of wished she’d just hand over the map and let us find it by ourselves.
First of all, there was the awkwardness of the language barrier. (Life would bring me back to France for mongo lessons on this later. Did it ever.) She spoke English but so quietly and with such a heavy accent that we could hardly understand her.
But mainly I was concerned about my mom. This would be the first time since she was a bouncing baby that she’d be mere feet from her father’s body, now bones and dust under the lush, green grass, and I didn’t want her to have to think about keeping her composure just because a stranger was there.
Will she cry? I wondered. Of course she will. In my dream the night before, she’d lain face down over her father’s grave, and when the camera shifted to a cross section scene, I could see my mother lying over her father, and five feet below, his face looking up at hers through the soil.
Would I cry? Would my brother or my dad? I walked faster, hoping to get Dad’s attention and maybe signal him to take the map and send the girl back. But he was too busy looking at Mom and I couldn’t catch his eye.
It started to drizzle and I hoped that maybe now she’d go back, hand us umbrellas and let us go on our own. But no. She walked on, ignoring the weather, carrying the bucket of wet sand that she’d taken time to get before we started out. Couldn’t that chore, whatever it was, have waited? I shivered in the wind, glad to have my jacket, and noticed her bare legs.
Finally, there it was, my grandfather’s cross. My father inched closer to my mother, who stood still, transfixed by the name. Now she’ll leave, I thought, but instead, she knelt before the cross, her bare knees sinking in the wet ground. What? She dipped her hand into the bucket, pulled out a clump of wet sand, and begin smearing it all over the cross!
Wasn’t my father going to do something? The cross had been beautiful, and now it was a terrible mess.
Before I could say anything to my dad, the girl picked up a clean cloth, and with slow deliberate strokes, wiped it clean. Gleaming white, except now Glen Kuhn’s name stood out in bold brown letters. The cross had been just one of thousands, and now it proclaimed my grandfather’s service, for all to see.
As I tried to catch my breath, the girl rose, her knees muddied. She thanked my mother for her father’s service and left us to be alone.
I’ve thought of that girl so many times over the last twenty five years. I’ve remembered how she gathered her skirt and knelt on the wet ground, how she stroked the cross so reverently, how she honored my grandfather and then honored our privacy. She wouldn’t let the awkwardness of a language barrier stand in the way of her focus on our family. Maybe it was her job, but she did it as if it were more than that, as if it were a holy mission.
This French stranger became a model for me of what it means to be a servant: to show up, put away any concerns or thoughts of yourself, and be willing to sink your knees in the mud for someone who needs it.
I picture her, and another servant comes to mind, kneeling before his friends, washing their feet, saying,
“I, your Lord and Teacher, have just washed your feet. You, then, should wash one another’s feet. I have set an example for you, so that you will do just what I have done for you. …Now that you know this truth, how happy you will be if you put it into practice!”
John 13: 14-15, 17
Today I’m wondering who has muddied their knees for you. I’d love to hear about the servanthood you’ve experienced in your life. I hope you’ll share!