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A daughter's grief healed

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Ruby Heady visits father’s grave in France

By Ron Benningfield

Hodgenville resident Ruby Heady’s Memorial Day weekend visit to her father’s grave in France finally healed a wound that had agonized her for 66 years.

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Heady, who lives in Hutcherson Heights with her husband Bobby, was only 7 years old when word came that her dad, Roy McDowell, had died of injuries suffered while fighting the Germans in occupied France.

Her father, with the Sixth Armored Division, 50th Battalion, reportedly was crossing a bridge on Oct. 9, 1944, when an enemy bomb exploded, gravely injuring him. He died the next day and, since the fighting was so fierce, was buried, with other Americans as well as German soldiers, at Andilly, France.

Heady, whose family lived at the edge of Buffalo at that time, was in class at the elementary school there when word came of her father’s death.

“I remember my teacher, Mildred Omer, put me on her shoulder,” said Heady. “She was crying, too.”

Most of the rest of those early memories have faded with time, but she clearly sees some things, like those cars lined on both sides of the road at her grandparents,’ John and Mamie McDowell’s, house when word spread of their son’s death. 

She also remembers walking out of South Fork Baptist Church after a memorial service there honoring her father, but she can’t recall the program that went on inside.

Most of all, she recalls the feeling of deep, depressing loss she suffered at her dad’s being gone. There was no grave nearby where she could accept what had happened and put it behind her.

“He told Mama if anything happened to him over there and he was killed, just to leave him wherever he died,” Heady said.

Though time is said to heal all wounds, Heady’s feeling of loss only became greater as she grew older into adulthood, marriage, and children. Still, nothing could ease the sorrow through all the years that followed.

“I learned all I could about Dad, where he was, and what happened when he died,” she said. “I put up a flagpole and footstone and planted a dogwood tree ... in my yard, but nothing satisfied.”

Graveside visit

Last winter, however, her daughter Debbie Dickerson told Heady that they and Dickerson’s daughter Meredith were going to visit the gravesite in 2010.

“I was afraid, even though we went, it might not give me closure,” Heady said.  But the three made plans, including purchasing airline tickets and contacting the staff at Lorraine American Military Cemetery in St. Avold, France, where McDowell’s body had been reinterred in 1949.

“I had been in touch with the superintendent there for over two years,” she said. “We arrived in France on Friday before Memorial Day, and on Saturday we went to the office and were met by a lady who took us to Dad’s grave.”

His final resting place lay beneath a pristine white cross as did the other 10,488 brothers-in-arms buried with him. He was in Section K at the back of the 113-acre cemetery, the largest American cemetery in France.

His grave overlooked a wooded field and grove of trees – something McDowell, who was a farmer before being drafted in March 1944, would have loved.

“When I saw his tombstone, I knelt down beside it, cried, and rubbed the stone just as I would rub the shoulder of someone I was comforting,” Heady recalled.

So that the inscription on his stone would show up better in pictures, their host filled the etched letters and numbers with sand taken from Omaha Beach. Heady, her daughter and granddaughter held their own private service there. 

Taking turns, they displayed a U.S. flag with 48 stars, read scripture and poems. Meredith played two selections on her flute (“His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “My Old Kentucky Home”) and read an original poem for which she won an award while in middle school.

“I had thought hard and long as to what poems I could read that would tell him how much I cared for him and missed him,” Heady said. In trying to decide, she had asked her aunt, Elsie Jones, for some trait that characterized her father.

“She said Daddy was always happy and whistling and he was always smiling,” Heady said. “Aunt Elsie said she could still picture him walking through one of the fields, whistling as he went.”

Heady knew she had found the appropriate poem to read when she came across one that talked about a smile.

Wanting her dad to have something from home, she had also received permission from the superintendent to sprinkle over his grave some Kentucky bluegrass she had brought.

The family received an unexpected honor when they found that the color guard, including a member from Shepherdsville, was staying at the same hotel as were Heady and her family.

“For some reason, those young men seemed to take a special interest in us, providing us with a 21-gun salute, giving us one of the spent rifle casings, and presenting me with an American flag just as they do at funerals,” Heady said.

Closure

Observing the quiet, serene cemetery in which her father lay amidst the beautifully-landscaped countryside, Heady finally found the closure and peace she had sought so long.

“It did much more than what I expected,” she said. “I can rest now because I know the place where Daddy lies is peaceful, well kept, and that they’ll continue to look after him.”