French student Marion Nivard starting writing last year to a World War II veteran in Britain, thanking him for taking part in the Normandy invasion that freed her country from the Nazis.
As VE Day approached, Nivard and her classmates in the Normandy region thought of 94-year-old Bill Ridgewell and other vets living in isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic — just as they were. The teens decided to swap stories with the men about their lives under lockdown.
"I think we need to be with them even if we're not with them — if that makes sense!'' said Nivard, 15. "It's already something to be there in thoughts and sending them messages. I'm sure it makes them happy, and it makes us happy too."
The effort to share snippets of lockdown life comes at a time of disappointment for the veterans, most of whom are now in their 90s. They were looking forward to a grand party on Friday marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Nationwide celebrations would have placed them in the spotlight.
But the festivities have been scaled back to mostly broadcast events, including a two-minute moment of silence. Queen Elizabeth II will deliver a televised message, and there will be a national singalong of "We'll Meet Again,'' led by 103-year-old Vera Lynn, who made the song famous during the war.
Writing to the veterans brought home to the teens that they are living through a unique moment in time that will be remembered by future generations, said Mayeul Macé, a history teacher at Saint-Louis Middle School in Cabourg. President Emmanuel Macron's address announcing the lockdown set the stage.
"The president's use of the term 'at war' really left its mark on the pupils," he said. "I have students who wonder what history really is, and they realized that they were experiencing something historic."
The relationships with the vets began in 2017, when a group of them spoke at the school. The teens gave the guests vials of sand or soil, depending on whether they stormed the Normandy beaches or dropped from planes. The students later visited the Imperial War Museum in London, and the veterans came too. Ties formed, and letters were exchanged, said Ian Parsons, chairman of the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, which arranged the school visit.
"That's the paramount thing.'' Parsons said. "They know they aren't on their own when something comes through that letter box.''
Veterans like hearing the kids talk about lockdown in all its banality. Snapshots of lunch, happy dogs on walks and bedrooms tidied briefly for photos are standard fare. Content is secondary.
Just ask Ridgewell.
A former school headmaster, Ridgewell was in a trench on the outskirts of Caen on July 5, 1944, when he watched Allied planes bomb the city. He was horrified and feared the French would never forgive the Allies for laying waste to their communities, even though the bombing was part of the effort to crush the Nazis.
He was so concerned about the French reaction that for years he did not want to visit Normandy. But he finally returned last year as part of celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day. What he found surprised him: The French treated him like a hero.
"They gave us freedom, and they fought for our future. And to be grateful is the least we can do,'' Nivard said.
The students did more than stay in touch. Ridgewell's pen pal and another girl from a nearby school traveled to England last year to watch him receive the Legion D'Honneur, France's highest military and civilian decoration. He's quick to show off a cherished snapshot of the event.
He keeps his sand vials beside his armchair. He is even creating a wall of photographs to celebrate his new friendships.
Now the man who was reluctant to go to France can't wait to go back and catch up with the teens. He wishes he could adopt them all.
To show he's in the spirit of all things lockdown, Ridgewell had his daughter, Mary, take videos of him around the house. There's one in the front garden, another in the back garden and one in the kitchen on a rainy day. In that one, you can see the old schoolteacher at work: He identifies everything — this is the microwave! — so the kids can work on their English.
Not content to leave it there, Ridgewell has taken up studying French so he can talk to "mes amis."
The children started writing to express their gratitude. Now it's his turn.
The exchanges "let daylight into this dark time of lockdown,'' he told The Associated Press from his home in Shaftesbury, in southern England. "It's been brilliant. Grateful? That's an understatement really. I'm more than grateful! I'm delighted."