When I was a child, I jokingly referred to Remembrance Day as the day to remember that the following day was my birthday. Even then, I really didn’t mean it. Even then, as a child, the poppy worn by everyone I knew, stood for something important. What was missing at the time, however, was a true understanding of it all. I knew it was to commemorate those who had died during the First World War and war thereafter, but how does a small child so far from war really understand?
I knew my grandfather had served in the British Army during World War II and was away from his family in Berkshire for the better part of six years. I listened to my grandmother’s stories of how he was stationed on Sicily and would return to England on leave only to have his two young sons hardly recognize him. I remember a faint giggle when my grandmother told me how my uncle, only a tot at the time, had stuck his tongue out at him, saying that he couldn’t tell him what to do, but how he was then quickly reprimanded.
It was only as I grew older that I realized how sad that was. Imagine not really knowing your own father then having him return from war expecting everything to function as it once did. My grandfather fought in something horrific, the most gentle, soft-spoken man I had ever known. How much my father-in-law today reminds me of him. Such a lovely reminder of a good man, yet a reminder that I know very little of what he went through during those war years. Did I ever really ask him? I don’t think so. An incredible source of family history as though sleeping in a tiny box that I never dared to open, I want to open it now. Only I can’t. I had numerous opportunities to ask him as I grew into adulthood. But I didn’t. Then he died.
Here I am, a writer writing stories that take place during the world wars, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, WWII and my current novel taking place during both WWI and II. Had I known what my grandfather experienced, had I heard about it from his lips, I can’t help think how much richer my words would be. My grandfather’s brother, who lost both of his legs at eighteen years old in battle, has spent most of his life with prosthetics. It is incredible to think how such a traumatic event must have changed his life. Yet I have heard very little of his story, apart from the fact that he married his nurse, had a family and never once seemed to consider himself anything other than able-bodied and high-spirited.
When my brother told our family that he was planning on leaving his medical practice to join the Navy as a physician, it was a shock to say the least. Never once would any of us have thought he’d have a career in the military. It seemed so against his ideals, war, guns, violence—everything he stood against. But I was wrong. That’s the beauty of the Canadian military, those in the Commonwealth, and other countries like Sweden. They are peacekeepers first and foremost and I feel very proud of that. I feel proud that my brother’s role in the military is one of helping others and doing what’s morally right and humane. He wanted our support even though it was difficult to understand his choice at first. But we gave it. Through time, we were able to see how a career in the military made him happy.
I may not have opened that tiny box with my grandfather, a box that was no doubt overflowing with stories, good and bad, but I’ve been able to hear some of my brother’s stories. His time in Afghanistan was perhaps the most frightening for all of us back home, but he did a lot of good for the people of that country while he was there. He was able to reach remote villages to give medical care and advice to Afghans, some of whom had never even seen a toothbrush in their lives. He worked in some of the most extreme and perilous circumstances, but he earned his unit’s trust and loyalty and has built a successful career—a career that surprised us all.
So today is Remembrance Day. All the untold stories that will never make it into a book, all the stories that may have died in battle with those soldiers, yet on this day, we remember them—the soldiers of yesterday and today. “At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.”
Photo Source (top photo) – Poppy Appeal 2013