A Time to Remember

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?

img_2044 GrandpaI 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. FullSizeRender soldier

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

Advertisements

Thoughts of a Hometown – London, Ontario

It was suggested to me recently that I write a post about my hometown of London, Ontario, Canada. My initial thought was how great a tie-in that would be to my book and how I could easily write about the city in which I grew up.

To my surprise, I found myself staring at a blank computer screen. How hard could it be to write about the place I learned how to ride a bicycle, tie my shoelaces, read and write, the place I started kindergarten and graduated from university, the place I made life-long friends, and the one whose waters welcomed me every morning for years as I rowed into the dawn and rowed out the sunset? How hard could it be?

Extraordinarily!

To combat my frustration, I decided to read some articles on the city that I knew as well as any native-Londoner. What I found surprised me. One blog that I thought was particularly charming was one about a mom raising her family in the city, appropriately called www.citymom.ca. I like this woman’s take on London. It’s positive, quirky and reminds me of all the things I like about my hometown. I’ll get to those a little later.

I browsed more sites, some that focused on the history of London, while others characterized it as a mini London, England with our Thames River and streets named Pall Mall, King, Talbot, not to mention a Stratford on Avon nearby – clearly in the hope of drawing some tourism to the city. To my delight, I came across an article that amused me with its honesty and straight-up view of London. London, Ontario: A Great Place to Live But I Wouldn’t Want to Visit. The feedback from readers was biting to say the least. Some accused the writer of not being proud of his hometown while others were simply defensive. A Dose of Buckley. 

Despite any criticism the article received, it made me think that we native Londoners, though proud of our heritage, have a tilted, not slanted by any means but a tilted view of our hometown. We see it from the inside out, whereas a visitor sees it from the outside in. We know what’s at the heart of our city. A London whose Thames River may not be as grand as the River Thames across the big pond, but it still has the ability to captivate. Its sprawling oaks, chatty mallards and ever-present Canada geese give life to the river. As Gillian points out in The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley,

I was wrong to imply the Canadian version of the Thames was anything but lovely. Imitation or not, it has its own charm, narrow and the color of jade with magnificent oak trees nearly clutching the opposite bank. The odd leaf has changed color, yellow, red. Soon there will be too many to count.”

It’s a green place that holds many enchanting memories for me, from our fun annual school picnics by the water, to the bellowing out of my megaphone as my crew crossed the finish line. Feeling our rowing shell glide through the mist in the early morning stole our breath for those few sacred moments, where nine people became like one.

As the article pointed out, London’s attractions may well be lacking, but to the people who live there, there is a sweetness that we find in familiar surroundings. Some may visit London and find it dull, but don’t we find joy and excitement in the people with whom we connect.

I have lived abroad for nearly as long as I lived in London. I remember what drove me to travel. Rowing played an important role in that self-discovery by taking me to new and exciting places. It wasn’t that I wanted to leave it was that I wanted to discover. Yet when I dissect every place I’ve been, at the heart, it is always the people that shape the experience into a positive one or not.

London, Ontario, fondly known as The Forest City, may not have much to set itself apart from most Canadian cities, but there are ties that will continue to pull me back — friends and family. It remains a very good city to raise children. Despite its nearly 400,000 people, it remains a small university town in the middle of corn country. It grows the tastiest peaches on the planet, and has just about more snow than the North Pole coupled with blistering hot summers. It is a town of star-makers, (Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Kate Nelligan, Victor Garber, Eric Lindros, among others) and dreamers, of hard workers and nurturers. It is a town where you learn to drive in blizzards and ice storms and deal with it. When you’ve cleared your driveway, you offer to help out a neighbour do theirs.

It is a town that sprawls into suburbia hosting numerous malls and plazas. The city skyline is pretty from the forks of the Thames, and it’s always a joy to see the sky sprinkled in hot-air balloons every August when London hosts an International Hot-Air Balloon Festival.

So why was I compelled to include this city in my novel? Isn’t it the goal of every writer to touch the hearts of their readers? If London, Ontario played an important role in my life, and I could see the beauty in the things that come only to a native of a town, then maybe just maybe it would touch the hearts of my readers.

What do you like about your hometown? Feel free to leave a comment.

Photo References: London’s SkylineMiddlesex College, University of Western Ontario, London’s Old Court House,