It was a rainy April morning, when I arrived at Vimy Ridge, France. Our small group marched on the wet, marshy fields toward the hill. Some complained about the rain. When we reached the top, we didn’t have to fight or run or scream – we just had to remember.
I left the group and walked around the memorial site alone, trying to make sense of the symbols embedded in the sculptures. The fallen were there as names carved inches deep into the stone, their bodies now lying in honourable graves. But no image haunted me more than the statue of Mother Canada.
She stood alone atop the front wall, holding a branch in her hand. There was a heaviness to the cloth draped around her body and she looked down. She was sad, mourning, remembering: forever immortalized in stone.
I don’t think I really got Remembrance Day until my trip to visit the battle sites of the first and second world war. Being from South Africa, I didn’t grow up with the tradition of remembrance and pinning on a poppy. In fact I was horribly confused by the whole event when I first attended a school event in grade four.
But that trip, aside from being advertised as a history excursion, was an exercise in remembering.
Canadians gather annually to hold community ceremonies of remembrance, a standard of which is the playing of the last post. On a chilly April evening, a large group of people gathered at the Menin Gate in Ypres, France for a remembrance ceremony. While I was only there for one night to witness people crying wile the last post played, it is a ritual they do everyday. They never let themselves forget.
And there are many people who go through remembrance everyday, without ritual. Parents and children of the fallen, comrades, soldiers currently on deployment. The people whose lives are continually dependent on the service of soldiers and their sacrifice, or who owe their freedom to those in uniform.
I’d would be bold enough to say that’d all of us. So what are my acts of remembrance?
Last year I wrote a story about my father and how he made a dear friend out of an enemy he fought during the Angolan war. It was hard to listen to his story, having been confused for so long by his depression and tirades, which it was diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder. It was also hard for him to remember, recounting events of being a young man forced into combat.
My father thanked me for writing it and sent an email copy to Jorge, his “Cuban brother.” This was the letter I received back (he used a translator):
“Daniella my Sister I am very happy for you and see that you are very intelligent and have ease of words when writing. Everything is well written in your article and you honor me, with the sheer reality of our pure dispair, you seem to understand the sincerity of our souls during this damaging time in our lives. God offered us and I met your father, thank you for your sentimental words about his life […] all my gratitude and my hugs to you, merry Christmas..”
I was overwhelmed by his thanks. Even though I thought I had just written another story – it was an act of remembrance.
It was from writing his story that I realized I wanted to work with the Canadian Forces for my Independent Professional Project. I am happy to be in charge of the 38 Brigade newsletter, and play a number of communications roles. I have had the opportunity to meet many reserves soldiers, who do great work in the community and help out on the home front; most recently during the spring flood.
The theme for our November newsletter is how do you remember. I attended the Valour Road ceremony today, and as I’m waiting for the crowd to disperse, I see a man standing with his dog; watching people as they lay wreaths. I go up to him with a smile and ask him how he is, if he’d like to share with me how he remembers.
“I remember everyday, my father was killed right before I was born.”
Without saying me saying a word, the man continued to tell me about all the members in his family affected by the war. His father was a Canadian soldier in South East Asia. His mother lost both of her brothers. His stepdad had tried to get overseas to no avail while his stepdad’s twin brother was a thousand miles away, working on a map when a sniper bullet shot off part of his ear. An inch difference would have meant his life.
Or another gentleman I asked, who was donning a beret. It was his fathers, the man in the picture wearing the same hat. The photo was taken a few days after he married the woman beside him, while on a few weeks leave. The two lovebirds lived together until they were 95, passing away within months of each other. Today their son thanked them on Remembrance Day by putting their picture on the memorial.
I think I finally get Remembrance Day. It doesn’t matter who you are, or whether you attend a ceremony (be nice if you did). What matters are the stories. Memorials, like the one at Vimy Ridge that moved me to tears, bear the names – but we bear the people, their histories and legacies.
My way of remembering is telling stories. All the while Mother Canada mourns and soldiers lie in wait. When it one days ends, and until then, we will never forget.