I will remember, but what?
This column first appeared in the Cosmos on Nov. 7, 2013
Remembrance Day has always been a confusing day for me. When I was in public school, Remembrance Day was still a statutory holiday, and we …. see, I’m stuck here for a word. Do we celebrate Remembrance Day? Honour it? Observe. I like observe. We observed the occasion the day before, usually, having an assembly at the school, watching black and white films of men and women reenact things that we might have read about in history books. A veteran would likely be there to give a speech, and flags would be raised, the Last Post would be played. The minute of silence would come, and we would all be standing, shifting awkwardly in our spots, not sure what we should be doing with our hands, our feet, our minds. I recall always wanting to be thinking lofty thoughts, wanting to take my minute and really devote to remembering something that was appropriate to this somber ceremony. But I had nothing. No real point of reference. I knew my history, I heard the veteran, I saw his medals, his proof of participation in something grand and horrific. But I didn’t understand. My father was born in Belgium during the war, and didn’t see his father for the first two years of his life. I knew this little tidbit of family history, and summoned it up during this minute, every year. I would make myself get teary over the notion of an ill-placed bomb going off and my daddy not being around. If that had happened, I wouldn’t be around. The tears that I could conjure at this thought at least made me look like I cared. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I just didn’t understand. And if I didn’t understand, what was the point of my classmates and I standing in the gym for one minute being quiet, when recess was approaching and we really should be going outside to play.
One year, when November 11 was just a day off of school, my brother and I were, for some reason, with my grandparents. I remember I driving along, heading to their place in Scarborough, and chatting happily with them from the back seat of the car. The car suddenly pulled off to the side of the road. My brother and I looked at one another, waiting for my Pampa to get out and take a look at whatever was wrong with the car. We asked “What’s wrong?” Repeatedly. We got no answer from either of them. Finally the car fell silent, my brother and I looking at one another with puzzled looks, wondering what had happened. What seemed like ages passed, and the car started back on its way again. My Nana then explained that it was just after 11 o’clock. That’s all she said, was the time. My brother and I were left to piece the rest together. I remember feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t figured it out.
It started to make sense a little bit the year my brother was asked to play the Last Post on his trumpet. We all stood, we all listened, and something niggled inside me then. What if my baby brother was playing this on a battlefield, rather than in the school gym? A bit melodramatic, but the thought laid a punch to my gut that made me connect to what was going on.
When I grew much older, I learned what a large role my paternal grandfather played in the little town in Belgium where my father lived until age 10. My grandpa would never, ever talk about the war, saying only that it was over. It didn’t matter to talk about it now. And he loathed carrots. (I did discover that they were his sole diet for a period of time he was held by the Nazis.) But a little prodding and research, and I discovered that he had secretly possessed a stamp that was used on documents created for those trying to leave Belgium during its occupation. He was eventually found out, and got away with mercifully little torture and his life.
That gave me a connection. It made it personal for me. I can’t begin to understand the calamity of war. I’m still learning about the convoluted politics and personalities that lead to the shocking amount of horrible conflicts that the world has seen. As I grow older, I understand more and more, and less and less. I don’t understand why people need to fight. I don’t understand what makes some young men want to go to war. I don’t understand, and yet I do.
On November 11, at 11 a.m., I will stand quietly, among others doing the same, and spend an insignificant amount of time thinking about the futility of war, the lives it has cost, and the changes it has made to the world, both bad and good. And I will pray that that is all I ever have to do. I will pray for peace.