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A time to remember

by Marion Van Driel

Remembrance Day attends our hearts with a bittersweet presence – loss and gratitude intermingle in unusual companionship. The poignancy of remembrance is heightened by conflicts we see around the world even today, and we count ourselves blessed to live in Canada – a country marked by peace and peace-keeping.

The increasing attendance to local services in my community in recent years is encouraging. All ages, including parents with small children, gather to remember the incredible toll of lives taken most notably in World War I and II, the South African War, the Korean War, and Afghanistan. Exposing children from an early age sets a tradition emphasizing the importance of history, and wisdom of learning from the past. Across our nation, services around a cenotaph include Canadian Armed Forces squadrons and bands, prayers, speeches, laying of poppy-clad wreaths, anthems, and most resonating, the Act of Remembrance, followed by a horn playing “Last Post,” a two minute silence, then “Reveille” or “The Rouse”. (“The Rouse” holds a subtle reference to our Christian belief in the resurrection of the body at Christ’s return.) Some communities are fortunate to have pilots in vintage aircraft perform a flyover formation. At the front of those gathered, veterans wearing their berets silently watch and remember firsthand.

Our commemoration at the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month finds its origin in the ending of WWI, with the Armistice between the Allies and Germany signed on that date in 1918. Our tradition of wearing red poppies on our left lapel (over the heart) is in response to the poem In Flanders Fields, penned during WWI by Canadian physician and Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. A standard in schools around Remembrance Day, most Canadians are able to recite much of this poem by memory – the words emoting patriotism and gratitude.

In the South African War (1899-1902), 280 Canadians lost their lives; 516 in the Korean War, and 158 in Afghanistan’s missions and peacekeeping efforts. But by far the greatest loss in number, Canadian Forces casualties from both World Wars sits at a staggering 115,000. Battles took place on home turf for many who have since immigrated to Canada from various European countries.

Hidden memories

Remembrance Day services exhibit a solemnity rarely seen elsewhere, evoking feelings of indebtedness to those who lost their lives to maintain our freedom. And so we give thanks for courage shown – in a myriad of ways, by those serving, and those remaining at home. We wonder what they were like – our grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, brother, sister – that they did what they did, and what it was like for them.

Standing in the crowd, I can only guess how many memories have gone unspoken; memories too hurtful to voice. Those who have lost loved ones in conflict or peacekeeping missions, or in training, never forget the moment their most dreaded fear became reality. Others received no official notice, living with the open-ended vacuum of one missing in action – their hearts paralyzed by lack of closure. Still others watched comrades die horrific deaths, unable to save them. Many remember what it was like to be a captive – treated as subhuman. For many, remembering opens old wounds; some spend their lifetime desperately longing to move beyond the trauma that holds them in its unrelenting grip.

Resisting at home

Even though countless stories will go untold, others have been gleaned not only from service men and women, but also civilians who showed immense courage in fighting the loss of casualties at home.

Growing into adolescence has always had its own issues; but when your country is suddenly at war and then occupied, the angst is shifted to life and death matters. Married for 65 years, Gerry and Anna have distinct memories of wartime Europe and were in their young/mid teen years when WWII broke out. Gerry was only 14 and in trade school, too young to be called into the Dutch military. After he had been working for a year as a machinist, he was conscripted to work for the Nazis. His father would have none of it, so Gerry went into hiding with a family in northern Holland. During the day he worked in the fields, and at night slept in a root cellar that housed a trap door in the ground, to detract the curious.

A year younger than Gerry, Anna remembers the hunger – common in the cities – affecting her own family. She still pictures a conflict at home – her father asking her mother for two potatoes to feed a starving elderly couple from their church who lived nearby; they had depleted all their stores, and couldn’t get out. Her mother could not spare the potatoes, since they had three or four extra people hiding in their house (besides three kids still at home), and needed all the food they had, and more. But her father insisted – desperate for these people who, as Anna remembers, were not long helped by the potatoes.

Anna describes her mother, a gentle woman in normal circumstances, giving her children a dire warning between clenched teeth, with her finger wagging in their faces, making it crystal clear that they were to speak to no one – no one could be trusted. “You kids don’t know anything,” she would tell them. Anna’s family harboured people in their home (it was Anna’s job to place the false paneling in front of their attic cubbyholes), and her father was often gone. Anna never knew what her father did when he went away (it was safer that way) only that he worked in the underground, for the Dutch resistance. “That was extremely difficult and dangerous,” she adds.

Exhilaration and exhaustion

Gerry and Anna’s experience is not uncommon. They survived the angst of war; they were young and resilient. Not so for everyone. Anna remembers the day the war ended, how everyone ran out into the streets, yelling, singing and dancing. Her siblings looked around, wondering where their mother was. They went inside to look for her, but she had taken to her bed, asking to be left alone. The tension she’d been holding had exhausted her both physically and mentally; she needed to rest. The war had taken its toll. “I never will forget that – it was awful, we never knew how sick she was,” Anna explains. “My mother wasn’t a talker, she kept everything inside, and my father … they were looking for the [resistance] until the very last day.”

Peacemakers

Jesus blessed the peacemakers. But even as peacemakers, we cannot change history; our participation on November 11 demonstrates our grief over violence and conflict. This November, take time to attend a Remembrance Day service or at the very least, tune in to Ottawa’s ceremony. When we touch the face of history, we grow – in empathy, in wisdom, in a renewed passion and respect for life. And we look to a new day when all conflict will come to an abrupt end.

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isa. 2:4)

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