When I was a schoolgirl, November 11 was a monumental day in our household. My parents were both veterans of the Second World War, a fact that shaped their lives and cut my father’s life short.
I can still see my dad, grand and handsome in his Legion blazer and beret—a captivating man with strong features, wide hands like paws, a barrel chest, and eyes that flash mischief. He steps into the kitchen, medals strung across his lapel, a poppy pinned over his heart, unusually serious on this morning, a twitch bucking on his lower jaw.
I’m a Girl Guide and decked out in the standard blue uniform complete with red and white scarf. My brother wears the Boy Scout regalia, a jaunty cap, and Mom looks official in her blazer. But our costumes don’t transform us the way Dad’s does. We pile into the car, drive five blocks to the Legion, climb out, and hurry to the corner of Broadway and Third to join the parade.
Wheat fields, long, lonely gravel roads, and tumbleweed surround our town in southern Alberta. By November it’s cold, but sunny, the grass glazed with hoar frost.
We gather and march up the street on route to the Cenotaph. Our breath hits frigid air, forming steam clouds that stick to our lips like blank cartoon bubbles. We don’t say a word. Our shoes mutter in unison. It is a silent and solemn event—no marching bands, no drums, no clashing symbols. Even the babies are quiet.
Standing at attention in the hushed, frosty air, we watch town officials deploy wreathes against the gunmetal-grey Cenotaph, fresh blood splotches on a faded backdrop. My father stands beside us, but he is far away. I wonder what’s going through his mind. Is this the only time he thinks about his leg? He never speaks of it, his shorter leg that wears a built-up shoe. He still limps. During the 21-gun salute, Dad looks up, closes his eyes, and clenches his fists. He’s in another world, or lifetime. As a bugle blasts out the Last Post, I feel an urge to cry.
We parade through town, ending at the Legion. On this day only, they allow kids in the hall. Women volunteers pass hot chocolate in steaming mugs to the children, Rye, and Coke, or Scotch to the adults. The volume rises. Within an hour, a piano is churning out a line-up of wartime songs. My father is back with us. He sings off key in his great booming voice, laughs in bursts, greets friends with a friendly slap, and his gold-capped teeth sparkle more brightly than his medals.
My dad was a teenager when he signed up with the Canadian army and they stationed him overseas. During the liberation of Holland, an enemy soldier lobbed a grenade into his tank’s hatch. The boys inside died, but Dad, as the gunner, stood half out at the rear and the blast only hit his legs. He never told his story, not even to Mom, until thirty years later. That’s when shrapnel began to appear under the skin on his chest, as if trying to expel the last remnants of war from his body and his mind. My dad succumbed to cancer at fifty-five, after decades of bi-annual X-rays on those injuries sustained in combat.
Mom served at the War Office in Ottawa in the 1940s. While she was alive, she never missed a Remembrance Day commemoration. Even after dementia had taken over, and she was oblivious to her surroundings, we got her to the ceremony. On that final year, when the Last Post sounded, the moment struck her with clarity. She rose to her feet, stood soldier strait in front of her wheelchair, and saluted.
My parents taught me to respect the November 11 observance. It’s a day to express heartfelt thanks to a generation who suffered for the freedom and democracy we enjoy today in the Western World.
Thank you, Laurel. It’s such a lovely tribute to those people who sacrificed so much for us. I remember well the reluctance of the veterans of my youth to talk about the terrible events they saw and endured. My mother had a friend from World War I who was incapable of escaping his memories. He died of a profound depression after he returned from Vimy Ridge. On this day, I go back to listening to Vera Lynn’s songs, and I hear Kenneth Branagh reading Wilfred Owen’s gut-wrenching poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”. We need to remember, and you have helped with your memories of your father.
Hi Ann. Yes, we need to remember, and ah! the Vera Lynn songs.There was a fabulous choir at the Vancouver service yesterday, and they performed several of them. We watched from home this year, as they asked people to stay away. It wasn’t quite the same, but moving nonetheless.