“In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row…”
When I was a schoolgirl, November 11 was a monumental day in our household. My parents were both veterans of the Second World War, which 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, a poppy pinned to his lapel, a string of medals across his chest, 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 this day, 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 churning in his mind. Is this the only time he thinks about his leg? He never speaks of it, the one that’s shorter than the other and wears a built-up shoe. He still limps. When the bugle blasts out the Last Post, I feel an urge to cry. During the 21-gun salute, Dad looks up, closes his eyes, and clenches his fists. He’s in another world, or lifetime.
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 rolling out a line-up of wartime songs. My father is back with us and he sings off key in his great booming voice. He laughs in bursts, greets friends with a playful slap on the back and his gold-capped teeth sparkle more brightly than his medals.
Dad succumbed to cancer at fifty-five, after years of X-rays due to injuries suffered in combat. He 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 this 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.
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 her mind, and she was oblivious to her surroundings, we made sure she got 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.
Growing up, I was taught respect for the November 11 observance, and I still attend annually. There are people who claim that Remembrance Day should be done away with—that it glorifies war. But glory has nothing to do with it. It’s a day to express our heartfelt thanks to my parents’ generation, who suffered to win the freedom and democracy we enjoy today in the Western World.
“In remembering the appalling suffering of war on both sides, we recognise how precious is the peace we have built in Europe since 1945.”
Queen Elizabeth II