In a For Better or for Worse comic strip by Lynne Johnson, five-year-old April and her mother make a donation to a veteran and receive a poppy. As she pins the poppy onto April’s coat, Mother gives April a quick lesson on John McCrae and “Flanders Fields.” April responds, “But why do I have to wear a poppy? I don’t even know what war is.” “That, perhaps, is the best reason to wear one,” is her mother’s apt reply. Growing up in a country where war is relegated to a headline, we can appreciate April’s innocence and naivety.
Remembrance Day is, arguably, a misnomer. Technically speaking, we cannot remember something that we have not experienced. However, when we engage in purposeful, serious reflection, aided by pictures, videos, and historical narratives, we can develop an empathy and respect that Remembrance Day deserves. My appreciation for Remembrance Day has been a slow journey, and it is my mother to whom I credit my growth in this process.
Remembrance Day was a holiday from school when I was a kid. I was in the sixth grade when my mother informed me that I would be participating in the Cenotaph ceremony in my hometown of Wyoming. I had made plans to spend the holiday with my best friend and neighbour, Kevin. Already upset about not being asked if I wanted to go (my opinion would not have mattered on this occasion), I became even more sulky when my mother decided that I would wear my cadet uniform. Now I was going to stick out like a sore thumb. Ironically, the decision I loathed turned out to be a blessing. I was chosen to lay a wreath in memory of one of the soldiers who died during the War. I do not remember if it was the First or Second World War, but I do remember listening intently for the name that matched the one on the wreath, and placing it up front with the others. I felt honoured to have been chosen.
Flash forward four years. After spending two hours doing chores in the barn, I had planned to spend my twenty-minute coffee break with a pair of headphones and my new Linda Ronstadt album. My mother had other ideas. She instructed me to put away the record and respectfully observe the two minutes of silence that commenced at 11:00 A.M. Together we watched the Remembrance Day ceremonies as they unfolded on Parliament Hill. I can recall the veterans in their wheel chairs wearing their medals and the steady rain.
As I grew older, my appreciation for what my mother experienced during the 2nd World War deepened as I heard her stories. I remember the story about my Uncle Cryn who, while bent over and tying a shoelace, was stabbed in the back by the local butcher. Apparently, he was with a group of teenagers who had been teasing the butcher’s son for being an NSBer (a traitor). Then there was the story of his brother, my uncle, who brought dishonor to my grandparents when they learned that he and other young men had shaved the hair off of a young woman. Her crime? She had dated a German soldier. There was also the story of the bombs that fell on three sides of the house. The windows shattered and the house was shaken to the core. The bombs left massive holes in the yards, but miraculously, no one was hurt. To this day, my mother has difficulty hearing sirens.
But it wasn’t until 2001 that my mother’s stories truly hit home. My sister Cathy and I accompanied my mother as she retraced her journey through the fields she and her family fled. Canadian soldiers were shooting from behind. I do not recall if my mother knew that the intended targets were the German soldiers running alongside. My mother remembers sharing a ditch with a German soldier whose shaking hands lit up a cigarette before he continued his run. It was a scary experience for an eleven-year-old girl.
At CCS, we take Remembrance Day seriously and always plan meaningful assemblies. Grandparents may be invited into the classrooms to share their stories to an audience of eager students. The grade four classes regularly attend the Cenotaph Ceremony at Gore Park. As teachers, we insist that the students personally thank as many veterans as they can and personally give them their Thank You cards that they have prepared in advance. Our Vets are always appreciative. Prior to Remembrance Day, our students learn the words to John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.” I recall the surprise in their eyes when, unexpectedly, the poem is read out loud and they spontaneously chime in with the recitation. Throughout the day, I choose stories and poems appropriate for Remembrance Day. The stories are powerful and sobering.
I remember being moved to tears as I watched a group of veterans amble along the shores of Normandy Beach where they and many fallen comrades had fought so bravely 60 years earlier. We thank God for the freedom we celebrate today, because of the sacrifices made on a yesterday long ago. May God grant freedom and peace for the many millions who, at this very hour, are weary, afraid, and longing for the same.
Written by Mr. T. Boer