Finding the words to remember

I didn’t understand what I was supposed to remember. In school, in the early grades, we would stand up at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and be silent. I read Flanders Fields in front of the school one year. The solemnity of the occasion is still clear in my memory. But during that minute of silence, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be thinking. Like at church when we were supposed to send up a silent prayer. The words of homage failed me. So I came home and asked my parents.

I could think about father’s uncle, I learned. He had been gassed in World War I (or was it II?). Mustard gas. “He was never the same,” my father recalled, shaking his head at the memory of his once strong uncle who came home from war, reduced.

My grandmother, who gave life to six children, worked in the munitions factory, making arms for a righteous war, the war her brother was in.

My mother’s brother was in the Korean war. While he’d mention this himself, he wouldn’t talk about his experiences, leaving us to wonder.

I remember going to countless legions for various ceremonies: bachelorette parties, weddings, funerals. At a legion once for a funeral I looked at a display in a glass case – a mannequin dressed up as a soldier, a memorial plaque with a long list of the names of local boys who’d enlisted and died, donated medals. A display of local pride and honour.

There were a few flags in the case I didn’t recognize – regimental flags, I assume. I asked a few people in the legion about them, but nobody knew what they were.

I remember a picture. It was on the news, taken in the Middle East somewhere.

Six or seven young men lined up in a row on the ground. Dead. They were in their early 20s or so, physically fit, virile. In their underwear, their heads were covered, but their strong thighs were exposed. Even in death one could imagine their physical presence, their life force. Gone.

Horrible pictures – an American soldier being dragged, dead, through the streets; children covered in blood; homes that no longer exist.

I’ve worn the poppy, been to the parades, stood in silent gratitude as older veterans marched by, their steps slow, spurred on by the desire to ensure the rest of us don’t forget.

It’s not just about those World War I and II vets who fought the first modern wars. It’s not just about the past, as it was when I was a kid, but about the present. Not only about remembering those who fought, but hoping that nobody will ever have to fight again. Hoping that’s not a futile wish.

I didn’t have the words to form specific memories. Perhaps these random images are enough.

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2 comments

  1. I agree, that as I kid I didn’t get Veterans Day. I was in London on Nov. 11th in 11th grade and I didn’t know what they were talking about when they said “Armistice Day”. I think and my kids are getting it more than I did…I’m going to make sure they do!

    1. It’s really important, I think … we took our daughter to a ceremony Sunday and she was quite keen on it. She was also proud she knew the poem Flanders Fields by heart – she learned it in school and recited it Friday. The kids really get it.

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