by Laurel Driedger
I remember what we did for remembrance when I was in grade school. All the students cut little poppies from red construction paper and then placed them around the classroom. Sometimes there would be a banner with the words Lest We Forget. Later, when we entered the higher grades, our teachers would ask us to recite Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields. We could also count on an annual visit from an old gentleman wearing a suit, a beret and a row of war medals.
The war veterans who visited our school in Dominion City, Man., would usually tell us a few stories from the war years, but they would be careful to weed out any references to violence.
The fact that I was adopted explains why I had–back then–few known family connections to military service. Since then, however, I have been reunited with my birth family, and have discovered I’m from a military family through and through. My biological father, Roy Marsaw, spent over 20 years in the Canadian Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant. His father, Norman, held the same rank and trade.
Today, when I look upon my father in his full dress uniform, there is no questioning the pride and respect I feel for him. Yet these feelings pale in comparison to what I feel for my great uncle, Thomas Pott, my father-in-law, Ed Driedger, and my mother’s father, Aubrey Pelham. My great uncle served as a gunner in World War I. The latter two served in WW II.
When I finally got to know what these family members did during wartime, I began to view Remembrance Day in a very different light.
I remember as kids we used to spend a large part of Remembrance Day watching TV, although we didn’t think there was much to watch because all the stations showed were images from ceremonies we didn’t fully understand joined together with black and white wartime footage. What kids wanted were cartoons.
This is not to say I had not been educated in the significance of this day. I was well versed in why we were to stop and remember on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. My grandmother had dutifully told me the stories from her family and friends about people who had gone off to war and never returned or those who returned as very different individuals. Of those who returned, she’d tell us they were no longer the boys they had been.
Still, we were always spared any graphic details of the war and what grandfather had seen, and I am not sure whether this was done deliberately or whether it was merely the accepted manner of the day. People just didn’t talk about it.
And so as a child I looked at Nov. 11th as an occasion to catch up on activities that were far removed from the significance of the day.
When I got older, I began dating a man who eventually became my husband. He was the youngest in a large family, and his father was considerably older than my parents. One day I learned that this elderly gentleman, who was reserved, dignified and deeply religious, had been in WW II.
I was told he had been a private with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and that he was among those who rushed the beach in Normandy as part of the June 6, 1944, invasion. I also discovered that he was spared his life by the good fortune of a carefully placed tree, although he did not escape entirely unscathed. Indeed, the dark shadows of shrapnel embedded in his skull behind one ear and in one hand speak volumes of the kind of things he endured.
When asked what he saw and did while overseas, Ed can smile and speak warmly of a fallen friend named Andy. My father-in-law’s words are a true testament of the bonds that are created in a moment of crisis. Ed had not known Andy prior to his army days, and true to the cruelties of war Andy never made it off the beach that day. Still, my father-in-law’s Andy stories are plentiful, and I can see the shadow that falls across his face whenever he talks about some of the horrors he witnessed.
We hear of how he had to crawl across a muddy field, dodging various instruments of death. How a few guys, having shared some emotional moments on the boats prior to hitting the shores, fell into the rough cold water and drowned in front of their buddies. How he had run for his life and how he didn’t even know who these other guys on the other side were, only that they were probably equally fearful of losing their lives.
I have also been told that my father-in-law was so saddened and disturbed by the horrors he saw that he threw his medals into the garbage shortly after he returned home, hoping–I suppose–to trash his painful memories of that time. Fortunately, his medals did not stay where he threw them.
For me, such stories personalize the act of remembrance, and make me realize like never before why these people are so deserving of our thoughts, especially on Nov. 11th.
These are the stories–the personal histories and connections to service and sacrifice–that must be shared and passed down from one generation to the next because as time passes and we move further and further away from the Great War, from WW II and the Korean War, children are becoming more and more complacent about Remembrance Day. Now, not only do they have the options of cartoons and computer games, but they are also getting the shopping option in ever increasing increments.
This is why it is so important for us to hear the stories. It is the only way we can truly begin to understand what our forefathers experienced and what they did to protect our rights and freedoms.
Often today as parents we are careful to try and screen our kids from the daily onslaught of images and stories from troubled or war-torn countries. But perhaps what our kids need is to be exposed to or told stories that describe what war is really like. And I think it is best if the stories are told to them by someone they know and trust. It was after all the passing of information about an actual event –connected to an actual person–that changed my views on why Remembrance Day is so vitally important.
Before hearing the stories from my father-in-law I could no more relate to the images on the news than I could to any other tale I saw on television–fictitious or real. Having a relationship with this kind man, seeing his scars and hearing his stories in his words finally made me appreciate something I hadn’t, and how my generation must strive to protect it.
I do not shelter my children from his stories. I want them to hear them loud and clear. To internalize them. To remember them always. To them, this day of remembrance and of honour is not a day to sleep in or watch TV. Instead, they spend time thinking about how lucky they are to have the freedoms and liberties they enjoy at the expense of so many others.
And they do this because they have heard their grandpa’s stories.
I suggest all children be encouraged to develop a relationship with a veteran, regardless of whether the veteran served during a war or during a peacetime mission. It is not hard to find someone, and once that bond is strong and the trust is built, perhaps the young person could begin to hear what war is really about. This is not to say that our children need to hear the gory details, but they do need to hear the facts. They do need to hear that war is not something that always happens somewhere else, to someone else. Only then can they truly appreciate what has been so hard won for all of us.
It has certainly made a difference for my children, and for me. And I am quick to share my father-in-law’s stories with other children who know him. And this is done with the hope that the personalization of the story will make these young people think differently on Remembrance Day.