After two days of gray skies, unseasonably cold temperatures, and on-and-off rain showers, the sun finally makes an appearance on this Monday of the long weekend. The warmth and light draw more of Nashua, New Hampshire’s residents than usual from our suburban homes to line the edges of Main Street. Children squeeze together along the curb and wave their mini American flags distributed a few minutes earlier by a local Boy Scout troop. Clad in red, white, and blue, with high, curly pigtails wound in cascading ribbons, one little girl stares, her eyes round with wonder, at the color guard that stands poised to start the parade. They wear crisp uniforms and polished shoes and carry large flags in white-gloved hands. A photographer with a long, telephoto lens snaps the little girl’s picture. Her image will adorn the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.
It is Memorial Day. My husband, daughter, and I crowd in among our friends and neighbors. We watch the contingent of public officials featuring the city’s mayor and various municipal reps stroll by. We avert our eyes from the one unkempt alderman, his shirt only half tucked in, his belly bulging over the waist of his pants, sweat staining his underarms and neckline. We cheer and heckle our son, Will, ill-at-ease in his collared shirt and tie, marching in his middle school band and playing Yankee Doodle by memory on his trumpet. We compare his performance to the three other middle school bands and to the three high school bands that follow. We accept flyers that we’ll toss later from a group representing the Relay for Life event soon to be held in our town. We chuckle as kids dive and fill their fists with lollipops and individually wrapped gumballs thrown by handsome firefighters leaning from the windows of the sparkling fire truck. We marvel at the well-behaved dogs walking with the local chapter of the dog owners’ association, acknowledging that our yellow Lab, Wally, would need significantly more training before he could ever qualify for a parade.
And then we applaud for the passengers in the slow-moving van that’s marked with the label “Disabled American Veterans.” We clap harder when a small band of soldiers brings up the rear of the parade. A fifty-something Marine leads the group, his blue dress uniform impeccable, his white hat drawing our eyes, his sword held steady, level with his chest. The varied uniforms demark the branches of the U.S. military: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. Some wear combat fatigues, others have donned full dress regalia with columns of gold buttons that catch the sun. Among them are two elderly World War II vets, their olive green coats decorated with rows of medals. They march in formation despite their stooped shoulders and unsteady gaits. Their arms are rigid at their sides. Their eyes trained forward.
We cheer for these soldiers in celebration of their service. We wave our mini flags. Then, the parade ends and we turn away. We disperse to fire up our barbecues and spend the remainder of the day kicking off this unofficial start to summer. Across the United States, similar Memorial Day scenes play out and will be the lead stories on the evening news. The essence of Americana. Patriotism and tradition.
Yet, at my core, something tugs, and I worry we might be doing it all wrong.
“There are some things I won’t tell you,” Stanley says, steadying his wrinkled hands on the edge of his porcelain teacup. Behind his square glasses, his eyes grow distant. The statement lingers in the space between us. For a moment, the slight clicking of the tape recorder on the table is the only sound in the small kitchen. Then he begins. “I was drafted into the U.S. Army on June 11, 1942. I wasn’t one of the young ones. I was already thirty years old.”
On this Saturday in early October, 1991, my boyfriend Chris and I have driven up to New Hampshire from Gordon College in Massachusetts. Chris has a profile paper to write for a U.S. history class, and he arranged a personal interview with his great uncle. At eighty-one, Stanley Brooks lives alone in a modest, brick Cape on a quiet, wooded street in North Nashua. In the spring and summer, the flower beds that line his driveway and front walkway showcase his gardening expertise with a stunning mix of annuals and perennials. Bright pink rhododendrons framed by yellow forsythia blossoms. Purple and white creeping phlox. Multi-colored tulips, their large bulbous heads punctuating the greenery. Even now, as autumn chills the air, goldenrod and lavender asters brighten the landscape.
Stanley’s house is only a few blocks from where Chris’s parents live. I’d met him for the first time a year earlier when Chris and I had been dating long enough for me to be introduced to extended family. Stanley is a tall man, his thin frame slightly bent, stooping to the frailty of age. His eyes are bright and alert, revealing just a hint of mischief. “Is this the Canuck?” he’d asked Chris when we’d both stepped over the threshold into his screened-in porch. He’d reached out and folded his long fingers around mine. “Warm hands,” he’d said, a boyish grin flashing at Chris. I loved him immediately.
Now, in his tidy kitchen, we settle at the small square table that’s covered with a hand-embroidered lace tablecloth. The flowered wallpaper on the walls strikes a markedly feminine atmosphere. Stanley’s wife, Esther, died almost a decade before, but her influence dominates the décor of the house. A full Wedgewood tea set, the distinctive blue of the ceramic adorned with white motifs, sits on the open shelf of a large china cabinet against the opposite wall. The opening to the living room reveals multiple shelves crowded with Hummel figurines.
Stanley is a collector. Coins, stamps, antique knickknacks. In ten years, Stanley’s deteriorating health will force him to move to a nursing facility, and Chris and I will buy this home. One day, while clearing out the old garage, we will find a rusted bin in the back corner. It will take both of us to carry its heavy weight out into the sunlight. We will pry off the lid, and discover a lifetime’s collection of sea glass. A thousand frosted shards, their edges rounded by tumbling waves. A mosaic of blues, greens, ambers, and violets.
This October day, though, sitting at that kitchen table, tape recorder running, we unearth a different collection: Stanley’s memories of serving in World War II, stored away for more than fifty years.
“That first morning, we all stood on the steps of the town hall in Nashua,” he recalls, gazing into his teacup. “And this lawyer, a guy named Hamilton, says to us, ‘A lot of you men have walked down Main Street for the last time.’” He looks up at us with a small smile. “It didn’t give us a particularly good feeling.”
Thus began Stanley’s wartime journey that over the course of three and a half years would take him from New Hampshire to training in South Carolina and Tennessee, overseas to Australia, and eventually to combat zones in the jungles of New Guinea. There, he’d serve as an infantryman in the Allied advance to liberate the Philippine Islands from Japanese occupation. In a part of the world where it rained almost every day and the average temperatures were in the mid-90s, Stanley would lose fifty-five pounds from tropical illness and malnutrition. He’d fight in bloody battles against the Japanese forces and witness the deaths of countless fellow soldiers. Knee deep in mud, he’d travel past rows and rows of caskets that waited for supply lines to open up. One of those caskets would carry home the body of his best friend who’d stood beside him that first day on those town hall steps. Stanley would return home at the end without physical injury. Some scars, though, aren’t necessarily visible.
“It was horrific,” he says, a tremor in his voice. He shifts in his chair and smoothes his hands along his wool trousers. “The air was so hot and wet, and the smell of rotting flesh was everywhere.” Stanley uses the words “Japs” and “Krauts” in reference to the Japanese and Germans. These were the nations that killed his friends. There’s no political correctness in that.
Chris asks a logistical question about the military operations in New Guinea. “It’s hard to remember,” Stanley says, pausing. He looks at something over our heads.
I wonder about the things he won’t tell us.
I try to imagine Stanley, this gentlest of men, a cake maker by trade, staggering with his regiment through the unbearable humidity of the jungles of New Guinea, a 60 lb. pack on his back, weapon at the ready prepared to take whatever action necessary to follow his command and protect his fellow soldiers.
But the black and white snapshots he produces from a weathered leather album provide tangible proof: Stanley scrutinizing the barrel of the rifle he cleans, his battle helmet tilted sideways on his head. Stanley crouched beneath the awning of a tent, spooning something into his mouth from a dented pot. Stanley standing among New Guinea natives, his frame towering above them. Stanley posing with a fellow soldier, arm slung loosely over his buddy’s shoulder as they lean against a military jeep. Stanley in full dress uniform, a soldier’s formal portrait.
Despite his refusal to tell us some things, Stanley shares many stories this fall afternoon. One will forever stick with me. In the fifty odd years since his service in the war, while the rest of his neighbors celebrate American independence on the Fourth of July with patriotic displays, Stanley retreats into his home. He seals all of his windows and doors, closes the shades, and stays in his back bedroom to block out the sound of the evening fireworks. “That’s better than it used to be, though,” he says with a lopsided grin, though his fingers tremble as he soothes them on the tablecloth. “For years, I used to dive under my bed and shake like a baby!”
Years from now, when this house is ours, I will witness those yearly fireworks. Our upstairs window will deliver the perfect view, and the blast of the exploding rockets will reverberate through our walls.
I will imagine Stanley, his long legs stretching from beneath his bed, his entire body shaking. His arms cover his head. His hands shelter his ears. His attempt to escape the unspeakable recollections erupting with each celebratory boom.
I was born and raised in Canada. I’ve lived as a permanent resident in the United States for twenty-one years, but I’ve not become a citizen. I like distinguishing myself as Canadian, defining myself as something other than American. But it’s not about disliking Americans or America – my husband is American, and I like living in this country. It’s about laying personal claim to a different way of thinking. We Canadians do tend to exaggerate what separates Canadian and American identities in discussions about issues like healthcare and gun control. And though these governing differences are real and play into the overall social contexts of our two countries, really Canadians and Americans have more in common than we don’t. But having grown up in Canada distances me from America’s history and the exhibitions of pride in that history that sometimes feel to me over-the-top. Canadians have deep patriotism, but we tend to carry it a little more quietly. Politely, some might say. Our less-than-revolutionary story and smaller-scale global influence don’t necessarily lend themselves to the same “rah-rah” spirit surrounding war that seems to dominate the American landscape.
So when we do what we do on Memorial Day, I cringe inside because, even though I’ve lived here a long time, I’ve never acclimated to the festive atmosphere that commemorates military service and sacrifice in this country.
And the truth is, I’m not entirely convinced it makes any sense at all.
I finger the artificial felt poppy pinned to my cardigan sweater as I file into the row of metal folding chairs with my elementary school classmates and face the front of the cafeteria. A large wreath, covered in the same red poppies, balances on a stand in the center of the raised stage. A satin white ribbon with the calligraphed phrase “Lest we forget” drapes across its center. There’s a picture of a grassy field lined with rows of identical white headstones on a portable screen propped to the side. Everybody’s in a serious mood. A line of visitors sits next to Mr. Cochrane, our principal. A small group of men and women wear dark green and navy blue uniforms with gold stripes on the sleeves. Berets with fancy emblems top their heads. They all wear red poppies, too.
Madame Leblanc, my third grade teacher, prepared my classmates and me for today’s Remembrance Day assembly. A week ago, she gave us each our poppy. “You’ve probably already seen a lot of people around you wearing these, and you’ll see more and more in the next week,” she said. “It’s what we call a symbol. A special object that helps bring people together for the same reason. These poppies remind us of the Canadian soldiers who died during World War I and World War II.”
Our class spent an afternoon coloring banners and making wreaths with red and green construction paper to help decorate the cafeteria walls for this ceremony. Madame asked us to interview our parents to see if any of our family members served in either of the two world wars, and then we created a classroom “Museum of Remembrance” to showcase these personal stories that connect us to the history we’ve been talking about. A cardboard “plaque” for James B. Messenger, my grandfather, hangs on the classroom bulletin board. He was a major in the Royal Canadian Army, a Baptist minister who’d served as a military chaplain to Canadian soldiers fighting in World War II. My parents told me he was the one who would sit and pray with dying soldiers, the soldiers we wore our poppies for. My dad was born while my grandfather was overseas, and my grandfather had missed the first four years of Dad’s life. I never got to meet my grandfather. He died before I was born. But this school project helped me to learn more about him.
Madame also talked to us about the words “respect” and “honor.” She told us that the way we behave in today’s assembly helps us to do those things. We know to sit still. To be quiet.
Mr. Cochrane stands and walks to the podium. “At the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month we gather to commemorate the thousands of soldiers who died in service to our country during the following wars: The South African War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.” He pauses and glances at the clock on the wall. My eyes follow his, and I watch as the minute hand approaches the twelve. “Please stand for a minute of silence as we remember our fallen heroes.”
A minute is a long time. I grip the chair in front of me and glance at the people on stage. Most lower their heads, eyes closed, like they are praying. A few look forward, perhaps at the Canadian flag that hangs on the wall at the back of the room. I wonder what they are thinking about. One old man in uniform, his grey head bowed, pulls a white handkerchief from his back pocket and wipes his eyes and nose. A sadness I don’t really understand fills this minute. Tears sting my eyes anyway.
Two trumpet notes interrupt the silence from behind us. The first low and short, the second higher and sustained. A mournful call suspended in the air. The two notes repeat. I turn my head to see Mr. Taylor, our music teacher, standing alone at the back of the cafeteria, holding his brass trumpet to his lips. The pace of the music picks up. A series of short, syncopated notes. I know the name of this song: The Last Post. Madame explained how this bugle call was used by the military throughout the British Commonwealth to signal the end of the day. She said it was a standard part of Remembrance Day ceremonies to commemorate the lives of the fallen. She’d played a scratchy recording of it to our class earlier in the week, and I’d felt like I was listening to a call from some distant place. Hearing it now, in the middle of this ceremony, feels different somehow. Important. The soldiers on stage raise their right arms and rest their cupped hands against their foreheads. Unmoving, they stare straight ahead. I watch them, and I feel the stinging tears again. Did the grandfather I’ve only seen in pictures know this song? Did he listen to it when he sat with those dying soldiers? He was a musician, too. The piece continues at its fast clip until it returns to the two beginning notes. The notes repeat twice more, slow and haunting, and then one final push to the high note that ends the piece. The music fades into silence. Goosebumps prickle my arms.
A girl rises from her chair in the row where the grade six classes sit. She climbs the stairs to the stage, her black Mary Janes clicking on the wooden floor. She steps behind the podium, adjusts the microphone, unfolds a piece of paper gripped in her hands, and inhales. “In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae,” she begins, her voice strong and clear.
“In Flanders Fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. . .”
Yesterday, Madame Leblanc read us this poem during our language arts block. She told us the story of the Canadian military doctor who scribbled it into his notebook while sitting above a field of wild poppies growing around soldiers’ graves in a cemetery in Holland. The day before he wrote it, he’d taken part in a terrible battle that killed many of his friends. The tradition of wearing poppies in the early November days leading up to Remembrance Day started with this poem.
Now, hearing it again, I remember what Madame said about how the voice that speaks in the poem belongs to the dead soldiers.
“Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved. . .”
I listen closely to the words. I stare at the headstones on the screen. The soldiers we are remembering were real people. With lives. Families. And they never came home. I shiver.
“If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep. . .”
I imagine these soldier ghosts, their foggy shapes wandering aimlessly around brown battlefields. I shiver again.
he girl finishes the poem and rejoins her class. Mr. Cochrane says a few final words, thanks the guests and dismisses us. We do not clap. We do not cheer. We file out of the makeshift rows and head back to our classrooms.
The hallway is unusually quiet.
“How do you feel about medical marijuana?” Adrian asks me. His voice is gravelly. A smoker. He takes a long pull from his beer.
On night one of our residency for our Master of Fine Arts program, Adrian and I sit at a small table in a corner of the dim pub inside Freeport, Maine’s Haraseeket Inn. Dave and Philip, two other first semester students, sit with us. The restaurant hums with lively conversation and the clatter of utensils on ceramic plates. From other tables, loud laughter peels through the room. We are more subdued because we’ve all only just met. Our polite getting to know you conversation has meandered to occupations. Adrian responds to my query about his line of work with this somewhat loaded question about medicinal drug use.
“I’m all for it,” I reply without hesitation. I’m not trying to be cool. Or edgy. I can’t pull off either. But I’ve witnessed the suffering of debilitating illness. Painful episodes of active infection and treatment side effects punctuated my father’s ten years of living with HIV disease. He died a relatively peaceful death at home because of the unfiltered use of narcotics at the end by my physician brother. That controlled use of marijuana might ease the physical and mental anguish of such sickness trumps any moral questions for me.
“I work for a company that grows and distributes it,” Adrian says. Adrian happens to be in both of my creative nonfiction writing workshops for this residency. I’ve seen two of his manuscripts. He’s writing a memoir about his years as an officer in the U.S. Army during which he served multiple combat tours in Iraq. His pages bleed raw emotion and a profound yearning for understanding. The tension of dedicated service to country and deeply traumatic experience presses between the lines of his written words. I’ve read his account of how he immediately enlisted in the army after witnessing the attacks on 9/11 because he knew he needed to do something. To fight back. I’ve also read another scene where a broken soldier, in full dress uniform, sits alone in a motel room holding a loaded pistol and contemplates suicide. I’m curious about how these experiences link to his current job, so I ask.
“To be honest,” he says, “Marijuana saved my life. Two years ago, I was two-hundred and fifty pounds, barely able to move, and in constant pain.” I finger the crust of my pizza, ripping small crumbs from its edge. I guess that Adrian is in his early thirties. He’s average height and appears fit. It’s difficult for me to imagine him in the condition he describes. He talks a little more about the logistics of marijuana farming. Then, we both get distracted when Philip launches into some fascinating stories of living in spiritual communes in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In the next ten days, though, I will have further conversations with Adrian. In workshop, he will talk about the intent of his memoir: to pay tribute to his fellow soldiers by being their voice. I will learn more about the insatiable desire to retaliate against terrorists that pushed him onto the stage of war. His call to serve and protect. And, over the next year and a half of journeying through our degrees together, I will learn more intimate details of his story. How hard it was for him to come home and find that the people he was closest to – his mother, his lifelong friends – only wanted to hear about what happened to him over there on their terms. How their refusal to listen to the stories he was so desperate to tell pushed him into a destructive relationship with a woman who claimed understanding but would eventually take complete advantage of him, leaving him in a state of financial ruin that took close to four years to rebound from. I will learn how the death of one of his closest friends, a fellow soldier who died in Iraq, claws at him from a place beyond darkness – a place with no access or reprieve.
“This burden I brought back is a death sentence,” he will tell me one afternoon as we sit together on the lawn of the historic oceanside mansion where our classes meet, the sun streaming over his shoulders. Looking at the choppy waves dotting the water, he’ll say, “I know there’s a lifetime ahead of me of carrying it all without relief.”
Adrian will also share how shows of patriotism and celebrations of the soldier only tear deeper into his wounds. “It’s not about country or flag or pride when you are in the trenches,” he’ll confess. “It’s about the guy on your right and the guy on your left and doing whatever it takes to keep them alive.” Adrian will admit to the resentment he feels that the nation for which he sacrificed so much did so little to take care of him – both physically and mentally – when he returned home.
During one such dialogue, Adrian describes the countless times the perfunctory, though heartfelt, “Thank you for your service” mantra from friends, acquaintances, and strangers rang hollow in his ears. “How can someone thank you for something they know so little about?” he says. My instinct wants to defend. We understand your sacrifice! We listen to the news stories. We watch the profiles on 60 Minutes. But as the thoughts sift through my brain, I know they are absurd. I heard a statistic not long ago: 70% percent of American citizens were impacted on the home front by conscription and military operations during World War II. Less than 1% of today’s citizens feel the ramifications of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the cadence of daily living. I am not one of those 1%. But Adrian is.
“What should we say, then?” I ask. I really want to know.
He looks down at his clenched hands. His jaw tightens. I read his unwritten story on his face.
“Nothing,” he replies quietly.
The porch door opens, and Will shouts, “I’m home!” Our yellow Lab, Wally, jumps up from where he’s been dozing next to the couch, and runs to greet my son, his nails clicking on the hardwood floor. Will saunters into the kitchen. Wally circles his feet, tail wagging in wide arcs. Will makes a beeline for the fridge, his blonde head disappearing behind the door as he forages for a snack. Someone once told me to be ready to serve mixing bowl-sized servings of food once my son hit adolescence. I’m beginning to understand what they meant.
“Did you have a good time?” I say pushing my laptop closed.
He emerges from the fridge, an apple in one hand, two cheese sticks in the other. “Yeah. Sam’s a really fun kid.” He’d gone to the house of one of his soccer teammates for the first time that afternoon. He pulls a stool up to the counter where I’m sitting and strips the plastic off the cheese. He breaks it into small pieces. He takes a bite of the apple, spraying juice in my direction.
“What’d you do?” I ask swiping a piece of cheese and popping it into my mouth.
“We played soccer outside for a bit, and then we went in and played on Sam’s Xbox. We totally need an Xbox, Mom. The graphics are so cool!”
“What’d you play?”
Will hesitates. He stalls by taking another bite of his apple.
Chris and I have held the reins pretty tightly when it comes to video game exposure for our kids. Our house rules: No graphic violence. No guns. We don’t want our kids to “play” at killing. Will had to settle for Lego Star Wars for the Wii where the only repercussion of hitting the targets is to watch their Lego pieces disassemble. As the kids get older and they begin to interact more independently with friends, it’s getting harder to enforce these rules. I’m also beginning to question whether I’m being too uptight.
“What’d you play?” I ask again.
“Call of Duty,” he replies ducking his head, a sheepish grin spreading across his face.My shoulders tighten.
Will notices. “It’s just a game, Mom,” he says with a sigh and an exaggerated roll of his eyes.
“It doesn’t mean anything.”
In the thirteen years since the release of the first Call of Duty episode, the franchise has generated over ten billion dollars in sales with over 175 million copies sold. And despite being just a game, I know Call of Duty gives its players a medium where you can shoot virtual people with weapons and watch those people die bloody deaths. The graphics that embody that virtual world are modeled after the actual battlefields in the Pacific and the Middle East where soldiers like Stanley and Adrian fought with real guns and watched real blood redden the soil they traipsed across. It does mean something to me that my fourteen-year-old son spent the afternoon imagining himself in their places and thought it was fun.
What are we saying to our military men and women when we morph their service into entertainment? Do we diminish the gravity of what they’ve experienced when we sit on our couches with remotes pointed at our game consoles, adrenaline coursing through our veins, and focus our crosshairs on the faces of enemy targets? I’m afraid we do. I’m afraid we’re saying, Hey, you know that thing you did over there? I get it. I’ve done it, too, in my own way. I’m afraid it fails to honor and respect them, and I’m afraid it fails to acknowledge the tangled threads of duty and trauma that weave through the complex arena that is war.
So I fight my own probably futile battle on the home front. I discourage my kids from watching violent movies and playing graphic video games. I encourage them to throw baseballs instead of virtual grenades and to shoot hoops instead of pretend guns. And when a door opens that might provide the opportunity for future conversation, I try really hard not to risk slamming it by overreacting.
Will stands up and tosses his apple core in the trashcan. He turns to me and says quietly,
He’s such a good kid. Maybe I’m asking him to understand too much. Maybe I’m worried that he already understands too much. “It’s ok, Bud,” I say and fold him into a hug. “I’m glad you had fun.” I notice how tall he’s getting. How broad his shoulders feel. I hold him a little tighter, for just a little longer. He lets me.
At eighty, my Aunt Shirley looks exactly the same way she’s looked my entire life. Her curly, salt and pepper hair is cropped short, and her brown eyes disappear into slits every time she smiles her wide smile. Age has done little to slow her body, and even less to slow her mind. My father used to call his big sister “Whirly,” likening the energy of her personality to a whirlwind. Her thoughts and words often travel faster than we can keep up with. She tells wonderful stories, and I’ve recently discovered that she’s a treasure trove of family history. She lives a few miles from my youngest brother’s home in Kingston, Ontario. On this trip to see him, I’ve carved out a few hours to visit with Aunt Shirley in her little brick bungalow that sits on a lot facing an expanse of farmland belonging to the Collins Bay Correctional Institute in Kingston’s West End.
I lean back into the cushions of the upholstered couch in her cozy living room and rest my teacup on my thigh. Framed photographs line the top of the upright piano behind Aunt Shirley’s wingback chair. A graduation photo of my cousin, Graeme, in full law school regalia. His wedding picture with Francine. School and sports photos of their three children. A formal portrait of my beautiful cousin, Andrea, the beloved daughter who died suddenly at the age of twenty-four when she’d had a severe allergic reaction to peanuts. Beside it, a photo of my late Uncle Howard, his gentle countenance radiating from the frame. Other photographs capture extended family from decades past. My own face smiles from a dated family snapshot, my hair styled in a bad ‘80s perm. A black and white photograph balancing at the edge of the group shows my grandfather, who died of heart disease when my dad was only seventeen, and a much younger version of my grandmother. Today Aunt Shirley’s stories center on that grandfather, my father’s father, and her memories of his military service.
Sipping from her own teacup, Aunt Shirley prefaces with some history. My grandfather came from a small, English mining town. After training as a Baptist minister at Spurgeon’s College in London, he immigrated to Canada in the 1920s. He was the only one in his family to ever leave England. He married my grandmother in 1929, and began his ministry in Nova Scotia. When the war broke out in 1939, my grandfather worried for the safety of his family abroad and his fellow countrymen.
Aunt Shirley sets her cup onto the coffee table. Tea splashes off its edge and dribbles into the matching saucer. “A deep call of duty and responsibility to country that none of us truly understood at the time compelled Daddy to enlist,” Aunt Shirley says. “But he didn’t tell Mum. He didn’t discuss the decision with her at all. He just showed up at the house one day in full military uniform.” She sighs. “I don’t know that she ever fully forgave him.”
I trace my finger along the scalloped rim of my cup. I’d never heard this detail in my grandparents’ history. The Grammie I’d known, the Grammie who’d lived with us for three years when I was a preteen, was not always an easy woman. She was rigid in her rules and quick to criticize, and she did not play the role of doting grandmother to me. Even though she was in her early seventies when she lived with us, she seemed like an old woman. I remember how she’d shuffle up the stairs each morning, a comb stuck in the back of her hair, and sit down at the kitchen table: a silent message to my mother to fix her up. Listening to Aunt Shirley talk about my grandfather’s enlistment, I wonder now about her hardened exterior. About the unhappiness that I sensed in her.
She’d been newly pregnant with her fourth child, my dad, that summer my grandfather enlisted. She’d brought her three daughters to Kennetcook, Nova Scotia, for a holiday with her parents. Aunt Shirley was too young to remember the specifics of that particular day, but my imagination fills them in. I picture Grammie standing at the sink in the kitchen, rinsing dishes in soapy water. The afternoon sun warms her face as it streams through the open window. She gazes out at the lush green of the wild blueberry fields in the distance. A tall man in military dress strides along the walkway toward the house, his arms swinging loosely at his sides. It takes her a minute to recognize her husband. This man wearing the signature khaki uniform of the Royal Canadian Armed Forces is her husband. She grips the sink and doubles over, a wave of nausea throwing her off balance. Something inside her breaks.
For more than four years, my grandfather served overseas as a military chaplain for the Canadian Army. A primary duty was conducting the burial services for fallen Canadian soldiers. Over forty-thousand Canadians died in World War II, many of them during the four years my grandfather was overseas. More than once, he buried a hundred soldiers in a day.
Tears collect in the corners of Aunt Shirley’s eyes. “Daddy didn’t come home the same man who left. How could he after that?”
Aunt Shirley watched my grandmother struggle to make sense of these changes. “On the day he arrived home, Daddy stepped off the ship smoking a cigarette. Mum turned away from him, got in the car and refused to get out.” In my grandmother’s sheltered, fundamentalist Christian upbringing, cigarettes, alcohol, and playing cards were equally taboo. To her, my grandfather’s new dependency was a sin. The gulf it created was nearly impossible to cross.
Aunt Shirley pauses. She rests her head back on her chair and closes her eyes. I wonder if we have reached the end of the story. And then she continues, her eyes still closed. “One night not long after Daddy’s return, I was walking home from my piano lesson. It was already dark when I got to our street. Across from me, I saw a tall soldier in uniform, the glow of a cigarette occasionally lighting his face. I knew it was Daddy. I crossed the street and took his hand. He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. We just walked back down the street to our house hand in hand.”
Perhaps remembering does not have to mean celebrating.
It’s a cloudy November day in the mid-1960s, a few years after my grandfather’s death from heart disease. Aunt Shirley stands beside her mother in a downtown park in Moncton, New Brunswick. For the very first time since the end of the war, Grammie attends a public Remembrance Day ceremony.
Its weight heavy in her hands, my grandmother clutches a small wreath. A brass band plays “O Canada” and “God Save the Queen.” Uniformed soldiers representing various branches of the Canadian Armed Forces stand at attention next to the city’s cenotaph, a stone monument topped by a chiseled brass statue of a soldier, his head bowed, his weight leaning on his rifle, his helmet propped beneath his arm. The names of city residents who died in World War I and World War II are engraved on both sides of the monument. A municipal official begins to read the names of fallen soldiers and deceased veterans from the city and surrounding area. At the reading of each name, family members lay down a wreath in memoriam.
“Major James B. Messenger.”
Aunt Shirley puts a gentle hand on Grammie’s arm, and together they walk forward. Grammie looks at the wreath in her hands for a long time. She fingers the red poppies that attach to the evergreen ring. Finally, she bends down and places her wreath beside the others at the monument’s base. She releases her grip and lets it rest against the smooth, gray stone.