I originally wrote this post for the Huffington Post in 2016. Since then, my hometown has a new symbol that lines our streets in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day and it fills me with great pride to know that I had a part in making it happen in memory of my Pop.
Inspired and encouraged by my friend Tish MacDonald at the Uxbridge Royal Canadian Legion, Tish shared her experience of bringing the banner program to her community so that I could bring it to mine. Gathering a handful of passionate Bowmanville Legion volunteers, including my dad, Brian, we got the Clarington Honours Our Veterans banner program approved and its first banners flew in 2019. While I’ve stepped away to tend to needs at home, this year has already seen its expansion into neighbouring towns within our municipality and thanks to the passion of the Legion, the downtown Bowmanville BIA and the motley crew of Doug MacCheyne, John Kay, John McLean and Fred Horvath, the program will only grow in the years to come and the legacy of our veterans will never be forgotten.
I am one of those people who has often been told that I’m an ‘old soul’. It could very well be their nice way of saying that I’m acting like an old lady, but I can’t disagree either way. Since I was a teenager, I approached Remembrance Day in much the same way I did as going to church: with great reverence and with tears always on the verge of falling from my lids. It would only take a glance at an elderly person proudly trying to stand at the playing of the anthem, with his medals on his breast, and I would fall apart. I could never identify exactly what so moved me on November 11th, but I could always anticipate that I would need Kleenex up my sleeve cuff (just like my Nanna always had.. hence another indication of my old lady ways), if I was heading to the cenotaph.
My patriotism is never more evident than it is on Remembrance Day, even more so than on Canada Day. For me, the poppy and the flag go hand in hand as two symbols that mean the most and inspire me in ways nothing else can. Perhaps my emotional response to the poppy is because of my heart’s immediate connection to memories of my Nan and Pop.
“Stew” was a Signals Operator with the Canadian Army in World War II. He dreamt of being a pilot with the RAF, but those dreams were thwarted, when after only a few hours of flight training, he was told that his poor vision and air sickness showed no sign of abating and he was meant for land. My Pop told very few stories of his time overseas on the Italian Campaign, or of his time in North Africa when he was ill, or even of his time in Holland. He was a private guy and stubborn – oh, so stubborn! If you wanted information from him, you might as well get comfortable because you were in for a long wait. His gentle, sky blue eyes were full of wisdom and they would crinkle up when he would chuckle and say “Right-o, chum!”. He was never quick to smile, but when he did, you knew it meant something. He was strict, he was hard working, he was conservative and he was one of the smartest and most well-read men I knew. But above all this, he was a family man.
Pop’s love for my Nana was evidenced in the life he built for her. Where my Pop was private and stoic, my Nan was nurturing and generous with her stories. She had the patience of a saint who could answer the incessant questions of her grand-daughters, even if it was the 20thtime that they asked the same ones. In the too-short twenty-few years that we had with her, we picked away at her brain to learn as much as we could about their lives and their relationship. We wanted to understand the man behind the stubborn old guy that we loved, but could hardly figure out. My sister and I loved hearing about the olden days in Scarborough, when they ‘courted’ each other in their teens. We delighted in the romance of knowing that they were married one day after Nan’s 21stbirthday – their first opportunity to marry with their parents’ permission.
But there was nothing more telling of their love story than the nearly 300 letters that Nana showed to us one day. Stacks of letters all addressed to “Nellie” and signed, “Yours truly and always, Stew”. Hundreds of one-way conversations full of reassuring words and anecdotes of the chaps that he was mucking across Europe with. Queries of how his Nellie was managing with the landlord, or with the leak in the roof? How were her folks and had she heard any news from friends or family? His letters were not filled with poetic stanzas, professing his love and adoration for his sweetheart, but were chaste attempts at distraction from the realities of why he was having to write to his wife from across an ocean. No mention of war and if there was, all evidence was eliminated from the letter by censors. Resealed with tape and a stamp on the envelope to serve as the harsh reminder that on top of the hardship of being separated from their loved ones, any hope for privacy or intimate conversation was cruelly censored with the cut of a pair of scissors.
It was in those letters that you could feel his restraint, you could imagine the questions written in between the lines. You could feel the frustration he must have felt, knowing his letters were landing weeks and weeks after they were written, knowing that he would likely not have his questions answered until months after the fact. It was in those letters that my Pop asked how Nellie’s “little problem” was doing and if she had got it checked by her doctor. It was in those letters that my Pop later revealed his exuberance at the discovery that Nan’s “little problem” would soon turn him into a first time father. In those letters you could feel Pop’s determination to be calm and steady, reliably strong and reassuring for his precious Nellie. The helplessness he must have felt! Wanting to be home with his pregnant wife and in the safety of his home in Canada.
On Remembrance Day, I think about these letters and what they represent. These letters tell the story of the sacrifice that families in Canada have made in times of War. When I hear the recitation of the stirring poem, In Flanders Fields, or I hear the bugle drag out that last, lingering note from the playing of the Last Post, I mourn all the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice. I mourn the fallen. But when I see the brilliant red poppy pinned to a lapel, or when I see our proud Canadian flag waving in the wind, it is my Nan and Pop I think about and I mourn for them as well. For they are also symbols of what makes me proud to be a Canadian and never do I feel that more than I do on this day of remembrance. We will remember them.
I’m trying my best to pay it forward by dealing hope and sharing stories & tips on caregiving and how to survive hard things. I blog a lot about single parenting my adult twin sons who both have autism, and the challenges we face in surviving the everyday challenges and planning for a future full of unknowns.