I grew up in Ottawa, Canada’s capital, where, on Remembrance Day, there was a national ceremony at the War Memorial just down from the Parliament Buildings. As teens we would go downtown and join the crowds for the service, but one time in the 1960s, I remember going into the study where my mother was watching the television broadcast across the nation. And she was crying. It was a shock to me, realizing that this ceremony which meant something intellectually to me, had far great emotional meaning to my mother, who had lived through it. I suppose all children reach an understanding sometime of their parents as separate people, humans in their own right, and this was that moment for me. In this essay, Cyn looks back and expresses fifty years of ‘Remembering’.
It has become so familiar; the War Memorial with the Honour Guard, the crowds of people clustered round, filling the sidewalks and streets. The television camera focuses on faces, veterans wearing medals, school children, young families, men and women standing quietly as the hands of the clock move towards eleven on the eleventh day of November.
What brings them here, year after year? Who do they remember? Is this old man in a wheelchair remembering his comrades? Does this woman think of her young freckled boy who never came back? Do others remember brothers, husbands, fathers or sisters? Perhaps middleaged men remember when Dad was overseas and they became the man of the family. Others might remember the stories their parents told of battles and air raids which happened long ago. Do people in the crowd remember one special person or unforgettable incident which for them was the essence of war?
What do I remember? A city in the north of England- industry, shipbuilding, coal mining- a prime target for enemy bombs. A group of young people who had grown up together; the young men vanished into the Services, some of the girls also, but most of us at home in ‘essential’ services. Blackouts, nights in air raid shelters, bombs, burning buildings; struggling to get to work each morning through streets littered with bricks and debris, climbing over blocks of cement and firehoses with the stench of burning and the thick smoke filling the air. But all that is not worth remembering- a desert in one’s life- it is the people who are important.
Who do I remember?
Malcolm. He was a pilot in the RAF and was shot down in the Battle of Britain in the spring of 1940. He was married to my friend Barbara- the first in our group to get married and we had had such fun at her wedding. She had a baby girl two months after Malcolm died.
George. He was a young architect and he and Dorothy had so many plans of the house they would build one day. George went into the Army and he and Dorothy had a quiet wedding when he was on leave. Training in England for the invasion of Europe he was drowned in a sluggish muddy river trying to rescue one of his men who had sunk while carrying full equipment. His little son was less than two years old.
Bob, Joan’s husband, was killed on DDay leaving her with a baby girl.
Neville was a pacifist. He volunteered as a radio operator in the Merchant Navy. After three years of Atlantic crossings in all weathers in cramped dark ships, he developed TB and wasted away in a sanatorium on the bleak cold Northumbrian moors.
But most of all I remember Bobby.
We had been neighbours and playmates since we were kindergarten age. He was a goodnatured four year old with red hair and a snub nose. We played with tricycles and scooters, played shops and school. With other children we climbed trees in back gardens and enacted Robin Hood’s daring escapades. Bobby had a real bow for his birthday, so he was Robin, and under the misapprehension that Little John was a small man, that was my role. We went our separate ways to school but I was educated into the rules of football and cricket and finally graduated to tennis and badminton as we grew older, with the same group of friends. Bobby’s parents were a friendly convivial couple active in the social life of the area. As their sons matured they were measured for dinner jackets and included in the party at the frequent dances to which we girls were included as their partners. No going with a boy friend and dancing only with him! Everyone danced with everyone else young and old – foxtrots, waltzes, reels, Dashing White Sergeant, and I even remember the Lancers. No one was allowed to sit out a dance- and who would want to? I wore holes in all my silver sandals.
There was no thought of romance in our small circle. It was a hard time and all of us lived at home and were attending university or training college and the few who were lucky enough to have jobs were at the very bottom of the ladder. Love and marriage were far ahead and all we wanted was to have fun.
In the spring of 1939 young men of 21 were conscripted. Bobby left home for the Army. When War broke out in September he was sent to France. His father had died some time before and his older brother was at home in a ‘reserved occupation’ as many of us were. Bobby had a leave at Christmas and we all tried to pretend that it was just like old times.
Then came Dunkirk. There was no news for days- weeks- as the little ships ferried across the Channel, lifting the remains of the British Army off the beaches and out of the sea as the aircraft dive bombed and the machine guns fired.
I left the house on a hot summer afternoon to go to tea with one of my mother’s friends. I had on a silly little hat with lace and flowers- do you remember the time when all of us wore hats? and along the road sauntered Bobby- a thin tired fellow in a new battledress. I ran into his arms and we hugged and I wept and it was a truly joyous moment. A leave, then Officer’s Training and he was a 2nd Lieutenant. More leave, then overseas to India.
We wrote letters of course- everyone wrote letters, they included so many and stretched so far. The letters to Bobby continued and his replies came until the Japanese entered the War in 1942. There were no more letters, no news. It was a long time before we heard that Bobby’s Company had landed in Singapore the day the Japanese took over the city, and they were all taken prisoner. Months passed, years, and his family received two postcards with only his name written on. They were allowed to send a one page letter every eight weeks. His Mother would only write “Love from Mother” so his brother would write a paragraph or two and then bring it to me fill in the rest. I don’t suppose he ever got those letters. In early 1945 we heard that Bobby was dead.
After the War ended, a returned fellow prisoner came to see the family. He had been in hospital with Bobby after they had been working on building the Burma Road. When they became too weak and ill they either died or were sent back to camp if they were lucky. Hospital was a crowded hot tent with mats on the earthen floor, no medication, and very little food. They had no way of shaving or cutting their hair and he described Bobby’s long red hair and beard. Hearing a sound from his friend he turned and took his hand. Bobby died.
Who will remember them when we are gone?