I’ve dutifully observed Remembrance Day my entire life. When I was young, I understood perfectly well its origins and its purpose, but I didn’t feel, in my guts, any real connection to the people I was supposed to be memorializing. This is because I’ve been lucky: I’ve never been touched directly by war. I’ve always taken my freedoms for granted, especially growing up in a country that’s better known for its peacekeeping efforts than its combat role. The problem was that for me, war was an abstract, nebulous concept. It had no face.
I suppose you could say I come from a military family. My grandfather (pictured at left) spent a total of 12 years in the British army, serving in India and China during the 1920’s, and in Italy, North Africa, and the Middle East throughout WWII. My father served in the Royal Navy for seven years, and my brother is a professor whose research specialty is war and politics. Sadly, my grandfather died before I was born, so I never got to sit on his knee and listen to his war stories. It wasn’t until I moved to Caen, France in 1984 that I was able to see the human face behind the Remembrance Day poppy.
That June, Normandy threw a celebration to commemorate the 40th anniversary of D-Day. All the biggies were in Caen for the party: Queen Elizabeth, François Mitterand, Ronald Reagan, Pierre Trudeau. It was pretty exciting to see the normally staid centre-ville overrun with veterans, tourists, dignitaries, and service men/women (especially the lovely Irish paratroopers who bought me a drink and made me split my sides laughing. Sláinte!)
I was wandering through the crowd one gloriously sunny day when an elderly man in uniform asked me for directions in halting French. Spying the maple leaf pin on his lapel, I blurted out “Je suis canadienne!” His eyes lit up, and in desperation he asked, “Do you speak English?” I answered “oui” (it was a knee-jerk reaction; I’d gone a long time without speaking my native tongue at that point), but when I corrected myself with a “yes,” he grasped me on both shoulders and pulled me in for what my daughters call “the French kiss.” (No, not that French kiss; the quick peck on both cheeks that’s part of the greeting between acquaintances in France.) “That’s a little move I learned from the French,” he said jauntily.
He introduced me to his very sweet wife, and we started walking together, chatting about this and that. I ended up giving them a tour of modern-day Caen. (“It’s changed a lot since I saw it last,” he told me. “Oh? When was that?” “1944.”) We spent a wonderful couple of hours together before they headed off to a reunion with some of his war buddies.
With each passing year, I lose more details of our meeting — I’ve long since forgotten his name, and even his face has blurred in my mind — but I remember very clearly the way his voice wobbled with emotion when he spoke about what happened on the beaches back in ’44. I also remember his infectious joy as he and his wife demonstrated the jitterbug for me. (“This is how we used to dance back in the day,” he said. He actually tried to teach me a few basic steps before giving up and tactfully proposing lunch instead.)
Meeting that wonderful man was one of those chance encounters that tilts your perspective a little. His wartime experiences affected him deeply, but he chose to respond with humour, dignity, and humanity. Because of him, Remembrance Day now has true meaning for me. At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, when I observe a minute of silence, he’s the unknown soldier who will be in my thoughts.