Remembering a Gentle Heart

This is an old, old photo of me and my paternal grandfather. When I was very small, I climbed into his lap whenever we stopped in to see him and my grandma, and I stayed there for much of our visit. Thinking back to those visits, I mostly remember laughing. Grandpa tickled me until I had tears on my chin; he pulled ridiculous faces that had me roaring as much as a tiny kid can roar. Once all the giggles had subsided, and I started to think we might start a bit more serious conversation, Grandpa would suddenly snap his bottom dentures forward and out, like nothing so much as the drawer in a cash register, and I’d crumble into hysterical laughter again.

This is where I generally sat during my visits.

My grandpa was so friendly, so hilarious and always so loving that I was a teenager before I realized he served in World War II. His service wasn’t something we ever talked about, and he absolutely never brought it up. When I drew a military-related impromptu speech topic at a 4-H speaking competition, I stated that although I didn’t have any close family members who served in the World Wars, I was mindful of how much I owed to those who had. After I finished my speech and sat down again with my family, Dad leaned over and whispered that his dad had served for nearly four years in WWII. I had no idea because Grandpa never discussed his time overseas. I knew he had been in the Canadian Armed Forces because he was in uniform in the photograph of him with Grandma on their wedding day, but I didn’t realize he was sent into action.

I didn’t learn the rest of the details until I was much older. My grandpa didn’t technically “fight” in WWII in the way most people imagine. While he spent the better part of four years in Europe, serving largely in France and Italy, he dedicated himself to his country by driving an ambulance on the front lines of the war. He refused to carry a firearm. When he enrolled in the Forces, Grandpa told the folks in charge that he would serve his country, but, “they could not make him kill a man.”

Grandpa was seriously wounded three times during the conflict, and was sent back to the front each time after he’d healed enough to return to work. He was away from my Grandma year after year, and watched his first child grow through the photographs and letters Grandma sent to wherever he was, month after month. We still have those notes and snapshots in an album, and my heart aches to think how wrenching it must have been for Grandpa to be away from his cherished wife and his beloved daughter. Still, he served, risking his life repeatedly to give other soldiers a chance to survive and return to their loved ones.

Grandpa never talked about his service. The horrors he saw in the war never left him in his lifetime, but he raised eight children and loved many grandchildren, and later great-grandchildren, who knew him as a kind and gentle man with a wonderful sense of humour. Once a year, on November 11th, he allowed himself time to remember the friends he lost and the countless people who could not be saved. My uncle described to me how Grandpa would sit in his arm chair with his regiment photo, remembering the uniformed men in the decades-old picture one face at a time. He cried while he did this. Eventually, he would return the photo to its hook on the dining room wall, and would tuck away his memories and his sorrow for another year.

I hate words like “hero.” I think they’ve been devalued by overuse: worn into cliche like a once beautiful sweater faded by too many trips through the wash. My Grandpa was a wonderful person with a deep sense of duty and a giving heart. He would have wanted his legacy to be the love he shared with others, not his time in the war. Today, I honour that about him.

On this day of gratitude, let us remember the service men and women who risked their lives for what they believed was true, right, and honourable, and those who were lost in service. Also, let us remember the families of those service people, the wives and husbands, children, parents, and all others who waited anxiously while a loved one served far from home, and the bereft who mourned the deaths of scores of service men and women who died decades too early.

I realize the last paragraph is stated in the past tense, although war is still a tragic reality. Today and always, let us pray for a future where war is a relic of days gone by, so the only way we must express our gratitude for the sacrifices of our valued service people is in the past tense.

Dedicated with love to CWD.

copyright 2011:

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