The Electrician and I took his grandparents for brunch this morning. While recognizing Remembrance Day wasn’t the primary goal of our meal, it seems fitting that we enjoyed a special meal with his Grandpa today, who served in the Korean War. Last year, I wrote about my paternal grandfather, who drove an ambulance in World War II, leaving his beloved wife behind and missing much of his first child’s early years.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about Remembrance Day since the ceremony at my school on Friday. My school has always made a point of recognizing the sacrifices of our servicemen and women, more so than some other schools in the area, and I’m always moved by the poignancy of hundreds of teenagers conducting themselves respectfully in honour of events so long before their own lives began. Recently, there have been news stories in the Canadian media about parents choosing to excuse their children from Remembrance Day ceremonies. While I respect parents’ rights to decide what their children participate in, opting out of remembering the sacrifices of our military upsets me.
As much as we talk about more recent service, and those who have dedicated themselves to this country in contemporary conflicts, the focus of Remembrance Day for me has always been honouring people who gave everything WWI and WWII for a future many would never see. Because of the things those brave people gave up, precious time with their families; their mental and physical health; their own plans for the future; and, of course, their lives on Earth, there has not been another war on such a massive scale since 1945. While it is also crucial we express our gratitude to the men and women who currently dedicate themselves to military service, I am most concerned we are losing touch as a society with the incredible gift granted us by those who fought in the world wars.
Part of the issue is the simple fact that the numbers of living veterans of WWII are dwindling. When I was in school, numerous veterans always attended our Remembrance Day ceremonies, and it struck me even as a child that those veterans had lived through the war, and had been willing to give up everything they had, even when they had so much to live for as young men. Being able to connect faces to the events we learned about in school was a powerful means for me to appreciate what others had given for me.
On Friday, a single veteran of the second world war attended our ceremony. He was the great-uncle of one of my teaching colleagues, and he laid a wreath on behalf of Canadian veterans. Watching him pay respect to his fallen comrades choked me up in a way no other part of the ceremony did.
Imagine, a school gym filled with more than a thousand people, the room dark and only the white monument lit on the stage; it is surrounded by four solemn students acting as sentinels, and it rests on a base glowing red with dozens of poppies. The only sounds in the room are a lone bagpiper (one of our students) playing “Amazing Grace” and the sharp, clear tap of the cane a frail, eldery man needs to travel the short distance to the illuminated cross on stage. His nephew follows him to the base of the stairs, and keeps a cautious hand behind the veteran as he struggles on the short staircase, losing none of his dignity despite the effort it costs him to manage the climb. He wears a navy blue suit in that shade only old men can wear properly, and I’m sure my eyes aren’t the only ones in that gymnasium to fill when he raises his shaky hand in a salute to people he lost many decades ago. In that moment, when I can’t help the wave of emotion that rushes over me, I know he is thousands of miles away, thinking of names and faces the rest of the world doesn’t remember but he has never forgotten.
I’m afraid that as the last surviving veterans of the world wars pass away, our society will slowly forget the burden shouldered by those departed military service people on our behalf. Without the physical presence of our veterans to remind us of the people who gave everything for us, will we still feel a connection to the human beings who made such crushing sacrifices? What will happen in the generations who have never met a veteran of these wars in person, who are not able to relate a personal story of a grandfather or an uncle, or someone else in their ancestry who served for his country? Could apathy grow from a lack of familiarity? Will we, slowly and irreparably and tragically, forget?
I don’t know what can be done on a large scale, but all of us can make a difference in our own families. We can preserve the memory of the selfless service given by our loved ones. You can take some time to write the story of a family member as you know it, even if you don’t feel you’re a skilled writer; stories gathered in love are always beautiful. Imagine the difference you could make to the future generations of your family, how children who aren’t born yet will one day be able to share the stories of their ancestors who gave military service to their country, because you invest some time in preserving their memories.
This same respect should be given to all service people. If there is a person in your family who serves now or has retired from any branch of our military, I urge you to add his or her story to the list of important things to pass to your children, and eventually to your children’s children. The greatest respect we can show the members of our military is to express to them that their sacrifices matter, and that we appreciate what they give for others.
Our opportunity to preserve a record of appreciation, not in a record book owned by the government, but in the grateful hearts of the people, is slipping away. Although I’m sure you’ve heard it a dozen times this week, Lest We Forget.
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