My Remembrance Day
November, about ten years after the end of World War II: I was standing in my public school auditorium. It was the annual Remembrance Day service. Some students were giggling behind me. My girlfriend, shifting her feet beside me, was picking lint from her poodle skirt.
It seemed to me they did not care why we were there. I cared, immensely.
At home, on the bureau, sat the picture of a handsome young man in a Canadian Army uniform. He looked like the type high school girls dreamed of dating. My mother’s brother was killed by a sniper near Caen on July 7, 1944.
I grew up in a home where we could not watch war movies on television because of the memories they evoked. To my family, war was not a Hollywood invention; it was reality.
The sound of the last post was not an appendage to a ceremony; it was a reminder of things that would be no more.
My friends understood none of this. Students then were being sheltered. The horrors of World War II were too recent.
Years later I learned of some of my teachers’ wartime involvement. One teacher trained pilots before he went overseas himself. Another teacher worked in the medical corps. At Remembrance Day services they all put on the medals of a war in which they fought; but they never told us personal anecdotes. It was still too close to the source of pain.
Eventually I became a teacher. I had a personal tale to share. I told my students about my trip, about 25 years after World War II ended, to Beny-Sur-Mer, the Canadian war cemetery near Caen. I told them I knew some of the fallen would never have loved ones from home come to pay respect at their graves, so I walked slowly by each of the more than 2,000 graves to fill that void. Most of them were uncles and sons, also, too young to have been fathers and husbands yet.
I showed my students pictures I took; the endless rows of graves, the peaceful, well cared for beauty of the final places of rest, but mostly my uncle’s grave. Through me they felt a bond with headstone A, row 13.
I told them how the French attendants asked me to sign a book and write any remarks I wanted. So I wrote about the confusing elements of war; all the whys that I asked as a student and a young adult.
I reminisced how I sat on a bench in the immaculate park-like setting of the cemetery with all its fruit trees whose produce plopped to the ground to nourish the soil below. No one ever ate the fruit. I told them how those grounds would be kept this way in perpetuity by a promise of a grateful French government and people.
I told them how a group of French youngsters, around the age of my students, came giggling by. They saw me. They stopped. They became solemn. They nodded their heads politely as they turned to go. In my nervous French I told them I didn’t want them to go. Secretly I clung to their laughter. The graves were there so they could be free to giggle.
My students wanted to know more about the French family who befriended me in Caen, M et Mme Henri Tirel and their daughter Nelly. I told them the father felt he had become bald because he had been a forced laborer during the War. The mother and daughter hid in nearby hills to get out of the way of crossfire after the French resistance spread word the Allies were coming. (Shortly before D-Day, June 6, 1944, Radio Londres (in French, to the French Resistance, from London) broadcast the first stanza of Paul Verlaine’s poem “Chanson d’automne”, the coded signal the invasion would begin within 24 hours.
Les sanglots longs/Des violons/De l’automne/Blessent mon cœur/D’une langueur/Monotone.
The violins of autumn wound my heart with a monotonous languor.
Fast forward to a few years ago when I became a Citizenship Judge: During one citizenship ceremony I conducted I met a World War II veteran who was helping to welcome the new citizens to Canada. I told him about my uncle. To my amazement, he was there, in the area of Caen, at the same time as my uncle. He described the scene, the devastation, the heroism, the heartbreak. He was part of a burial detail. He and his buddy would have carried my uncle’s lifeless body to be buried. He filled in many missing parts of this 24 year old’s last day.
Then, last month, my husband and I were taken by a French expert on the Normandy Invasion to the areas Canadians helped liberate, most especially where my uncle had been.
My husband brought some small stones from Ontario for us to place on my uncle’s grave – to be more connected to his place of birth. In turn, I took a few stones from the exact area on the beach my uncle had to cross to make his way on French soil. I gave those stones to my cousin in Montreal who now bears our uncle’s name. The circle is complete.
Rochelle Carr Burns, PhD is the author of: