When I was a teenager I was shocked to meet people who said they didn’t believe in Remembrance Day because they felt it celebrated the act of war. This angered me and to this day I feel very strongly about that comment. Remembrance Day is just that – a day to remember. Not the so-called “glories of war”, but the people, the stories, the events and everything they went through.
I never had the chance to know my Canadian Grandparents, my grandmother died at 47 of Breast Cancer and Alzheimer’s ravaged my Grandfather. Few photos and personal effects remain. Their stories have been passed down over and over again in my family, and I know of their goodness through the love of my Mother and Aunts and Uncles.
Like many couples of a certain generation, they met and married during WWII.
My Grandfather Gerry, the youngest of three, with shining blue eyes was always described as an outgoing showman who would MC events and loved to dance and sing. He was the type of man who would dress up at Christmas as Santa Claus for community events, and knew how to cook a mean Turkey.
When the war started, he tried to sign up with his older brother but was turned away since he was so slight and didn’t weigh enough. He looked for any service that would take him, wanting to do something to help his country. The Merchant Navy signed him on, and off he went serving as a Cook on cargo ships, long and treacherous journeys across the ocean delivering desperately need supplies to troops.
Canadian Merchant Navy veterans were denied benefits and official recognition for years by the Canadian Government. When this was finally rectified my Grandfather was long dead. The men of the Merchant Navy spent long days and nights on those ships, sitting ducks, travelling to deliver troops and supplies, watching their buddies on other ships in the dark being blown up, never knowing when or if they would be next.
I have a few tattered postcards from my Grandfather that he sent home, and various stories of his misadventures around the world, some of which I couldn’t repeat in polite company. One story though which I can, was apparently when they landed in Egypt, the men weren’t allowed off the boat. However my Grandfather was determined. After months of travel onboard a ship in very hot and sunny climates my Grandfather was very dark and tanned. He somehow acquired a Fez and local dress, and when he donned this garb was able to pass as a local and sneak into the country. I couldn’t imagine this happening today.
My Grandmother Edna, was a Canadian “Rosie the Riveter” working in a Munitions plant in Montreal during the course of the war. In the days she worked in the factory, and at night would be off dancing. A kind hearted woman, who in later life despite being equally poor, would help others in need and protected a mentally disabled man who was routinely beaten up and picked on in the community.
Gerry and Edna met on a blind date, set up by Mother’s Uncle by Marriage, who subsequently ended up being quite the matchmaker, in setting up my parents and another Aunt and Uncle as well.
The date went well, more followed, and then an engagement.
Gerry sent word to his brother Francis about the coming marriage, as did Edna to her several brothers who were serving as part of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders.
The story goes, that one night over dinner the two sets of brothers were talking about letters from home they’d received.
“My Baby Brother’s getting married!“
“Congratulations! Our little Sister is getting married too!“
“Really? That’s great news! We’ll be on leave when the ceremony takes place, and my Brother’s asked me to be his Best Man.“
“Oh yeah? Same, we’ll be back in Canada for Edna’s wedding too.“
“That’s funny, my brothers fiancée is called Edna…“
And from there the conversation continued until they realized that their siblings were marrying one another. Bonds formed serving together deepened with the family connection. So far from home and the news of a wedding and promised happier times.
Today, I remember them with love.
I’ve never met these people who I owe my existence and way of life to, but because of the vibrant story telling tradition within my Canadian family I know them well. From my Mad Uncle climbing a flagpole during the liberation of the Netherlands to take down a Nazi flag while being shot at, to my Grandfather’s Hijinks around the world, and my party girl Grandmother – strong-willed, working so hard in a factory yet still managing to look glamorous with flowers in her hair, today and always - Je me souviens.