I awoke in the wee hours this morning, and made my husband some Scottish-style oatmeal to aid him in his battle with academia. He’d been up all night, working on an assignment, due this morning. Scotch oatmeal, made well, has a shot of aged Glenfiddich in it, mingling with the dark brown sugar and the cooling milk to create a breakfast that fortifies and comforts.
As I saw him off into the early morning light, I began to think about Remembrance Day. Many men and women, fortified with army standard porridge and perhaps a shot of whiskey, have stepped out over this century into the morning light and into the fray, far from home and the goodbye kisses of their spouses.
I’m from practical soldier stock, as both grandfathers fought bravely in the Second World War, and my great-grandfather, George Gowland, a foot soldier and occasional cook in the Scottish Infantry, likely cooked more oatmeal for hungry men than I could ever imagine. My father’s father, Angus Conchie, drove a supply truck through treacherous potholes and enemy fire, saw his best friend perish gruesomely and instantly beside him, and somehow made it home. My mother’s father, Lance Stephens, joined the navy and used his keen senses on the open ocean, watching for the enemy, defending valuable supply ships. They both returned to find beautiful wives and start fruitful families, a blessing not afforded to many soldiers who still remain in the cold earth of far flung, now silent battlegrounds.
We’re all connected, in some way, to someone who has left home and family, comfort and modernity, to fight.
And it goes on – a dear friend of mine is posted to Afghanistan this July, participating in the Canadian clean-up operations of a messy, still-unresolved war.
At age 11, I perceived little of this history or the possibility of losing a friend to war. Sitting for what seemed like hours in the living room of an elderly neighbour, listening to the excruciating and mournful sound of bagpipes, I squirmed and wondered why my father and the neighbour were getting misty eyed, and painfully silent. I got in serious trouble that day, probably because I couldn’t understand the gravity of the situation, and kept trying to leave as only an impolite and socially awkward 11 year old can.
When I was a teenager, I marched down the street in uniform, with a Canadian flag, appropriately solemn as our Air Cadet instructor had demanded. I had come to love the ceremony, the glorious melancholy, the ritual of Remembrance Day.
While old memories of wars pass away into history books, new experiences of war are being shed abroad. The world war veterans are fading away, but younger soldiers are, even now, patrolling deserts and unfamiliar mountains, experiencing the harsh reality and alienation of battle.
There are wars we elevate into legend, and wars we’ve tried to sweep into the darker corners of remembrance. But all of them, and Remembrance Day itself, serve to illustrate a crucial practice in this fast, still-dangerous, fragile world.
Remembrance Day is an object lesson about grief. We keep calm and carry on, cover over the past, try to simply ‘move on’ and perhaps, make the same mistakes again. We hide grief, or package it for the appropriate setting, tuck it away for some rainy day that may never come.
Remembrance Day tells us to stop, to pause and make time for sorrow. Grieve the past, honour the fallen, ponder the precious sound of peace in the silence afforded us for a few minutes. Poppies, pipes, parades, and sad-eyed politicians are simply reminders for us to slow down, take time off the warpath that modern life can be, and grieve. For in grieving, we ascribe value to what has been lost, and we give our time to the past, so that we may one day be free of its sorrows.