In 1916, at age 15, my grandfather lied about his age to get into World War I and because he was considered a clown he was charged with the role of bugler. It seems a rather dangerous assignment, announcing to the enemy in loud, tinny notes your whereabouts–not to mention blowing the thing to wake your weary, mud-soaked comrades at 5 in the morning. But there he was, just barely 16, a bugler in the infantry and on the front lines in France.
According to my father, my grandfather wasn’t much of a talker but he would tell one story: on the front line he and a buddy found themselves under heavy fire and dove beneath a wagon for cover. But a bomb exploded on the wagon and when he regained consciousness he reached out to check on his buddy and his hand went right through his abdomen. He had always figured his buddy died but it would take another world war to find out the real story.
Between the wars my grandfather met and married my grandmother and they had three sons, pictured below wearing the matching uniforms my grandmother sewed for them.
Twenty years later in 1939 my grandfather signed up for World War II. But by then he was too old for combat so he was stationed as a guard in a German POW camp in Alberta—and there he met his WWI buddy again, both assigned as guards in the same POW camp. After believing him dead for all those years, that must have been a mighty jolt of the miraculous.
While my grandfather was away during WWII my grandmother was left to raise their three sons. In his absence she found the stress too much to bear and had a mental breakdown. She had electroshock therapy and though the procedure was known to be disastrous she is rumoured by family members as saying that it fixed her right up.
During those years they were poor and lived on the Fraser River flats which was prone to occasional deadly flooding. However the soil was rich and my grandmother grew a big garden. She was so proud of her garden that it was the ideal backdrop when she had her picture taken wearing her pretty best.
In the decades between the wars when he wasn’t a soldier my grandfather drifted between jobs. For some years he worked on a coal-powered ship which cleared the Fraser River of the heavy tidal silt that if left to accumulate would build up and restrict passage. He worked down in the ship’s confined, sweaty belly shoveling coal into its furnace. Over time he learned to drink too much too often and when he got home he would beat my grandmother.
When my grandmother couldn’t take the violence anymore she kicked them all out—her husband and their three sons—changed the locks on the doors and started her life anew. She lived happily for many more years in her own little house with its big garden. I always remember her favourite place by the window, with her rocking chair, the telephone and an old radio that she liked to listen to in the early mornings. She died last year at age 103 and the family spread her ashes at Capilano Headwaters Park because she had loved it there. It’s against the law to spread human ashes in a public park but we did it anyway. After surviving the front in World War I and serving in World War II, my grandfather died in his early 60s from lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.
When it comes to Remembrance Day I don’t know what to feel, mostly a complicated tenderness. I never want to admit that warring is something we humans are unable to stop. Maybe if I had lived through war and its aftermath like my grandparents did, I would have a better understanding of the emotional complexity. I guess to really know war and what it does, you would have to understand why a wife would put on her husband’s military uniform and have her photo taken in her beloved garden.