We Remember

     The Canadian government has declared 2005 the Year of The Veteran. All year long from coast to coast and continent to continent the Canadian people have commemorated the contributions and the sacrifices of those heroes who fought in the name of freedom. This is a special year to officially recognize all our veterans young and old who fought for peace and still fight to maintain it. The ceremonies and remembrances are as diverse as the people that make up this large country.

     Aboriginal veterans’ organizations and the Assembly of First Nations have undertaken a spiritual journey to European shores to honour the sacrifices made by Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis warriors. At each place of resting they performed the Calling Home Ceremony and on their return home they will continue the spiritual ceremonies to receive the spirits of fallen warriors who answered the song of the pipes.

     Work continues on the restoration of deteriorating war monuments in France and Belgium. The monument commemorating the loss of more than 11,000 WWI soldiers at Vimy Ridge is currently being restored brick by brick in an effort the workers call “a labour of love”.

     The Canadian mint has released commemorative and circulation coins in honour of all those who serve. The design depicts two profiles, one young and one old, to honour not just the veterans of WWI, WWII and the Korean War but also those who have served in places like Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, fostering peace and freedom on behalf of Canada.

     Veterans’ organizations are searching out the resting places of those who served their country to place commemorative maple leafs on their stones. Canadians have sailed and feted, skated and danced all in celebration and remembrance of those who have graced this land with their bravery and their sacrifice. Plaques have been unveiled and wreaths have been laid. Newspapers daily recount the heroics and tragedies of the local boys gone off to war, those who returned and those who did not.

         On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month we remember Canadians who served in the name of freedom. We remember the 600,000 Canadian soldiers who volunteered to serve overseas during the First World War (1914-1918). We remember the more than one million men and women from Canada who served during the Second World War (1939-1945). We remember the over 26,000 Canadians who served in Korea (1950-1953). And though it is much debated and not often mentioned we remember the over 30,000 Canadians who chose to cross the border and fight in the jungles of Vietnam.

         In my household on November 11th we pay special homage to the late John “Jack” Flynn. Affectionately known as “Pop”, Jack was my husband’s grandfather. Born in Britain, Jack and his wife Lil would immigrate to Canada with their 3 daughters on one of the last ocean liners to make that regular trip. Jack’s older brother served in the First World War and, despite his brother’s advice, Jack enlisted to serve in the Second World War.

     He didn’t often speak about his war experiences, he did not see war as something to glorify. When the movie “Saving Private Ryan” debuted he was asked if he intended to see it. His answer was a firm no…He had seen enough of the real thing, why would he want to see a movie about it? Jack was there the day after they bombed Dresden. He said it had been leveled to such an extent that one would be hard pressed to know that just the day before there had been a city there. He spoke about the air raids and families hiding in the Underground. One of the saddest stories he remembered was the mother who had gone back to her house for her baby’s bottle never to be seen alive again.

     Jack was one of the gentlest people I’d ever met. He carried his scars from that experience close but he enjoyed life to its fullest. When he left this world in his 88th year he headed home to the arms of his wife Lil, who had gone ahead several years before. He was a great man and the freedom that he fought for is a gift and a monumental legacy to be shared by not just his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren but the entire world.

 

We Remember…

 

In Flanders Fields

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 

– John McCrae

 

 

The Chumiak Award

My mother is the oldest surviving sibling in a sprawling poverty stricken family that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.  Until just the past year my grandmother continued to live in the house my mother was born in.  The house was once surrounded by farmland that has slowly evolved to suburbs over the past 65 years. My grandmother (who I once heard speak at an AA meeting) was an alcoholic who would often spend the welfare money on booze while her kids ran around in clothes held together by safety pins. Her generation knew the power of the rod and often one or another of the children was sent next door to get the neighbour’s leather belt when there was a punishment to be dealt out. When my grandmother’s eldest son died in a mental institution she didn’t have enough money to bury him so she didn’t claim the body. The city buried him in an unmarked grave. Thirty years into her sobriety she would still remark how much that bothered her.

For years the last name of my mother’s brothers would be synonymous with crime in the small community they grew up in. A Saturday morning could find them chasing rats out at the dump. A Saturday night could find them tipping over outhouses or throwing straw stuffed dummies out into the streets under the wheels of unsuspecting drivers’ cars. It never occurred to them that the result of their actions might have dire consequences. They were poor, young and bored and that was reason enough. All this might serve to create a feeling of inferiority in most souls but not this hearty bunch.

I could never get the whole story but suffice it to say there was some reason that my mother’s family felt they were superior to their neighbours the Chumiaks. There’s some vague information in regards to socially awkward and unattractive children but nothing that would seem tragic enough to justify the establishment of the Chumiak Award. I’m not sure how the Chumiaks would feel to know the reasoning behind the establishment of this award. If they did I’m sure they’d show a marked lack of appreciation for the whole affair.

It’s just an old battered plaque. Old adhesive has dried up and most of the old brass plates are held in place with scotch tape. The years that the award has been handed out are sporadic as evidenced by the random listing of dates. In the later years the engraved brass plates had been replaced by paper nametags but still the institution remains. It is the Chumiak Award and it is awarded to the family member who presents or displays the silliest or lamest behaviour possible.

The last clearest memory I have of the Chumiak Award is at my Aunt Karen’s (affectionately known to all and sundry as Spider) 40th birthday party. Once again the shores of Lake Ontario would play host to this gala affair that would include barbeque, bonfires, music and a creative meatloaf contest. The best meatloaf entry would merit a place of infamy on the Chumiak Award. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to present my entry, a lovely meatloaf oasis with a ketchup spring and tatter tot palm trees. I can’t remember who won that night (professional jealousy I’m sure) but I do remember that battered old plaque with its mishmash of names and dates. There were a lot of miles on that plaque just as there were a lot of miles in the hearts of my mother and her siblings. They walked those miles together.

There are a lot of people who still spit on the ground when they hear that old family name. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t have bet you 2 cents that any of those kids would have made it to where they finally ended up. Some of those people would be my mother’s brothers and sisters themselves. Granted a few have fallen by the wayside but the core still remains. It’s funny about that plaque, you’d think that the life they were living wouldn’t have allowed them hold their heads up above anyone else’s but they did. Resilience, strength, stubbornness and humour are necessary tools for survival and they had them in spades as evidenced by the survival of the Chumiak Award. It’s just a grubby old plaque stored in the back of someone’s closet until it gets dragged out again for the next meatloaf contest or silly event that occurs. The years are marked by the brass and the tape, the paper and the ink and the laughter and the tears. And until the last one of those kids is gone it will continue to stand in remembrance of battles fought together and the ties that bind and carry us through the most difficult of our days and beyond.