Our shared experiences shape our collective memory. They define who we are and what we will become.
Every year, like clockwork, I accompanied my grandfather, Edwin Moogk, to our local Remembrance Day ceremonies. In the first years, he would drive himself; in later years, I would drive him. Neither weather nor his health bothered him on November 11. Without fail, when I arrived to drive him in those later years, I would find him waiting for me, wearing his jacket and cap with his medals proudly pinned across his chest.
I’m told that part of the grieving process is to work your way through the annual milestones for the first time without a loved one close by: birthdays, Christmas, the empty garden. Rituals take on a different feel as the cast of players evolves. This year is my first Remembrance Day without my grandfather at the Cenotaph.
Like many boys his age, my grandfather enlisted though he was under age. It took him three attempts and a doctor who blurred the details on his enlistment papers to get him into the Canadian Army. Though his mother was livid, my grandfather begged to be allowed to stay in uniform.
After he headed overseas, my grandfather never saw his mother alive again. He was named after a favourite brother of his mother. Her final advice to him before he left was simple: “Be a good boy.” And he was.
His wartime experience shaped the man that he became both while in uniform and defined him for the decades afterwards. Whenever he met someone his age he was never without a conversation topic. Once, when we traveled together by train across the country many years later, he met a fellow veteran and they traded war stories for the entire trip.
When I was younger, my grandfather was a fount of storytelling. Though we heard stories about his youth, about his camping days, or about his family, it was the wartime stories that were the most colourful and most often retold. As the years passed, the storytelling sessions grew less frequent and in time, it was I who retold the stories back to him, hoping to spark some memory from within him.
It is often twists of fate that define our future. One of those twists saw my grandfather on leave while the rest of his regiment charged the beaches of Dieppe. Whenever the photos from that beach were shown in print or in a documentary, he was able to point out what would have been his vehicle, smoking on the beach.
We will never know for certain what our veteran’s experiences were like in the battlefield. We hear hints and perhaps a favourite anecdote but there are many details that are simply lost forever. Some memories I suspect were simply too painful to relive. One of the last times that I asked my grandfather about his wartime experiences, he simply smiled and said, “That was an awful long time ago.”
I am grateful for the reminders of my grandfather. One of my favourite photographs of him was taken when he returned to the Netherlands in 1995 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II. He is marching in a parade—initially four abreast and at that moment reduced to a single file—of veterans mobbed by grateful Dutch citizens. He was amazed.
The service that my grandfather’s generation gave to this country, and to other countries, is humbling. As I grew into my late teens and mid-twenties, I found myself drawing comparisons with my grandfather at the same age. Would I have had the courage to step forward under the same circumstances? What could those who were left behind in cemeteries have done had they survived? Would their grandchildren have been about my age?
Each year the veterans’ ranks thin a little more as the faces that we are accustomed to seeing each year at the Cenotaph disappear. It is inevitable, and I thought I would be prepared for when my own veteran died.
I can grieve, but I should also celebrate. My grandfather lived a good life. He was a good and faithful servant. Without him, and the men and women like him, Canada would be a different place. He was proud of what he had done and he kept the memories of the men and women who died overseas close to his heart.
World War II was a pivot point on which my grandfather’s life turned. A war film or a documentary was always a good bet for an evening’s entertainment. Christmas gifts were simplified since there was always another war-themed book or magazine to add to his collection.
There is a hole in my heart once occupied by my grandfather’s life. In time I will reshape that hole to carry forever the memory of the things that he did and the things that we did together.
This year would have been my grandfather’s 69th Cenotaph ceremony as a veteran; it will be my 32th Remembrance Day.
Each Remembrance Day I will recall, with thanks, the services that he and his comrades gave so that I might live the life that I live today. Though proud of his service, my grandfather was never boastful. It was a job to be done and he did it in his own way.