Remembering what I haven’t known

I have always had that strangely-Canadian Generation X respectful detachment from Remembrance Day. I proudly wear a poppy, I go to a Cenotaph or Memorial on November 11th, I show respect to the women and men in full uniform, but I recognize I don’t know what is in their head, and I’m cautious to include myself in their personal experience.

What I find most amazing about Canada at Remembrance Day is that these veterans and those we lost, fought and died overseas. Canada didn’t fight a revolution to become a free nation, and in almost 150 years of being a nation, we have never faced a serious threat of invasion (Fenian Raids notwithstanding). However, we have forged strong alliances with other nations across the border and across the oceans, and we have been quick to engage in the fight when we see our allies being attacked, their right to self-determination or the rights of their citizens being undermined. Sometimes because we knew we may be next if we didn’t take the fight to them, but more commonly because it was the right thing to do. Two World Wars, Korea, Cypress, Croatia, Rwanda, Afghanistan… the list is long of places Canadians went to protect people under threat, or simply to stand between belligerents while peaceful resolutions were sought.

I try to understand these conflicts, and the sacrifices made by individuals for the greater cause, but it was never personal for me. I have an uncle who served in Vietnam and some more distant cousins with military careers, and when I lived in the Mid-West, I made friends with a few people who eventually got called up and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thankfully, they all got back alive and well. So I have been, through luck and happenstance, distanced from the real impacts of war.

I never knew my Grandfathers, both died before I was born and I have very little knowledge about them. Writing this, it occurs to me I don’t even know their full names. It’s not that they were not mentioned in my household, but more that when I was growing up, my extended family was stretched all over Canada and the United States, so occasions to spend time together were limited, and talk of my Parent’s childhood was not a common subject around the house. I know both of my parents had difficult relationships with their fathers, but those are their stories to tell, not mine.

I knew my Mom was born just after her sister, at the beginning of WW2, and that their brothers were born well after; the narrative in my family was that gap was the time when my grandfather “went off to war”. I also know he struggled in his later life with things that sound much like what we would currently attribute to PTSD, but I am too far removed from that reality to know what the story really is.

What I never knew until this summer was his father’s fate. My parents spent some time in Europe this summer, their first time touring the continent, and my Mom sent us back this picture.

I now know my Great Grandfather was named Henry James Leavitt, he is one of the 11,285 people commemorated at the Vimy Memorial, and he never met his son who eventually went on to fight in the Artillery for the length of WW2, and came home changed.

This year, on Remembrance Day, I will be thinking about those who served to bring the freedoms we enjoy as Canadians to people they didn’t know. I will think about people who came back changed, those who did not come back, and the families that love them. May they all find peace.

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