Rememberance Day has always had meaning to me, of course. It's a day of remembering the soldiers who fought in the war and those who are still fighting. It was the day of the year where a day off school meant dressing up in my Girl Guide uniform and leotards to fight the cold while carrying the Canadian flag in a parade down to the park where veterans dropped wreaths and I hoped my chattering teeth weren't audible during the minute of silence. Afterwards there was always skating and watered down hot chocolate at the skating rink for all the students to attend. This is what I knew until of Remembrance Day until I was fifteen.
The summer I turned fifteen, I was able to go eight hours south with our Girl Guide troop to Prince George,BC where we would meet with other Guides from all over the world at a camp called S.O.A.R. There were girls everywhere with accents I'd never heard outside of movies but unfortunately the weeklong camping trip was cut short when after two days in the rain a bad case of strep throat got the better of me forcing me to pack it in and stay with my grandparents for the remainder of the week while the rest of the troop, including my mom, camped it out.
My grandparents were amazing people, traditional but not to a fault. Sunday roast was at 4:00pm every week and plants and knick knacks littered their home. Although it wasn't fancy it had everything they needed from the rotary phone to the clothes line outside. Up until that point I had mostly spent time with my grandparents on long weekends when we would visit all the while stocking up supplies for the long winters up north, all the while shelling peas from the summer garden. This was the first time I had ever spent with them, one on one.
With typical teenage angst and boredom, even during sickness I balked at their lack of sugary cereals and cable tv and utilized my illness to get a lot of soups and white bread and coins to go play at the arcade down the street. I chatted with them about school and life in general, but it wasn’t until the second to last day, when all the Reader’s Digests had been read that actual conversations started to form. It was then that my grandpa asked if I wanted to go through some old photos with him. With shaking hands he opened a dusty trunk and out came yellowed crinkled photographs and the stories to go with each.
First Group of Photographs...Growing up in Gundy, BC. Farm life for the family. Church and family and chores split among siblings. He was proud of all the hard work his family had done for rural area of BC, since deserted for oil plains and valley suburbs. A village I was only able to visit in the years after his death and see through his eyes.
Second Group of Photographs...Family, brothers and sisters each with a story he told with a twinkle in his eye. Showing that sibling rivalry was universal throughout decades and demographics.
Third Group of Photographs...The War. Or more specifically World War Two. I'd known that my grandpa had been in the war fighting for Canada just as my other Grandpa had been in it fighting for the British, but is was something neither of them spoke about and we weren't to bring up. With a slow and steady voice he started to tell me his stories of the war. His truth.
A Photograph of Boys Carrying Guns... No older than those with fake id’s and high school diplomas. His friends. His brothers through the bonds that they shared and the horrors they saw.
A Photograph of Fatigues... Proud of the badges he wore but each one told a story of a battle he wished he wasn’t in. A test of daily survival. A memory of a war he, years later was still trying to forget.
A Photograph of His Brother... His identical twin. His mirror image. Both of them identical in stature and pose, tall and handsome. His best friend. They kept each other company, just as much as they kept each other sane. They fought in the war together for too long and were close to coming home to the lives they had back in Canada. Back in Gundy. Unfortunately both of them didn’t make it back. My great uncle, Kenneth Bulley died in battle in Italy. He buried his twin brother in a country he didn’t know during a war he didn’t want to be in.
With each story, it opened a door that had been closed shut for years. That he had to keep shut in order to go on, to come back, to survive, to marry, to live. A door that noone would understand unless you were there. It was there in his eyes, I saw it. The one person who understood was gone, and years later he opened me up to this horrific world he lived. These were not photographs from a text book, or from a A&E documentary. These were his life. Each story, told in a voice with emotion held back. Each photograph, yellowed and creased was a stamp of bravery and heartache. And in that moment, I got it. I really did.
I never told anyone about the talk we had until the next year when his sudden death had past and we were burying him in a graveyard in Gundy. Next to the headstone of his brother. His twin. It turns out that my ears were the only ones to have heard. Not his wife, my grandmother. Not his children, including my mother got to see the photographs I was able to see. To be honest, they seemed a little jealous that I had been given the experience they all wanted to ask about. Years later, I'm still not certain why me of all people, and why on that day he decided to share it all. But to be honest I'm glad he did. Because in that moment, suddenly Rememberance Day wasn’t about watered down hot chocolate and frozen fingers, it was about war tearing apart families and brothers. It was about honour and courage. It was about trying to move forward, but never, ever forgetting.