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The map shows where William Barnett Evans, pictured to the left, fought at Vimy Ridge during the First World War. Above are the medals he won. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
The map shows where William Barnett Evans, pictured to the left, fought at Vimy Ridge during the First World War. Above are the medals he won. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

First World War: How do we remember it meaningfully, a century later? Add to ...

Erich Maria Remarque based his classic, All Quiet on the Western Front, on his experiences as a soldier conscripted at 18, then seriously wounded. The novel debunked any notion of heroism and was, not surprisingly, one of the books later burned by the Nazis.

Everyone’s journey in recovering the stories of ancestors is an art in a way. So what do we get out of it? How does it serve us? As in this story, the act of writing one sentence after the other about a time and a man helps to create a picture that builds a bridge of understanding to a fading past and, if that connection is empathy, perhaps that’s the key.

Emotions help to collapse time. They are the powerful forces that bring us all to one level playing field, across time and space, background and ethnicity. They are what connect us, because we all feel what it means to be alive and to suffer.

“National rivalries and hatreds really do arise because of tremendous empathies that memory can elicit,” Prof. Moscovitch told me.

But looking back is just as easily a force for good. The recovery of my great-grandfather’s story taught me many things. Of course, there’s pleasure in unearthing a scene of otherness, in catching a glimpse of a lost world.

More important, the empathy his story provoked led to a kind of respectful observance. As one Globe and Mail reader says of the Great War vets in her family tree, “I believe, in learning about them, we honour them.”

But for everyone willing to invest the time and energy in rekindling a personal connection (whether the ancestor is theirs or someone else’s), the reward may be much greater than a keener understanding of the war that didn’t exactly end all wars. There also comes an understanding that all of us, no matter the era in which we live, are often motivated by the same timeless things – the desire to love, the need for courage, the will to carry on, the need to remember and the need to forget. There’s comfort in that; and freedom, too, because you realize that you can’t reinvent human existence, you just have to play it out, however much of it you personally have left.

But what stays with me the most is the realization of how little we can know about the past, about anyone, really, not just people who have died, but of those who are in our daily lives, who sleep in our beds, and with whom we believe we are sharing all of ourselves. Because we don’t, not completely. Thoughts are so private, so ephemeral, and often inexpressible in any medium. Truth is elusive and ever-shifting, just like memories. Everything is fluid.

“You are becoming the repository of your great-grandfather’s memory,” Dr. Mackay told me when we were discussing the hardship of finding truth in diaries and oral histories. “It’s an indirect connection and another kind of knowledge, but it is as valid as any direct connection.”

An acquaintance of mine, a psychologist, recently told me that, being Jewish, “I live with a memory of horror even if it’s not mine. It lingers still.” I now feel something similar. Despite my great-grandfather’s refusal to share his memories of the horror he witnessed, much that defined his nature lives on. I, too, recognize in myself and my family traits that have been handed down, like heirlooms of some sort, only unconsciously; inadvertently. They are waspish and arcane, sure – the desire to fulfill duty, to persevere, to be stoic in the face of hardship – but they’re part of how you push through the world.

We want to know what made us, what still somehow informs who we are. We can, to an extent, but maybe it’s meant to be a neverending, kaleidoscopic mediation. In Moon Tiger, a novel by British author Penelope Lively, whose work often deals with memory, the protagonist, Claudia, an aging historian, declares: “I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water.”

Maybe that’s all any of us can ever hope for. Still, there’s beauty in that. I can now imagine Major W. B. Evans and, in so doing, I bring him into the present, walking beside me. We dip into the sea of the past to retrieve hints of our genesis – but that’s not the only reason. The dead inform the living, but the living can also give to the dead. In recovering those who are lost, we give them life again, and thus verify that their sacrifices, hardships and disappointments have a lasting purpose.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified William Barnard Evans. This version has been corrected.

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