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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

My family has a large veteran component who served overseas during the Second World War. Most of the people I went to school with from our small town also came from families with veterans, including some who never came home. As school children, we trooped to our local cenotaph on the shores of the Trent River every year for Remembrance Day services. Each one of us remembered the familiar faces of our fathers, uncles and other family members as we collectively recited In Flanders Fields. One of my uncles fought in Hong Kong and never completely recovered from his four-year internment as a prisoner of war in Japan. Three uncles fought in Europe, including one who was part of the Canadian forces who liberated Holland. They never discussed their service. Even my maternal grandmother was a war bride from the First World War, who met my Canadian grandfather when he was stationed in Folkestone, England. They were married on Nov. 11, 1918, Armistice Day.

My father is also a veteran but like most veterans, he’s modest about his service. He was stationed in Halifax in 1945 when the war in Europe officially ended. Along with thousands of other young Canadians who trained, many of them just teenagers like my father, he was ready to be shipped overseas but VE Day changed everything. Because he was never in combat, he was reluctant to call himself a veteran despite having spent a year and a half in the army. Three years ago he was a proud guest of honour when a new veterans’ memorial that includes his name was unveiled in his hometown of Roseneath, Ont.

Despite his obvious qualifications, he resisted applying for veterans’ benefits. Dad was in his 90s when I finally convinced him to let me contact Veterans Affairs about assistance for hearing aids. He thought there were others more deserving and insisted they should receive assistance instead of him. He finally agreed when I reminded him that most Second World War veterans were now gone, and he was entitled. The person I spoke with at Veterans Affairs acknowledged this a common response among older veterans. They were willing to lay down their lives for their country but reluctant to claim benefits for their service in case someone else needed it more.

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The Royal Canadian Legion was a large part of my life growing up. Our small town had an active Legion branch and my father served as its secretary and president of our local branch during the 1950s. The Legion was an integral part of the community, raising funds for local causes and bringing families together for picnics and Christmas parties, for weddings and funerals, and all sorts of social events. When my parents moved to Cornwall, Ont., in the 1970s, Dad lost touch with his original Legion branch but still paid his annual dues to support their work. For nearly 50 years he sent a cheque to a Legion he no longer attended.

Even in his later years, my father would demonstrate the optimism and fortitude that veterans are known for. There’s a reason his generation will be forever known as the Greatest Generation.

At 86, he planted a young apple tree in his garden. At the time, I thought that was the ultimate expression of optimism. Would he live long enough to enjoy the fruits of his labour? He did. Then, at the age of 90 and in need of more care, he moved into a lovely and caring retirement residence in Campbellford, Ont., our hometown. Situated on an island bordered by the tree-lined Trent Canal on the west and Ranney Falls gorge on the east, the residence exposed him to all kinds of new experiences, like trying haggis, mussels and cold cucumber soup for the first time. He began reading novels and attended weekly church services at the residence after not doing so for more than five decades.

Although he was too old to still be of service to his local Legion, Dad continued paying his Legion dues. When the pandemic forced the closure of his branch, he worried he wouldn’t be able to have a Legion funeral. But he continued to enjoy the Legion magazine, which arrived bimonthly, reading each issue cover to cover, often telling me about the articles he liked best.

Last year, the magazine had a promotional offer for Remembrance Day. If he prepaid his annual dues for five years, he would receive a commemorative Lest We Forget wristwatch. As an antique watch and clock aficionado, how could he resist? He didn’t have a computer to put in the order, so he called me to renew his membership for five years. That meant he’d be good to go until he reached 99. I expected him to last longer than the watch.

But my father died in February and because of COVID-19, not only were we unable to provide him with his Legion funeral but there was no funeral at all.

Dad was buried wearing his Lest We Forget watch and the inscription on his tombstone is from a poem by Robert H. Smith: “The clock of life is wound but once.” I miss him. And in the spring, maybe I’ll plant an apple tree in his name. Or, better still, a Canadian red maple. He’d like that.

Lynda (Duff) Davis lives in Mississauga, Ont.

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