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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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In the photo, my mum is wearing a navy pantsuit with a tiny Canadian flag over her heart on the lapel. White hair, cut just below her ears, is neatly turned under in a tight page boy that only pink sponge curlers can create. She looks small standing in front of a limestone grey wall imprinted with names too tiny to read. Eighteen years ago, I gave her the photo in a red, wooden frame that says “Love” at the bottom. My mum died five years later. The photo sits on my bookcase now. Only I know that the smile on her face says “I did it,” as she stands by the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme Battlefields in France.

My great uncle William Kinvig died at the Battle of the Somme. Initially, I didn’t know much about him or the battle. I found out it was one of the bloodiest of the First World War, with 57,000 British casualties on the first day. By the end of the campaign, the Allies and central powers would lose 1.5 million men. British military leaders failed to comprehend the situation, and that led to the slaughter of wave after wave of young men. My great uncle was part of the wave.

The family was surprised when my mother told us she wanted to travel to the memorial, because she hadn’t talked much about William. But my father had passed away and Mum was getting frailer, so she would need company on the trip. Who would take her all that way to pay tribute to an uncle no one knew? A year passed with no takers. Although we’d had a relationship full of love and anger that could unravel at any time, I asked her to come with me and my husband, John, on my birthday trip to France. Yes, it would include a visit to the Thiepval Memorial. She was all in for the trip.

When we arrived in Paris, the weather was miserable.

“I told you we should have gone in May,” she said every time it rained.

“Yes, but my birthday is in April,” I answered.

It was pouring when we picked up the rental car a few days later for the trip to the memorial, two hours north of Paris. “Couldn’t you have found something closer so we didn’t have to get soaked?” she needled me. But, as John manoeuvred traffic jams and a few wrong turns out of Paris, her mood changed. A sense of calm radiated from my mother. She was a woman with a purpose again. I sensed her excitement as she eagerly looked out at the passing countryside.

The skies turned azure blue and were filled with billowing cumulus clouds by the time we arrived at the memorial, near the tiny village of Thiepval. We all scrambled out of the car and walked toward the mammoth monument. It loomed over us, some 45 metres high, with four massive interlocking arches, sitting upon a six-metre podium. At the foot of the memorial, a garden of 600 gravestones and crosses lined up neatly in the well-kept grass, representing the shared sacrifice of unknown French and British Commonwealth soldiers buried there. The Thiepval Memorial is the largest Commonwealth memorial to missing soldiers in the world.

My mum had one thing on her mind: finding William Kinvig’s name among the more than 72,000 inscribed on the stone arches. I wasn’t going to be the one to tell her it would be near impossible. We each took a side, going through the names, craning our necks up and down the walls. Then she found him. John and I gathered around, and we all reached up to touch his name. Although my parents had left everyone behind when they immigrated to Canada from Edinburgh, this young man, my great uncle, suddenly felt like family. I looked over at my mum. She was smiling. I took the photo of her under William’s name.

As we stood in front of the memorial, she told us that all her life, she wondered about the uncle who died before his life could begin. Her father, James Kinvig, two years younger than his brother William, survived the Battle of the Somme with shrapnel forever lodged in his body. But he wouldn’t talk about the war. My mum confessed she saved a special place for William in her heart, even after all these years in Canada.

Walking back down the steps and through the fields, we found loose shrapnel and stones, and put some in our pockets. None of us wanted this moment to end. John suggested we visit a strange little place nearby called Le Tommy Restaurant, Museum and Souvenirs. The owner, Dominique Zanardi, an eccentric French amateur historian and collector, showed us around. The restaurant sign invited passersby to “Eat in memory of the soldiers of the First World War." My mother laughed at the strangeness of it all.

Dominique went out of his way to look up information in the official records he collected. We learned that Private William Kinvig of the Royal Scots, 16th Battalion, died Aug. 1, 1916 – 30 days after the battle started. I thought of William at 21; a young, inexperienced soldier, blown apart in bloody combat at the Battle of the Somme; his scattered bones now buried deep in the earth around the monument. Although I’d never even seen a photo of him, William became real at that moment. I glanced at my mum, but she looked away.

Eventually, we made our way to the outdoor museum, which consisted of two trenches, German and British, each about two metres deep, with a thick line of sandbags on top. Inside, most of the mannequins were wearing full uniform and positioned with camouflaged bayonets ready to shoot. Some were crouching with cigarettes in hand. Their boots were in mud, and fake rats floated in the dirty water. It looked claustrophobic, cold and lonely down there. Suddenly, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary blasted through the outdoor loudspeakers.

My mum held her hand to her mouth, faltering for a second, then she was sobbing. “Now I know why my dad never spoke of this,” she whispered, leaning on me for the first time in my life. I gave her a Kleenex and a big hug. Her brown eyes said it all, but the moment was over quickly. My Scottish mum gave a tight smile and quickly pulled herself together as the three of us linked arms. We passed the trenches on the way out and never looked back.

Karen McCall lives in Toronto.