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First Person The random, yet meaningful, gathering at my local cenotaph

Wenting Li

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

This week, First Person reflects on the pride and the heartache of Remembrance Day.

Last Remembrance Day, a gathering developed spontaneously at the cenotaph in Trafalgar Square in downtown Guelph. There were no marching bands, no medals or speeches, no decorations – well, a plastic wreath – nothing official at the war memorial in this small southwestern Ontario city. Fewer than 100 people, warmly dressed for the sub-zero weather, attended. The temperature had hit a record-breaking -13 C when four young cadets sequentially stood guard throughout the night. A piercing wind wound its way around the city’s hills, rivers and churches and through the downcast crowd, on its way to the soaring granite and bronze monument and glistening black Memorial Wall.

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Designed by Alfred Howell and dedicated in 1927, the monument “represents immortality growing out of sacrifice” and is expressed in the vertical alignment of a crucifix-like figure with a soldier standing above looking up toward an ethereal alabaster personage.

Although the group standing around the monument had been drawn together by mutual motivation to honour those who served or to mourn those who had died, nothing was officially said. There may have been a lingering anger, too, because of the local men who were killed by friendly fire and training fatalities in the Second World War. My uncle, Flying Officer William Hugh Skelton, was one of 15 Guelph airmen killed in aviation accidents. If there was anger, or any other emotion, there was no public articulation.

Nearing the hallowed hour of 11, a slim man in a lightweight uniform, wearing a beret and no gloves, marched to the proscenium of the nine-metre tall monument. He made a precise about-face and stood ramrod rigid, unflinchingly at attention despite the cold; he stared over the heads of the crowd. Someone down near the street began to sing O Canada. In halting, sorrowful tones, the crowd quietly joined in: “O Canada, our home and native land.”

I can surmise the protectionism felt by my Uncle Bill. Hitler’s march across Europe unleashed true patriot love, and the need to stand on guard for our way of life. Another uncle, Moore, Bill’s brother, was a private in the Canadian Army Algonquin Regiment based in Holland. After the war, he returned home, but was never the same. He wandered about; never settled. Apparently, he died in British Columbia. Maybe he suffered from what was then called “shell shock.” Today, it would be called post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ll never know. Not only did my poor grandmother outlive two of her children, she was not able to attend either of their funerals, (society’s attempt at healing). As a youngster, I never recognized her grief. Now, as a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, I understand.

At 11 o’clock, by whose watch nobody seemed to know, the milling about and muted conversations stopped. The traditional two minutes of silence began. It lasted much longer. Then, people removed their poppies and some ascended the steps of the memorial to place their symbol of remembrance at its base or in the wreath. Individuals with a photograph of their lost loved one slowly walked up the memorial steps and held it out for the crowd of strangers watching in sympathetic silence to see. Now, there were tears. And hugs. And silent prayers.

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At some point, the uniformed officer who stood at attention left. Gradually, others began to leave.

Each soul there was remembering, like me. My Uncle Bill, a smiling, joking kind of guy, his memory springs alive as I look back. He was the kind of person who paid attention to a little kid like me. In hand-me-down photos, I see a handsome, patrician profile with black curly hair, like his older brother, Douglas – my father. In one photo, Bill stands at attention in his airforce uniform with a broom over his shoulder like a rifle and a sideways smile on his face. Little did he know.

After studying engineering for three years, Bill joined the British RAF in 1941. Why the RAF? Nobody knew. Next news, he was missing in action. Years later, an unnamed, undated newspaper clipping surfaced that reported my Granny was notified he had been killed in a training operation in England and buried in the United Kingdom. Did he join up to be accidentally killed? His future gone with only me left to remember? Of course not.

Here, on a cold, windy, grey morning, on a knoll at the foot of a Memorial Wall and Monument, with the Union Jack and the Maple Leaf on either side thrusting skyward, stood a group bonded together by mourning and memory. It wasn’t the only ceremony in Guelph that day. Organized events were conducted simultaneously elsewhere. But from where I stood, an unseen hand had lent invisible order to the unceremonial ceremony that morning.

Each individual, in their own personal, quiet way, honoured those who gave their life in the defence of freedom. Their silence said so much.

Joan Skelton lives in Guelph, Ont.

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