This week, First Person reflects on the pride and the heartache of Remembrance Day.
I go to the cenotaph alone. My sons live far from home, and my extended family lives on the East Coast. In all the years I have been attending Remembrance Day services in Kelowna, B.C., I had not seen a familiar face until last year.
The pipe band had just entered City Park, the walkway thronged with people clapping as the grey-haired veterans marched by, their navy blazers gleaming with medals, the bagpipes wailing “There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier, who wandered far away and soldiered far away.” I was dabbing my eyes when an arm reached around my shoulder. “A hard day for you,” whispered a friend who had served in the air force decades ago and knew of my losses.
It is just as well I come to the cenotaph alone. I cannot talk. As soon as the bagpipes skirl faint in the distance, my tears erupt from a well of pent-up sadness.
I picture my father, Angus Clifford Murray, a 19-year-old farm lad from Tatamagouche, N.S., when he enlisted with the Cape Breton Highlanders during the Second World War. His framed service certificate always hung in the dining room of my grandparents’ farmhouse. In the centre was a black-and-white photo of my handsome young father, a carefree grin on his face and a roguish tilt to his beret.
I tried to imagine that morning in the spring of 1941 as he strolled down the lane with a rucksack on his back: He would turn around to take one last look at the red farmhouse where he was born, then head down the dirt road to hitchhike to Truro and catch the train, then board the ship in Halifax that would carry him overseas.
Clifford survived, and became my father nine years later. He never talked about his war. A man of few words, my father spoke more with his wide hazel eyes and his flashing smile. But once I overheard him telling my uncles about his platoon arriving in a Dutch village. “Bullets were zinging from every direction,” he said. “I have never been so scared in my life.”
In the mid-1950s, he re-enlisted, and only a few kilometres from our home in Oromocto, N.B., he met the enemy that would slowly and silently kill him. During the sixties, when my father worked every summer in Base Gagetown, Agent Orange and Agent Purple were being sprayed as defoliants. In 1968, he died suddenly of pulmonary fibrosis, a respiratory cancer associated with these herbicides. He was 45 years old.
On Remembrance Day, two years later, my sister was giving birth in the Oromocto hospital as the drone of bagpipes drifted up from the cenotaph down the hill. Her son, my nephew, carried on my father’s name as well as his spirit, the same gentle demeanour and reticent personality. He inherited his grandfather’s Second World War service certificate and his military medals.
Although Jeff grew up on army bases across Canada, he seemed immune to the family calling to the military. But at 30, he abandoned his PhD dissertation and enlisted – four days before Sept. 11, 2001. Six years later, and three months after the birth of his first child, Captain Jeff Francis was deployed to Afghanistan. On July 4, 2007, the armoured vehicle he was riding in with six other Canadian soldiers hit a roadside bomb. None of them survived.
Alone at the cenotaph, mourning my father and my nephew as well as the countless men and women who have served our country to their deaths, I am not alone. And that is why I come: to be part of this massive crowd, huddled together against the bitter wind blowing off Okanagan Lake. The day is gloomy, but as the bugler plays The Last Post the sun breaks through the thick clouds – St. Martin’s Summer. I gaze up at the light glinting in the grey sky and remember the legend of St. Martin, the patron saint of soldiers.
In the fourth century, 18-year-old Martin was on garrison duty in Amiens, France, on a freezing November day. He noticed a scantily clad beggar trembling in the cold. Martin slashed his lambs-wool cloak in two with his sword and gave half of it to the man. Later he came upon another beggar shivering by the roadside and offered him the remainder of his cloak.
As Martin resumed his journey, the sun burst through the clouds and the frost began to melt. That night, Martin dreamed he saw Jesus wearing half of his woolen cloak, a dream that set Martin on a life of piety. Legendary for his miracles, humility and benevolence, Martin was buried, at his request, in a cemetery for the poor on November 11.
It is that crack of light that lifts me, reminds me of the humanitarian ideals that inspire many soldiers: love of country, love of humanity, love of freedom. Though my eyes are blurry, and my feet seem too heavy to move, I follow the kilted pipers and drummers as they march from the park and wind through the streets. I follow until the bagpipes sound their final notes and the air echoes with their silence.
Melanie Murray lives in Kelowna, B.C.
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