This time of year brings reflection and sadness. In some ways, I think everyone is touched by war but memories of WWI and II are fading quickly as history is pushed back even farther, and the veterans are passing on. For reasons I cannot explain, I am deeply touched by a virtual stranger, a figurehead in name only, my grandfather. Of course I’ve heard stories about him but they are only words, tales spun of a martyred man who died well before his time. I’ll never know the real person, the man who laughed and loved, made mistakes and cried. What I do know, the only tangible truth of his existence besides his progeny, hangs on my upstairs wall in the form of a photograph; a small, frozen moment of his life. Posed in his army uniform, he's dapper and handsome and I suppose I should be grateful for the portrait because there wouldn’t have been such a detailed likeness to treasure if not for the war....but it's not exactly a fair trade; taking away the real flesh and blood man to leave behind a mere facsimile.
For me, the most striking aspect of the photograph is his eyes. They look at me, though me and beyond. It is neither eerie nor comforting and I can’t find the words to describe exactly how I feel as I look at him, but there's a familiarity, a connection like a plug to an outlet. We simply belong, he and I, and if one can have a relationship with a piece of photographic paper, than we do. His portrait hangs in my upstairs hallway and those eyes greet me as I begin my day, seeming to speak to me as I emerge from my bedroom doorway. Larry Willoughby Veinotte, born 1908, died in Sicily 1943, fighting in a war that took him from home and family, where he lies in a grave on foreign soil.
Out of work and without prospects, he signed up to fight as a means to support his family. A loving, selfless thing to do in depressed times with a wife and four children to clothe and feed. He was older, in his mid-thirties, really too old to enlist but there are stories that he somehow lied to enlist. Statistically they say the older you are in combat the higher the risk of mortality. Age brings out compassion for your fellow man, a split second to stop and think, hesitation to pull the trigger when the enemy has a face. War is not a place for emotions, its every man for himself amidst the violence, chaos, and confusion. War is hell, no two ways about it and as civilians, we can’t begin to understand the suffering of those who perished or those who live on with the memories of their dying comrades etched on their brains, the fear that burned inside them, the flashbacks and night sweats and sadness in their gut that eats their spirit from the inside out. I see the tears flow from aging eyes during televised memorial services. They are reliving the horror and the sadness, the loss of friends. The men of war made the ultimate sacrifice whether they died or came back to their loved ones. Surviving didn't mean total freedom as war stole their innocence and their youth and plagued them with horrific memories. We should never forget that their pain allowed others to exist in countries where you can awaken to the sound of bird’s singing instead of mortar fire and the mournful sounds of mother’s who lost their sons.
As the story goes, my grandfather died trying to save a buddy. He crawled out of his fox hole to drag a friend to safety, a friend from his own hometown of Mahone Bay. Unfortunately the soldier was already dead and my grandfather took a bullet in the process. He bled to death in a medic tent, but not before he wrote a letter to his wife, my grandmother. I’ve never seen the letter, only heard of its existence, and I don’t know if I would read it even if it hadn’t been lost many years ago. That would have been their private moment to own, not mine to intrude upon, but I do reflect on what words and thoughts one might relay if death was staring you in the face with only a few moments to say good bye to the ones you love.
So every year around this time I become melancholy and park myself on the sofa and watch war documentaries, searching the faces for a chanced glimpse of familiarity. As more and more footage is released and the world today allows for more graphic accounts of what war was really like, you see what weaponry can do to flesh and bone, and with black and white film being enhanced with colour, you are able to distinguish the mud from the blood. I sit with tears in my eyes and horror in my heart unable to imagine what those men felt at the front of any battle.
Every November I put my grandfather’s picture in the window of my shop and a small note about his sacrifice, to breathe life into his fading memory for the people in town that might still know of his story and to educate those who don't. So much time has passed it might seem irrelevant to some, but not every part of him is gone. I’m here and I want to preach from my soap box that Larry Willoughby Veinotte mattered. He was loved; a brother; a husband; a father; a living, breathing person....and then was taken away. Our entire family is collateral damage of that war, we can't even begin to know what we missed from not having him in our lives. I watched my father destroy himself because he wasn't strong enough to stamp out the palpable sadness of his loss. So for me, it is difficult to celebrate this day of remembrance. Lest We Forget? Personally I can't. If only I could.
Once again I return home from the Cenotaph under a cloak of sadness. As the names of the fallen were called out and the wreaths accumulated at the base of the monument, I had tears in my eyes, hiding behind dark glasses so no one would see. It is so out of character for me to be that emotional but this gets me, right there in the heart. We haven't evolved or learned anything from past mistakes, war still exists and more fathers, husbands, sons and daughters are dying. The fact that the human race can't get along angers me and I resent war and the collateral damage that results from it, but I guess that's my cross to bear.