Born 1908 Mahone Bay
Died and buried in Sicily 1943. One of 116,000 Canadian soldiers that never came back home.
I wasn't fortunate enough to know my grandfather, but genetically I am parts of him, and because of him I am alive.
Sadly, there have never been any hugs or bedtime stories, sitting cuddled on his lap in the old family rocking chair, no memories of my own to savor, just relayed accounts of his brief stay on this earth from the few who still remember him. War robbed me of those experiences and although it was necessary to free the world of a fascist regime, that doesn't mean it hurts any less.
My grandfather died when my father was only seven, leaving a boy without a significant male role model and I firmly believe it was the largest contributing factor of him growing up unhappy. My father was a very sensitive man and somehow the loss left a cloud over his life; a hole that nothing could fill although he made a gallant effort to drown it in alcohol. He cried over his father every time he drank and since I was a young girl, I knew how deeply effected he was by the loss, which continued to impact his life until he passed away.
War is indiscriminate, it doesn't just take soldiers. It can destroy families and rob what might have been. I feel my father's life, and even my own, would have been a totally different story if my grandfather had been one of the lucky ones to come home. I believe I grieve for a man I never met because his loss took my father from this earth...from me prematurely. I believe in my heart that my father would have been a happier man, one who could have been contented to live in his own skin.
For reasons I cannot explain, I am deeply touched by a virtual stranger, a figurehead in name only. Of course I’ve heard stories about him but they are only words, tales spun of a 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, his progeny aside, is the tangible proof of his existence that hangs on my upstairs wall in the form of a framed photograph; a small, frozen moment in time. Posed in the 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 are my father's eyes and the same eyes that stare back at me in the mirror. 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 go to war but there are stories that he somehow put forth a good argument 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, reluctance to pull the trigger when the enemy has a face. War is not a place for emotions, it's every man for himself amidst the violence, chaos, and confusion. A split second of hesitation can be the difference between life and death.
As the story goes, my grandfather died trying to save a buddy. He crawled out of the trenches to drag a friend to safety, a friend from his 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 is 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 glimpse of familiarity. As more and more footage is released showing us what war was really like, you see what weaponry can do to flesh and bone, and with coloured footage, distinguish the mud from the blood. I sit with tears in my eyes and horror in my heart unable to imagine what those soldiers felt at the front of any battle.
Every November the sadness overcomes me as I wonder what might have been. 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 deal with, or stamp out the palpable sadness of his loss. It is so out of character for me to be a babbling fool, but this gets me, right in the heart.
And I'm angry, we haven't evolved or learned anything from past mistakes. War and conflict still exist and more fathers, husbands, sons and daughters are dying. The fact that the human race can't get along upsets me and I resent war and the collateral damage that results from it. Yesterday morning I looked out the window at the blue sky and shining sun and pondered going to the Cenotaph, to stand with the families of the fallen but I was too sad. I'll stay home and shed private tears and watch Remembrance Day from the sofa. Lest We Forget? Personally I can't. If only I could......