We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. from “In Flanders Fields,” John McRae, MD
This pin keeps poking me. The experienced girls in the class, the ones who grew up in Toronto and Saskatoon instead of the Congo or Kandern or Seattle, told me to put an eraser on the pointy end. But then, they also told us how when they were little, they’d take the bent pins out of their felt and plastic red poppies and bore them through their fingernails.
This is my first Remembrance Day. Three weeks ago, one of my colleagues told me she’d written to the Canadian Legion, asking “if they’d mail some poppies for our Canadian History class.” I’d smiled, thanked her, and then then gone online to find out what she meant. A week ago, she proudly handed me an envelope full of red plastic poppies at the ends of bent silver pins.
“Remembrance Day is a big deal in Canada,” she’d told me then.
The news of Remembrance Day’s status struck me as important. Given the relative briefness of Canada’s history, our course has taken on a few extra goals as the year has progressed. In addition to the political, social, economic, and geographic factors that have conspired to make Canada who she is today, we on occasion explore the identity of Canadians themselves. What do they do? What do they like? What upsets them? What do they celebrate? We’re uncovering a culture, hoping in the end to have more of a reply to the question “What is a Canadian?” than “NOT an American.”
We could celebrate this holiday, I thought dimly, plunging into research on the rituals of Remembrance Day (called Armistice Day in continental Europe and Veterans’ Day in the US). I soon discovered that while we can with food and crafts play our way through Canada Day and Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day must be solemn and reflective. I read through prayers and readings, the program of the first service in Canada in 1933. I listened to recordings the “The Last Post” and children reading “In Flanders Fields.” Thanks to the miracle of online museums I read dozens of letters and telegrams, journal entries and postcards from front lines. I heard the memories of individuals, men and women living out their darkest days in defense and honor of their countries.
I confess that I struggled to put together a program for Remembrance Day, because I cannot recall as a child ever participating in a meaningful ritual for Veterans’ Day. Though this is hardly the case everywhere in America, my experience with the holiday has been one of detachment and perplexity, sometimes little more than an extra day off from school. Like many of my generation, I have trouble mustering patriotism when I think of the wars that I’ve lived through, seeing narrow interests and injustice more often than the defense of the defenseless that drew both my grandfathers into military service as young men.
Yet today, as I listen to my students reading the words of their ancestors, words of despair and hope, love and loss, I realize that I don’t get to decide where honor is due. We read the words of those who held their own lives loosely, willing to let go of future, life and love in order to preserve them for posterity. In unearthly paintings, we see veterans’ landscapes of surreal horrors, places that humans should never have to go. As we read a month ago, from a trench in France, wars are fought by individuals, people whose sacrifice commands my gratitude.
“For those of us born during peacetime,” reads one of my students from the Canadian Veterans’ Affairs Office website, “All wars seem far removed from our daily lives….On Remembrance Day, we acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of those who served their country and acknowledge our responsibility to work for the peace they fought hard to achieve.”
On Remembrance Day, we remember that honoring veterans doesn’t mean we give up on peace or glorify war. Rather, we gather together in gratitude, pausing to be thankful for those who’ve fought for us already.
So thank you, Romaine Dahlstrom and Ed Michaelsen. Thank you, countless generations of young people, all over the world, who’ve set your lives as the ransom for your children and grandchildren’s future. Let us never forget you.