Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Today is Remembrance Day. I'll spare you the oft-repeated passages about sacrifice, courage, and honor - not to lessen the horror of war, nor the strong will of those who face it, but because I think sometimes we forget that behind the mask of the military, there are people.

Although I was less than a gleam in my parents' as-yet-uncreated eyes when my paternal grandfather went to war, I still remember that he wouldn't talk about it when I was a young girl. (My grandfather died in 1991. I was barely 12 years old.) I'm not really sure where he fought: for years, I thought he'd been in the Pacific, but I have photos he took of captured German subs. My mother says he never spoke of the war in all the time she knew him, though my father still keeps a big blue metal chest in the basement; I fancifully think it may be Grampy's sea chest. I really don't know what's in it.

I like to think that my grandfather, in his own way, didn't want anyone to share in what he suffered in the war. The cynic would say he probably just wanted to forget, but in not speaking of it, my grandfather helped the world retain a bit of innocence. If we don't teach our children what war is, then why would they have reason to wage it? And since I can't tell you what it is he didn't tell us about war, I can tell you what I do remember of him.

The things I remember most about him are the way he smelled of aftershave and Export A cigarettes, and how it never bothered me even though I was terribly asthmatic. His constant stubble and prickly mustache on my cheek was very comforting.

How we used to wash the big blue truck together, and how when I was seven years old that could be the most exciting part of summer vacation. A bucket of soapy water, a big soft sponge, and a strong hand guiding mine on the hubcaps would make my day.

How he and my grandmother taught me and my brothers how to swim in the pool in their backyard, and how he used to make us fly through the air in the little floater. When I turned eight or nine, I was finally old enough (read: strong enough) to help him put the cover on the pool at night, and take it off in the morning.

And how cozy it felt to sit in the middle of the front bench seat in the giant Olds, the hot burgundy naugahyde searing the backs of my skinny little legs when we went to the post office in the afternoons, Grampy driving, and Grammy on my right.

But what makes me sad are the things I can't remember, like how he used to ruffle our hair before bedtime and call us... what? Some strange little pet name that probably drove my mother crazy. It's on the tip of my mental tongue, but I can't remember it.

Or what his naval tattoo really looked like. I think it was on his left arm, and probably involved an anchor. Or was it his right arm? Did it have lettering? Or dates? Was it blue? Black? That faded greenish color of ancient inks?

What did his voice sound like? I remember a gravelly rumble, no doubt caused by the smoking destroying his lungs and heart, but I can't remember exactly what it sounded like.

So although I've missed the traditional minute of silence in writing this, I've been silent whilst writing it, and been remembering him like I only seem to do around this time of year. I think that more than counts.

Once, a few years ago, I had a very vivid dream where the doorbell rang and when I answered it, it was him. He was wearing his long blue coat, and looking a little annoyed that the door was closed. I gaped at him, and said (rather calmly, under the circumstances), "But... you're dead!" He looked around furtively, keeping an eye out for the rest of my family, and whispered conspiratorially, "Not really. They just think I am."

As I sit here and hear the mundane sounds of suburbia outside my window, I wonder how many more things I'll forget about him in the coming years. I hope I remember much more than I forget.

Wait... Buckwheat. He called us Buckwheat.