Remembrance Day is an institution for me. I think that as children, years are marked out for us, pass by in measures of things like Valentine’s cards and birthdays, which burned as the points of our years like the markers on a compass. But I lived in a small town. And bookmarked, between those blurred memories of holding hands with my mother and father as we sought out the best places to trick-or-treat, and those of wintertime with white lights in the trees and bells hung from the street lamps, is Remembrance Day. That was one of the points in the compass of my year growing up.
Maybe it was because I went through Girl Guides, and later Scouts, and I was always in the parade. Maybe it was the assembly we had every year in my elementary school, and that music video for “A Pittance of Time,” that still makes me cry. Maybe it was the years of gluestick poppies, or the photo of my grandfather in his uniform sitting in the bookcase. But more than anything, I attribute it to the size of my hometown.
I’m not from the Maritimes. I’m from outside of Vancouver, a place called Maple Ridge. It was supposed to be called that for maples on the hillside, but whatever maples there may have been are long gone. It’s all cedars and cottonwoods, a scattering of Douglas Fir. Cradled by the Fraser River, just at the edge of the valley. It was a farming town, even when my parents moved there going on thirty years ago. It was small, and it isn’t anymore. But it was fishing on the river, logging in the mountains, and felt like Grover’s Corners. Very much like the lovely, half asleep places I’ve driven through in rural New Brunswick; the only real difference is our lack of those shocking fall leaves. The biggest similarity is the sense of loss in November.
I can remember the first time I realized. I was 11 or 12, and I was in my Scouts uniform, and I was listening to the names being read off the cenotaph, the list of those who had died in the Great War, in the Second World War. I realized how long it took to get through all of those names, and I realized how much smaller my town was when those people died. It was nothing but a little Main Street, some shops, and a post office – it was all farms. And all of those people died. That’s the first time I really cried. I cried for more than the song in the assembly being sad and making me think of what it would be like to have to lose my father; I cried about the names and the people who stood where I stood and lived where I live, and never got to live there again.
I went back to the cenotaph after Remembrance Day was done, and read the rest of the names. Those from Korea who weren’t read out. And at the Legion, the faces and names of all the others – Afghanistan, Iraq, the UN Missions – and all of the people who were still alive, who had come home. There was a connection there for me, a girl whose grandfather served in the Second World War, but who lived. For so many people my age, that connection is more distant – a great grand-parent, an uncle twice removed. But for me it was close. I requested his records when I applied for my Legion membership, tied that into my own narrative.
I guess my point is that even though COVID bars me from what I usually do on Remembrance Day, I still kept my own act of remembrance. I had my poppy, my white lily; I put a toonie in the collection jar. I read the poems I always read, I had my moment of silence. I listened to the sad song, and I thought of my grandfather. I thought of the man whose grave I stood over in the snow, with a plastic candle, in the national cemetery in Ottawa. I thought of the boy from my hometown whose name on the cenotaph is the same as my brother’s.
There’s something different about remembering in a small town. Fredericton may not be very small, but it was once. The dominant feeling I have, the one I have always on November 11, is a feeling of smallness. I felt small looking at the memorial at Vimy, the same way I felt small looking at John McRae’s gun in the war museum. I feel small in comparison to those whose memories I keep, and I feel small in remembering the cenotaph back home, which I always remember from the perspective of a child. It’s always the same. “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning…” And in that memory I am holding hands with my mother, and I am too small to see the wreaths being laid down, but I can see people crying. Planes fly over. It’s quiet, and then the gun sounds. And the person with the microphone finishes, as they always do, as they always will.
“We will remember them.”