Remembrance Day (Veteran’s Day in the US I believe), is an emotional day for millions of people around the world.
There are many people who say we should forget the wars. They say we shouldn’t keep looking back.
And maybe they are right, maybe we shouldn’t dwell on past wars.
But one thing we must never forget is the untold misery, along with the devastation that wars have caused to ordinary people who lost their precious family members.
Three days ago, I was going through a small box of things with my mum and had a stark reminder that the pain of loss never really goes away.
So, three days before Remembrance Day, there was mum and me, laughing our heads off as we found old drawings, cards and trinkets from when my sister and I were children, 50 years ago.
We were both in good spirits and enjoying our trip down memory lane.
Then, at the bottom of the box, I found a small brown package with dull faded writing and an official government stamp.
As I picked the box up, I could see it had been sent in the post to someone a very long time ago.
I began to say, “What is….” to ask mum what it was. But my voice tailed off as I saw it was addressed to my grandmother at the house where she lived in the 1940s.
As I handed it silently to my mum, I knew before she said anything that it was to do with the beloved brother who was lost to the war in 1943.
My husband had just arrived at my parents’ house and was also in the room with us.
As mum gently opened the box, I could see there was something wrapped in a small translucent paper bag that had gone brittle with age.
Mum then said, “Oh this was what they sent mum after…”
My eyes filled with tears and I looked at my husband whose eyes also looked a little misty.
None of us could speak. It was clear that my mother’s pain is still very much there in her heart.
Charlie had been in the army for very short time when my grandma was called out of a family party in March 1943 to be given the news that her youngest son was dead at 19 years old.
My mother was 15 and was devastated. The brother she loved and looked up to was gone…just like that…gone forever. My grandma never got over the loss of her boy.
She had no husband in whose chest she could bury her face and scream for her child. My grandfather had died of cancer several years earlier leaving her to face life alone.
The army sent a wreath to her and that wreath, my mother tells me, remained on the wall above the fireplace for many years.
By the time I was born, the war had been over for 11 years. Charlie had been dead for 13 years by then and it would be many years before I learned about this tragedy in the family.
I was almost 5 when my grandma died aged 72. She was a very old 72 compared to today’s women and I am sure it must have been the death of her youngest son that made her that way.
It is so easy to look back now and see the Second World War as being so distant, the family losses can’t possibly still be painful.
But that is not true at all. The pain of my mother’s loss is still real because I can see it and feel it and it makes me cry too that she suffered that misery at 15.
It makes me cry to read the words my grandmother had to read when her heart was already broken.
And my mum had to deal with her own loss while watching her beloved mother suffer so badly under the weight of her grief. Then there was the rest of the war for them to get through knowing Charlie was never coming home.
And then, at the end of it all, the little brown box arrived in the post addressed to my grandmother.
Underneath Charlie’s medal, folded into four, was a printed note. A generic note sent to all grieving mothers, wives, sisters and brothers but with the name of the loved one neatly typed in.
“…the Council share your sorrow that in respect of whose service it is awarded did not live to receive it.”
As I hold the little box in my hand and stare at my grandmother’s name on the front, I am left wondering what on earth she went through, as a mother, when that policeman came to call her out of the party that day.
The war aspect is almost irrelevant. She was a mother who lost her child. Just because it was wartime and many people were losing loved ones would not have made it any less of a trauma.
What did she go through when the war was over and the postman walked up the garden path to give her that box?
What was it like for the postmen delivering thousands of these little boxes all over the country?
Years ago, when I was a press photographer, each year, I had to attend various Remembrance Day events.
In the early years of my career, Remembrance day was observed on the Sunday closest to November 11th and I would go to the Cenotaph for the yearly service of Remembrance.
But then, the local Council in my hometown began having ceremonies at the Fields of Honour in the local cemetery on November 11th, no matter what day it fell on.
They invited local school children to come and stand in front of the graves to observe the two minute silence and then lay poppies on crosses on the graves.
Very often, I would get sent to the Fields of Honour for the two minute silence on November 11th. And each year, I stood by the same grave.
It was not until I began having conversations with my mum about her brother that I found out he is buried in the Fields Of honour at our cemetery.
So I went up there to find him. Before I went, I almost knew what I was going to find – his grave was the one where I always stood for the two minute silence.
And I had never noticed his name.
My grandma is buried further down the hill in front of the Fields of Honour.
I would love to believe they were reunited in death – my grandparents and their son.
For many years now, I have been going to Charlie’s grave on November 11th to lay my own cross and poppy. He gets two because new generations of school children are continuing the tradition. So he gets mine and one from an anonymous child.
This year, I won’t be going. I am so tired, year after year, of watching small town politicians and hanger-on council staff dominating the proceedings.
I am sick of watching big fat civic fish, sploshing around in the tiny pond of local government, using days like this to come out and parade their self-importance.
The Second World War veterans are getting fewer and fewer and who really wants to see ‘civic dignitaries’ and office workers who should be, well, in the office working.
It’s lovely seeing the children and it would be great in future, to see lots of ordinary people there instead of our so called representatives who strut around as if they are more important than those who elect them (or who pay their wages in the case of the Council officers).
Last year, I witnessed council office workers who have no useful reason to be there, driving into the cemetery to park their cars while the people who pay their wages were turned away and told they could not park.
I have written this instead of being there and I have Charlie’s picture out on the table next to his medal along with a poppy.
My mother let go of Charlie’s medal. She said she has been keeping it all these years and…
She didn’t say any more than that. After today, it will go into my safety deposit box and stay there with a copy of this story ready for all my grandmother’s great-great grandsons and daughters to see one day when we are all gone.
I don’t want Charlie to ever be forgotten.
Pictures from the 2015 Remembrance Day ceremony at the Fields of Honour
Remembrance Day is many things to many people – for me it is a time when I acknowledge the old pain in my family and think about what it did to each family member and friend of Charlie.
I remember my grandma and and think about her life. I think about my own life and how easy it has been compared to hers. I give thanks for her life and all those like her that made my easy life possible.
We must never forget what our families went through and how many of those little brown boxes were sent out to sad parents who would go to their graves with only distant memories of the sons and daughters who never grew old.
I would like to end with a beautiful song written by Elsa who is almost seven. Her mum and dad have very kindly let me use this.
It is encouraging to find, that while no one wants to dwell on war, those who gave their lives over 70 years ago are being written about by today’s children. Thank you Elsa for making this lovely song and picture.
Life does go on – children like Elsa are our future.
What does Remembrance day mean to you?