Friday, November 11, 2011

Eleven Eleven I Remember You Grandpa

I Remember You Grandpa
by Sheena Koops
I remember you Grandpa, I remember you today.
I remember you Grandpa, I can hear your memory say,
"Be kind to all people, serve the peace in the land."
I remember you Grandpa, as I reach out for your hand.

Verse 1
One Grandpa joined the army, and sailed across the sea
They threw him in the brig once, as he ran to be free
Because a telegram from the prairie, said a little girl was born
How could he serve his country, when from his family torn.

Verse 2
One Grandpa was a pacifist, who preached the gospel news
He dreamed of utopia, sat with Tommy in the pews
And when Woodsworth stood in the Commons, and the members said "For Shame"
Grandpa wrote a letter, "For peace we'll lay a claim."

Verse 3
Both Grandpas were soldiers, and the one who carried a gun
He lead convoys through the darkness, until the victory was won
And the one who carried a bible, he pointed to the Light,
Yet the more he heard of Hitler, his heart joined the fight.

Tag: And sometimes, when I'm all alone, I feel so close to you
        And when I'm in no man's land, you're memory shines right through

Remembrance Day Service Address
Sacred Heart Church, Lebret, Saskatchewan
With special thanks to Ralph Blondeau for the invitation
November 11, 2010
When I was young, Remembrance Day was filled with ambiguity. One of my grandfathers, Peter Muirhead, from Estevan, Saskatchewan, served overseas with six of his brothers, one of whom did not return.  I was, and am, very proud of Grandpa Pete. My other grandfather, Cecil Bailey, born in Ontario, but living in India and all across the prairies, he was a pacifist. Grandpa Cecil was not officially a conscientious objector, as some of his friends were. My mother tells me that if he had been called up he would have gone in a non-combatant role. I was, and am, very proud of Grandpa Cecil.
Yet, on Remembrance Day, each year as I bowed my head, my mind would flit back and forth. Who was I there to remember? What did I think of war? How could I be proud of both a soldier and a pacifist?
Grandpa Pete would never talk of the war. There was no glorifying of his experience, and his sons were not allowed to own motor bikes because in Belgium and Holland, he’d had to drive a motorcycle at the front of convoys, most often at night with no headlights. He knew the danger; in fact, he even ripped off almost his entire nose, sliding underneath a truck he hit at night. The way the story goes, the army was low on anaesthetic and he told the medic, “Just sew it back on.” His nose was always a little crooked, and you could see the stitch lines if you looked close enough.
Grandpa Pete sacrificed much to go to war. He left behind my grandma, Laura, with two young sons (my father being his second son) and a baby on the way. My dad’s first memory of his own father was at five years of age. He was afraid of this stranger who took them to a picture show… but I’m getting ahead of myself. I was told that when Grandpa was on the ship going to Europe he received a telegram that his daughter, my auntie Norma had been born. He went crazy, so the story goes. They had to throw him in the brig overnight because they were afraid he might jump ship. What was he doing leaving his wife and young family alone on the prairies at Bromhead, Saskatchewan?
Granpa Cecil, on the other hand, spoke passionately about pacifism, feeling that the teachings of Jesus “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” were commands. He told us about Mahatma Ghandi’s civil disobedience bringing the British government to its knees. He told us the story of J.S. Woodsworth’s vote against Canada joining the Second World War. When Woodsworth stood to be counted, the entire House of Commons stood, pointed at Woodsworth and chanted, “Shame, Shame, Shame.” Grandpa Cecil wrote in support to J.S. Woodsworth who wrote back, and Grandpa cherished that letter for years. Grandpa Cecil believed in Social Justice as well, running for the Canadian Cooperative Federation, and working with Tommy Douglas for “the common good” as Grandma Lavine, his wife, used to say.
Just to make things even more confusing for me on Remembrance Day, I knew that my grandfathers and grandmothers had a great respect for each other. We shared Christmas Lutefisk for my Norwegian grandmothers and Grandpa Cecil, the pacifist, sang fighting Irish songs. (Both grandpas were Irish.) Granpa Pete listened thoughtfully to many sermons by Grandpa Cecil, the preacher. And Grandpa Cecil told me on numerous occasions that Grandpa Pete was one of the best men he knew.
So, as I bowed my head to remember, I was proud, but confused.
Let’s jump ahead to 1998. I now had a daughter of my own, and my husband, Michael, and I were teaching on a fly-in Dene First Nation reserve. It was the day before Remembrance Day and Michael, who was the Principal, had been publicly accused of being verbally abusive to a group of students (thankfully, he'd brought his female vice-principal in on the discipline meeting, so she was able to back him up) but anyway, these girls and two parents were spreading rumours in the community.
To make the long story short, it turned out well, the staff, students, and community  rallied around Michael. But, the next day at Remembrance Day, when I bowed my head for the moment of silence, I was angry. Someone I loved had been wronged and I was crazy with rage.
But then, as that moment of silence settled on me, it was like my grandfathers spoke to me in one voice, "Be kind to all people. Serve the peace in the land." And I realized, in that instance, that's what they both believed, even though one had gone to war and the other hadn’t.
I went home at lunch and immediately wrote the chorus of the song I now call, “I Remember You Grandpa.”  The verses came quickly that evening, although I did phone Grandpa Cecil who helped me with a couple of the lines. (He was a writer, himself, and his input is even more special now that he has passed on.)
I wish I could say that my anger which inspired the song disappeared overnight, but that Christmas I shook the hand of one of the parents and felt relief through that act of forgiveness.

An irony in the story of my grandfathers is that Grandpa Pete (who went to war) would never speak of the war to his family and I think it very much went against his nature. Grandpa Cecil (the pacifist) followed the war closely and his being was more of a fighter. I think it would have been his nature to fight, so in some ways, they both went against their nature to do what they thought was right.
All my grandparents taught me kindness through their life examples, and often this is very much against my nature. Likewise, my song reminds me that I cannot judge anyone. This is also against my nature. Part of serving the peace is doing what I know to be right, or at least what I hope to be right, and then trusting in the same kind of mercy and forgiveness I am willing to give others. Because as we judge, so we will be judged – this I believe – so there is no room for judging others. So many of us are doing the very best with what we’ve been given, and I think back to those who have lived through war time, and are living through war time right now, and I have a deep respect for the loaded decisions they are being asked to make. Indeed, decisions we are all being asked to make.
One last story I’d like to leave with you. When I travelled to Belgium in 1988 I remember riding the train to Antwerpen and wondering if my grandpa had looked on these fields. I stayed in Belgium for a month, living with friends. They took me to Brendunkenn work camp museum and we had the entire place to ourselves. I was separated from my friends, and wandered into a long room where prisoners served time in solitary confinement. The cage-like cells were about four feet high. I remember staring at one cell, scratches in the cement marking days passed, when I heard footsteps, lots of footsteps. Then I heard voices and the footsteps grew louder. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest when soldiers in uniforms walked past the doorway at the end of the hallway. They must have been on a tour.  Their voices and footsteps brought the place to life. Made me realize the humanity of living and suffering within those walls. Before we left the museum, I saw urns with ashes from all the major concentration camps, and for three nights afterwards, I had dark dreams, nightmares. I know this was only a taste of the horror.
Just before I left Belgium I ran into my friends’ elderly neighbour on their street that still wore bullet holes in the tall row houses. He asked me if I was from Canada. I said yes. He told me that he loved the Canadians. They liberated Antwerpen. He pointed to where the soldiers landed and explained the celebration that followed.
I told him that my grandfather had served in Belgium. This Belgian elder asked me if I would thank my grandfather for him.  I said yes I would. We chatted about the recycling he pulled in his wagon, and then we walked our separate ways. I didn’t tell my new friend that grandpa had passed away two years earlier. I wanted the thanks to be a living gift.
And today, I pass that thanks on to you. Thank you for the decisions you have made and are making to live in kindness and peace.
Thank you for listening. Each of you has given me a great gift today.

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