‘If peo­ple knew’: Lessons in de­cency from a Re­mem­brance Day mass

Nov. 11 is a re­minder of a par­tic­u­lar story and a spe­cial sol­dier,

Ottawa Citizen - - OPINION - writes Mel Si­moneau

I don’t know her name but I of­ten think about her when I line up at Tim Hor­tons.

It was some time ago in a Cana­dian city. My mother and I at­tend Re­mem­brance Day mass. The church is small and dis­creet. There isn’t a lot of park­ing. I back my car into the only spot left, along­side a big red truck. Mom and I start to walk from the park­ing lot to the church, a few me­tres away.

A woman walks past us to the truck — hers, I now re­al­ize. I smile and she does the same. She’s roughly in her mid-40s and ex­udes calm; she’s at­trac­tive, ca­sual and warm. Warmth is like that. You only need to be around a per­son for mo­ments to sense it.

It isn’t the som­bre weather of a Re­mem­brance Day. It’s sharply au­tumn. The azure sky is at its best. Mom and I set­tle into the church, and the sun — through nar­ra­tive stained glass — fil­ters rays into some of the pews.

Sev­eral mem­bers of the lo­cal Le­gion are at the al­tar tak­ing part in the ser­vice. Ex­cept for one per­son, they’re men in their 60s and 70s, all sharply dressed in ties and stan­dard blue jack­ets, wear­ing medals and pop­pies. She’s the only woman at the al­tar. No longer wear­ing her long coat from ear­lier in the park­ing lot, she wears dark cor­duroy slacks and a mod­est pullover. A poppy. No medals.

Af­ter mass, Mom and I go to the lunch at the Le­gion hall. There’s strong cof­fee to start and a buf­fet. Mom re­laxes for now and I get in line. On my pa­per plate, I put small, white-bread sand­wiches, salad and grapes.

I re­al­ize at one point that she’s just be­hind me. We again ex­change smiles. We start a con­ver­sa­tion about the church ser­vice, and talk about points of in­ter­est — her roots and mine, her work and mine. She’s re­tired from the mil­i­tary and back home now, for good. She’s quiet and open, care­fully so. She’s been posted to var­i­ous spots in­clud­ing abroad, where she’s wit­nessed dev­as­ta­tion and poverty.

She re­counts that once, a des­per­ate mother hold­ing her baby im­plored her, this Cana­dian sol­dier, to take the baby to Canada for a good and safe life. We know it as adage: “There’s no greater love than a par­ent’s.”

In the buf­fet line she tells me, “Then I hear some­one in a lineup at Tim Hor­tons com­plain about how long it takes to get a cof­fee.”

She looks away, her eyes a bit moist. “If peo­ple knew,” she says.

Re­mem­brance Day cel­e­brates vet­er­ans, peace and al­tru­ism. Now, for me, it’s also a re­minder of a par­tic­u­lar sol­dier. Stand­ing next to her in the buf­fet line with sand­wiches trimmed to tri­an­gu­lar per­fec­tion, I just know that had it been pos­si­ble, a part of her wanted to bring the baby to Canada. I just know that she must won­der, at times, what be­came of the baby and the mother.

Hu­man de­cency is like that. Whether it’s that mother’s im­pos­si­ble de­ci­sion and sac­ri­fice, or a com­pas­sion­ate Cana­dian sol­dier in a dire sce­nario, peo­ple usu­ally try to do what’s best.

Let’s re­mem­ber this, too.

Mel Si­moneau is a lo­cal writer.

“The old Ger­many is gone,” re­ported the Ot­tawa Ci­ti­zen on its front page of Nov. 11, 1918, re­pro­duced be­low. West­ern news­pa­pers didn’t hold back in their ju­bi­la­tion over vic­tory, with head­lines such as “Huns show dis­or­der” and “Mad de­sire to dom­i­nate the world is also top­pled.”

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