‘If people knew’: Lessons in decency from a Remembrance Day mass
Nov. 11 is a reminder of a particular story and a special soldier,
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.”