An orphan and a farm labourer, my grandfather, Fred, lied about his age, signed up for World War I under an assumed name, and left Huron County for the adventure of his life.
Fred returned a hero by virtue of his service, and yet he was horribly traumatized from his experiences overseas, and then by the loss of his young wife and a baby, likely from the influenza epidemic. He left Canada again, this time to make his fortune in the building boom in Detroit. In the giddy swirl of the 1920’s, he married my grandmother.
When the stock market crashed, so did his contracting business. His father-in-law drove to Detroit in 1931 to bring back his daughter and her family, including Fred, home to London.
Living in the peace and prosperity he fought for was never completely possible for Fred. He’d be triggered by anything, it seemed, and then act out a war-time scenario. Rumours swirled about whether the first wife died of natural causes, or had my grandfather become violent. My mother and her oldest sister, along with my grandmother, took the brunt of many of his episodes. In an instant, he would be back in Europe crossing a field or in the trenches, bombs and gunshot flying–as though he was there. He’d never talk about those incidents, but he did say he had been injured “by a potato masher.” In other flashbacks, he might think he was in the hospital, struggling with the nursing staff (a new concept in 1918!), calling them whores as they cared for his wounded body.
Through his untreated PSTD, I received my education about war. It wasn’t glorious. All my grandfather’s actions were motivated by fear, or the need to create fear in others. He did what he could to survive. I remember being four-years-old in the early 1960s and my grandfather being triggered by the light strobing through mature trees along a country road. We had to get out of the vehicle, get into the ditch. One learned not to cry, as it attracted the “enemy.” Survival came at a cost and a crying child was a liability.
The experience of war is secondary for me, via my grandfather. It was unreal, quite out of touch with the peaceful and secure lives we lived when he wasn’t around. I learned that a war isn’t ever won or lost, and done with. The acts of war carry on, rippling through generations.
Remembrance Day for me is very personal. Hostility, and aggression, and fear rippled around me as a child. So did compassion, careful listening, and problem-solving. Even though my grandfather brought the horror and violence of war into his household, he was treated with respect and compassion by his family. Their actions gave me strength in situations of violence and conflict. I learned to greet this man, who could become a monster, from the point of view of compassion–and a healthy wariness.
On Remembrance Day, I remember Fred, and I remember to practice the lessons of peacemaking that my grandmother and her family, and my mother and her sisters, taught me.