Or, as we also sometimes call it around here is Grandfather’s Day.
That’s my grandfather on the left. I don’t know where this picture was taken. I can’t tell if he’s standing on the actual beach somewhere in Italy (where he fought), or if he had the shot taken in an Italian photography studio – maybe when he was on leave.
The picture has always been a talisman for my childhood understanding of war, and of my grandfather. Proud. Ready. Eager.
And, I did not realize until much later, it was also through which I also knew my other grandfather.
Some of you may have heard this tory before, but nevertheless, I think it bears up well to repetition.
Long before I was born, the man you see in the picture had gone to Italy and then to France in the big second war that ripped Europe and all of us apart. And while as a boy, I thought of him as Proud, Ready, and Eager, in reality, he came home a shell-shocked chain-smoking hard-drinking wreck of a man. My grandmother said he came home a walking dead man. Fearing the worst of what he might do, he left his wife and kids and set out to walk his own [Mohawk]river of tears.
He wasn’t seen again for almost three decades.
(I would be around ten the first time I laid eyes on him.)
My paternal Bavarian ancestors came to eastern Ontario sometime in the mid-1800’s, long before Germany was even a country.
Long before Germany made history.
Canada was not yet Canada for that matter. My forefathers were desperately poor, illiterate and superstitious peasants who had lived not that close to the line between west European civility and eastern barbarism – they fought and drank with the best of them – yet they somehow found the means to get themselves out into the wild frontiers of mid-19th century Upper Canada.
Like everyone else who could jump a trans-Atlantic steamer and get themselves into the wilds of the New World, if they could get themselves to the Indian Land Office in what became the town of Maynooth, and if they believed they had the balls and the backbone to rip away the great Boreal forest, they were parcelled a hundred acre piece of “empty Indian land” in the north-end of what is now Hastings County.
Before the area became known as cottage country, it was bush and timber country and was modestly famous for its first Polish-Canadian settlements and sprinkling of Germanic people. But it was otherwise completely dominated by Protestant Englishmen steadfastly loyal to the British throne. From what my father could piece together from talking to his great-grandmother, their German language and Bavarian mannerisms survived in tact until 1914. As the horrors of the Great War found their way to this remote section of rural Ontario (the equivalent of the Australian outback), having any relations to Germany, real or imagined, found my grandfather – then but a kid – on the end of many a Polish and English schoolmate’s boot.
German was still spoken in the home, but the family name was officially anglicised in 1917 into a more accommodating and softer sounding vocalization in an attempt to better blend in with their neighbours. The true family name now remains only on a few deeply weathered tombstones in now lost and mostly forgotten back-road cemeteries.
With this wave of anti-German sentiment many of the best of them left for the new factory jobs, either moving to Peterborough or Oshawa, or looked to find security in the larger German community of Berlin, Ontario (now Kitchener).
For those who stayed behind, any visible allegiances to the Saxon homeland quickly died a relatively quick and necessary death.
Jump ahead to when the atrocities of the Second World War were revealed to the world, and you will find my grandfather’s hatred and disgust of Germans so palpable that he saw no further reason for his children to learn the language of such beastly people. One of the great languages disappeared from my family before I ever had a chance to discover it.
When his grandfather died, the language died with him.
My mother’s father (the young soldier in the picture) was a Mohawk Indian, who had been ripped out of his family as a child and sent to residential schools where he was beaten every time he spoke his Mohawk language; every time he looked a teacher in the eye; every time he said Canada already had a history. Yet, he still went to Europe to fight the Fuher. And like I said earlier, he came home a broken man.
It would be more than two decades before he made attempts to reach out to his then grown and married children. He wanted to try and make things right because he had been, for the first of two times, diagnosed with cancer. He wanted to try and set things straight before it was too late.
A great cone of silence had been thrown over all of this family history and as a young boy I knew nothing of my grandfathers’ past, or of the pain caused by his abandonment, of the beatings my German grandfather endured, or of the horrors my other grandfather had seen in the war.
As a man, I can ponder the contradictory ideas and actions of my Mohawk grandfather, who, having come from a people of genocide, to then fight against Jewish genocide, for a country and an empire within which he still could not vote.
But as children, of course we know nothing of such things.
As a twelve-year-old boy I thought war must have been a huge adventure and must have been very exciting. What did I know of genocide and carnage? What could I know of that kind of suffering?
I was 10 or 12 the first time I met him and when I asked him about the war he said he wouldn’t talk about it.
I remember coming back from college and he had come over and I asked him again about the war.
“No.” Was all he ever said.
So, whatever he saw or experienced, if he saw Satan or God or whatever it is they say men see at such times, he revealed none of it to me, or to any of us for that matter. Not me, or my mother. Not to anyone that I know of. When he died, it all died with him.
It would never be the same for that whole generation of broken men I knew as a boy, men who had gone to that war, and who had returned to hide deep in their liquor bottles, as far away from their nightmares as they could crawl.
They were ash heaps, cold to the touch, blown about by the drunken winds. And, alongside our mothers, we all absorbed their rages.
My grandfather never once talked to me about the war. When he dies, it all went with him.
Now I am a father and I wonder what I would be like if I came back from such a tragedy, from a tragedy of biblical proportions. What would I say to Hunter if I had seen and participated in such horrible things? Would I try to protect my daughter by sealing memories in wax and taking them to my grave? What language could I teach her instead of English?
Should the innocence of childhood be protected by our grandfathers at all costs? Or do we set in motion the wheel of tragic recurrence by not revealing the horrors of our shared histories?
My daughter – in her early years – used to always look up at the portrait of Milan’s grandfather standing on a beach in Italy, a rifle in his hand. Straight and resolute. Like a Chief. (Like our idea of a chief.) She was proud of this soldier-man she has never met.
It is because of our grandfathers that she always insisted that we stop to buy a poppy from some old watery-eyed man who would be always be shuffling his feet outside our subway stop to stay warm on drab and wet November days (that we also associate with Remembrance Day).
One time she asked one of these men about the row of medals hanging on his breast and he says they were given to him for bravery. And when I look at him, eye to eye, he stares me down, for he knows I have no fucking idea what he’s talking about. And he’s right. The medals mean nothing to me
In Grade school she asked me about war and the Holocaust and why did we do such terrible and stupid things to each other.
I found myself stumbling to find the right words which could reveal what our grandfathers could not tell.
My grandfather took his nightmares to bed with him and as far as anyone knows he never once told of what it was he had done, or what he had seen in those lands so very far from the neverending forests of north-eastern Ontario. My mom told me that he would silently sit on our porch for hours on end, an old clock-radio playing Blue Jay’s baseball games in the corner. She says his pipe was always lit, and she says she remembers most the sweet smelling blue-gray pipe smoke that floated up around his face and sometimes into the kitchen window.
“What was he forever looking at, do you suppose?” I once asked her.
“I never asked him”, she told me. “I didn’t want to know.
I was afraid if I knew I would have to stop hating him for leaving us.”
My brother was also in the military – until just recently when he retired – and he went to places like Kosovo, Afghanistan, Kuwait.
Not surprisingly, he doesn’t want to talk it either….