THE CALM OF THE AGES
Lest we forget!
Groesbeek, a place name I'll never forget.
I was skimming a newspaper when the name of the Dutch town and the Canadian War Cemetery there caught at me.
It smelled of spring sun warming the expanses of grass and tulips, kissing the markers and the little flags fluttering scarlet around them. And below the 2,617 Canadians in a peaceful silence now that the brazen throat of war is silenced.
I have been to too many cemeteries. The celebrity ones, like Eva Peron's, and the family ones. The ones because of work and those I stumbled across in a saunter. But Groesbeek is a special place because it was purchased at a terrible cost.
My parents are buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, so famous it has its own history book. I wish I knew as much about them.
The paternal grandparents are buried near where the Donnellys were murdered one February near Lucan. I know more about the lynching of that Black Irish family than them.
My maternal grandparents who took in the three orphans are buried in Chesley. And when my sisters and I visit every decade or so, there is a struggle in our nostalgia between the good times and the bad ones.
I enter a cemetery with the mixed emotions of the first day of school. From the tombs of the pharaohs to the brutal Soviet memorials to the Mount of Olives with the infamous garden, there is a war between my emotions, a confusion in my thoughts.
Yet even the little country cemeteries with the tilting stones, beside the churches abandoned in the flight to the city, have their own tough beauty. And then there is Groesbeek where the greatest nation in the world for flowers lavishes its skill to remember the youths who freed them and died too soon.
My oldest son is telling rapt stories about his visits to the battlefields. Everyone should do it. There is a shiver to your memory when you are driving somewhere in Europe and the sign at the roadside just doesn't mark the town ahead but is the name of a battle that shredded men like Satan's thresher.
The first seed I planted this spring came from poppies from Flander's Fields, a poem of my childhood that I can no longer repeat without a catch in my throat and a swipe to my eyes.
Lest I forget!
There was the afternoon when the sun broiled down on a terraced hill in the centre of Sicily where the 484 Canadians who died in the battle for the island rest at Agira. The wife of the faithful caretaker had fashioned a wreath with "flowers" made from crumpled foil because the real one didn't come. It arrives just as Bill Davis begins. By honourable consensus that I helped arrange, the politicians and press use the homemade memorial instead because it was made with the heart.
The Dutch don't have the problems of tending that sun-baked hill. They have created with volunteers from those who were there to the kids who have only been told a stone garden of memory that surely pleases all Canadians who come to remember when a growing country punched above its weight and earned battle honours in world history.
Mary and I were there as part of the scouting party as Toronto formally twinned with Amsterdam. At the functions, it's hugs and kisses and extra drinks all round when I tell them my mother was born in Rotterdam. So I tell them often.
Then the Torontonians came to Groesbeek as part of the program where the Dutch
demonstrated hourly that our country has a corner in their hearts.
The heavy silence as we wander through the graves is broken when we exclaim, as so many do in our war cemeteries, at how young they were. There were tears too, as parents think of their sorrow if they had to send their kids to war, or stay silent when they lied about their age.
The speeches end and the wreaths are laid and the crowd grows impatient at the bus. It has been a long and thirsty day.
At every such cemetery, there is a cairn where a book describes the actions that led to most of the casualties. I am plodding my way through the fights for The Rhineland, not wanting to make a mistake in detail. If I did, Peter Worthington, MacKenzie Porter and Fred Cederberg would haunt my dreams with the disapprove that only the survivor of hand-to-hand combat can muster.
I find that General H.D.G. Crerar, the general in charge of the Canadian forces in Europe, decreed that no Canadian soldier would be buried in German soil. So they were brought across the nearby border and buried in Groesbeek in a rare move.
My notes become a sweaty mess. I know there's a VC winner buried here, and several Canadian spies shot by the Germans. But what are the circumstances? People shout impatiently. Finally, an army captain strides up and says everyone's waiting. I said to him that all I am trying to do is to find out exactly why all these hundreds of young Canadians are buried here and if the bus load doesn't like it, they can drive into the nearest canal.
He saluted and said "very good sir. I'll tell them they have to wait."
Lest we forget!