No one in my Canadian family served in World War II, so why did I end up in a wet, green field in Normandy, weeping uncontrollably at the Canadian cemetery?
My American partner, whose uncles did serve, took me there. “You need to know your history. You have to understand what your country did,” he insisted. So, in late October 2008, we went.
Unlike Americans, Canadians are generally raised and socialized to be pretty undemonstrative. We don’t generally wear flag pins. We don’t have a Pledge of Allegiance, nor do we officially and publicly place our hands over our hearts for anything related to our country. Our patriotism is usually quiet, modest, understated.
And so we’re not told what extraordinary courage and heroism we brought to the battles of D-Day, the same day, June 6, as my birthday.
It was a cool, gray day when we visited. The site is marked by a grove of maple trees, the same tree that centers our flag, one of few symbols we all immediately recognize as ours. My heart caught a little at that unfamiliar sight here in France, the wet grass blanketed with the familiar and beloved shapes of fallen red, yellow and orange leaves.
The Canadian cemetery is not, as I’d expected, a row of plain white crosses. It’s much more heartbreaking because it’s so deeply personal — curved headstones, each deeply incised with a maple leaf inside a circle. Row upon row upon row of our symbol. And many of the stones bear personal messages from their families.
Canada is a country forever, stupidly, riven by regional differences. Tell people out west, or east — anywhere, really — you’re from Toronto (Tronna. i.e. snotty and Type-A and a workaholic) and you can feel a chill in the air. Here, French Catholics from Montreal lie forever beside Jews from Winnipeg — their stone marked with a Star of Israel — or Anglicans from Alberta. Small-town boy lies beside big-city slicker. Here, there is unity.
I grew up knowing almost nothing about what we did there. Canadian students’ history classes still don’t make clear what a contribution Canada made to D-Day — 1,074 soldiers were injured, 359 of those killed.
I recently asked a family friend why. “We don’t celebrate militarism,” he said, without hesitation.
But what about honor and courage and impossible bravery and sacrifice?
Walk through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Bayeux, the first French town to be liberated and signs still read: “Thanks to our liberators.”
Walking slowly among all those white gravestones, I finally understood something of what had been accomplished on those sands and soil.
I cried so hard I could barely stand up. I almost never cry. The magnitude of this sacrifice — and the impossible distance, forever now buried thousands of miles and an ocean away, from these soldiers’ homeland — was overwhelming. This was no film or movie or book or representation of war. I’d seen “Saving Private Ryan”, and so I thought I knew this place.
I did not.
This place, amid the neat, square fields of Normandy, so near the ocean you can smell the salt in the air, is theirs now. They were buried — as was planned — near where they fell. I wondered how many of their sons and daughters and grandchildren had ever come to visit.
It is a place everyone must see. I’m not sure how else you can ever understand.
- Poppy time: wearing my heart on my lapel (theglobeandmail.com)