Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remembrance Day post: He lived, but did not return.

Every year I try to do a post for Remembrance Day (or Veteran's Day, as they call it here, which rather changes the tone). This year, my older sister Andrea beat me to the punch on Facebook. With her permission, I'm posting her note in it's entirety.

I have a photograph of my late grandfather with his many siblings, and this young soldier's image is taken from it. He was one of my grandfather's brothers, my great-uncle Bernard Geier. In the photo Bernard is the only one who is not smiling; there is a haunted look about him.

Long ago, I remember my mother telling me that Bernard fought in WWII, that he somehow survived when a bridge or wall exploded next to him. The fellow soldiers he was with, his closest friends, were killed instantly. Bernard lived through the remainder of the war, but when he returned home he was broken: the horror of witnessing his friends' death had triggered a schizophrenic break.

Shortly before he was to have been committed to a mental institution, however, Bernard vanished. The only family story about his possible whereabouts does not surface until the 1960s: that Bernard is homeless and living on the streets of Montreal, far from his hometown of Guelph. But no one knows for certain what became of him.

Today I scanned the photograph of my grandfather and his siblings because it is the only known picture of Bernard... and my children needed a photo of a veteran for school. I enlarged Bernard's image and cropped it so he stands alone as you see him now. I printed this picture and glued it to a piece of paper with a border of poppies. In ink I wrote my great-uncle's first and last names, and to the bottom corner of the paper I added a small photo of my own two children. My daughter will place it on The Wall of Honour in her elementary school's main corridor. This wall is dedicated to those who served or serve their country.

As I was creating this simple record - for Remembrance Day? for a child's school assignment? - I was strangely moved; it felt like something else. It occurred to me that this was very likely the first time in several decades that anyone has written my great-uncle's name; and the only time his photograph has been connected, with or without glue and a border of poppies, to a photo of children who were born so long after he disappeared. His own great-great niece and nephew. He himself never had the chance to marry or have children. In a way, the Wall of Honour at a small elementary school is Bernard Geier's final marker, seen, at long last, by family and a few others who care to look.

Rest in peace, Uncle Bernard, and know that for many, Remembrance Day is not about a single day or countless battlefields, but about the irrevocable sadness of lives lost even after the war is over.