You’ll Never Know

The melody was as familiar as my mother’s cheek on mine, the words had long ago been committed to heart.  The singer was Aunt Marie, my mother’s older sister, her voice reedier now than in her youth, her pitch a trifle off.  But the emotion she felt shone through in every chord.

You’ll never know just how much I love you,

You’ll never know just how much I care…

You'll Never Know

The occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of her marriage to Uncle Bob, and six of us were celebrating on the deck of my home overlooking the lake—my wife and I, my mother and father, and Marie and Bob.  She was standing by the railing, singing to him as he sat in the old, wicker rocking-chair.

They’d married in the summer of 1942, enjoying a three-day honeymoon in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before saying a tearful goodbye when he was shipped overseas to join his regiment.  It was three years before they saw each other again, when he returned home, battered but unbroken, a couple of weeks after V-E Day.

ve day

As my aunt sang on, her shoulder-length hair, salt and pepper now, fluffed and fell in the gentle breeze off the water.

…And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you,

Surely you know, for haven’t I told you so

A million or more times…

Within a month of returning home from Europe, Bob had gone off again, this time to the gold mines of Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario, where his degree in mining engineering had landed him a job.  Marie joined him three months later, leaving her job and family in Toronto, and they stayed in that booming gold-town for the next twenty-five years.

I spent almost every summer of my childhood with them, for they never had children of their own.  I thought of them as my second parents, certainly my favourite aunt and uncle, and to this day, the times I had with them rank among the most enjoyable of my life.

mile of gold

I used to hear them sing together after I’d been tucked into bed, she in a dusky alto, he in a clear tenor befitting his Irish heritage, and it was from them I developed my lifelong love of singing.

The last ten years of Bob’s career had brought them back to the city, working in the provincial Ministry of Mines.  Although they were closer, I saw them less often, having married and begun a family of my own.  But they remained as dear to me as ever.

Leaning against the railing by now, my aunt’s voice had begun to quaver, the sentiment of the song assailing her.

You went away and my heart went with you,

I speak your name in my every prayer…

Within a few years of their retirement, my uncle had gone away again—this time to fight a war he could not win against the pernicious onset of dementia.  But on that momentous day on the deck by the lake, he’d been with us for awhile—alert, engaged, and as happy as ever.  Inevitably, though, he’d drifted off, as was happening much more often by then, his eyebrows knitted quizzically above a thousand-yard-stare we could never penetrate.  He was a part of us still, yet apart from us irrevocably.

Alzheimer Dementia Brain Disease

My aunt had continued her song, voice choked with emotion.

If there is some other way to prove that I love you,

I swear I don’t know how…

And she stopped right there, unable to finish, tears welling, rolling slowly down her weathered cheeks.  None of us knew quite what to do, so we just sat there, watching her watch her husband, not a sound to be heard.

And then, the most touching thing happened.  Bob had slowly turned toward his wife, perhaps wondering why the song had been cut off.  Then, rising from the rocker, he’d shuffled over to stand in front of her.  As their eyes joined, he lifted her hands to his shoulders and placed his own on either side of her waist.

And softly, he sang the closing lines to her.

You’ll never know

If you don’t…know…now.

Bob died before the year was out, mercifully for him, sadly for us.  But I’ve never forgotten that song they shared on the day of their golden anniversary.

couple

And I believe they both knew in that moment how very much they were loved.

From My Aging Eyes

from my aging eyes,

the boy I once was looks out—

hardly changed at all

portrait-of-boy1

I was born before D-Day, before V-E Day, before V-J Day.  If you don’t recognize those occasions, you’re most likely younger than I.  World War II was the single biggest event in the lives of the generation before mine, and the year I entered the world, it was still raging on.

When I was born, I joined almost 2.5 billion other souls on the planet.  In North America, the average cost of a house like the one we eventually lived in was $3600, and the average annual wage was only $2000.  My future father-in-law, then a callow twenty-one-year-old, earned $800 that year, the first time he filed an income tax return.  A new car, for those who could afford one, cost about $900, and the gasoline to fuel it cost fifteen cents per gallon.  A bottle of Coca-Cola cost five cents.

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Among the people born in the same year as I (and you’ll recognize their names more readily than mine) were Arthur Ashe, Robert de Niro, John Denver, Bobby Fischer, George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, John Kerry, Billie Jean King, Peter Marsh, Jim Morrison, and Lech Walesa.  Seven of them are no longer with us.

Major world leaders included William Lyon Mackenzie King here in Canada, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Franklin Roosevelt, Jan Christiaan Smuts, and Joseph Stalin—many of whom didn’t like each other at all.

Among the popular films my parents went to see in the year I was born were For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, Lassie Come Home, The Titanic, and the winner of the Academy Award, Mrs. Miniver.  Frank Sinatra and Glenn Miller were music icons of the day, and Oklahoma opened on Broadway.

oklahoma2

Some of the most popular books published that year included A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo by Ted. A. Lawson.  My favourite (which, of course, I was not able to read until six or seven years later) was Thunderhead by Mary O’Hara.

The New York Yankees won the World Series that year, the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, and Count Fleet won the Kentucky Derby, but both the U.S. Open in golf and Wimbledon in tennis were cancelled because of the war.

Invention, spurred on by the wartime effort, saw the development of the aqualung, the Colossus computer used to decode the German Enigma encryption, the ever-popular Slinky toy, and silly putty.  The Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, which cost almost two billion dollars, was well underway.

atom bomb3

Nachos were invented the year I was born, and remain popular to this day.  The ABC radio network began broadcasting that year, launched by the founder of the Life-Savers candy company.  The Philip Morris tobacco company unveiled an ad that, for the first time, acknowledged smokers’ cough, although they blamed it on other cigarette brands.  The chairman of IBM conceded that “…there is a world market for maybe five computers.”  And a Swiss chemist discovered the hallucinogenic properties of LSD—presumably on a trip.

I was born well before the following technological marvels we take for granted today became commonplace:  duct tape, television, Tupperware, credit cards, waterproof diapers, transistors, defibrillators, supersonic aircraft, cat litter, the Zamboni, crash-test dummies, aerosol paint, teleprompters, airbags, barcodes, heart-lung machines, WD-40, zipper storage bags, automatic sliding doors, radar guns, computers, hard disk drives, silicon chips, videotape, lasers, spandex, artificial turf, the Pill, LED’s, Buffalo wings, 8-track tapes,  CD’s, space travel, personal computers, the internet, and smartphones.

I was not, however, born before the Wright brothers first took flight (as my sons-in-law are wont to claim).

brothers-wright3

But hey, lest this looking-back convey the impression that I long for the good old days, whatever they were, let me assure you that such is far from the truth.  In fact, as I approach my seventy-fifth birthday, I look forward to the changes yet to come—just as I marvelled at those occurring during my life so far—and with the same boyish enthusiasm as ever.

As Dylan so memorably wrote and sang, the times they are a-changin’.  But somewhere inside this gnarly old man, there still resides the precocious boy who spawned him, surprised he has not changed.

closing in on my

diamond jubilee, the

man is still the boy

man and boy1

          Have a happy birthday, old man!

 

For Always

A number of years ago, my grandchildren were visiting their Nana and me when November 11th rolled around.

“What’s ‘Membrance Day, Gramps?” the oldest asked.

Re-membrance Day,” I replied.  “It’s the day when we remember the soldiers who fought in the wars.”

“What are wars, Gramps?” the youngest asked.

I found it astounding, and heartbreaking, that they were still so innocent.  And I wished they could be so for always.

It was difficult to explain the premise of warfare to them—the sheer gall and hubris and stupidity of humankind in seeking to settle what are sometimes legitimate grievances by killing each other in remote fields of mud and gore.

I couldn’t convey the sense of awe that washed over me, when I had stood years before in one of the cemeteries where poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row—scarcely able to believe the enormity of the carnage.  Nor could I explain to them how I was brought to tears by the simple inscription on too many of those markers—

Here Rests in Honored Glory, A Comrade in Arms, Known But To God

unknown soldier

Despite the fact that they couldn’t really understand, I told them we try now to remember the men and women who gave up their lives in defense of our country and its values, in all the wars in which our soldiers took part.

“Why do we hafta remember them?”

“Well, I guess it’s because we hope we won’t ever have to fight a war again,” I said.

Even as I talked about it, the thought occurred to me that the war with the most significance for me is one I don’t really remember at all.

My parents did, though.  For them, it was the war, one of the most significant events in their lives, an event that shaped many of their attitudes and beliefs forever.

My recollection of that war has come through them, formed as impressions and feelings, prompted by bits of memorabilia, by oft-repeated stories, or by the singing of wartime songs.

320px-Andrews

I have a picture in an old family album, a now-faded snapshot with large white borders and scalloped edges.  It was taken at Christmas time in my grandparents’ living room during the winter of ’44.  I’m in the picture, right in front on my mother’s lap, not yet two years old.  The whole family is gathered around us beside the Christmas tree.

My mother’s parents are there, and her three sisters.  Her sister-in-law and two of her cousins complete the group.  With the exception of my grandfather (and me, I suppose), there are no male persons in the picture…no sons, no brothers, no husbands.

Whenever I look at it, I try to imagine what that Christmas must have been like for my family, most of them younger than my own children now.  I think about a song that became popular around that time, a young soldier’s promise that, “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

I'll_Be_Home_for_Christmas_Bing_Crosby

 

So, when my young grandchildren asked about Remembrance Day, I tried to convey those same feelings to them.  Not what war was really like, because I don’t know.  Rather, how I still feel when I hear that song at Christmas time, or when I look again at that old snapshot.

I told them about my aunt who married her beau mere days before he shipped out, and that they didn’t see each other again for more than three years.  How he met her brother—his new brother-in-law—for the first time while they were both stationed in England.

brothers

Not one of my family’s young soldiers was home for Christmas that year.  One of them, an uncle I might have grown to love, never did come home.

I remember hearing my parents talk of them long afterwards.  I’d hear words and phrases that prompted my recollections—words like wartime and overseas, or phrases such as V-E Day and killed in action.

“If Jimmy had come home from overseas,” they’d say, “he’d be almost eighty now.  Can you imagine!”

Together, they’d sit quietly, thinking back, I guess—remembering how it was.

I knew my grandchildren would not be able to comprehend a war that ended more than half a century before they were born, or even understand what their great-grandparents went through.  But, in hearing about it from me, I hoped they would develop some sense of the meaning of freedom and democracy, and of the sacrifices that were needed and made.

poppy

And I hoped that, once they knew, perhaps they’d understand why we remember.

For always.