I’ve always had very mixed feelings about Remembrance Sunday, partly because I’m a pacifist and I feel ambivalent about glorifying military deaths over civilians and others affected by war. But more importantly, I’ve never felt that I had anyone personal to remember. But as I watched the ceremonies this morning I realized that there was someone: my uncle Joe.
He’s actually my great-uncle, someone I only met after my parents moved to Florida not far from where he and my great-aunt were living. Uncle Joe had Alzheimer’s disease that was beginning to take a rapid toll on his health by the time we met. He sometimes forgot who my great-aunt was, and, though very friendly, certainly had little idea who anyone else was.
What he could remember was the war. He had a book of photographs of the POW camps and the concentration camps that he helped to liberate, and he liked to show these to us when we visited. He was supposed to be showing us the book of photographs that my great-aunt had prepared for him, the one with pictures of his family to help remind him who we all were, but the war photographs somehow worked their way in as well.
He spoke about the men in his unit that died–so many. “Why did I live?” he asked, even all these many years later, sitting in his living room beside the golf course in the sleepy housing development where they lived at the time. “Why did I live?”
As the memorial services went on this morning, London was so quiet. So quiet I could hear the yelled marching orders to the assembled parade at Whitehall. So quiet I could hear the music; Elgar and Beethoven wafting tinnily in through my kitchen window. As I heard these things I thought of my Uncle Joe, and what it means to be a casualty of war.
I also spent time thinking about my Aunt Madeline today–she recently retired from being a social worker at the Veteran’s Administration, where she worked for many years to improve the lives of military personnel. Her kindness and the care she devotes to people permeates every aspect of her life. She is someone I feel very fortunate to have in my life, and I am sure that the veterans she strove to aid remember her in the same way.