The weather was gentle the day we went to Chamonix. High cloud moderated the heat but the views of Mont Blanc remained clear as we wandered through the town before sitting down on the terrace of a café to enjoy the street scene and a light lunch.
As she took her seat amongst the cramped tables, my mother accidentally knocked her fork onto the ground A soft-spoken older gentleman at the table beside us reached down to pick it up and a conversation ensued.
As the conversation progressed, we learned that the man was Polish. At the age of fourteen, the Nazis had imprisoned him in a concentration camp. Of the twenty-nine members of his family sent to the death camp, only he and his father survived. He mentioned this traumatic period of his life almost in passing, and seventy years later, in the presence of strangers, his eyes filled with tears, and he fell silent, lost for a moment in the past.
When I think about my Chamonix friend, my mind wanders first to the past, to a history I have encountered in books and film. Then, with a jolt, it returns to the present, and I think about the son of a friend, who served as a peacekeeper in Kosovo and did duty in Afghanistan, and whose experiences in those places have changed him and his family forever.
I think of the gentle souls, for whom some memories will never heal, and I wonder at the words “lest we forget”, that we associate with red poppies and the act of remembrance. For, as my chance encounter with the man at Chamonix illustrates, war is impossible to forget for those who live through it. It may be more accurate to say, “Lest we block it out” when we speak of the necessity of remembering and the importance of passing down those stories that can orient our hearts towards peace.
“Lest we forget” makes me think of an old veteran that I once saw interviewed around Remembrance Day. For the first time in his life, he spoke about his wartime experience, and broke down weeping on national television. He must have spent a lifetime trying to forget; and although he had tried to block the experience, it hovered over him threatening to destroy the normalcy he feigned.
There was a time when society expected this old veteran, like so many others, to block the bad memories, when being a man meant ignoring the trauma and getting on with life. Today, we recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, and we are learning that unhealed memories can reoccur at the most unexpected times and at the slightest provocation – a sight, a sound, or even a chance encounter with strangers at a café.
On Remembrance Day, I will stand with others at the cenotaph, not because there is any danger of forgetting, but because it is important to remember. As I stand in silence, remembering the broad strokes of man’s inhumanity to man, I will see a gentle man on a café terrace in Chamonix who bent down to pick up a fork and touched our hearts through the sharing of a painful memory.
Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. Her blog is www.faithcolouredglasses.blogspot.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .