BY STEPHANIE HART
When I was 17, I went to Europe with nearly 200 other teenagers. I’d been in a marching band since the year I turned 12, spending every free moment for years – and all of my parents’ time and money – on music and movement. This was the culmination of years of hard work: a trip to Europe for almost a month, going to an international marching band competition in Holland, then traveling by bus around a
strange continent with approximately 6 adults for 180 dumb kids. In many ways, it was the trip of a lifetime.
I remember so many things from that trip. I remember a several-centuries-old abbey with wild deer in their gardens, and a close encounter with hypothermia while waiting to perform. I remember the Tower of London, the Arc de Triomphe, and nearly losing everything to a gang of children who surrounded me and tried to steal my purse at the base of the Eiffel Tower. I remember the Paris Opera House and Buckingham Palace – we were the first outsiders invited to the Palace before they opened it up to tourists. I remember some rural town in England, staying with a local family and being chased by their geese at dawn as we got ready to drive across the country for a performance.
I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot too; I look back and can’t remember where we stayed in France, or how we ended up in Belgium accidentally when we were never supposed to go there. I’ve lost days, and locations, and have absolutely no idea where my old-school photo books are from that time, so there are a lot of memories I’m sure I’ll never get back.
There are things I will never forget, though, no matter how long I live.
I’ll never forget the people in Kerkrade, the small town in the Netherlands where we competed, who, when discovering we were Canadian, took us into their homes and fed us home-cooked meals, who bought us beer and toasted us in a language I couldn’t understand, who brought us blankets when we were stuck outside in the rain and gave us their own coats and umbrellas, getting soaked themselves to
help a bunch of complete strangers. I had only the vaguest concept of why they would do those things, and couldn’t ask – their English was much better than my Dutch, but still not sufficient for any in-depth conversations.
I’ll never forget driving across Europe, 50 people jammed into a 40 person bus, and passing graveyard, after graveyard, after graveyard, most of them marked with little beyond a bunch of poppy wreaths and plain white crosses. I noticed, but didn’t particularly pay attention to any of them – someone else’s cemetery wasn’t very interesting to an ignorant, self-absorbed teenager, on average.
Until we stopped at one. It was approaching lunch time, and we’d been driving since 5 AM. I couldn’t have said where we were, exactly; it could have been France, Germany, or Holland, or for all I knew at the time, Belgium – from that time we got lost. I have no idea what day of the trip it was, or the date – other than it was late July or early August in 1993. It wasn’t a planned stop, and as far as I’m aware, that
particular cemetery didn’t have a name – it was just a convenient place to pull over when we’d all been sitting too long, to let us stretch our legs for a few minutes while we ate lunch.
The cemetery was in the middle of nowhere. It was surrounded by fields full of wildflowers, with dark green forests in the distance, and not a house could be seen in any direction. The only sign that humans had ever been there – aside from the cemetery – was the long, flat highway we’d been driving on. We were the only people for miles.
A lot of the kids didn’t want to get off the bus. It wasn’t particularly warm, we’d been running on minimal sleep for days by this point, and no one had the energy to explore a random cemetery. But one of our chaperones – a volunteer, the parent of a former band member who stayed involved – insisted, and forced everyone off the bus. She wasn’t a particularly popular lady, this chaperone; she was abrasive and cranky, and had a temper that showed itself far too often. In retrospect I have a lot more sympathy for her – I cannot imagine what all we put her through with our shenanigans, dumbassery, and whining, and yet she volunteered ceaselessly for a bunch of kids who didn’t respect her at all – but at the time, I disliked her immensely.
However, regardless of whether she was a saint or a tyrant, I can never thank her enough for this one, gloomy day in 1993, when she made everyone go look around before we’d be allowed back on board the bus for the next leg of our journey.
I hauled my rear off the bus, picked up my bagged lunch from a box of identical bags, and wandered into the cemetery. I walked alone; after so many days in crowded conditions, even my best friends were driving me crazy. I headed to a near corner of the place and started strolling past graves. It didn’t take long, staring at crosses, before I realized that every single one of them bore a maple leaf – a tiny
Canadian flag. I looked around some more, and confirmed that, yes – every grave in the place was, evidently, Canadian. One of my friends found one that might have been from a family member, though there was no way to know for sure. There were hundreds of graves, bearing names from every ethnic background, but every single one had a striking red maple leaf on the cross below the name and a tiny fabric flag waving in the wind.
Except for those that didn’t have names. It took me probably half an hour to work my way past the front section of graves before I found the second section, a vast, nearly endless sea of unmarked crosses. They bore the maple leaf and flag – but nothing else. No names. No dates. Just a placard, near the front, stating what battle the unidentified remains were from, and a note that many of the bodies had been too badly damaged to be identified (at least, I assume that’s what it said, seeing as I didn’t speak the language). Hundreds of unidentified Canadians had been buried in a random cemetery in the middle of Europe. I wondered if we were the first Canadians ever to visit. We definitely weren’t the first people to visit; once I started actually paying attention to what I was seeing, I noticed that the grass in the cemetery was meticulously trimmed. There were real poppy wreaths beside every row of crosses, and none of them were wilted. There were no weeds growing in
the grass, and none of the flags were dirty or torn. Someone had obviously visited this cemetery – and frequently.
Indeed, while we were there, a few people arrived by car – locals, who lived in the nearest town, apparently 20 kilometres away. They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them, and when they realised we were Canadian, they greeted us enthusiastically – like long-lost friends, or maybe even not-so-distant family. We were all hugged, our hands shaken until our shoulders were sore, and a bunch
of tears I didn’t really understand were shed on our young shoulders. And the entire time, the chaperone who we’d resented watched, a small smile playing about her lips.
The locals had brought with them tree clippers, lawnmowers, rakes, and fresh wreaths, and while we got back onto our buses, they went to work, replacing wreaths that were barely a day past fresh, mowing the lawn, cutting back the trees, and plucking tiny weeds in a cemetery that time had forgotten. No one would ever have known if they’d let the cemetery go to weed – and yet they didn’t.
Everyone was quiet as we drove away, and our reflections lasted till nearly dinnertime. We never really spoke about what we’d seen, or our reactions, but it stuck with me long afterwards. Indeed, it’s now been 26 years since I was at that unnamed cemetery, and it feels as though it just happened yesterday. It wasn’t until I returned home and actually opened a few history books – on purpose, and during summer vacation! – that I really understood what I’d seen. I’d taken some history in school, but it was all dry and boring: facts and dates and treaties, scrolling past with mind-numbing details I forgot the moment my test was finished. I’d never cared before, never seen the impact of history on real people. I didn’t know about the thousands of Canadians killed during the first and second world wars, dying to grant freedom to people who’d been conquered and oppressed by demagogues and lackeys, by racism and zealotry. I didn’t know about entire towns destroyed, because they sent every young man between 18 and 30 to war in a distant country – and none of them came back. I didn’t know about entire
countries being liberated by Canadians of every race, skin colour, and ethnic background, all working together – and dying together – on foreign soil, their identities lost to history, buried in anonymous graves in fields where they fell.
And I didn’t know about grateful survivors – the locals who remembered the Canadians who fought and bled and perished to save them, or their parents, or their grandparents. I didn’t know that our forebearers were heroes, still celebrated and venerated even when their names were lost to bombs and guns and time, still taken care of as best as they could be, at random, unnamed cemeteries spread
across an entire continent. I didn’t know that the Dutch would give their coats to dumb Canadian kids, in thanks for their grandfathers’ contributions to a war we clearly don’t teach well enough in school, if recent politics are anything to go by.
I didn’t know what ‘Lest we forget’ really meant – but I’ve never forgotten since. Even now I tear up remembering this, and explaining it to my daughter – who is taking history in school and finding it as dull as I did back in the day.
This Remembrance Day, I’m remembering those hundreds of unmarked graves that opened my eyes in such a dramatic way – and the group of grateful Europeans who still care for them, and by extension, those of us Canadians who came after them.
I am a family doctor working in ‘rurban’ southern Alberta. I have worn many hats over my medical career but currently have a niche practice in sexual medicine and caring for the elderly in supportive living. I’m a wife and mother, and I write in my spare time.