On Remembrance Day: They Are Now A Part Of Us

My grandfather, Ellis, served in the Canadian Navy. At some point in the 1940s, his ship was torpedoed – sank – and he floundered in the chilly Atlantic. The war he survived; the cancer diagnosis that came 18 years later, he did not.

I know very little about my grandfather. When my brother was little he saw a picture of Grampie up on a dresser and pointed, saying: Daddy?

My father – in looks, at least – was a carbon copy of his father, most notably for their distinctive ears. In various text chains over the years, when I’ve sent pictures of Levi, my mother has replied: My, you sure can see traces of his grandfather. Especially those ears!

Which means, of course, he bears traces of his great-grandfather as well.

So who was Ellis?

After the war, he settled in Saint John, Canada. He married Evelyn. By the time he died in the 1960’s, he left behind four children (and had buried another – her name was Elizabeth).

My father, the eldest, was only 15.

I know my grandfather’s row of medals were passed on to my uncle when my grandmother died. From what I gather, he rarely talked about the war, but surely it haunted him.

How couldn’t it?

It seems incomprehensible, in a way, how deeply an entire generation was touched by war. Those on the front lines of course but those at home, too, huddled around their radios, listening to the crackling voice announcing daily updates. It touched them all. My grandfather-in-law was a cook; my grandmother-in-law, a war bride from England.

Those “lucky” ones – the ones that survived – came home. My grandfather and grandfather-in-law were the lucky ones.

War was over.

What would they make of the newsfeed on my phone this morning?

My brother-in-law has served in the Air Force for several decades now. This summer I sat around the dinner table with my nephew (wasn’t I just cradling him as a newborn?), his fatigues resting on the table beside my grilled sandwich.

When he puts his helmet on you can see genetics at work: he too bears his great-grandfather’s ears.

I can’t – and hopefully never will – fully understand what my grandfather experienced. I don’t know if he had nightmares and flashbacks. I don’t know how many friends he lost. Was it dozens? Did his heart default to gratitude for survival, or did that very survival haunt him?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. And that, especially on Remembrance Day, haunts me.

I may not know how long he was adrift in the ocean, or what horrors he experienced (or had to inflict) but this I know: if arms hadn’t reached out to grab him from the Atlantic, I wouldn’t be here today.

Without that rescue, there is no me, no us, no Abby or Levi.

And so, in memory of Grampie Ellis:

In the rising of the sun and in its going down,
we remember them.
In the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter,
we remember them.
In the opening of buds and in the rebirth of spring,
we remember them.
In the blueness of the sky and in the warmth of summer,
we remember them.
In the rustling of leaves and in the beauty of autumn,
we remember them.
In the beginning of the year and when it ends,
we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength,
we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart,
we remember them.
When we have joys we yearn to share,
we remember them.
So long as we live, they too shall live, for they are now a part of us,
as we remember them. [Emphasis mine.]

A Litany of Remembrance by Rabbi Sylvan Kamens and Rabbi Jack Riemer

Header photo by Lorenzo Hamers on Unsplash

22 thoughts on “On Remembrance Day: They Are Now A Part Of Us”

  1. My great grandfather was in WWI, in Russia. He also did not talk about it. My grandfather was deaf in one ear, so did not go to war, but worked in the steelyards for the Navy. He died when my mom was 5 or 6, he stepped on a nail and got Tetanus. My father-in-law was in Vietnam, and rarely talks about it, though he still has nightmares almost every night.

    So many people affected by wars, you would think we would learn to not wage them anymore. How harrowing that must have been, to be stuck in the ocean like that. Iā€™m sure he had friends who drowned that day. Horrific.

    1. Oh J, what a tragedy about your grandfather; I’m so sorry for your Mom’s loss at such a young age.
      The scars of war last so long, and I can only imagine how heavy the mental burden is for your father-in-law all these years later.

  2. This is beautiful! And quite a sobering thought, that if someone hadn’t saved him that day you and the kids wouldn’t be here.
    Not only that generation, but everyone has been affected by the war (although not as directly, of course,) I read an article recently that explained how almost every current event or innovation can be traced back to WWII. Interesting stuff.
    Thanks for the Litany of Remembrance, a reminder to stop and think today.

    1. There are so many “what-if” questions about any of us, but I hadn’t thought about his experience until recently – and how it would have changed the whole trajectory of our family history (starting with the birth of my own father) if my grandfather hadn’t survived the war.

  3. This was beautiful- thanks for sharing. My maternal grandfather was also a WW2 vet- luckily he never saw combat (he was only old enough to join up towards the end of the war). I love the poem at the end.

    1. The kids and I were chatting this morning about the age of some of the men – BOYS! – who went to war, many lying about their age to go sooner. The kids were very curious why someone would voluntarily go early. It’s hard to fathom, but then the whole experience seems unfathomable.

    1. Yes – it really was a sacrifice that is so easy to take for granted. Even when we do reflect, it’s impossible to fully comprehend the enormity of it all.

  4. I’m so moved by war veteran stories. It’s just something I truly cannot even imagine. The only thing I can try to do is to thank them and respect them. Life, and wars, are just so complicated. I love the idea of never having any wars, but then again, that’s complicated too and I truly feel just not always possible. sigh.

    1. War does seem inevitable which is both sobering and disheartening. But the peace that came at such a high cost is a lasting legacy – directly in my life!

  5. My grandfather served in WWII but I don’t think he was in active battle. Her was a merchant marine but I don’t totally understand what that means. My dad went into the Navy in the 60s to hedge his risk against being drafted for the Vietnam war. He figured he’d be safer in the Navy since it wasn’t a battle fought on the water. So he was gone for a good 3-4 years on different “cruises” – they called it cruises when he went out no assignment. He never was in combat, though. But he gave up 4 years of his life to avoid combat and missed a lot of the first years of my brother’s life when he was in the Navy. It’s a huge sacrifice to be in the armed forces. And I think of all the people we’ve lost through the years and then the trickle down effect of it – like the generations of people who never came to existence because of the deaths in wars. It’s all so sad.

    PS one of Paul’s good friends at school is named Ellis. Now I will think of your late grandfather when I see him/say his name.

    1. I had no idea your father was in the Navy and was gone for so long.
      A good friend of my kids is named Ellis and it always makes me happy to say his name (it’s not very common)!

  6. My grandfather served in WWII and was on the front in Russia. He lost a leg (and almost his life) there. I have so many questions I never got to ask him, especially how he felt about being a soldier for Nazi Germany. I mean, I am aware that he was on the wrong side of history, but was he? Did he have a choice? He was only 20 years old at the time and probably didn’t know much about what was REALLY going on.
    It’s sobering to think about these things. And to think that if he – or your grandfather hadn’t survived the horrors of war, none of us would be here.

    1. It seems like most of these soldiers didn’t want to talk about their experience; I completely understand but can’t imagine keeping all that pain bottled up inside. It must have been so hard to acclimate back to “normal” life after those horrors – and for some, like your grandfather, very tangible reminders of the cost with regard to the loss of his leg.

  7. This is beautiful, Elisabeth. My maternal grandfather was a veteran, and my brother and two of my cousins are veterans as well. All of the US Army. I have an uncle who is a Navy veteran ā€” he was a SEAL ā€” and his son is now in the Army as well.

    My brother saw combat in Iraq in the early 2000s. We are so fortunate he is home, and safe. He has dedicated his life to serving the public, as a firefighter and a police officer. I am thinking of him today, which is Veterans Day in the US.

    1. You’ve been touched so directly by service; I’m so glad your brother is home as he continues to protect his country!

  8. What a beautiful, moving tribute.
    I always liked how it’s called Remembrance Day in Canada. Here in the States, it’s called Veteran’s Day, and I don’t think that conveys in the same way what we owe the people who choose to go into military service.

    1. I can never remember the US equivalent; I really appreciate Remembrance Day and how faithfully the services are kept up over the years. There are SO few living veterans from WWII, but so, so many from more recent conflicts. It’s so sad, but very powerful. Hearing Taps played gets me every time…

  9. This is really beautiful. The poem and your thoughts.
    Living in Germany war is (unfortunately) part of our culture. And both my grandfathers had to fight. One with 14 shooting down planes ā€“ he later became a pastor after being raised atheist. I guess that says a lot. The other survived the sieg of Stalingrad and would say every Christmas how lucky he was to be sent home because of a minor injury. He mourned all his friends. He used to be a kayaker qualified to go to the olympics but his entire team did not return… As kids when going swimming we would poke into their scars from shrapnel and bullets. It is somewhat surreal. I hope for all that we do not ever have to experience this. But the Russian invasion in Ukraine made it so realistic… its scary.

    1. Wow – that’s such a vivid reminder (the scars from shrapnel and bullets) of the long-term impacts of wars. Of course the mental and emotional scars were/are harder to see.

  10. What a lovely, lovely post. I cannot even imagine what your grandfather went through. I remember being completely stunned and horrified by All Quiet on the Western Front. What an absolute nightmare that was for those young men. And then, just over 20 years later, *another* war. The loss of life… the loss of livelihoods… the loss of whole families. It is astonishing (in a bad way) when you consider it.
    I much prefer Remembrance Day to Veteran’s Day. Thank you for sharing that beautiful poem. <3

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