A Poppy and Great Great Uncle Frank

On a recent foray in the community my son asked for a poppy at one of the stores. Around Remembrance Day it’s common for local business to place a donation box and poppy pins for people to donate to the local Legion and commemorate our fallen soldiers. He's been learning a lot about Remembrance Day in grade 1, so he's been noticing various ways remembering Canadian wars takes place, a poppy being one of them. I didn't think much of it.

But as we left the store, the questions began...along with my attempt to provide some clarity to his inquisitive mind:

L: “Why the poppy dad?”

Me: “To remember those who have died in war”

L: Why should we remember?

Me: (trying to keep it simple) “Because they died and gave up a lot. It's sad that they’re gone.”

L: Why is it sad?

Me: (deep breath) “Lots of people die in wars, missing out on a lot in life. And we miss them.”

L: Why is that sad?

Me: (with this question I consider changing the subject - e.g. “Want some candy?” Instead, I dare a response) “Think of the great day we just had as a family? War takes that away for many people."

L: So the bad guys win sometimes?

Me: (Candy anyone!?!) “Well, it’s not that simple. All countries have bad guys and good guys. People die on all sides and it's sad either way...God never wanted us to fight to begin with, but we can't to get along. The poppy helps us remember this and the people in our country who have died because of it."

At this point I think he brought up candy, which I was more than happy to oblige as a new topic of conversation.

I’m not sure if I satisfied his questioning or if I was satisfied with my answering. Our dialogue highlights how difficult it is to make sense of death and war, but not just for a 6-year-old - for all of us.

Great Great Uncle Frank Bergen - RCAF WWII
When war involves our relatives, remembering takes on a whole new tone. I’ve seen many friends online post pictures and stories of family members who served Canada in the military, some dying in the field. For these folks, Remembrance Day is deeply personal. Which brings me to another conversation with my son. The day after he got his poppy he asked me a question after school:

L: “Do we know anyone who went to war a long time ago?”

Me: “I don't think so. Most of our family in the olden days didn't fight in wars. They didn't think it was right, so they did others things (like work in hospitals or forests). Oh wait, I think one of your Grandma’s uncles was in WWII, your great great uncle Frank.

L: “Uncle Frank?”

Me: “Yup.”

L: “Can I talk to him to say thank you for fighting?”

Me: “He actually died earlier this year.”

L: (As only a literalist 6-year-old would respond) “They killed him!?!"

Me: “No, after the war he came back and was a farmer, had a family, and had grown old. He was over 90 when he died."

L: “I wish I could thank him. I'm gonna tell God to say thank you for me” (he proceeds to look up and tell God to pass along the message).

I'm not too sure how to process this interaction with my son. As one who is firmly committed to active nonviolent peacemaking, I always feel a tension around Remembrance Day. But I also realize that my great uncle Frank's decision to go to war left him ostracized by many in his family and community. Mennonites weren't supposed to fight. Social violence was his reward - this was how he was remembered. I don't want that to be how my son remembers. Which is why I didn't discourage my son's engagement with Remembrance Day and wanting to thank his great great uncle Frank. It takes great courage to stand up and fight. And yes, it also takes great courage to stand up and not fight. We need to remember both. War is never as simple as fighting or not fighting, or as simple as good vs. evil. War is complicated. War is painful. And as we reflect on the legacy of veterans and our loved ones, it’s personal.

I wish I could have brought my son to see his great great uncle Frank to say thank you in person. Hopefully God passed along the message...


Anonymous said...

WOW ! Way to go Landon ! David, I too have tensions around this day of honoring those who fought and are fighting - but as I get older, I am more and more grateful for them and find myself embracing Remembrance Day more and more ! Thankyou for a great poignant article!

Tim said...

Great post Dave! I had fun imagining Landon's voice in my head. Gonna have to play some more lego sometime soon!

David Warkentin said...

Thanks Tim! I'm sure he'd love that!

Ryan said...

"Social violence was his reward - this was how he was remembered."

I suspect this would be a very common story, unfortunately. Thanks for this, Dave.

David Warkentin said...

Yes Ryan, it's been interesting to learn some of this family history, if not a bit disconcerting at times.

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