Lately I have been reading a lot of books about World War I, or The Great War, as it is often referred to. My parents both served in the Second World War; my father as a paratrooper, my mother as a cook in the army.
But it was not my own parents’ participation in the war that aroused my interest in reading history books of the years 1914 to 1918, or the years leading up to the First World War.
No, believe it or not, it was more about synchronicity, or what you might call coincidence.
A group of us often get together for the monthly First Fridays that our city’s downtown merchants host – an evening of art, music, shopping, and free snacks and nibbles. And it was while I was munching down on some free nibbles (with a glass of wine in my other hand) that I began to chat with a retired teacher who I had not seen for some time. She began to fill me in with her latest escapades and that included a trip that toured the many war memorials in France. She confessed that she was obsessed with The Great War and devoured any books that she could get her hands on. I was interested.
Later that same evening, another chat (in another shop with more free food) leads to another friend introducing the subject of The Great War. Okay, it’s a beautiful evening, the wine and free food are plentiful, and people are talking about…The Great War? (Now I hear woo woo music in the background!)
During the following week, on a number of occasions I overhear a mention of the war on television or I happen upon a newspaper article about the First World War. I walk into a book store and I am immediately drawn to a book display of “History of World War One,” “The Great War,” and others. Okay, now I’m hooked. (Because that is how my mind works. If I begin to notice things then I begin to pay attention and before too long I am looking for more signs.)
Synchronicity? Coincidence? Anniversary of the war so it just so happens a lot of people are writing about it and talking about it? Yes. Yes. And, yes.
But the fact that I began to pay attention means something.
You might assume that because I am now reading books about this war that perhaps I am going to pursue writing something about the subject. Or, you might assume that I have become an aficionado of the subject material. But you would be wrong. In fact, really wrong. I can barely remember the names of the battles, let alone which battle took place in which area of the country, or which country (there were so many countries involved in the war). Too much information.
But here’s the funny thing about synchronicity. We are each unique enough that we have different “take aways” from our experiences, and so I find that my reading list has led me to another path…life stories, legacies, memories. Many of these war stories are written through the eyes of a soldier – his journals, his diary, his letters sent home. Yes, this is what has captured my attention – the personal stories of heroism, grief, horror, persistence, courage, survival, friendship, and everyday life in the trenches (if we can call that horrible existence everyday life?).
I am still reading these history books and accounts of the war, but I have also become fascinated in the writing and recording of life’s stories – of the ordinary person who has lived his life as best as he can. The soldiers that went to war in 1914 were often humble people who never dreamed that nearly one hundred years later that our generation would be reading their words – personal accounts of what the soldiers experienced, what they saw, and the horrors that they hoped they would never see again. Sometimes the only emotions that their letters or journals revealed would be in what they didn’t write – the sparseness of the page, the terse, few lines – brief sentences that described the hunger and cold.
A sentence, “The horses were shot.” might really mean …we watched as the horses were mired in mud up to their flanks. Someone shot them as they were of no further use to us. (The sorrow they must have felt when living beings were shot.) Or, “The mud is too deep to go further.” (We are now entrenched behind the lines and will be unable to move, probably for weeks, if not months.)
“Our platoon is down in numbers.” (Many of my friends have been killed.)
“I miss you. Please wait for me.” (Don’t forget me.)
Personal stories and accounts that describe an unspoken horror… leave an indelible mark on the reader so many, many years after the events.
So now I find myself in another library section, an aisle where books about writing life’s memories and stories, are shelved.
I find myself wanting to preserve stories because if there is one thing that I know it is that our life stories matter…because we matter.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson
Last spring my friend was delighting me with stories of her 100 year old aunt’s memories and I encouraged my friend to record and preserve these wonderful stories – so she did. Over the next few weeks my friend recorded her aunt’s tales of life as her aunt remembered them: her childhood, her teen years, the Depression and its hardships, her enduring friendships, her church, her marriage and the years following the war. One hundred years of stories and memories. What a legacy for her family! I was privileged enough to sit with my friend and her aunt on a couple of occasions and heard her delightful, but sometimes sad, stories, and later I edited the “book.” Yes, my friend made a book and decided to throw a big birthday bash, including book signing! It was a huge success!
For me, the most exciting part was watching my friend’s aunt’s transformation – she blossomed more and more each week. She basked in the attention and her stories became fuller and richer as the weeks flew by.
My friend made a difference in her aunt’s life – just by paying attention!
I cannot wait to begin to record and preserve some memories of the residents at the long-term facility where my mother used to reside.
More gifts to follow…