Remembrance Day

Each year on November 11th, nothing can keep us from our memories.

Growing up in North Vancouver during the 50s and 60s, we children were taught to respect and honour heroes. Of all the admirable ones around us, none were considered more courageous than the WWI and WWII veterans. My dad, John, and his brother, Lewis – my mom’s 3 brothers, Douglas, John and Bill – and Auntie Chris (who was also Uncle Lewis’ war bride) – all saw active service in Europe for six long years.

For most of WWII, Mom was still a student at Queen Margaret’s School. She and her family, who lived in Canada – an ocean away from the fighting – practised rationing so that the troops could receive more food. She rolled bandages, knit socks and wrote letters to cheer up her brothers as well as lonely recruits.  

My dad returned from six years of brutal fighting with “shell shock”, a condition we now call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) He was only 19 years old when he shipped out and not quite 25 when he returned to Canada. Afterwards, he said that he would dissuade anyone from going to war. He didn’t believe it was the answer to disagreements between nations. Attending the Veterans’ Day parade wasn’t an activity our family took part in.

Dad belonged to a division of the Royal Canadian Engineering Corp that took part in the Liberation of Amsterdam, his father’s birth place. He knew that one of his cousins, an artist named Gisele, lived in the city and he wanted to meet her. He did in fact do so – in the living room of her small flat – surrounded by the Jewish friends she’d hidden during the entire Nazi occupation. He and the army buddy who went with him to his cousin’s home could hardly believe how terribly underweight and weak they all were. “No one weighed more than 80 pounds,” Dad said. The two Canadian soldiers returned to their base and “liberated” food and other supplies from the Division’s larder. Aunt Gisele later told me that those provisions saved her group from starvation.

After their brief time together in Amsterdam, the cousins never met again. But they exchanged letters for many years.

Sometimes Dad would compare the nightly news stories about Vietnam with his experience during WWII. My city, Vancouver, had become home to an unknown number of “draft dodgers”. Dad always encouraged me to be kind to any homesick guys I met. “I know they are missing their families more than anything and you should bring them home for supper whenever you think it will help,” he said. He too met a large number of these confused young men at his work place. At the time he was personnel manager for Seaspan International at the Vancouver Shipyards. He couldn’t give those boys a job without proper paperwork, but they always got lunch or dinner with dad, and he would allow them to use his office line or our home phone to call their parents.

My dad died young. After the funeral Mom gave me some of the letters he exchanged with Gisele, and I carried on correspondence with her. Finally we met in 2003. Her curiosity and generosity, her art and the friendship she and Dad shared, deeply impressed me. So much so, that I wrote a book about Gisele and her bond with my father, the man she called, my tall Canadian Liberator.

I smiled the first time I heard Gisele describe my dad that way – he was 5 foot 6 – but height is not the only feature that can cause a man to be called, “tall”. Conversations with Gisele – and my own loving memories – helped me to understand that he indeed fit all of them. The sacrifice asked of him was a “tall order”. He could tell a “tall tale”. He always “rode tall in the saddle”. And when it came to character, my father “stood tall”.

Today I honour John Robert van der Gracht. I feel grateful for his brave service, but I also hope we will learn to resolve our differences with compassion and tolerance, instead of guns.

Published by Changes in our Lives

I am originally from Canada but have lived in Mexico since 1976. My husband is from Merida, Yucatan and we raised our family here. We both worked for many years at Tecnologia Turistica Total (TTT), the tourism, language and multimedia college we founded for local and international students. Now retired, we enjoy spending time with family and friends, My other interests include spending time with freinds, reading, painting, cooking and travel.

10 thoughts on “Remembrance Day

  1. A beautiful tribute to your father. I remember as a very young child seeing so many men in uniform who had returned home and the book of ration stamps. I was attracted to the pretty colours of the stamps in the ration book which my mother would snatch away before I had removed the precious stamps.

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    1. Thank you for your comment Sharron… sorry it took me so long to answer. We all have stories about “the” war… your memories are common with those of my aunt who wrote about her father’s contribution…

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  2. Hi, Joanna — Thanks for the lovely essay. I still have the Canadian poppy you gave me after one of your book presentations. — This is a sad day in our house as John’s father was killed in WW2 when John was only 6 months old. — War is a terrible thing. It saddens me so much to see the “warring” going on in the USA. Trump is acting just as we feared. We’re praying that the next couple of months will not see any more destruction by him and his “team.” The number of people that voted for him is soul crushing. — But… let’s remember truly courageous people today and bless them for their service. xoxo

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    1. I am sorry to have been so late answering your reply. I am not sure how it escaped my attention. COVID has dulled my focus, But in a way, I am glad that I am only just now answering because the horrendous Trump is a monster from the past… one “dodged bullet” for now at least. I did not know John’s dad was killed while he was yet a baby. A hard start to overcome, I look forward to seeing you both soon.

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  3. “I feel grateful for his brave service, but I also hope we will learn to resolve our differences with compassion and tolerance, instead of guns.”

    I concur that I hope world disputes will be resolved without further wars. But, I know they will not. That is why patriots like your father, who do their duty, will always be needed to defend national interests.

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    1. I know what you say is true. but it is awful that we have not grown past this. It will be a long time (if ever) befor we finally do. Too much extreme emotion and misguided ideals, I’m afraid. What is so tragic as well is how the civilians are victims too… combat is no longer an arena just for soldiers.

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  4. To add just a little to Joanna’s family history, Her English grandfather, my father, paid his own way back to England in WWI to join the London Rifle Brigade. He was wounded twice at the Front. He returned in 1919′, with his ‘war bride’ and her son Douglas, to the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. In WWII, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, although over 50, he joined the newly formed local group of the West Coast Rangers, part of the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers. This group ranged from young teenaged boys to people like himself, some were veterans of WWI, others were farmers, loggers, and townspeople who felt duty-bound to help defend the coast. One of my earliest memories was of his being called out one night with a threat of Japanese shelling/invasion. It was just me, my youngest brother, and our mother at home, my sister was off on nurses training. Dad hugged us and kissed us goodbye. My mother, having been a teenager on the East Coast of England in WWI, decided that as we were only about a mile from the coast, we needed to take shelter. ‘Shelter’ consisted on sitting on cushions in a dark, narrow, and very cold hallway in the middle of the house. I don’t remember how long we sat there, but it seemed like all night.

    Joanna did not mention the major war effort of Queen Margaret’s School. That was SALVAGE. The girls,spent Saturdays collecting anything that could be sold to raise money for the war effort – newspaper, magazines, cardboard, bottles, broken glass, metal foil, string, rags, tin cans, and on and on. Parents helped, my father spent years of Saturdays removing labels and the ends from tin cans, and squishing them flat. Amongst other endeavours, they raised enough money to pay for a landing craft which was named Queen Margaret’s School. In addition to salvage there was Horticulture. There were a significant number of girls in the school from families stationed in the Far East. With the outbreak of war with Japan, all contact was broken. Of course, no fees were paid. Norah Denny, the Headmistress, got into action, bought more farmland, rented still more, bought more cows, taught teams of girls how to make bread, churn butter, milk cows, make hay, bring in firewood, and everyone was well fed on plain but wholesome food. One of my sister’s classmates wrote, decades later, ” I have never made soap or cut down trees for firewood since I left school, but I’m sure that if I needed to, I could.” That was the spirit in British Columbia on the home front.

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    1. So sorry to be late with my replies… I have been doing other writing and these slipped my attention. Interesting to read the story of my grandfather’s efforts during the war. Mom told stories too. When I was in Victoria a couple of summers ago, my friend took me to a park where there is an old lighthouse and the point was a listening post for U-boats. They have a whole display of of items that were part of Canada’s war effort on the home front… ration books, bandages made by school girls and so on. Vancouver Island does have a rich past, doesn’t it?

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