A special experience flooded back this Remembrance Day as we attended the local service in our town. It was extremely respectful and soulful as wreathes and speeches, bagpipes, a bugle and a choir, all marked the poignant occasion. It reminded me of the opportunity in England this spring to pay respect to my great-grandfather’s First World War Memorial.
We had actually been on our way to London, and on a cool but bright sunny day, we found ourselves in a 25-mile traffic jam. Managing to escape its long tangle, we meandered through the beautiful English countryside and quaint villages. Whacks of colour greeted us – lemony rapeseed and emerald green fields, crimson roses and mauve lilacs in bloom. It was all lovely and then I realised we might just be somewhere close to where I knew my great-grandfather and mother had lived before they emigrated to Canada.
A clear image of a cross-stitch sampler flashed through my mind. It hangs on the wall at my mother and father’s. Sarah J. Parker, Marsh Gibbon, Buckinghamshire, 1893. Sarah was my dad’s English grandmother. Although he would never know her, she died when his mother was only ten. My dad had also never known his grandfather, William King, who was killed by a sniper not long after arriving in France as a Canadian soldier in the First World War.
By happenstance, we soon found ourselves in Marsh Gibbon, a village as pretty as a postcard; thatched roofs (once a trade of its villagers), Roman stone walls and a village church that harkens to the Norman period. It took my breath away as I approached the walled cemetery that surrounds the church. I immediately saw the War Memorial; William King was etched in stone.
The walled church cemetery also held the tombstones of many Parkers and Kings, those relatives that did not journey to the new land, but clearly ensured their hometown hero was honoured for his military service and his sacrifice. William left four young children and a widow behind. I have written of Sarah Parker, and of how bravely she faced the future without her beloved husband; her youngest child, my grandmother, only a baby.
We have her letters still, I wrote this of them…
I envision Sarah sitting down to write after tucking her four children into bed, perhaps the cloak of loss and loneliness slipping off her shoulders ever so slightly. “I’ll tell you I am very proud of my William and hold my head very high for he was one of the very best of husbands and fathers. I was simply awful for weeks and I didn’t care what became of us. We have four bonny children and I marvel sometimes that I ever lived through it.”
Despite her grief, Sarah wrote that she hadn’t been against William going to war if he wanted to and that “someone must step in to defend the atrocities, we would find it difficult if no one came to our assistance.” Even with her loss she was able to reconcile the sacrifice, as so many women were forced to do.
I thought of Sarah that day I was able to honour her husband for all of our Canadian family. I had plucked a bouquet of lilacs and placed a fragrant piece on the graves, and the War Memorial.
And last week, as did so many of our town’s people, I stood in respect and sorrow for so many lives lost. And for those, like Sarah, who despite their tremendous loss, somehow managed to find a way forward.