Today, November 11, is Remembrance Day in Canada. It’s the day we set aside each year to remember those in the armed forces who have died or were injured in the line of duty. My Uncle Ralph was one of my mother’s older brothers. He died in Italy on February 9, 1944 with the Royal Canadian Regiment. It was my mother’s hope to one day visit his grave which is located near Ortona, Italy. Sadly, she never made the trip. The following story is one that I would often tell my students on November 10th.
It was a Tuesday evening during the summer of 1990 and I was getting ready for rugby practice. A number of us were putting our cleats on and enjoying some small talk. Two of my teammates were brothers Mike and Mark Maxwell who had recently graduated from university. They mentioned that they would soon be heading to Europe to spend the fall.
“Will you be visiting Italy?”, I asked.
“Perhaps, we don’t have a plan. We are simply going to tour around and take in as much as we can.”
I told them about my Uncle Ralph.
“If by chance you make it to Italy and if by chance you happen to be near Ortona would you mind stopping by the Moro River Cemetery and taking some pictures of his grave. I don’t want you to go out of your way but you never know, you might just be in the area.”
They didn’t make any promises but said that they would keep my request in mind. The following Thursday I gave them a map locating the cemetery and the location of Ralph’s grave.
That November, a few days before Remembrance Day, I received a postcard from the guys. It was sent from Italy and said, “We made it to your Uncle’s grave and took lots of pictures. We’ll be home by Christmas.”
The fellows returned home in December but it was a few weeks before the pictures were developed. When the photos were ready they called. I picked them up on the morning of December 24th, Christmas Eve, while I was on my way to visit my parents..
My mother wasn’t aware that photos had been taken. I didn’t want to get her hopes up in case they didn’t turn out. Now the question was, When do I give them to her? Christmas Eve didn’t seem like an appropriate time. I knew when I visited that morning that Mom would be in the kitchen baking and, no doubt, happily anticipating the family gathering on Christmas Day. I wouldn’t want to spoil her mood.
As I drove from Mike and Mark’s home to my parents’ house in the city, I was listening to CBC Radio. The host of Morningside, Peter Gzowski, was interviewing Canadian Veterans who had survived the Battle of Ortona in 1943. He wanted to know what it was like to be in a battle that was actually fought during Christmas Day. I still recall so many of the details and emotions described by the interviewees. I wondered if any of them were buddies with my Uncle Ralph. It was a haunting interview.
The interview ended just as I was parking in my parents’ driveway. I couldn’t believe the timing. Chills went down my spine. I knew that Mom was an avid CBC listener and I knew that she would now be thinking about her brother.
I grabbed the envelope that contained the photos and entered my parents’ home. Mom was in the kitchen. Her first words were, “Were you listening to CBC? They were talking about Ortona.”
Yes Mom, I was. Here, I have some photos for you.
HAD HE ASKED US
WITH TEARFUL EYES WE’D SAY
LORD WE LOVE HIM
LET HIM STAY
(This is the inscription that my grandmother had inscribed on Uncle Ralph’s gravestone)
LEST WE FORGET
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