They sat quietly, voices muted in softly spoken conversation as they waited in the theatre lobby for the last line of the old hymn “Abide with me…” to come to a wavering close. Inside the small theatre an impromptu “choir” of maybe 120 voices, all over the age of 60, most in their 80’s and more than a few past 90, triumphantly chorused “I triumph still…” and took their seats. It was the final act in the traditional Remembrance Day service celebrated by the residents of Berwick Royal Oak retirement residence – and the cue for the 75 waiting students from the Canadian College of the Performing Arts to take the stage.
Orderly, with well rehearsed discipline, they formed a line to begin their walk down the theatre aisle to centre stage. The elderly audience watched in silence as the young actors took positions as directed by Heather Burns, Artistic and Education Director at CCPA since last summer. She was waiting with customary “nerves” for the first public performance of her Remembrance Day Tribute to open.Inspiration for her script had come from current musicals,personal correspondence and official documents from two World Wars her students’s families had made available.
In clear female voice early words from Laurence Binyon’s For The Fallen
ring out to open the performance: “Solemn the drums thrill … They went with song to the battle; they were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.” And, then the best remembered lines: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn …”
The Tribute of Remembrance as told in rhyme and song, in personal letters and official reports was underway and it became quickly obvious this would not be a story of great battles won. It would be closer to a John Masefield’s “Consecration” piece, a story: “Not of the princes and prelates with periwigged charioteers riding triumphantly laurelled to lap the fat of the years – rather the scorned – the rejected – the men hemmed in with the spears”
So, it is personal stories these well-prepared students tell of rich and poor and middle class warriors and those who waited at home for the cruelest of telegrams: “We regret to inform you…” your husband or son, or both, are (hopefully just) “missing in action” or, with dreadful finality “have been killed in action.”
I recognized none of the names recited but as I listened memory buds were touched and brought to life and after a while I was no longer a member of the audience, but part of the play.
As the actors tell the story of a widow receiving news of her only son’s death, my mind flashes back to 1976 when I wrote in a newspaper column from St. Desir, Normandy: “The birds are singing whatever French birds sing. A soft wind from the coast touches the low trees and shrubs. There are rows and rows of red roses in full bloom. A simple white cross, one of 598 in this small war cemetery, reads: “Sapper J. Cook, 5127714 Royal Engineers, Aug. 16, 1944. Age 22.” Beneath those cold statistics there is a promise that ‘mam and dad and his wife’ would always “remember.”
Let it be noted “mam” is English Midlands, not a spelling error. Jack was my cousin, a year older and a best friend of childhood.
It was a friendship that went deeper than most. In those far off days, I had become a bit of an outcast in my extended family. While most of my numerous cousins had buckled on their armour and gone to war, I had chosen the path of pacifism. At the tender know-it-all age of 18, I was positively sure war was not the path to peace.
Jack Cook, sapper, Royal Engineers, was the only member of my extended family to write to me in May 1944 to defend my right to make a choice. Not to agree with me. Just to say I should not be intimidated by family disapproval. It was a “this above all to thine own self be true” letter written when he already knew a June D-day was getting close. Less than a month later he was killed near Caen. And, it all came flooding back – especially when I realized 32 years later as I read his grave marker that I had never known Jack was married.
I remember feeling betrayed because I had never been informed or invited to the wedding. But I knew the answer – and now all I could do in response for his loyal support when my world had become a lonely place was put a few fresh flowers on his grave.
I didn’t hear the final minutes of Ms.Burns Remembrance Tribute. I was back in my room,tears unchecked, unashamed, even happy that a group of talented young actors and their script writer had the ability to revive 73-year-old memories I should never have forgotten.
I may not have recognized any of the names the actors mentioned, but I knew them all through cousin Jack,the young wife I never met and his “mam and dad” my Aunt Lucy and Uncle Fletcher.
And I’m thankfully reminded by the young actors of CCPA I still owe them all.