War Children

(Christian Courier column, November 12, 2012)

My husband Mark and I are war children, although not in the traditional sense.

My mom was a teenager during WWII in Ten Post, Groningen. It was a tense adolescence. Familiar faces went missing. Her dad was forced to work for the Germans in Delfzijl, biking the 14 km distance twice daily. Details are sketchy, but he helped the Dutch Underground while he was there to get false documents stamped.

It was a time of deprivation. School was cancelled. There was no wood for the stove. There were no teachers. Mom did not go hungry as so many others did, but a boiled egg was a mouth-watering treat reserved for Christmas. She has vivid recollections of rationing. She would be sent by her mother to stand in line on behalf of elderly neighbours with coupons for a bit of pork or a packet of sugar.

Mom experienced fear. At night she heard the drone of Allied planes heading to Germany, an incessant apprehension. Once a damaged plane did, in fact, drop its load about a kilometre away. Everything fell off the shelves, the children flying downstairs. In the morning they went out to survey five giant holes in the ground. Decades later at a fireworks display on Canada Day, Mom was still unnerved by the whistling rockets and popping blasts, the colourful explosions inevitably triggering her past. 

Mom also knew real terror. A number of German soldiers were staying in a house just a few doors down. Near the end of the war, as the Canadians approached, Mom’s family was warned (it’s never been clear to her by whom) to run away into the fields. They heard gunfire behind them as they fled. German soldiers ran with them, seeking to shield themselves, a melee of confusion and panic. Mark and I have walked those fields with her, where she ran for her life, her emotion palpable as she recounted the event. Her gratitude toward the liberating Canadians can’t be conveyed in ordinary terms. It needs big words … undying, fervent, seminal.

Mark’s dad, Bill Smith, now deceased, was among the Canadian Armed Forces who liberated Holland. He came from a Nova Scotia family with a long record of military service. His uncle Thomas was a stretcher bearer at Passchendaele. He died heroically, assisting an injured soldier in a trench, one of three Canadians struck by the same whiz-bang. Mark and I visited his grave at La Targette Cemetery in France, the first to do so in the Smith family. The three soldiers lie buried beside one another, a trinity of ultimate sacrifice, each headstone dated October 15, 1917. Bill’s father served in England with the Canadian Forestry Corps in WWI and as a guard at a POW camp in Quebec during WWII. Bill’s older brother Arthur enlisted, and, soon after, so did 17 year old Bill, lying about his age. He never said goodbye to his family so they couldn’t prevent him from going. His mother was livid.

William Howard Smith (a)

Bill was assigned to the Algonquin Regiment. Because of his youth, the older guys tried to watch out for him, especially the scout, who treated him like a son. Later in life, like so many other veterans, Bill didn’t talk much about the war, but two stories stand out, a funny one and a sad one.

Soldiers were not allowed to fraternize with civilians, but Bill and a buddy met two girls and couldn’t resist chatting them up over coffee. Their sergeant angrily meted out a harsh punishment. The boys were ordered to go out that night and put together a cut telephone line. This was a dangerous task. The Germans cut the lines specifically to pick off whoever was sent to fix them. Bill and his friend weren’t given tools or instructions. Upon reaching their objective, flummoxed, they simply tied the two ends in a knot. It wasn’t fixed, but it was put together! 

The sad story is that one night the scout disappeared. When the regiment pulled out the next day, they found him lying dead in a ditch. They never discovered what had happened. When Bill told us that story, he shook his head silently, sorrow ghosting over his face. 

William Howard Smith (b)
We will remember them
I’ve stood proudly next to Bill at the cenotaph on November 11, an old man with impeccable posture and medals pinned to his Legion jacket – the France and Germany Star, Volunteer Medal, NATO Medal and Canadian Decoration Medal. When he died, his Legion friends came and paid their respects with solemn dignity, filing past his casket, each placing a poppy inside.

Mark and I have visited Wierden and viewed the plaque at City Hall honouring the Algonquin Regiment for liberating the city. Even the big words aren’t enough to retrieve all the history trailing behind us and stretched between us, but the legacy is embodied in our very being. And so, we remember.  




Christian Courier column, Oct. 22, 2012

Indebted, yes, but not financially.

Coffee and Canada AM are my morning staple. There was a ripple in the Force recently when Canada AM became the first show in Canadian broadcasting to feature two women, Beverly Thomson and Marci Ien, as anchoring co-hosts. A sudden vision of Angela and me as their counterparts in a parallel Christian Courier universe made me chuckle.

But, humorous self-aggrandizement aside, I owe a debt – a debt of gratitude to all the women who’ve gone before, women who had the stamina to achieve their goals despite bias and hostility, who made a difference for those who came after. I’m paying my debt in respect, a respect comprised of three distinct components. The first component is attention, remembering “what was.” I’m not ever taking for granted the educational and career opportunities I’ve been afforded. Once upon a time they did not exist.

Recently I watched Marci Ien interview Sandra Martin, the Globe and Mail’s obituary columnist. Martin identifies the life of Bertha Wilson as one of fifty that ‘changed Canada.’ Married to Rev. John Wilson, Bertha emigrated here from Scotland. Against considerable objection because of her gender, Bertha pursued a law degree. Eventually she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada by Prime Minister Trudeau, the first woman to attain that rank. She ruled on dozens of foundational cases, including the infamous Morgentaler case, but also making legal inroads on behalf of battered women, prisoners and immigrants.

Gail Collins, in her New York Times Notable Book posits that the 1960s represents the tiny sliver of history When Everything Changed for women as the title suggests. She tells the story of Lois Rabinowitz who achieved notoriety in 1960, ejected from a New York City traffic court by a judge incensed at her flagrant disregard for femininity. Rabinowitz was wearing pants. And there were, as Collins notes, many other boundaries: women could not attend medical school or become dentists (because they weren’t strong enough to pull teeth), and stewardesses could be fired for getting married.

Collins credits the black civil rights movement for liberating women. Women were far too numerous to be recognized as a “minority group” and far too intertwined with their husbands and sons to ever mobilize effectively on their own behalf, she says, but the civil rights movement birthed a new sensitivity to systemic inequality and created a social momentum in favour of fairness. When the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission was established by President John F. Kennedy, stewardesses were among the first to register their grievances.

Today, as evidenced by Thomson and Ien, there are still firsts for women. I’m thankful for each step forward. I was one of those girls not allowed to wear pants to school in the 60s, except on the bitterest winter days and then only underneath my dress. I was one of the girls who thought being smart meant boys wouldn’t like me so I dumbed it down. I was one of those girls who struggled to believe in my own worth and trust my own calling. In my church women were not allowed to vote in congregational meetings until 1969 and are still not included in ordained leadership. Nonetheless, today, here I stand, finally and irrevocably convinced that women are stamped with the image of their Creator, equally tasked to fill the earth and subdue it and rule over it.

With regards
So here’s the second component: paying it forward. I’d taught my students about Bertha Wilson many years ago and continue to take whatever opportunities come my way to inform anyone who will listen about what women have accomplished. I encourage women who might need a companionable and understanding nudge – like my friend Christine, a grandmother who’s just been accepted at Osgoode Hall and is studying for her law degree. I’m resolved to resist temptations to dumb it down, placate, or give in to prejudice. With a radical gentleness that I hope carries the fragrance of Christ, I muster up the courage to name illegitimate stereotyping when I see it. I’m committed to serving the Lord beyond the fences for the sake of those who come after.

The third component is saying thank you. Thank you, May, for showing me “in real time” that a woman can be both a professional educator and a Christian wife and mother. Thank you, Diane, for serving at age 70 as the first woman elder in your church. Thank you, Dad, for modelling equality in an unequal time, thanking Mom out loud in our presence – for the clean bathroom, for hearty meals with two different kinds of vegetables and applesauce, for darned socks, patched jeans and clothes washed on Mondays in a wringer washing machine. For liberation starts at home, and it’s not just about women.