Sheila’s Remembrance Day Fantasy

Just over a month ago my Grannie, my fathers mother passed away. She was 85, born in 1928. To say the least she has seen a lot, and the stories and views she had from all those years is astonishing. And the way she told her stories was a whole other element on its own. Sam and I were very close to her, growing up we spent almost every summer in our young years with her and our Granddad Don at their cottage in Ontario.

Of many things Sheila taught me to laugh and weep with the world; to love all creatures great and small, and to love the trees as I do my friends. She taught me to remember where I come from, and never cause any harm to anyone or anything. One of my earliest memories I have of her was her telling me never to join the army. She was a wonderful woman and I will never forget these lessons.

I have here a letter Sheila wrote to Peter Gzowski a few weeks after “Remembrance Day” 1983. For those who don’t know, Peter Gzowski was a CBC radio host for about 20 years. This letter is a good example of her views and portrays her in many ways. The timing of all this amazes me, with the murder of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the exact Memorial she speaks of and Stephen Harper sending Canadian “troops” into battle.

Today is the day we gather to Remember her, and Celebrate her life, only a few days before “Armistice Day.” I had never heard this story before, and it has changed my view on “Remembrance Day.”

Sheila’s Remembrance Day Fantasy.

Dear Peter:

I spent the morning of Nov. 11 with you & your guests & felt reflective & thoughtful. At a few minutes to 11, I put on the tely to view the service at the National War Memorial. My family history is British Imperial Army & Anglican Church. I see now how extraordinarily similar these two institutions are, and as a female growing up in this male dominated world, I, like my sisters before me, accommodated my life according to male expectations. My secret existence, and the way things really worked, were two separate realities. As a child I was puzzled by this but as a woman, I have two states of being; one Rage & the other NUMBNESS. The only alternative to unexpressed rage is, for me, numbness.

Anyway, back to “Lest We Forget”. We don’t forget the face & the life of a son, a friend, or a lover when they are wrenched from us so violently & so soon. We don’t need bands, flags & parades for that. Those, in fact, help us to remember how to make war, “lest we forget”.
I used to mark Armistice Day, as it was then (perhaps more accurately) called, with my Mother, the daughter of the professional soldier. She had served in France in the W.A.C.’s, 1914-1918. On Nov. 11 she simply buried her face in her hands & sat quietly for 2 minutes. She told me she was remembering her friends. I went to many a parade as a child & teenager. Our church was the garrison church & I used to watch the often shabby old men stepping out as smartly as their age & infirmities would allow. I used to worry the bugler would sound a bum note. Always I felt sad, which was both the natural response & the required response. I also always felt uneasy, alarmed, puzzled.

Now in my fifties, I too have had friends killed, felt pain, seen evidence of war’s atrocities & seen man’s cruelty to man. I’ve also seen these same cruelties encouraged by cheering crowds, music, flags & prayers. I’ve borne sons & know how very precious they are.

Having been put in a thoughtful frame by your program, I slipped my sleeping grandson into his bed & watched the service in Ottawa. There was the Silver Cross Mother. Her 20 year old had been killed in Korea. The Silver Cross Mother is always the same. She is old. She wears a dark coat & hat. The Prime Minister or the Governor General always steers her by her elbow to the monument. She is always surrounded by the military, ecclesiastical, political members of the Boy’s Club. She is always dutiful, quiet, respectful. One year, I actually knew the Silver Cross Mother & her four dead sons whose sacrifice brought her to Ottawa. She too looked quiet, dutiful, respectful. Surely what these women are is numb.

I always watch & I always wonder why they are not screaming. I know why they are not screaming. It would not do to make a fuss. We learn that so very early & we learn it well, and the atrocities go on & we are quiet. What would happen if we whirled & screamed & shrieked in our grief & our pain. What if we demanded it STOP.

I have a fantasy about a possible replay of Remembrance Day 1983.

The Silver Cross Mother is late. The officials are nervous, edgy. “Where is she? Who was responsible for getting her here? Find some other old woman in the crowd to stand in for her. The clergy are nearly finished their prayers. Where is she?”

We hear the sound of pounding hooves. A sleek, excited horse, its tail & mane flying out behind it comes galloping into view. It has neither bit nor saddle. It runs with, all the energy & strength of all the horses of all the cavalry horses in history in its limbs. Its eyes are triumphant & clear, the nostrils flaring, in vengeance & pride.
Riding as one with the beast is the Silver Cross Mother, her gray hair loose & long. Her eyes are like fire & she is brandishing a sword around & around & around her head like an athlete about to hurl a discus. She is summoning energy from the very sky. The crowd parts, scatters; her rough crimson wool cape streams out behind her, leaving sparks in her wake. The Boy Scouts flee, The Girl Guides gape, the old soldiers see a vision. She mounts the steps of the Cenotaph & comes to a stop. She utters one high pitched scream. First there is silence & then the monument crumbles to dust. The men all fall into a deep ,deep sleep. The women begin to weep & to dance; they twirl, & spin & scream. All the women all over the world begin to weep & whirl & dance, dance, dance. They cry & they dance & they cry & they dance. They dance until their dance becomes a song & their song becomes a croon & their croon becomes a lullabye. It is time to wake the children. Along the lines of their eyes & their cheeks the crooning women stroke the men & the boys. They open their eyes & they have forgotten how to make war. All their lives they have been told “not to forget”, but they have forgotten how to make war.

Two days later the first American Cruise Missiles were delivered to the Air Base at Greenham Common in England. The women have been camping & protesting there for two years. I love those screaming, protesting, unseemly women at that camp.

Sheila Brown

Sheila Brown

Sheila & The Boys


4 thoughts on “Sheila’s Remembrance Day Fantasy

  1. Dear Caleb,

    I heard Peter Gzowski read this letter from your grandmother on the radio when he received it in 1983. Its powerful imagery – of the Silver Cross mother with her long hair streaming, and the admonishment to the men and boys to forget – has stayed with me ever since.

    Today, July 20 2016, I was asked to describe what kind of superhero I would like to be if that were possible. Your grandmother’s version of the Silver Cross Mother instantly sprang to mind – the hair, the fierceness, flying in to the Remembrance Day ceremony (on the horse – I had forgot that part but love the idea that she is one with her mount) and sweeping her hand over all and crying “Forget!” Sadly the need for this superpower has never disappeared, and may be even more necessary now.

    I am so happy that a short Google search brought me to this page so that I could learn Sheila Brown’s name, see her portrait , and read her letter for myself. It has been a few years now since you lost her but I thought you would like to know that the memory of this most excellent lady lives on in the mind of at least one CBC listener.

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