Today is Remembrance Sunday, and I like to remember. I will never, ever forget visiting the Commonwealth cemetery in Bayeux a few years ago, and standing in the middle of white grave markers stretching miles in every direction. Behind every cross was a boy who died painfully and alone, a long way from home, and a family who had to make peace with his ending for the rest of their lives. How did they get out of bed, every morning after? That sort of courage should be memorialised.
And so I like to pay tribute to them, and to read war poetry and dress carefully and pin poppies on our chests. It really means something to me. This year we had the opportunity to help the Royal British Legion man the poppy desk in Tesco, and I enjoyed it so much I’d like to do it every year. We went all together, at first – I really want acts of service to be a part of our family life, and had this idea that Henry at least should see what we were doing. Then, after approximately four minutes, we realised that we were probably bringing the Legion into some kind of disrepute, and so Tim and Sarah took the boys home while I stayed for our two-hour stint.
It was just the best two hours I had all week. First of all, I discovered that the whole poppy transaction presents a particularly British problem of Who Should Be Grateful Here. They’re contributing money, so I say thank you. And then I give them a poppy, so they say thank you, and a pin, so they say thank you. And then I say thank you again to conclude before they leave. An embarrassment of gratitude, though I suppose that’s not often a problem Tesco has. It must make a nice change.
The second thing I realised was that Remembrance Sunday touches people just like it touches me. I was astonished by the number of people who donated, especially those who gave money without taking a poppy at all. There was a lady with a missing leg and a Help for Heroes bag, who buzzed up in her motorised wheelchair and asked me to pin her poppy onto her cardigan for her. Then the lady who dropped money in the collecting tin and said ‘I must give money to the Poppy Appeal. It was so close to my husband’s heart. He’s gone now, so I give it for him’. There was a catch in her voice, and I struggled to clear my own throat before thanking her (for the seventh time). Then the old man with broken English who asked me what the poppy represented. I explained, and it turned out he had served in the army and knew already, and was just checking that I knew as well. We chatted for a bit, then he asked me to pin his poppy on for him. You never worry more about accidentally stabbing someone with a pin than when you’re pinning a poppy onto a stranger’s thick-weave cardigan, let me tell you. He asked my name, I asked for his, and we shook hands very seriously before he left. I liked him, an awful lot.
The third thing that occurred to me, just as Tim arrived with a chocolate bar to take me home, was that being kind to people you don’t know is something that makes you genuinely happy, and I would like to find ways to do it more often. Well, duh. On a day when we commemorate those who gave up their own lives to make ours possible, I hope that’s a very tiny remembrance they would find appropriate.
*this is the only bit of Remembrance Sunday Henry grasped, after about fifteen minutes of ‘um, so people were fighting…no, not Mummy fighting. No, not Sarah fighting. Ok, never mind’. This is why I’m not a primary school teacher.