The Lost by Heather McBriarty

I remember the year my father went to war, and my mother’s smile went with him. It was also the first time I saw an automobile, the day we drove him in the old farm cart to the city and waved him off on the train. The summer was fading fast to fall that year. The goldenrod had grown high, their plumed heads sun bright, and the cicadas trilled in the heat. I heard my mother cry, “But how will we survive without you?”

I was just old enough to look forward to joining my older brother at the small schoolhouse down the dusty lane, a place he claimed he dreaded. He teased me with tales of The Strap, an instrument of discipline which I only later learned rarely fell on little girls like me. Yet his teasing did not scare me. I had only one thought: if I was good enough, my father would come home again.

“It is only looking back, that I realize how young my father was. Not yet 30, his face was tanned and seamed from hard work under the hot sun. His once soft hands, their fingers long and elegant, were rough from cutting hay and wood.”

It is only looking back, that I realize how young my father was. Not yet 30, his face was tanned and seamed from hard work under the hot sun. His once soft hands, their fingers long and elegant, were rough from cutting hay and wood. It was his accent that had persuaded my stern and protective grandfather to allow my mother to marry him, his words clipped, precise, restrained, not at all like the rough voices of the men of the village. He had no parents or siblings, unlike my mother with her boisterous clan. I thought him handsome with his golden hair, honey eyes and high colour. When he rolled his sleeves up at the end of the day to wash away the grime of the farm, his arms were creamy white. My father always sang, always smiled, teasing my mother until she blushed, and when their eyes met, held, my brother and I ceased to exist. Then the spell would break, and he would sweep me up in his strong arms, dance me around the kitchen table, calling me his darling best girl, his little lady. I wished my hair was as golden as his and my skin as fair, but I knew I looked more like my mother, a dark foil to his glory, and maybe that’s why he loved me so much.

The harvest, such as it ever was, came in thanks to my many uncles, and the letters began arriving. Delicate things, they were folded into tiny envelopes which my mother stored in an old shoe box. She would read us a line or two, weep slow tears, careful not to blotch the ink.

My mother grew round as the full Christmas moon. She taught me to knit, and I clicked out a long straggle of green wool which I proudly called a scarf. It went in the box to Father along with the heavy fruit cake, some hard candies, and a tiny bonnet, although why Father would have need of it, I had no idea. Perhaps, he’d give it to some Belgian baby.

The winter nights were long and the snow fell heavy. My mother would struggle out to milk our one cow, feed the horse and check the chickens, who, nestled sleepily in straw-lined boxes, refused to yield a single egg. I struggled to school through the deep snow, sometimes on a sled my mother pulled. I learned about letters and numbers and Huns and made some friends. There were others, older, not so kind, who called our father cannon-fodder. I did not understand. My father was protecting the poor widows and children. I imagined him, smiling, his arms wrapped around the poor old women or helping with their chores. How we could have used his help with the chores. Why did he need to be there, helping them?

The snow was gone, and the stream at the bottom of the field running free when my brother and I came down the lane from school. My mother, her skirts ballooning around her massive belly, knelt on the front stoop, wailing. I thought she had hurt herself. A boy in a cap on a bicycle held a slim brown envelop out to her but she refused to take it.

“Go get your grandfather!” Mother cried to my brother. Confused I accepted the boy’s offering and he pedaled away as if fleeing some plague.

My younger brother came that night, a ferociously angry, red-faced infant. Perhaps he too wanted to know why Father was lost and why no one could give him directions to get home. I remembered the fear I felt the summer before when I’d wandered in the woods too far and got lost. I had shrieked until Father found me cowering on the soft needle strewn ground beneath the pine trees. He swept me up, wiped away the tears and snot running down my face. Who would find Father if he was way over there, and we were here? Surely my father would not be as afraid as I had been?

My brother was two, a fat and happy child, oblivious to our sadness, the year the war ended. I had turned seven, another birthday without a card or note from my father. Mother insisted “He’s not dead, just missing!” as she wrote yet another letter to yet another person, desperate for news. Perhaps the Huns had him. Perhaps he had lost his memory and was in a hospital somewhere. No one had seen him fall (from what? I wondered. What had he been climbing?). Mother grew thin as the years passed. A package came in the mail, some medals on pretty ribbons, one a gleaming silver cross. Angrily, my mother tossed them in the compost heap, tears which never seemed far from the surface streaming down her cheeks. She never knew I dug them out and hid them in a little box of treasures.

The farm had to go, so we moved in with my grandparents. My uncle, who had gone to war with Father and not managed to get himself lost, lived with us. He frightened me with his nightmares, and I was happiest when he went out to work the fields of Grandfather’s farm alone, his shaky hands clasped knuckle white around the tractor steering wheel. It was a gloomy house. After my grandfather died, it was just my brothers and me, my silent uncle, and two sad-faced widows in drab clothing, their hands raw with hard work, their faces lined. My mother could have been my grandmother’s age. My older brother left as soon as he could, and I dreamed of the day I too could escape.

I remember the year they unveiled the monument. My mother had gone to join my father, wherever he was. I’d lost all faith in religion; there was no heaven or hell. She left a large hole in my life for such a frail presence. My older brother had disappeared somewhere into the wilderness, up north, chasing gold or timber or just a sense of what life should have been; letters came infrequently. A bequest had come with a lawyer’s letter from England: a title and an estate for my brother should he care to collect it. He did not. My father’s mysterious past would stay in the past. My younger brother, still oblivious to what he had missed, had broken the family mold, and gone off to university using some of this windfall money. It was up to me to join the pilgrims, to tread the ground where my father lay.

There were crowds and flags, bright trappings of celebration and honour. There were leaders, politicians, and the King. Such a tiny man, sad faced with burdens we had yet to learn about. I thought his sorrow was for the men. The pipers lamented, and airplanes climbed across the sky. The marble was so white, so crisp and virginal, soaring high above our heads. I stared up into the face of the Weeping Woman and saw my mother. Pacing the pavements, I found the name at last. Here was the only gravestone my father would have, his resting place somewhere in the lumped and uneven ground spreading down the slopes of this ridge. A small hand squeezed mine and I looked down into innocent eyes as honeyed as those of the grandfather he would never know. His golden curls tossed in the breeze. My son. How many mothers had looked on beloved small faces, not knowing they would be asked to sacrifice them to a King and a country so far from home? How could they have survived their broken hearts? Never again, I prayed, never again. How futile that prayer would be.

But my son was safe. He carries a name and a set of medals that belonged to my father, along with his grandfather’s high colour and wide smile. He lives, now older than my father ever had a chance to be. He has a son of his own who he will take across the sea and across the Douai Plain, and up the slopes where his grandfather lies and stand before the great monument I will never see again. And there at Vimy, the two of them will make sure at least one man of many is never forgotten.

Heather McBriarty is an author, lecturer and Medical Radiation Technologist based in Saint John, NB. Her love of reading and books began early in life, as did her love of writing, but it was the discovery of old family correspondence that led to her first non-fiction book, Somewhere in Flanders: Letters from the Front,and a passion for the First World War. She has delivered lectures to the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, NB Genealogy Society, and Western Front Association (Central Ontario Branch), among others, on the war. Heather’s first novel of the “Great War”, Amid the Splintered Trees, was launched in November 2021.

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