I had the privilege a few weeks ago of being asked to interview local veterans at St. Michael’s Grove Manor. The Spruce Grove Legion needed someone to write stories for the Remembrance Day section of our local newspaper.
I am a fiction writer so it was a step out of my comfort zone to write non fiction as well as to actually interview people. My characters are imaginary, their dialogue made up and their situations fully controlled by me. I was excited at the thought of doing something different but truly had no idea what or how I was going to accomplish this feat.
Harry, my Legion contact, met me at the front door of St. Michael’s with a smile and a warm handshake. He thanked me profusely then warned me that veterans usually don’t like to talk much about the war – he said not to be surprised if only one or two people were there to meet with us. My heart, already unsure, sank to my toes.
When we arrived at the meeting room, there were two people seated and several empty chairs. The staff had generously left a tray of goodies and pot of coffee so Harry introduced me then went to serve the treats. The two faces turned in my direction, waiting. My mind churned furiously wondering what I was doing there, how I was going to get them to talk and why I had ever agreed to something so outside my experience. Don’t over think it, I told myself sternly, and I dragged a chair over in front of the first gentleman, Henry.
“Hello,” I said softly. “Eh?” he replied. “Don’t hear well,” he muttered. I had brought my Dictaphone (do people even use those anymore?) but realized that it just wasn’t going to work. I opened my notebook, grabbed my pen and spoke again, this time clearly and loudly. He grunted. “I don’t talk about the war,” he told me flat out. I panicked momentarily then looked into his eyes and took a deep breath. “I don’t want to talk about the war either,” I replied. “I want to talk about you. Where were you born?” He looked surprised for a moment then slowly began to speak. I leaned closer so I could hear him better and when he paused, I’d say ‘go on’ and he would. After three pages of writing he asked if I would like to see his medals that he kept in his room. I smiled yes and he left on his motorized scooter.
I moved on to the woman who was been sitting beside him. She’d been quietly listening while Henry spoke. “I’m Jean,” she told me and started her story. As she spoke, I was aware of more people coming and Harry talking, serving cookies and coffee. Henry returned with his medals so I spent more time with him before I moved on to a lovely lady named Pat.
At the end of three hours, I had interviewed nine veterans or spouses of veterans. I had a camera full of photos that I had taken of them and photos they had gone and gotten for me – their weddings, them in their service uniforms, their families. My notebook was full, my heart was overflowing and I was deeply touched by what these wonderful people had shared with me – and ultimately, with each other. As I left each person and moved on to their neighbour, the people I already interviewed kept chatting to each other saying things like “I didn’t know that, I grew up near there” and similar conversations.
Harry beamed when we finally left the Manor. “Can you believe it?” he asked me. I shook my head, overwhelmed by the response we’d had, the warmth and sharing that had developed and the bond I felt with these seniors as I had hugged them each good night and thanked them for their time.
I plan to interview the rest of the veterans who live in Spruce Grove and work with the Legion to compile these stories into a keepsake book – to capture real stories about real people who live in our community. This will create a legacy for future generations and a remembrance of the people who went to war and the lives they had before and after. Lest we forget.
Henry, Jean, Pat, Bill, Ivey, Dan, Dorothy, Anna and Nellie – you have given me one of the best gifts I have ever received – your life stories. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I will never forget you and our time together.