The new ‘urgency’ of Remembrance
by Bruce Mason
• Hopefully, as you read this, you will pause at some point to remember those who helped make the freedom to read, write, speak, vote – and other precious gifts of our fortunate lives – possible. Gifts that are too often taken for granted, in virtually every breath and day beyond that short silence that takes place each November 11.
Few know the profound importance of this as much as Julia Mackey, creator of the award-winning, one-woman show, Jake’s Gift. The actress/playwright has barnstormed her play to encores from audiences – in heartfelt tears of profound sadness and joy – across Canada and beyond in more than 650 performances. The show has played in legions, major theatres, schools, festivals and halls in 185 communities through all 10 provinces and in two territories.
She says Remembrance Day, at her high school in Montreal, was “a very big deal.” Her mission is simply to remind us to remember. “It is not a war story. I’m not rallying for anything and this is definitely not pro-war,” she explains. “We must differentiate between war and being human, by helping others to survive tragic loss, to honour and respect the tremendous sacrifices made for us, even pacifists and despite politics.”
In 2004, during the 60th anniversary of D-Day, her life was transformed on France’s Normandy coast at Juno Beach and the many graves nearby. On June 6, 1944, 14,000 Canadians joined 150,000 allied troops in the largest offensive invasion in modern history, to pry from the Nazis their brutal, four-year iron grip on Europe. Canadians suffered 1,074 casualties and 359 were killed.
“After just missing the 50th anniversary, I was determined to take part and to bear witness. I contacted Veterans Affairs a year before the 60th anniversary to get passes to every event, including some that were only open to special guests.” she recalls. “I had a strong sense of urgency, as veterans leave us without telling their stories.”
For eight days she immersed herself in conversations with veterans, with whom she has kept in close contact. There has been an outpouring of thanks to them from generations of still-grateful local people who knew the war history of their own villages through an undiminished oral tradition and visiting and tending the graves of their liberators, as well as being told as children to “clean their rooms and water their gardens.”
From an active network she describes as “a bunch of 80-year-old boyfriends” (now in their ‘90s or deceased), she created Jake, a cantankerous octogenarian war vet, reluctantly returning to Juno Beach, finally able to visit the grave of his beloved brother Chester. “I never done nuthin’ special,” he says, suffering survivor’s guilt in gut-wrenching silence.
“It’s essential to remember that these weren’t professional soldiers or mercenaries, but ordinary young Canadians, teachers, millworkers, farmhands, who, at the end of the Great Depression, were in dire need of jobs, in Jake’s case, a pair of boots,” says Mackey. “Reality and morality often came after they arrived in war and began to hope and fight for a better world than the horror they now experienced.”
Retuning home to Canada, Mackey had a lingering need to capture and share her own transformative experience. Inspiration eventually struck. “While washing dishes, suddenly I thought of Isabelle – based on all the grateful French children I had talked with, along with many veterans from Canada, the US and Britain – and I instantly started jumping around and writing things down.”
Although she plays four characters – including a French grandmother and a teacher from Ontario, who has brought hand-written notes of thanks from her students to lay on graves – it is the interplay between Jake and the precocious and persistent 10-year-old French girl that gives Jake’s Gift its heart, soul and universal resonance. In a mesmerizing acting tour de force, she seamlessly switches between the two memorable and disparate characters in often charming and humorous conversation as their awareness and friendship evolve across their respective ages.
“Recently, in an inner city school in Toronto, a young boy approached me after a performance and said he liked the part about the sadness of loss,” recalls Mackey. “He added that he had lost his brother and he then ran away. A teacher standing nearby said, ‘That was beautiful; his brother was killed in front of him in war-ravaged Africa and he rarely speaks to anyone.’”
Mackey has come to value the receptions afterward as much as the performances, with conversations she has with the folks who have a Jake in their lives or family history, often left blank by a reluctance to speak of the unspeakable. She speaks with college students who realize they are now the age Jake was in war, vowing to visit cenotaphs with a new perspective, with vets in their ‘90s who say, “Not bad for a guy who thought he’d never come back home” and with folks who have just experienced their first live theatre.
Legendary actor/educator Antony Holland – still active and acting at age 93 – says, “Something quite extraordinary happens in Jakes’ Gift. I’m a veteran of the Second World War and this play and its performance made a greater impact on me than all the memorial services I have ever attended.”
Mackey observes that schools and the media now do a better job covering Remembrance Day. More of us are aware that vets are rapidly leaving us, especially after the recent death of the last survivor of the First World War. And technology has made it simple to search our own ancestry.
There are, of course, more veterans of all ages, from the forgotten Korean War and Bosnia to former peacekeepers to the Canadians who currently “serve” overseas in Afghanistan.
And once again war appears on screens in our homes, in newspapers and in conversations. As well, the face of Canada is rapidly changing, as immigrants – all too familiar with the savagery of war and its innocent victims – arrive here.
Julia notes freeway salutes, the Fallen Hero and Memory Projects as evidence of the growing awareness of the importance of Remembrance. The latter provides opportunities for veterans to share their memories through oral interviews, digitized artifacts and memorabilia. It also provides a Speakers Bureau with 1,500 volunteers who visit classrooms and community groups in person or on-line.
Right now, there are new dimensions to contemporary Remembrance, other perspectives and stories from veterans, including Canada’s badly tarnished reputation and poor voter turnout.
Bud Schaupmeyer, one of Julia’s “boyfriends,” told Common Ground, “I spent five years in the military during WWII – along with approximately one million fellow Canadians, one-tenth of the population – and did no more or no less than any other. We fought for democracy and against a Fascist regime. I feel we are, to a large degree, losing the former and becoming the latter.
“That may sound absurd on the face of it and I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but many citizens are concerned about the concentration of wealth and power. That we are too closely following the US, where peace is a threat to the economy. Too many people are afraid to speak their views against things we know are not right. Instead, we just go along with it. Criminal activities are being downplayed, shoved under the carpet while ex-service personnel are deprived of the rights that governments are mandated to provide.
“I walk with two canes as a direct result of a wartime injury, from being blown away by a bomb. It should be pensionable. But long ago I gave up the fight when I was told to hire a lawyer,” he added.
Mackey says frustration and abandonment are articulated in Rick Mercer’s rant (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DsJ8IhWO7w), in which he ridicules Canada’s pushing those who served in the front line to the back of the line, advising elderly vets to get apps for their cell phones. “We have forgotten!” he concludes, given our current treatment of veterans.
Remembrance is about how we choose to treat our fellow human beings, all of them. It teaches that freedom comes at a price. And it provides ongoing motivation to be ever vigilant of those who seek profit from war.
Julia, with her director/partner Dirk Van Stralen, is on tour in the Maritimes this month. Jake’s Gift is now being published and a study guide has been produced online. For more information, including how to book the play, visit www.jakesgift.com