Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


with 2 comments

There were 17 of us in the fitness class this November 11th morning and for so many of us, the Korean War and the Second World War were as real as remembering fathers, husbands and uncles. For those of the class whose families have not been not personally touched by the tragedy of war, all they have to do is turn on a television or read a newspaper. We are, this Remembrance Day, still at war.

All the sonorous words and platitudes about sacrifice and duty notwithstanding, it is a horrible fact that young men and women are still, in 2009, being blown to bits in far away countries. For our friends and neighbours who are American, their pain is more than double Canada’s, as they face a war on two fronts — Iraq and Afghanistan — and the sure and certain knowledge they are neither welcomed nor their sacrifice appreciated. And that’s just at home.

I was supposed to write today about the strange compulsion to nibble on stuff that isn’t really food, but today happens to be Remembrance Day, so the narcissistic focus is nowhere to be found right now. It would be inappropriate to spend today talking about my chosen sacrifices when they mean nothing in the face of real sacrifice and commitment.

Rather, the centre of attention must be on those who are no longer here and those for whom the pain doesn’t cease when the flags are folded, the drums are silenced and the bugles muted. No fancy words from politicians about remembering, no platitudes offered by generals safely in Ottawa can ever replace or ease the real pain of losing someone in such a senseless way.

But regardless of whether one individually agrees with the NATO mission in Afghanistan, or sees the so-called “war on terror” as nothing more than impotent saber-rattling, today is not the day to voice such thoughts.

Instead, it has been a day to think, to reflect, and to be silent. We did that this morning in a most unusual way. Our regular core fitness class on Wednesdays, from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., contained something extra and there are still tears in my eyes from it.

We did all the normal exercises, took our allotted time in savasana and then, just before 11 a.m., sat together in a circle with three small candles providing muted light, and chanted for peace. This normally would bring out the skeptical side of my nature, if not a full-blown attack of downright cynicism. But this wasn’t a normal day and this wasn’t a memorial service in the traditional sense. It was merely a group of disparate people gathered together by chance. Our purpose there wasn’t initially to be somber and reflective, but days like today have their own rhythm and meaning and that’s what took over.

We quietly chanted a Vedic mantra — om shanti om — a prayer for world peace 108 times, a number considered sacred in Hinduism and which Vedic mathematicians regarded, according to Shiva Rea, as “the number of the wholeness of existence.”

At 11 a.m., we fell silent for two minutes. I thought of all the people in my life who had been affected by war: my mother, Margaret Teresa Tunney, the Irish war bride; my Canadian father, Robert Evans Ford, the prisoner of war; my first husband, Leslie George Elhatton, wounded by a sniper in the battle for Monte Cassino, and my uncle, Thomas Fullerton Ford, the RCAF pilot who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for successfully bringing his battered Lancaster bomber back to the airfield, even as the rest of the crew bailed out over the English Channel.

Of them all, only Tom is still alive. And, like all the rest of them did, he prefers not to talk about any of it. His generation got on with the business of living. But I repeat their names as my own mantra, a reminder that I enjoy the privilege of having been loved by all of them.

It seems appropriate for those of us who are obsessed with our weight and food, with what to eat and how to cook the meals we take for granted, with how much to eat and where and when, that we spend one day of the year thinking how lucky we are in the real sense.

We are a generation that, until recently, never knew war. We enjoy an embarrassment of riches, overflowing pantries and piled-high supermarkets. All the bounty of our earth is stacked in Safeway’s and Sobey’s and the Co-Op. If one store doesn’t have some specialty we want, another one will. We eat when and what we choose. Our restaurants bring us the flavours of the world.

Few of us will ever experience privation and want and maybe just for today, we need to remember.

My father never talked much about the months he spent as a prisoner of war, having been shot down on November 4, 1944, less than one month after my birth. He put only glimpses of that time down on paper, and then in faint pencil, on scraps bound with a hunk of cardboard and a shoelace. His diary encompasses three weeks, from January 17 to February 10, 1945 — the forced march across the Oder River, ahead of the Russian push on the Eastern front.

It is not surprising that many of Dad’s comments were concerned with food, or rather the lack of food.

On January 21, 1945 they crossed the Oder River at 5 a.m. in the freezing cold. “It is feared that some of the more exhausted froze to death. Frostbite was quite prevalent . . . did receive half a cup of soup (mine personally consisted of only a wet potato) and as our bread ration had run out we were issued with a small bag of hard biscuits. (The same kind my dad used to feed our hunting dog to cure worms.) . . . We didn’t quite starve.”

On January 22, they were on the march again. “Very hungry and tired, men dropping out from fatigue . . . No sign of any bread.”

January 23: “The only topic is food . . . I will never waste food again.”

By the end of the month, Dad would write: “Men are existing on a lower scale than animals . . . All manner of wearing materials are being flogged for food. There are still cases of men’s rations being stolen by their comrades. Hanging is too good for this type of bastard.”

On February 5, the prisoners were herded into boxcars — 55 to each car designed to hold 12 horses or 30 men. Dad wrote: “Rations going down fast and not much left but sugar beets. On February 6, they “ate the last of the bread rations . . . we have one sugar beet left.” On February 7 he wrote: “All food gone. . . . I can practically count every one of my 208 bones.”

Dad would be liberated and returned to England on May 15, 1945. He would be reunited with his wife and daughter. My mother and I would be two of about 22,000 wives and 44,000 children who would be brought to Canada the following year by the government to join husbands and fathers.

And food never went to waste in our house.

NEXT: Eating clay and other strange customs.


Written by Catherine Ford

November 11, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Your writing is spectacular. You should write a book. Om shanti om. What a great thought. Namaste’ Christine


    November 12, 2009 at 12:59 pm

  2. Thank you, all of us need to remember the reason why this day is marked, it truly is unfortunate that the hope then was to ensure that it didn’t happen again, yet we still are at war.

    cathie williams

    November 21, 2009 at 9:06 am

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