I was up from New England with my wife and son. We were driving down a steep Westmount hill and I was thinking of the dead generations, which I often do on those trips to Montreal, where I grew up. Apparently the dead do not go gentle into that good night, after all. They return for guest appearances. Everyone over a certain age knows this. I guess it’s called “haunting”.
But this wasn’t Hallowe’en. This was Saturday November 11th, 2017. Veteran’s Day in the US, Remembrance Day in Canada.
And as we drove by the little park with the bronze angel and the World War One infantryman that is our neighbourhood’s war memorial, I noticed a dozen persons standing out there on the grass.
Not a crowd. A scattering. A collection of strangers, keeping quite apart from each other in their diffident Canadian style.
I hadn’t forgotten that it was Remembrance Day. But I’d checked and the official ceremony wasn’t until the next day, Sunday, the 12th. The only reason we were passing by the memorial at that moment was a road detour. Montreal was suffering an infrastructure reboot. Winter would be coming soon and even on an overtime Saturday dump trucks were grunting, jackhammers stuttering, and streets were blocked.
As a kid I used to come every Remembrance Day, hear the bugle play Last Post, watch the soldiers presenting arms and my grandmother weeping, quietly. Mother and aunts crying, too. Five stylish Montreal women spilling tears in brutal cold. It always was a cold day, unenlightened by sunshine.
That morning, seeing the scatter of people, I checked my watch and was shocked to see it was five minutes to eleven, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
So it was the ghosts, not the Detour signs, that summoned or guided us there.
I jammed the car into an illegal spot, left it with hazards blinking and my son and I got out. It was really cold. Montreal’s November has a savage edge over Boston’s.
A few persons—not bystanders, no one was there by accident —had their dogs with them. Most didn’t. Everyone was keeping that wary Canadian distance from everyone else.
I hustled up to the stone tablets with my son and we touched the name of his great-uncle, John J.K. O’Brien, then returned to the frozen grass and the collection of strangers—communicants? At 10:59 a pair of fire trucks pulled up. Half a dozen firefighters in heavy canvas work gear climbed out to stand bareheaded and silent. Out on Sherbooke Street, one city bus dropped out of the traffic stream and stopped where there wasn’t a bus stop.
And what had been silent abruptly became a silence.We stood that way for two minutes, a collection of strangers, each with our own dreams, and then it was over—for us, if not for our restless dead—and we went our ways in the cold and silver light.