Tuesday, 20 June 2017

after war

my father’s photographs and poems, from The War, 
are kept in a large wooden box, on a bookshelf in my bedroom

in picture after picture, he is embraced by his ‘pals’ …
young men in their early 20’s mugging in front of cameras,
before being sent off to a lethal game of run-for-your-life –
aka:  The Storming of the Beaches of Normandy

there are lots of mementos in that box, but it is a very big box
and it is, mostly, empty … sometimes when I’m tidying, I think,
I ought to make better use of that space and toss other stuff in there –
but it feels like that would be a mean intrusion ... almost as though, 
that box couldn't possibly hold any more

I only ever saw him poring over those pictures and poems, once …
my mother always said, he didn’t need to look back,
he carried that war with him every day of his life

the contents of his ‘war chest’ were the only personal possessions,
other than his clothing and books, that he hung on to

his whole life:  he never added another keepsake to that box,
it was as if, after the war … he was done making happy memories ...
and done celebrating them ... there were almost no more smiling pictures ...
no more postcards from a shining moment in time, to be thrown away and forgotten

A verse from one of my Dad’s poems (circa 1944)

Living and dying; shadow and light
Drinking and praying; wrong and right
Life’s course, a twisted pattern weaves
Men play and die or live and grieve
Note:  1 in 8 Canadian soldiers, returning home following deployment to Afghanistan, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Photo:  Dad's 'War Chest' - W. Bourke

© 2017 Wendy Bourke


  1. This is So beautiful. Thank you. As I read this, I got the sense your dad's chest contains something more (than things).

  2. I imagine the images stayed with him long after the war.

  3. Incredible--your poem, the story that inspired it, the photo, and your father's poem. I see now where you got your talent and desire for writing.

    How poignant, sad, e.g.:
    he was done making happy memories ...
    and done celebrating them ... there were almost no more smiling pictures ...
    no more postcards from a shining moment in time

    Wonderful that you have that keepsake box.

  4. It is impressive that your dad was a poet! And how wonderful that you have such a keepsake box. Seems like your dad was one who stormed the beach at Normandy. I was there last summer, and I don't think I appreciated what all this involved until I actually SAW the beaches. I am sure his war experiences never left him...I am wondering if you had an opportunity to visit Normandy as well. And then, of course, there were the cemeteries there....which add to the tale. I wonder who will get this box in the future. I hope one of your children has expressed interest, as it is indeed a treasure which becomes more valuable each year.

    1. Yes, my Dad was one of 14.000 Canadian soldiers that stormed, I believe it was: Juno Beach … though he never named the Beach to me – and only once spoke of the landing when I found him going through the contents of ‘that’ box. All he said was: the things these eyes of mind have seen (he stopped for a moment and collected himself, only to add) all of it … ancient history now. He served in some sort of medic position, which I can only imagine, kind of amounted to: run for your life, while trying to save your comrades – and, I think, that forced him to stop, and really take in the horror of it all – as if it wasn’t horrible enough.

      He did write a bit of poetry; some of it rather humorous … in the beginning, before he saw combat. When he returned home, he had a few pieces published in veteran magazines. (There is a tradition of poetry writing in the Canadian forces – John McCrae's In Flanders Fields, is one, extremely fine, example). He was pretty pleased about that – and I was pleased for him. As an aside: he made a point of stipulating in his will that he wanted his corneas transplanted, after he died. At that time, in a fairly small northern Ontario town, that was a, somewhat, unusual request. But, it was done, and my Mom received a letter one day, that it had been a successful transplant, and someone could see, because of it. I think that would have really pleased him. Also, my writing poetry: I know that would have pleased him, too. I have never visited Normandy ... that must have been a very poignant experience - very hard to see all those graves of young men lined up, row upon row.

  5. The war moments / experiences seem to be the keepsakes that your father placed into that war chest. So nothing more could be added to it. It was already full. What's tragic is the line 'Men play and die or live and grieve' is equally relevant even today. A wonderful poem Wendy.

  6. What a touching poem - the gift of language clearly runs in the family

  7. This is so incredibly touching, Wendy! I can almost picture him! Thank you for sharing.

  8. War rips the smiles out a soul, makes the rest of everything seem so fragile, so easy to lose...

    This poem takes me to a place I haven't visited in some time. A place that makes my chest too tight, turn my eyes liquid, and robs smiles... a necessary place--terrible, unforgettable, part of me.

    I hope you add something to the box. I didn't know your father, but I suspect anyone who went through what he did, would want to know that his sacrifice made things better for everyone... especially for the ones he loved most.

  9. so much more than the sum of the parts in this poem - poignant with a capital P
    "as if, after the war … he was done making happy memories ...

  10. What an amazing poem, and story. I am glad your dad's eyes went on "seeing" after he was gone. "The things these eyes have seen." My favourite uncle never spoke of the war. He had a fine sensitivity and I am sure what he saw hurt him deeply. I like that you respected that nothing more could fit in that box; it holds so much history, so much pain, so much camaraderie, and memories of fallen comrades, and the young men he saw die horrible deaths. A great write, Wendy.

  11. For most of the years of our marriage, my husband and I attended the annual reunion of his Tank Destroyer Battalion from WWII. Each year the same stories were told and retold, and they enjoyed a great camaraderie that was wonderful to see. I enjoyed your poem and the story of your father's "war chest".

  12. It is most impressive to be sharing the same talents as your Dad!


  13. This is so profound: "my mother always said, he didn’t need to look back,
    he carried that war with him every day of his life"

    And the words your dad wrote about men playing and dying or living and grieving, wow, that is so powerful, too.

  14. This is indeed a tremendous set of memories, your poem serves to box them adequately

    A happy Sunday to you

    much love...

  15. What a treasured keepsake... the most touching is that space he left inside.. to me this is the most telling. No mementos needed to be added... very very touching, and the poem added so much to it.

  16. How apt, a war "chest," as if the thing he carried there were the things that silently burdened him within. And he was of a generation that carried on, silently, as if the silence was like many shoulders heaving the burden. You honor him to remember in verse.

  17. what a wonderful recollection of history. the story of a hero. :)

  18. Nothing is more cruel that to send a young person embracing adulthood into a war to take part in killing other youngsters like themselves. This tarnishes them for the rest of their lives. What a wonderful poem in trubute of your father Wendy.

  19. Such an evocative poem, just wonderful to read. Thanks for sharing it.

  20. Most enjoyable and touches emotions.

  21. I understand. After my husband's death and my Son's death. (Some years later)My partner, said to me, you never look at the pictures of them...it is true. I hold them in my heart, in a very special way, know each line of them, imprinted on my heart...I told him, and I don't want them to be over-ridden by the photographs. They were my life, and when they were gone, it is hard to make new memories...perhaps we are talking about "once broken, hard to mend." But on the other hand, there is that Japanese idea, that things are even more beautiful when broken and put back together? These are beautiful memories of your Father's memories.

  22. The war and its memories can really linger for a long time. THe pictures are there, but I am sure there are more of them inside his mind and heart. THanks for the personal share Wendy.

  23. A moving post in all sorts of ways.

  24. Your poem resonates with the memory of my father, who was young, a teen, but tasted the war's horrors, had concussion.... This memory stayed with him till the rest of his life. Thank you for sharing your poem!

  25. One of the best poems I've read recently. This one will stay with me.

  26. This is so incredibly touching, Wendy! I can almost picture him! Thank you for sharing.