A Name Carved…

John Leo Corr. A name carved on the Vimy Memorial.  Died in battle in Fresnoy, France on May 3, 1917, age 30. Because of Remembrance Day, I know his name. Because of Remembrance Day I know he is my great uncle. Because of Remembrance Day I know his fate. 
Family history is a fickle thing. Storytelling within families is a powerful way of remembering those who came before us and helps those who have passed live on around kitchen tables and campfires and whenever families gather to celebrate or to mourn. The tales are told of hardships fought…from the immigrant experience to survival from holocaust, disease, trauma, addictions and more. Stories are told of exploits, mountains conquered, the world seen, anecdotes of hilarity that ensued on one occasion or another. And as the greats, and the great greats pass…their stories are passed down. Stories that often begin with remember when…or, my grandfather once… However families also possess many and varied dynamics.  From close knit and loving with strong enduring bonds to those that are fraught with strife and dysfunction where most memories are considered better left silent and forgotten. The war experience is often forgotten even in close-knit families. Veterans more often than not do not want to speak of their experiences and even less want to share this experience with those they love. They returned at a great cost to their psyche bearing scars both seen and invisible. They want those memories forgotten and buried, burned from the neurons holding the memories in their heads.
In 2014 I was preparing library classes centred around Remembrance Day and I had received a shipment of bookmarks from the Government of Canada to be used on the occasion. On this bookmark was written a website https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial
I did my lessons with my classes, pulled the website up onto the smart board, and we did rudimentary searches by last names to see if any relatives had served and died in the Great War (the war to end all wars). Most students had no idea if their ancestors fought but the act of searching for recognizable names on this website sparked interest and those bookmarks were quite possibly the most kept in the history of me handing out bookmarks that, quite frankly, often barely made it out the library door never mind off the desks.  
On that Remembrance Day I sat down with my iPad, called up the website, and plugged in my last name. It was then and there I met John Leo Corr. Until that moment, I had no idea he had ever existed. I knew my grandfather had fought in a war (turns out it was both WWI and II) and I knew my dad had served in Korea (for which he was unrecognized until it was officially changed from being a conflict to an actual war and he received  a commemorative medal). I knew that in my father’s personal affects were medals from his father. But I had no family history to accompany any of it. No stories told. My father was a wonderful storyteller…a teller of  humorous anecdotes – many of them about his trips to sea and the ports he visited. But not of Korea. He was a great teller of jokes, but rarely spoke of family history. Nor did my mother. Most of my relatives were virtual strangers who sent cards and gifts through the mail due to my father being stationed so far away and travel being expensive. I remember seeing my grandfather – a tiny, ancient, old man sitting in a hospital bed. I had no idea he had fought in two wars, lost a brother, was wounded, court-martialled for desertion in one war only to return to the fight and then fight again in the next. My family watched the Remembrance Day services from Ottawa every year with no mention of relatives who fought or lost their lives. For me, Remembrance Day simply became a day off and, if I want to be completely honest, a day where it was inconvenient at times because the stores opened so late and I had Christmas shopping to do. 
All that changed when I met John Leo. That day, I made a connection. Two brothers went off to war, and, by the grace of God my grandfather survived. He married and had a son who in turn had me. I was born fully 41 years after John Leo’s death. Had it turned out differently, I would not be here. Without their sacrifice, I would not be here sitting on my comfortable couch in a warm house (minus 27 windchill outside my door today), with my cat and my coffee reflecting on these gifts afforded me by those who fought for our freedom. John Leo died before he married or had children. His line stopped in the battle of Fresnoy. Did my great grandmother remember her son? Mourn him? Did my grandfather remember his brother? Mourn him? Most certainly on all account. Did my father remember and mourn. I would be inclined to think not. John Leo passed long before my father’s personal history began. If he was was remembered at all, it was silently as if in a vacuum.
John Leo is alive in me. Remembrance Day is meaningful now in ways I could never have imagined. I have searched the official records and gleaned small bits of information but the internet served up the best information yet. Last year when I searched his name yet again, I found it as an obscure keyword indexed from the book “We Are the Dead” written by John Gray. No longer in print, I found a copy through EBay and purchased it as a Christmas present to myself. John Gray was inspired by the names and initials he saw on the Cenotaph at Carleton Place, Ontario and was determined to tell their stories. While the Veteran’s website had provided merely a few bare facts, John Gray brought John Leo to life. A picture next to his story brought an even deeper personal connection. I could now see the Corr genes at work in the resemblance to his brother, my father, and my brother. I learned that he was called Leo, and not John…although I have always referred to him as John Leo.
John Leo’s name is marked in the book of remembrance located in Rideau Hall in Ottawa. I lived in Ottawa for several years and I had no idea. I was young and ignorant, I had no stories to draw information from nor feel a connection to. No personal connection that drove me to attend services at our Nation’s capital.  If I could go back and do things differently, I would. But for the lack of a Delorean, I can only move forward. I will remember him. And every year, during Remembrance Day, I will tell his story.
War is traumatic. Survivors return never to be the same. The memories of war are ugly.  Many do not want to relive those traumas. It is up to history to keep those memories alive and tell their stories. It is up to us to seek out those stories. Thank you to the men and women who sacrificed so much and to the storytellers who have ensured they will not be forgotten.

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