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Honouring mothers and families of young service members lost to war a poignant part of Remembrance Day

Unlike many veterans, my father relished talking about the Second World War and the nearly five years he spent overseas fighting for what he would have called "King and country." His appetite was always more intellectual than visceral, more driven by geopolitics and the machinations of the German General Staff than the terror of torpedoes sinking his ship on convoy duty.

But there was one story my father told me over a late-night steadier that haunts me every Remembrance Day: His tale of being ushered into a room, along with dozens of other young men, and being told to sit at a desk to compose his will. At 21, he had no worldly goods and no desire to die, but his country was at war. It was like writing an exam with only one question and one possible answer: He left everything to his mother.

When I was that age, I was more interested in hedonism than duty. That's what guts me about Remembrance Day, the sacrifices, the losses, the never-ending sorrow and my own relief and guilt that I have been spared the pain that we expect the Silver Cross Mother to shoulder for the rest of us.

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The tradition of honouring the mother of a fallen soldier dates to the First World War. This year, Diana Abel, an Ontario grandmother, will lay the wreath at the cenotaph in Ottawa in memory of her son, Corporal Michael David Abel, a member of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. Michael, a parachutist, died on May 3, 1993, in Belet Huen, the only Canadian killed during the Somalia campaign. He was 28.

"You lose your future," Diana Abel told me in a telephone interview as we talked about her son's death and what it meant to her family. She and her husband, David, lost their only son, the one they had hoped would carry the Abel name forward; their daughter, Laura, lost her brother, her own children never knew their uncle. "It is a wound that doesn't heal," Abel said, remembering the phone call that shattered her life. "It scabs over, but it doesn't take much to rip it off."

After's Michael's body was repatriated, his family decided to drop their son's ashes from a military plane over Forbidden Plateau near Comox, B.C., where he was born in 1965. Abel still refers to the ceremony as "Michael's last jump."

According to historian Suzanne Evans, the recognition of the Silver Cross Mother had a political component from the beginning. It was seen by some as a reward to mothers and widows of serving men because, having been given the franchise during the conscription crisis of 1917, women had helped re-elect then-prime minister Robert Borden.

Times have changed and so have the eligibility criteria for what is also called the Memorial Cross, and its cousin, the Memorial Ribbon. The official honours have become less political and more egalitarian. For example, when Captain Nichola Goddard died in Afghanistan on May 17, 2006, her husband, Jason Beam, was awarded the Silver Cross by a special order-in-council. Nowadays, before being deployed, members of the Canadian Armed Forces are asked, in addition to writing their wills, to nominate three people to receive the medal should he or she die either on active service or from an injury that has led to death, including suicide.

The Abels are a military family. Diana's late husband, David, spent a dozen years in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a young man in 407 Squadron, the same unit the family asked to drop their son's ashes. The Abels' two grandsons have both served in Cadets. As a widow, Abel has skipped a generation and asked her eldest grandchild, John Michael (named after his uncle) McRae to be her escort at the wreath-laying ceremony in Ottawa on Saturday. The 17-year-old hopes to carry on the family tradition and enroll in the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., next fall.

While I will be thinking of Abel and her family on Nov. 11, I will be remembering my own. As we do every year, my husband and I will dig out the family photographs of ancient men and women in uniform, some on horseback, some aboard ships, some buried in France, and repeat the stories to our grandchildren. It is the least we can do.

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Video: Remembrance Day in Ottawa (Globe and Mail Update)
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About the Author
Feature writer

Sandra Martin is a Globe columnist and the author of the award-winning book, A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices. A long-time obituary writer for The Globe, she has written the obituaries of hundreds of significant Canadians, including Pierre Berton, Jackie Burroughs, Ed Mirvish, June Callwood, Arthur Erickson, and Ken Thomson. More

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