In his tenderly reverent ballad “Remembrance Day,” Mark Knopfler honors the fallen soldiers of World War I by calling to mind the players on a village cricket team:
Standing at the crease, the batsman takes a look around/ The boys are fielding on home ground, the steeple sharp against the blue/ When I think of you
Sam and Andy, Jack and John, Charlie, Martin, Jamie, Ron … on and on/ We will remember them, remember them, remember them
Together with a haunting melody, Knopfler’s lyrical guitar lines and a children’s choir, the song evokes an image of one of those pretty English villages in the Cotswolds, its male population devastated by a brutal war, the reason for which most people still don’t know.
The national holiday of which Knopfler sings is this Sunday, Nov. 11, the same date as Veterans Day in the U.S. In the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries, Remembrance Day honors those who have died in war. It’s marked by a moment of silence at 11 a.m., the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month on which the Armistice ending World War I took effect.
It’s also marked by red poppies, a reference to the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McRae, a Canadian physican who fought in the ghastly second battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. Somehow McRae managed to write these immortal lines while presiding over the funeral of one of many friends whose graves were overgrown with poppies:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row/ That mark our place …
Like Knopfler’s song, McRae’s poem gives life to the fallen by recalling them in their full flower of life:
We are the Dead. Short days ago/ We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,/ Loved and were loved, and now we lie/ In Flanders fields.
The power of such words of remembrance lies in their ability to conjure the fragile glory of life and the faces of loved ones who have passed on, whether in battlefields or the battle of life.
The song of Knopfler, a gifted guitarist and songwriter who played at Van Andel Arena on Monday, Nov. 12, adds the power of memorable melody.
Listening to Knopfler’s heart-piercing solo, I think of my friend Andy Angelo. Andy was a gentle man who was my editor at The Grand Rapids Press for many years. He died July 3 at age 55, felled not by a bullet but by respiratory problems. I need not add the overused “much too soon,” but that was certainly the feeling among his stunned coworkers and many community friends.
My mind recalls Andy not in his Blodgett Hospital room, but sitting at his copy desk, leaning back with a big grin and saying to me, “Whatcha got?” Usually I had a gripe about some lame copy editor meddling with my perfect prose. Andy never snapped, Jason Robards-style, but quietly went about seeing if he could fix it.
Others remember Andy very much alive as well. The Cook Arts Center, of which he was a longtime supporter, built an altar in his honor at the Grand Rapids Public Library for the Mexican Day of the Dead early in November.
Knopfler’s song also brings to mind other fallen loved ones, including my mother and father. They sometimes dance through my dreams, alive and vibrant as the sun. Although painful scenes of their deaths sometimes appear, I choose to remember them in life, at play and in love — sitting around the kitchen table, playing cards, dancing on New Year’s Eve, dad firing a baseball in the side yard.
I have many physical remnants of their lives: photos, letters, a few tape recordings. But they mostly reside in my memory. It’s there they live most vibrantly and vividly and intimately. My memory of Mom and Dad, and of Andy and other loved ones, is a sacred hall, a sanctuary lighted by sunlight slanting through the stained-glass scenes of their lives.
My remembering them is something holy, a gift from God that enables life to go on for them in me. It is a gift I share with my brother and sister and friends and my beloved Andrea, and pass on to my children, Emily and Max.
“God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December,” said James M. Barrie, the author of “Peter Pan.”
And so we might have poppies in November, and our loved ones always, as long as we live.