War, peace, and family stories
“Will you come to the assembly today? It’s in the gym.”
It was 7:12 am, and the sun had only risen minutes before. I raised our blinds and clipped them, letting the soft pink and gray light usher our minds towards awakeness.
That was the first question Isla asked me this past Friday morning. The first thing my child wanted to know. War was on her mind.
And it was on my mind too.
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I scanned my imagination for ways to deepen this unlikely conversation. To connect it to the collective pain our world is in and to the wars children like her were enduring or dying from. I wanted to relate it to the people she loves and has imagined loving.
“Your Great Nagypapa, he was a sweet man. A happy man. And one whose heart broke from the things he saw and was made to do at war.”
I read her face. She wanted to know more.
“His country was captured during the war and he was forced to fight. But his heart - sweet and happy, didn’t give up on love and peace.”
Her left eyebrow arched in curiosity while her gaze shifted from me to the door. Flora had been inching her way into the room and ran to wrap her hands around my waist the moment she was spotted.
“Come sit with us,” I said, patting my bed.
I continued with stories of my Hungarian grandfather, a sweet-natured man shaped by war.
“He helped people in danger cross borders into countries where they would be safe. Hidden in furniture drawers, or in boxes between food or blankets, he allowed their vehicles to pass.”
"Wow…”. A childhood awareness of the complexities of the situation unfolded in Isla’s mind.
Flora, noticing her sister’s response, placed a hand on Isla’s shoulder and rested her head on it, sharing in the thought exercise. “Ah, that must have been scary…”
“I’m sure it was,” I said, nodding.
“What else did he do?” asked Isla.
Lowering myself to the comfort of a floor cushion I thought back to his stories. “Well, he was assigned labourers - slaves really - to dig trenches and other difficult and very hard work alongside him, but when his supervisors weren’t looking,” and at this moment I quieted my voice, leaning in and looking suspiciously on either side of me before whispering, “he would sit and play cards with them. He would share his food and drink rations. It wasn’t much, so sharing would have been hard, right?”
At this, my voice quivered and my eyes blurred with emotion. But I didn’t shy away from feeling the pain that this war had inflicted on him, spanning generations and continents to us.
I had promised myself I wouldn’t ignore the wisdom this pain had to offer us.
Feeling my throat constrict, I sat a little taller, inviting an opening breath deep into my belly before smiling at the thought of his heavy hands breaking off small pieces of bread, or his utility knife carving off small pieces of salami. Maybe there was a shot of moonshine to share here and there too.
“Mama, I love you.” Ezra came upstairs to get dressed and had been listening to us from the bathroom. With his gentle hand on my cheek, a little tear rolled onto his finger. “No matter,” he said. “It’s just salty water.”
I continue. “One day a bomb landed near Nagypapa, and he lost his hearing in his left ear. Soon after, a bullet went into the back of his knee and he was captured by the British. Even though he didn’t speak any English, he was grateful to have been taken from the battleground and brought to England. The nurses took good care of him and there was enough food to eat.”
“Mom, are bullets slippery?”
“No my sweets, they are hot from the explosion that makes them fly out of the gun, fast, and sharp.”
Isla’s shoulders raised to her ears at the thought. Flora and Ezra hugged their knees tighter.
“I know. I know.” I said giving each of their hands a comforting rub. By now they had all gathered around me on the floor. “They are a terrible part of war. You know, even after all of this, he felt so much gratitude for how he was treated in England that he returned after the war. And then to Canada to build a life far from war. And now we’re here, while our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and Russia, in Isreal and Palestine, and in many other places are facing all of the terrible things that come with war.”
Flora, sighing as her thoughts deepened, told us about her Ukranian classmate who came to Canada last year leaving her dad behind to fight. Isla added that we had talked about the Israel-Palestine conflict with my Palestinian piano teacher at a dinner party a few weeks back. And I reminded them of friends from our little townhome neighbourhood who were from Isreal and who had family and friends hurt in recent events.
We sat for a moment in silence, thinking and feeling together.
Isla took my hand, scanning my eyes for strength and hope. “But, when will it all end mama?”
I paused, knowing it was my job to show them a way forward. “When every child and adult learns that in war, no one wins. That there is another way. For now, you can see that kindness, even in the most difficult of times, is a part of you. A gift from your great grandfather. One passed down to him and now living on through you. Be generous with it my loves.”
Every year, on November 11th, at 11 am we recognize Remembrance Day, and those who bravely fought for the values and the peace I am so acutely aware of and grateful for these days.
On the other side of this recognition is a realization that the solution for world peace feels overwhelmingly complex.
Because the reality of war in 2023 is that it transcends not only time but space.
Not only are the traumas of war passed on through the emotional and physical wounds of those present, and in the DNA of generations yet unborn, it is carried on through stories told by families, institutions and governments.
Repeatedly viewing graphic events activates our mirror neurons, enabling a beautiful response called empathy. But this repeated call to compassion can result in indirect trauma known as Secondary Trauma Stress or Vicarious Trauma, something as conscious families we can tune into and protect against.
So why do I choose to lean into these difficult stories with my children?
Because breaching these difficult topics in the safety of our home, with my emotional support, patience, and guidance is one of the most effective anti-war initiatives I can participate in.
Why did we talk about rations, forced labour, and hot bullets before school this past Friday?
Because storytelling is the art of being human. Framing my Nagypapa’s stories as acts of generosity, compassion, and empathy in a terrible situation solidifies them as family tales of human love, not human hate.
And why talk about wars that without social media and the news would be invisible?
Because there isn’t a family that hasn’t been touched by war. We have a responsibility to lead with compassion and must start with our own family history and possibility.
P.S. It’s so important to know we are not alone in these conversations. Are you having them with your little or big kids? Let all of us know in the poll or in the comments below.