Christmas dinner was being served as it always was—at a round, oak pedestal table in the spacious farm kitchen. Grandma and Gramps were beginning their traditional meal as always—turkey with gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberries, squash and turnip. What was not the same as always was that third chair. It remained empty. Their beloved son was not simply arriving late because of bad roads or a faulty car engine. He was away.
In homes all along the quiet road, other families were gathering on December 25th. Most of them left one or two or even more chairs unoccupied. A husband, a son or a brother, a sister, perhaps an uncle or a parent was gone. The year was 1943 and war was raging across the world. About 1.1 million men and women served in our armed services: 730,000 in the army, 260,000 in the air force while a further 115,000 enlisted in our navy. (Wikipedia) Many came from Bruce and Grey Counties.
Each Remembrance Day, we think of those 42,000 warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice: service members who went but never returned home to sit in those empty chairs. We remember all the families—-moms and dads, spouses, siblings, grandparents or children who sadly and anxiously, but also proudly, let their loved ones go off to war. They were left with those empty chairs at Christmas and each day over many painful months. These families also made a sacrifice—for a worthy cause, for a greater good, to defeat a powerful enemy.
Which brings us to this past holiday season—and our own empty chairs. For many families, Ontario’s lockdown led to a festive holiday season without the festive. Gatherings were self-limited and celebrations more muted—something or “someones” were missing.
It was a sacrifice made in many local homes this Christmas season. Missing were the excited sounds of grandchildren tearing wrapping paper or searching for Gramma’s ice box cookies. Missing was the chatter of extended families gathered around the table over dinner. Sons and daughters from the big cities stayed there. Grown up sisters and brothers and their families remained apart from one another. The traditional annual coming together of extended kin was cancelled. Many older folks in our region were alone for the first time on a Christmas morning. Much was missing and was missed.
Our war in 2020 was not fought against the Axis Powers; our foe was a virus labeled Covid-19. Our casualties were not fallen soldiers, sailors and air crews but included 4,530 victims, fatalities of the pandemic in Ontario. Our exhausted front line health professionals, other essential workers and struggling small business owners were not fighting in some far-off battlefield but on our own main streets and in local hospitals, retirement homes and long term care centres.
When we compare the sacrifice made in so many homes this Christmas with the sacrifices made during World War Two, and without minimizing the terrible effects of this disease, it could have been worse. While not being physically together with family members, we could still phone, text, Zoom or Face Time —getting instantly connected through social media.
During the war years, contact was limited to a letter or a rare leave. We expect the sacrifices of this past holiday season to be unique, not to be replicated in 2021 or perhaps never again. By contrast, those wartime separations dragged on for up to six long years.
Nevertheless, I commend those families who chose to sacrifice a measure of personal happiness for the greater good of slowing down the virus over this recent holiday week. You will never know how many lives in your own little town you might have saved.