BEYOND THE HEADLINES: A time to remember

Richard Rolke reflects on the impact war had on his family

I can’t imagine what my great-grandparents went through.

Like many families during the First World War, Samuel and Maria Ryder got a knock at the door. A telegraph bluntly stated their 22-year-old son Sam had died Nov. 13, 1916 at the Somme.

Not only would they never bask in his boyish smile again, they wouldn’t even have a chance for a final farewell or to bury him in the Kelowna cemetery. He would forever remain on French soil.

Samuel and Maria  would have still been grieving the loss of Sam, when there was another knock at the door.

April 9, 1917 has gone down in history as the first day of Vimy Ridge, the battle that thrust Canada into the family of nations. However, it was also the day that ensured their 21-year-old son Bert would never return to the Okanagan. He became another statistic for the military.

Life obviously moved on for Samuel and Maria as they had eight other kids to worry about, including my grandpa Jack. But it’s unlikely things were ever the same again. Children are supposed to outlive their parents and when the reverse occurs, the heart is wounded.

You likely can’t help but think of what could have been — establishing careers, walking down the aisle, raising children. All of those milestones parents hope to celebrate with their children are stripped away. Closure doesn’t exist.

But of course war brings uncertainty and that was once again the case during the Second World War when my grandpa Dick Rolke, after training at the Vernon Army Camp, headed overseas. Left behind was his still relatively new bride Elsie, who would soon be pregnant with my dad.

Letters were written but there was always a chance that one day they would stop. And stop they did for a period as Dick struggled with diphtheria.

What went through Elsie’s mind? Obviously she wondered what had happened to him, but she also likely considered the prospect of what the future would hold if he didn’t return. Would she be able to raise their son alone?

Eventually Dick did return to the Okanagan but by that time, my dad was three-years-old and the shift from a strict military structure to home life must have been an abrupt adjustment.

As a child, I would join Dick as he made the  rounds leading up to Nov. 11. He ensured businesses and groups had their wreaths and there was a plentiful supply of poppies.

It was just him and I and the bond that we had always shared strengthened further.

In fact, Remembrance Day became our day. We would meet up early and then attend the ceremony together. It was a chance for him to reminisce, even when long-ago memories brought tears to the surface. That tradition continued even after I left home and had to drive an hour to be with him.

Our last Remembrance Day was in 1998. Just a few weeks later he was gone.

As I stand with my family today at the Coldstream cenotaph, I will think of all of those who have put their lives on the line, from the trenches of Europe to the streets of Kandahar.

But most of all, I will take time to remember Bert and Sam, Samuel and Maria, and Dick and Elsie. Lest we forget.