My nana, Josephine Bury, lives in a tiny apartment filled with a lifetime of memories. Family photos and souvenirs have taken over all the surfaces and walls in her small home. Among the class photos of smiling grandchildren and candid shots of summers spent on our family island in northern Ontario, one item stands out -- an old Player's cigarette pack enclosed in a shadow box. The edges of the package have yellowed with age, and it is covered in faded handwriting that tells a story my nana holds dear in her heart: the story of her husband, my papa, Gord Bury, going off to the Second World War.
Papa was only 17 when he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy. Longing to serve Canada and follow in the footsteps of his father, already overseas in England, Papa lied, telling recruitment officers he was older than his years. When Papa got into the Navy he was trained to operate a ship's radar in Hamilton, where he wrote home to his mother in nearby Oakville, Ont., then a small city west of Toronto.
At a time when thousands of sons were separated from their mothers, basic communication was a struggle. And because of wartime censorship, Gord could not tell anyonke when he was leaving for war. My great-grandmother had no way of knowing when Gord would leave, where he would be going and, of course, when he would return.
Realizing the heartache this would cause, Papa devised a way to let his mother know he was on his way. His brother-in-law, Lew, delivered packages from the Oakville train station, so as his train travelled east, through Oakville, Papa threw the cigarette package with Lew's name written all over it out of the train. He also wrote his own name and the date -- Thursday, July 24, 1941 -- hoping someone who knew Lew would find the package and pass it on to him.
As fate would have it, a railroad worker found the package lying alongside the track. Recognizing the name Lew Lewis, written in sharp uppercase letters, he gave it to my uncle who -- with a deep sigh of relief at hearing from Gord -- took the package to Gord's mother. There, in my great-grandmother's hands, lay the knowledge that her beloved son was on his way to the East Coast and overseas to war. That little package, which is now a family heirloom of sorts, let her know that her son's main concern as he headed off to fight for his country was to tell his mother how much he loved her.
Too valuable a keepsake to toss away, the package was tucked away for over 50 years before it was eventually passed on to my mother who, overjoyed with the find, had it framed in the shadow box that now proudly hangs on my nana's wall.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of my papa's passing. I am told he was a man who was reluctant to talk about the war, who loved his family, loved his friends and loved football. And thanks to that cigarette pack, I know something else: before he loved us, he loved his country, and proudly served it during wartime.
Now a freelance journalist in Toronto, Carlye Malchuk wrote this when she was an editorial intern with Canadian Living.