Both of Cheryl Unruh grandfathers fought in the First World War. And today, when passing a poppy tagger, she’s hard pressed not to contribute at least a little money.
For the Fort Langley woman, it’s imperative to get a poppy to show respect for those who fought.
But for her, it’s also important to give to the cause – to help provide ongoing support for the legion and for all the remaining veterans, she told the Langley Advance while attaching a poppy to her jacket lapel.
Unruh and her husband, Peter, both feel a real connection to Canada’s veterans and a keen interest in learning more about the world wars and the roles the played in shaping and changing Canada and the globe.
In their quest to know more, they visited Vimy Ridge, Belgium, and North France on a self-directed history tour – not just once, but twice.
Walking the same ground as her grandfathers and taking in the scenery that was “incredible memory,” Unruh said.
“It was striking to see the landscape that’s now regrown with beautiful trees and fields, that would have been just a blood bath at the time,” she recalled of their visit to the battlefields. “For the record,” she added, “the countryside really is covered with poppies.”
But it was some of the individuals they met during their travels who have changed their lives forever.
“The people there were amazing to us. When they find out you’re Canadian, they cry, they welcome you into their homes. They’re beautiful people there, and they do remember everything,” Unruh said.
During their first visit to Somme, in northern France, back in 2005, they spent a few weeks touring the countrysides. A lunch break at a small restaurant in Longueval called Café le Calypso, making an indelible impression on both of them.
The elderly proprietor quickly learned they were Canadian, and took what Unruh described as “a keen interest in us and why we were there.”
Most young people preferred the cities, he told them, so the restaurateur was thrilled to learn more about them and the purpose of their visit.
The proprietor asked many questions, but Unruh’s mediocre abilities to speak French kept them to the basics.
“He went to the next room, and returned with this photo. He told us that the gentleman in the photo was a Canadian soldier who fought at Longueval during the First World War, and returned to the area in the 1980s for a joint Canadian-French anniversary celebration.”
The proprietor had grown up in the aftermath of the battle and recounted how scared his mother was at the time, and how relieved everyone was when Canadian soldiers arrived, Unruh said, recounting their exchange.
“He said, ‘The Canadians saved us’.”
The restaurateur handed the Langley couple the picture depicted what he described as a time of “joy and companionships” and insisted the Fort Langley couple take the photo “home” to Canada, where “it belonged.”
“We were reluctant; he was quite emotional by then and we feared that he’d regret giving it away, but he persisted.”
Returning home, the Unruhs made copies of the picture, sending one to Veterans Affairs in Ottawa – along with the story.
They returned to France a year later and made a point of returning to Cafe le Calypso.
“When we told the proprietor that we’d sent a copy of his photo to the Canadian government, and returned [the original] to him with thanks, he cried.”
All these years later, Unruh still gets choked up recalling that visit and exchange.
“He said that this was important: he wanted us to tell all Canadians that his country loved them for what they had done for them,” Unruh said.
“This is a small story that took place in an unlikely part of rural France, but it brought home sharply to us how we are all connected. Only one generation separates us from those who have had their lives turned upside down by war. Many families still feel the ripples of sacrifice and suffering that occurred far from home. That is why Nov. 11 is such an important day to us.”
Much like an encounter with the French cafe owner back in 2005, Unruh described the meeting with the Langley Advance as an unexpected surprise.
“I just stepped out to buy light bulbs,” she said, actually appreciative of the chance to get another poppy, to take a “nice little trip down memory lane,” and to share the cafe owner’s story.
“It was a very moving time for us, and that’s why we always support the veterans.”
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