Brand building through storytelling

The woman with the Canadian flag: an urban encounter

Sunday was mild for this time of year, with faint glimmers of sunshine that lured us outside for our first afternoon walk in weeks. We meandered down tranquil streets where no one seemed to be at home behind the closed shutters of expensively restored mansions from another time.

Emerging onto Bloor Street, we encountered a commotion: paramedics at the side of the road and two police cars blocking traffic. Where was the accident? No smashed cars, no body in the street. As a flotilla of police cars rounded a corner and whizzed toward downtown, sirens blaring, I figured they must be pursuing evil-doers. We stood there, exchanging puzzled looks with passers-by.

On the corner stood a woman with smile lines around her eyes and a parka the colour of a freshly-cut Christmas tree. She held a Canadian flag in both hands. Seeing our perplexity, she drew closer, as if we were neighbours joined by concern for safety in the park or the future of a heritage house. “Afghanistan,” she said. “They’ve just flown in from the air force base at Trenton. They’ll be here any minute, heading for the morgue.” She raised her flag high just as the cortege passed by, a hearse bearing the dead soldier and someone’s mother looking at us from the window of a big black car, summoning the grace for a wan smile and a wave.

“They don’t often wave, but it’s nice when they do,” said the woman in the parka. “Even though it makes me bawl. I come all the way from Richmond Hill to be here. My husband usually comes with me, but he had to coach hockey today.” Her eyes glistened through a film of tears.

I let it sink in for a minute, what she’d told us and what she’d left unspoken. “So you come here for every dead soldier from Toronto?”

“Every one,” she said.

I wonder whose body lay in the hearse. No doubt I saw the news of his death in my morning paper, but I didn’t read it. After so many young dead, I can’t take in another name, another face, another wave of recollections from the bereaved, attesting to humour and courage and conviction. The small cherished particulars of lost individual lives have become as unfathomable to me as the distance between the stars. It saddens me that I can’t picture these people, who loved their babies and their dogs, who climbed mountains or played in a blues band. But now there’s someone I can picture in their stead. A woman holding up the Canadian flag, bearing witness to the irrevocable presence of their absence.

Posted by Rona

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