I never knew my father. I was only two years old when he died. I have a few details about him, but I am working at getting to know him better. These things take time.
His name was Roderick, and I know that he was originally from Cape Breton, that he had been a paratrooper in the Second World War and that he and my mother were married in England. I know from letters I found that he wanted his son to be born in Canada, but this was not to be: His wife did not get here in time. So his son was born in England.
Actually, he could not have known for sure he was having a son, because in those days there was no such thing as testing for the gender of the baby. In his letters from Montreal, where he had returned before the end of the war after being wounded, he referred to the baby as "Hector," so either he had an intuition or he was expressing a hope about his firstborn. Two years later I was born in Quebec, so no drama there.
My father died in a plane crash on Nov. 13, 1950, along with 57 other Quebeckers, and is buried in a tiny hamlet in the French Alps. He was part of the crew; the rest of the victims were Catholics who had been on a pilgrimage to Rome.
The plane crashed while they were on their way back from Rome to Paris. At first they were laid to rest in Grenoble, then they were moved a couple of years later to a cemetery called Cimetière canadien; they are its only occupants.
In the cemetery the crew are set apart from the others, and I did not learn the significance of this until a couple of weeks ago, when I was speaking with a representative of the Archdiocese of Québec.
It turns out that the crew were thought to have been Protestant. My father was actually Catholic, and my life has been shaped to a certain extent by that fact. Apparently there had been a wall erected, which has now been removed, between the allegedly Protestant crew and the rest of the souls. Progress.
I have been researching the event and its aftermath for the past couple of years because I wanted to visit my father's grave. No one in our family had managed to get there before now. My mother never spoke about my father, his life or his death, so I was essentially starting from scratch.
Everything written about the incident and the cemetery is in French, so it took me a while to get the information straight. I enlisted the help of my bilingual friends in Quebec to ensure I was going to the right place. I didn't want to get to the French Alps and find out that I should have gone to the Swiss Alps, or some other Alpine country.
My first attempt to visit went up in smoke when the Icelandic volcano erupted this past spring. I rescheduled the trip, and in late September I finally visited my father's resting place.
My heart broke when I saw his headstone. Apart from his name, the only information engraved on it was " Membre de l'équipage" - member of the crew. It was about as anonymous as you can get. The other stones listed the person's age and the names of their spouses and children, and I wanted this information added for my father.
I inquired locally about how to get work done in the cemetery and was told it is owned by Canada, so all directions must come from the Archbishop of Quebec. That was not the answer I was hoping for, given the scale of the organization I now had to involve in my quest.
Immediately after I returned, I e-mailed the Archdiocese of Quebec and asked for help in getting the following information added to my father's headstone: "33 ans; Époux de Dorothy; Père de Malcolm et Margaret."
I was expecting a long and bureaucratic process, perhaps even a refusal, although I could think of no reason for that. I played different scenarios in my mind about how, in the event of refusal, I would hire a French cat burglar/engraver to go in at midnight and add the missing information. Emotions give rise to all sorts of creativity.
As it turns out, I did not have to go down that road. I received a response the next morning indicating they would address it right away, but I was still skeptical about what "right away" meant.
I was blown away when I received a phone call four days later from a gentleman from the archdiocese. After our conversation, he told me the work would be done as soon as possible. This was confirmed by another person a day later.
I owe the archdiocese a debt of gratitude. This was an instance of an individual of no importance or influence asking for help to remedy a situation that no one else cares about, and they acted immediately and with compassion.
I have just received word that the work has been completed and my father is no longer anonymous. He is finally identified, at least as the young husband and father he was. I plan to go back to the French Alps next year, and instead of being preoccupied with the logistics of stonemasonry, I will reflect on how my life might have been different if my father had survived. And I will continue my research into his story, happy that I could do one small thing for this man I never knew.
Maggie MacIsaac lives in Thornhill, Ont.