From war to roses: Interpretations of peace

"Give peace a chance."

John Lennon

In July of 1914, during World War I my grandfather, a career soldier in the Belgian army, was so severely wounded in his left arm that the surgeons couldn't determine if they should cut his arm off at the shoulder or at the elbow. He begged the doctors not to cut off his arm, and when he woke up from the operation, he slowly patted his left side: shoulder, elbow … hand. His arm was saved but, because there was no such thing as microsurgery at the time, his arm was a useless appendage hanging from his left side for the rest of his life.

During World War II my grandfather once again faced an invading army composed, this time, of Hitler's Nazi troops in May of 1940. My grandfather quickly joined the Belgian underground, a resistance movement called the Dame Blanche, created during the First World War that provided information and troop movements to the allies and caused as much havoc for the German troops as possible.

By luck, my grandfather heard that the elite SS Nazis got wind of my grandfather's activities and he fled Belgium, escaped to Spain where he was captured and placed in a prison camp but then was part of an exchange program with England: gasoline for Spain; prisoners of war for England.

During his four years in England my grandfather broadcast encouraging words to his country, helped thousands of European refugees who were able to escape to England, and at the end of the war, he was a significant player in the reconstruction of Europe having received personal awards from Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and British Gen. Bernard Montgomery.

My grandfather also loved flowers. When he retired from the army as a full general he came to America every two years with my grandmother. I was only a boy, a New Jersey boy afraid of his stern look and charmed with his gentle smile. Boys like war stories: tanks exploding, torpedoes sinking ships, but my grandfather never spoke about the wars. I watched him plant lilies, pansies, purple irises, and roses, beautiful white roses. During the summer he spent much of his time weeding, creating garden borders, and loosening the earth with a small trowel. I remember watching him as he knelt on one knee, propping his damaged arm onto his knee as he leaned over and worked the soil with his good right hand.

I spent a recent weekend with my mother in the house where I grew up. She is 90 years old: vibrant and optimistic. She continues to read The New Yorker magazine, travel books, novels. She continues to write. Her political opinions are sharp and completely immersed in the up-to-date points of view. As she was preparing dinner, she asked that I go out into the garden and see if I could find any late summer flowers left in the garden for the dinning room table.

I grabbed a small pair of pruning sheers and stepped out into the yard. There is not much of a garden left. The apple tree fell in the early 1970s. The raspberry bushes withered away many years ago. The day lilies succumbed to the cold September air. There were no more irises, but there, clinging to what was left of the rose bush, one white rose.

I thought of the white gloves on my grandfather's hands that I saw in many pictures of him in his general's uniform. I thought of his smile and what he did to help preserve freedom for everyone in the world.

I looked at that single flower: white petals overlapping like folds in the ocean tide, the stem with its strong grip onto the flower. I thought how my grandfather planted that rose bush more than 60 years ago.

I didn't cut off the flower. I let it hang there at the side of the bush grateful for its existence, preserving the last bit of beauty in the garden for all seasons, preserving the memory of what a single flower can do for the world that struggles each day for a bit of peace.

Christopher de Vinck's newest book is Moments of Grace.

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