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How Turnips Reminded Me of Remembrance Day and a Family Hero

11/08/2014 07:30 EST | Updated 01/08/2015 05:59 EST

Boy, did I catch hell at the supermarket the other day.

I was standing in line at the check out counter minding my own business, when an elderly lady dropped a turnip on the floor beside me. Naturally I bent over and picked it up for her. As I rolled it onto her section of the grocery conveyor belt I commented, "I didn't know people ate those things anymore".

The woman, clearly upset, arched her eyebrows at me and shook her head.

"You young people, you're so spoiled you've forgotten what's good for you," she said, wagging her finger at me.

She may be right, but turnips are a hard sell these days when we have access to so many varieties of produce all year long. And, as I used to tell my mother, they're ugly, they taste bad, and they really stink when they're cooking. Still, I should have known better than to look down on the old girl's turnip; I've witnessed this kind of emotional reaction to turnip slamming before.

My grandfather loved turnips. Whenever Papa, as we called him, came to stay with us my mother boiled turnips, mashed them and served them with butter and salt. One night when my Nana and Papa were over for dinner, I made some rude teen-aged noise and pointed at his turnips.

He stood up from his chair with his fists clenched and shouted: "You ought to have more respect for turnips. They got me through the war!"

I was stunned by his reaction. "Sit down, Hayward" warned my Nana, "you'll die of a heart attack over a turnip."

Later that evening, after I had brushed his white hair and loved him up a little, he calmed down and told me about the Second World War. Of course, he had gone over his old war stories a hundred times with my brothers and me, but we never tired of hearing them. He was a real live hero, our Papa, and though he was a man of few words, we hung on every one of them when he was talking about the war.

My Papa drove an army tank in Europe, and it seems the humble turnip was a staple in his diet while he was there. He and his army buddies dug them out of the farmers' fields in the winter and boiled them in pots over open fires. They ate them with a little salt, thinking thoughts of warm kitchens and loved ones back home.

My Papa told me that eating turnips helped him stay strong and brave through the War, and he claimed that chewing the turnips raw cleaned his teeth. (He didn't always have a toothbrush and floss handy in the war.)

My Nana told me that my Papa lost his two best friends and the hearing in his right ear in the war, but he never lost his taste for turnips. He insisted on eating them at least once a week during the winters until the day he died.

The lady who bawled me out at the grocery store made me think of my Papa. Remembrance Day was the biggest day of the year for him. In addition to marking the end of the worst nightmare in history, November 11 was his birthday and his wedding anniversary. When my Papa was alive he really looked forward to marching in the Remembrance Day parade. He dressed up in a starched white shirt that practically dazzled it was so bright, a pair of grey flannels with a razor sharp crease in them, and a navy blue blazer for the day. His old black army boots were buffed to a sheen that you could almost see your face in if you bent down to look.

My Papa spent hours polishing the medals he pinned on his blazer pocket, and they gleamed and tinkled as he marched proudly and tearfully in the parade with the New Westminster Regiment. My Nana told me he cried like a baby through the Memorial Day Services.

After the ceremonies my Papa always went to the Army and Navy Club to tip a few pints with the other old soldiers who had marched. Sometimes he tipped more than a few, and he and his pals would sing old songs and cry for their lost mates.

This Remembrance Day I am going to make boiled turnips for dinner. I know, I know, my kids, even though they are grown, are going to kick up a fuss. But I'm going to tell them all about my Papa, and how turnips got him through the Great War.

He was a real hero, my grandfather, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to choke back a turnip or two in honour of him.

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