ANZAC - the term itself brings a swell of emotions to all Australian and New Zealand citizens. A friend was recently asked by an elderly person - Why are there so many people who grieve over the memory of ANZAC when they have no possible understanding of the experience of war? I think theres more to it than grieving. It got me thinking, why is the ANZAC spirit so strong? In a country filled with immigrants and newly minted citizens why is the ANZAC spirit so strong? Why does it inform our national (and Trans-Tasman - thank you New Zealand) identity so much?
I must confess, I am a first generation Australian, married to an immigrant. I have no familial ties to those that created this identity, this spirit of ANZAC, but I feel it. It is part of who I am. I believe that ANZAC day allows us to remember our own history, to pay tribute to those we have lost. Even if they may have fought on the other side. In the aftermath of war we commiserate together, our losses are shared by all sides and it is part of the healing.
So here I sit, the granddaughter of a man that was called to fight a war that came to his country. The granddaughter of a man that left his young wife and two young children, the youngest of which, my father, was only months old when he went to fight. The granddaughter of a man that never returned. His name is Alfio Contarino, and he never got to meet his great grandchildren, nor his grandchildren, and never got to know his son.
I sit here the granddaughter of a woman who lost her husband too young. The granddaughter of a woman forced to carry on and raise two children without her husband, without an income, in a small town in Sicily. A woman forced to give everything of value to the war effort, including the wedding ring given to her by her recently lost husband. Her name is Carmela Di Lorenzo (Contarino, Sgroi), and she was a woman of strength beyond measure.
I sit here the daughter of a man that was raised without a father, a man who had no memories of his father apart from the portrait of him in his uniform taken just before he left to fight. The daughter of a man raised by a single mother in a world and a time not designed for such things. The daughter of a man learning on his own what it is to be a father. His name is Leonardo Contarino and he is an incredibly loving and supportive father.
ANZAC day reminds me of how grateful I am to them all. I would not be the person I am today without the sacrifices they have made, without the struggles they have faced. Without the incredible people they have become because of all they have been through. War has heavily defined my family, it is not until ANZAC day comes around that I remember how much impact it has had on my life.
It makes me think about the terrible conditions that they and all who have fought faced, conditions we can only imagine from diaries and letters, from first hand accounts, from books and movies. It makes me think of my husband’s grandfather, his name is Maurice Channon and he served with the British Army in the engineering corp, a man who was not on the front line of battle yet who at the age of 100 still cries on occasion for the senselessness and waste of war, for what he has seen that no man should have to see.
It struck me when I was 16, reading about those my age who lied to go and fight, to do their part. That they would face death when I was not ready to face my homework. It struck me when I studied Australian history at Uni, the stories and the memories, they do not fade. They are etched into our psyche. It struck me when I married, the thought of sending my husband away, of not being able to contact him, of not knowing if he was well, of praying for his safe return. It struck me when I had my children, the very thought of loosing them tearing me apart. How could these mothers watch as their sons went off to war? How did they stand there and wave goodbye not knowing if they would ever come home? It strikes me now as I write this on the 101st anniversary of the battle at Gallipoli during WWI, the people that gave their lives a century ago, laid down a list of characteristics that define what the ANZAC spirit is, that define what it is to be Australian:
Endurance; Courage; Ingenuity; Good humour and Mateship.
So to answer your question, for me and I would assume for a lot of others, we mourn their passing, we thank them for their sacrifice, we celebrate the birth of the ANZAC spirit and the definition of what it means to be Australian.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.