Kristen den Hartog

Bud was one of the few who’d seen Stewart’s face as it was

I’m writing a non-fiction book set in a World War I military hospital in Toronto, so I spend a lot of time in the past. An influx of wounded led to the hasty creation of the hospital in a cash register factory on Christie Street, in the west end of the city. The original building no longer stands, and the site is home to a sprawling seniors’ residence with a plaque that commemorates the hospital. I sometimes walk there and wander around, trying to imagine the site as it was, with veterans soaking up the sun, nurses in their long blue dresses and white veils, and now and then a train rolling by. Through service records, old newspaper accounts, letters and diaries, I’m coming to know patients and staff in an intimate way, even though a century separates us.

One of the patients I’ve been most intrigued by is Stewart, a farmer from rural Quebec who enlisted in the Canadian army at age twenty. His service record says he had red hair and blue eyes, and travelled overseas in spring 1917. By autumn, he’d entered the Battle of Passchendaele. Images taken by official war photographers capture the desolation: pack mules sink in mud amid miles of wending duckboards; mist drifts around blackened trees; remnants of ragged forest stretch to a bleak horizon.

Stewart was one of about 12, Canadians wounded at Passchendaele; more than 4, Canadians died there. The number of casualties is hard to fathom, and balloons to something like 5, when you add in other nationalities, including the enemy. Shrapnel pierced Stewart’s thigh, hip, abdomen, forearm and shoulder, but worst of all, “Rt eye and nose carried away,” as one note in his file put it. “Face badly destroyed,” wrote the first doctor who tended him at a makeshift station near the front line. He administered morphine, bandaged the wounds and sent Stewart on to the next level of care.

In England, and later in Canada, Stewart underwent nearly thirty operations as surgeons attempted to rebuild his face. The field of plastic surgery blossomed during this time, with a constant stream of wounded on whom to try out bold new medical procedures. Cartilage, bone and tissue were excavated from one part of a body and moved to another; artists drew the stages of each meticulous operation and helped surgeons define what a finished face should look like. Sculptors produced exquisitely detailed copper masks to hide lasting disfigurements. Much of the literature of the time praises the miraculous work of both the doctors and the artists: in most cases, one article claimed, the surgeries “remove all horror and grotesqueness and make the sufferer quite normal again.” Another writer stressed that, when surgery failed, masks banished “timidity and self-consciousness,” and ensured the men were “no longer objects of repulsion to every onlooker.”

In reality the rebuilt faces not only looked maimed, they often functioned poorly. Stewart’s remaining eye teared and his nose ran. Because of other wounds, he couldn’t reach his face. “This is a greater disability than usual,” one doctor noted, “since his facial condition requires constant attention involving the use of his hands.… He complains of disfigurement and liability to cold. Unable to stand any exposure.”

Stewart was still living at the hospital well into the 192s. I learned that he married in Toronto in 1928 and moved to a small community in northern Ontario. There the information ended, and although I had enough compelling detail for my book, I was curious about Stewart’s life after the war. I discovered brief mentions in modern-day newspapers of a man named Bud, who shared Stewart’s surname and lived in the same community. In the middle of April 22, unable to find any way to contact Bud online, I wrote a letter to an address listed on Canada 411. I waited. Mail had slowed because of COVID-19, but finally an answer arrived. My name and address were written in a shaky hand on the envelope, which was so light that I knew it contained just one sheet of paper. Perhaps Bud was unrelated, or a know-nothing great-nephew—or he knew everything and was only writing to tell me to mind my own business and stop poking around in other people’s family histories. Instead, the letter read:

Dear Ms. den Hartog,

Thank you for your letter recently received.… Due to the virus and now living in a nursing home, the usual amenities are not at hand, so this note paper and terrible writing will have to suffice for now. My father was the most courageous man one could ever know. Despite grievous wounds rendering most people as candidates for suicide, he went on to become a husband, father and pillar of his small community.… I will be pleased to help you in your research.

So began a series of exchanges. Bud was, by his own admission, “computer illiterate,” so we talked on the phone a couple of times a week. Sometimes I sent questions by mail so he could think a while before answering by phone. COVID-19 prevented me from visiting, but we agreed that one day we would meet in person. He’d just turned ninety and had no children. As he put it, the exchanges were “to our mutual benefit,” and an unexpected friendship formed.

From Bud I learned that his mother and father met while Stewart was still a patient in Toronto. Just after the war, young women regularly visited men cooped up in hospitals, and newspapers reminded people not to forget the soldiers. As much as I wanted love and romance for Stewart, Bud reined me in. “If it would’ve been nowadays, they probably wouldn’t have stayed together.” His father always wore what he called his bandage—not the elaborately painted copper masks made by artists, but a simple cotton one knitted by his sister, which came up over his missing eye and down over his crudely rebuilt nose. It tied behind his head and left a permanent groove, the way that glasses deepen the bridge of a nose after years of wearing them. Bud didn’t think his mother ever saw his father without the bandage, through nearly forty years of marriage.

But Bud did. When Stewart washed and shaved, young Bud helped him retie the mask. “My father was a pretty scary-looking creature without his bandage,” he confided. Yet Bud, one of the few who saw Stewart’s face as it was, easily grew accustomed to it. Though he didn’t romanticize his father, a tenderness accompanied each story Bud shared. His father was “all blown up out of hell” in Europe but found solace on his patch of land in northern Ontario, where he dug a pond that ducks frequented. “He got so much joy from that place. You’re the writer. I can’t explain how much that meant to him.”

As I learned about the father, I came to know the son as well: his sharp memory, his curiosity, his frustration when his gravelly voice gave out, his wish to be out of the nursing home and “back to where I want to be.” I knew about his battles with his cell phone, technology he was mastering in part for my sake. Then suddenly Bud stopped calling. His number gave the message that the caller “wasn’t available,” and calls to the nursing home didn’t get me anywhere because of privacy rules: I wasn’t family; they couldn’t tell me anything. Sometimes the day nurse suggested to call in the evening, and sometimes the night nurse suggested to call in the day.

Eventually I received a letter from the executor of Bud’s estate, a man who’d been his friend for almost forty years. A few days after our last conversation, Bud had fallen and broken his hip and been moved to hospital. He’d undergone an operation, but rapidly declined after the procedure. “I know that Bud was excited and interested in talking with you,” his friend wrote. “It really did help him to help you.” Through this new series of exchanges, I learned that Bud wore Stewart’s regimental badge pinned to his baseball cap, and that he was renowned in his community for sharing and preserving local history. I even received images of Stewart, which Bud had hoped to dig up for me on his return home: a snapshot taken on the ship returning from England, and a formal portrait in suit and boutonnière. In each photo, the mask covers much of his face, but his mouth and one eye smile.

There was something especially moving about “meeting” Bud when I did, with COVID-19 illuminating the crisis in our nursing homes, and the general public coming to greater awareness of the loneliness of so many elderly people. He trusted me with his father’s intimate story so that I could share it with others. “I have long thought that someday my dad’s story might be told,” Bud wrote to me in his first letter, “but I never expected to see that day.”

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Kristen den Hartog

Kristen den Hartog is a novelist and non-fiction writer whose most recent book, The Cowkeeper’s Wish, was co-authored with her sister Tracy Kasaboski. She lives in Toronto.


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