Honouring family and Remembrance Day My Father’s Cello brings popular wartime poem to life

One cello was destined to become a canvas when a 63-year-old musician with two cellos and an artist fresh out of high school regularly volunteered together at The Carrot. After all, Bernadette Alseth could not play both cellos simultaneously. During one of their conversations, Alseth asked the artist, Ariel Casapao Jr., to read John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Fields.

Some people question the lasting importance of the poem. Those questioners may not know that Nov. 11, while honouring veterans of all wars, is really about the First World War. It commemorates the armistice signed between the Allies and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front. The armistice took effect on the 11th month, 11th day, 11th hour, and 11th minute of 1918.

Alseth’s father was a Second World War signalman on Europe’s front lines. Her mother served as a secretary for the Royal Canadian Air Force. Her parents met during treatment for tuberculosis at the Charles Camsell Hospital. Military parents led to Alseth being aware of the importance of Remembrance Day and “growing up very Canadian. November 11 was a big event in our home.” That military background and the mindset of war vets may have also influenced the family credo, “You just did things because they were the right thing to do.”  

When Alseth’s father turned 70 and asked her if it was too late for him to learn to play the cello, she said, “Never!” He practiced diligently and in the five years he took lessons, they performed a duet together and enjoyed casual music sessions. Her father’s cello was too special to just sit idle after his death. “It was a precious five years of sharing music and playing.”

For Alseth, the cello represented the shared times with her father, the armed forces, and the importance of peace and honouring those who fought and died so we may enjoy a life without war.

When the idea evolved to use the cello as a canvas, Alseth’s only caveat was Casapao use the poem as a starting point. He welcomed the challenge to bring the poem to life in three dimensional art on the cello’s front, back and sides. The solitary cross that appeared on the cello signalled it might be okay to rest for those in their graves who “shall not sleep, though poppies grow.”

The first and second stanzas resonated with Casapao more than the final stanza.

He said, “The imagery of the poem inspired the artwork: the poppies, lark, sunset, and the cross, all composing an atmosphere of rest, of eventual beginning, of upcoming dawn.” He said he felt the third stanza conveyed a very different emotion.

For Alseth, her dad’s cello would be the first thing she would run for in the event of house fire. Her cello would be the second.

My Father’s Cello with Casapao’s artwork is now my most precious belonging,” she said.

Featured Image: Artist Ariel Casapao Jr. (pictured) worked with Bernadette Alseth to create memorable art on her father’s cello. | Rusti Lehay

Rusti Lehay

A member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada since 2003, Rusti has been writing professionally since 1999. Her favourite word activity is immersion editing with memoir writers.

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