January 16th marks the 120th anniversary of my maternal grandfather’s birth. Charles Francis Clarke was born two weeks and two days after the turn of the nineteenth century. When he turned sixteen, having only completed grade ten, in the middle of the First World War, he decided that it was time to enlist. Having been born in Ottawa, a much smaller Ottawa in those days, he was advised to enlist in Hull, Quebec so as not to be recognized and denied enlistment because of his youth. And so it was off to Europe he traveled.
He fought in the trenches, the nightmarish trenches. With dying horses and two on a match. It was the first time alcohol passed his lips when he was given rum rations. He survived. I don’t know if he was shot or injured because he never talked about it. Few did, I think. But when victory was won, on November 11th, 1918, he was 18 years old and he returned to England to complete high school.
Upon returning to Ottawa, and marrying soon thereafter, he and his wife, Mary Veronica O’Rourke began their family of ten children. From 1922 to 1942. My mother was the tenth. They raised their fine children through the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, and the onslaught of the Second World War. He had been working in the federal Patent Office when he was asked, in 1939, to travel to Kingston to train troops, only returning on the weekends, to see his wife and many of his young children. The Patent Office safeguarded his job for the duration because of that sacrifice.
By the time my mother was born in 1942, two of her eldest brothers and a sister had already enlisted in the service, and because of this, it wasn’t until thirty years later that all twelve in the immediate family stood in the same room together. For my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary. My grandfather had expressed that he didn’t want any of his children to see war but when word of conscription began to surface, he encouraged his eldest children to enlist rather than be drafted.
My grandfather was born before radio was common. Before film and television existed. Before Jazz was fully formed. Before automobiles were utilized and refrigeration and plumbing was a given. And yet he lived to see movies, to hear Louis Armstrong, to witness the invention of hockey and basketball, as we know it today. He saw Elvis and Sinatra and more wars and the moon-landing. More assassinations and more invention.
My grandparents had more than forty grandchildren and more than a hundred great-grandchildren. All accomplished during and after having participated in two world wars.
My memory starts of him when he was already in his seventies. He was a quiet man with a good sense of humour. He loved to play cards and do puzzles and listen to sports on the radio. I’ve seen him sitting at the kitchen table, doing a crossword puzzle while listening to the baseball game on the radio, reading the news in the paper and writing a birthday card to one of his dozens of grandchildren.
As the devout Catholic that he was, one thing has stayed with me. Shortly after John Lennon, a devout atheist, was assassinated, my eighty year old grandfather told me that Lennon had been his favourite Beatle, because he was the most peaceful one.
His children became professors and professionals and the Fire Chief. As did many of his grandchildren. Educators and life-savers. Because of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s kindness and wisdom.
There are millions of anonymous giants of the twentieth century. Unknown but beloved. Respected but un-revered. But Charles Francis Clarke was the only one I knew. In his humble and modest life, he truly made the world a better place. And a hundred and twenty years after his birth, I still thank him for it. The past is both blurry and clarifying.