You Need to Know Your Stories
By Desmond Burke - Deputy Head - Student Life
Posted January 9, 2012
Last spring I inherited a cardboard box from my sister. She had sold her house in Aurora before moving up north and wanted to clear out as much junk as possible to simplify the move. She had never opened the box, which she had inherited from our father after he died some years ago. Trish never opened it, thought it was pointless old junk and dropped it in my garage on an afternoon when she was certain I wasn’t home and wouldn’t be able to refuse it.
When I finally opened the box last summer, I found bundles of letters, but a few stuck out. One was a handwritten letter from my great grandfather to his young son, who eventually became my grandfather, congratulating him on winning a competition that I’ll come back to later, and another note, written many years later, from my grandfather to my grandmother congratulating her on the birth of her son, my father. There were also many photos, some going back over a hundred and fifty years.
One photograph that caught my attention was one of my great-great grandfather John, the first Burke born in Canada - in Quebec - in 1835, after the family was forced out of Ireland in the 1820’s. He worked for a while in the Ottawa valley as a lumberjack I’ve been told, and then farmed land that he cleared in Stirling, Ontario. When he was too old to farm, he moved to Belleville where he died in 1924. He didn’t look like the sort of fellow you’d want to cross. Believe it or not I can still see hints of his face in Burkes today, especially as my brothers and sisters grow older. When I look into the picture, I can feel that he is still with us.
I found another Burke photograph taken in Ottawa around 1907. It’s a portrait of my grandfather’s family when he and his siblings were very young children. His father, my great grandfather William, was a teacher and school principal in Ottawa. The year this photo was taken, he was paid $1000. It was not enough to live on so they had to have a large garden to make sure they had enough to eat.
The girl standing at the back is my aunt Stella, who lived well into her 90’s. The course of her life is something I’ve always taken as a warning on how not to live. She determined that she was going to be a success, so she made a point of cultivating the right sort of people. She was a social climber. Over most of my childhood, she wouldn’t have anything to do with my family because we weren’t important enough for her. Her friends were other people like herself, always looking past you for someone more interesting or better. She was very rich, played violin in the orchestra in Montreal, had a cooking show on CBC TV in the early days - though apparently no-one could eat her food - and published some books. But as she grew older all her friends disappeared and she found herself alone. After a lifetime of avoiding us, she spent the last few years of her life phoning my family relentlessly because we were the only people who would talk to her. In the end when she died, the only people at her funeral were my immediate family and museums and galleries who were there to gather her stuff for their collections. It’s always made me think of one of the dreams presented to Scrooge by the Christmas ghosts.
My grandfather is one of the twin boys in the front of the picture, though I’m not sure which one. The funny thing is, through most of my life I never knew that my grandfather had a twin and I didn’t know he had a twin until I met him on the day of my grandfather’s funeral. I walked into the funeral home expecting to see grandpa laid out in his coffin, only to see what looked exactly like him walking around consoling the mourners. It was unsettling, to say the least. Great Uncle Edmond had left Canada many years before to be an accountant in Cleveland Ohio.
The baby in my great grandmother Mary’s arms is my great aunt Dorothy who lived to be 99 years old. One of her favourite memories was being taken by her maternal grandfather, Peter Connolly - a civil servant in Ottawa - into the original House of Commons and sitting in the speaker’s throne, before it burned down during World War 1. She also used to tell the story of how she took a short term teaching job with her father, supervising a class of 40 grade 3 boys. I suppose it’s no surprise that she never wanted to be a teacher after that experience.
There was another photo in the box of my grandfather when he was about 18 years old, dressed in an army uniform. The amazing thing about the picture it shows that he is very nearly a twin to my 17 year old son. He went on to become doctor and before he became a professor in the School of Medicine at U of T, he served as a doctor in WW2, which ruined his health and I’m sure shortened his life. He had terrifying nightmares for the rest of his life and refused to talk about the war like many veterans. One of the interesting details of his life was the competition that his father had written to him about. It was the British Empire shooting championship held in Bisley, England. This meant that for some years the finest marksman in the British Empire was a Canadian doctor.
The letters and photographs in the box inspired me to look into my mother’s family, the Bennetts. I discovered that the first Bennett was George and his family originated in Somerset in England. He emigrated to the United States in the 1850’s and made his way across America to the Midwest where he worked as a teacher, county auditor and postmaster for much of his life. Fortunately for his descendants, he never had to face serving in the army during either the Civil War or during the subsequent Indian uprisings. Somewhere along the way he met and married Mary Colby Torrey, a girl from a tiny place in Maine called Deer Island. She could trace her ancestry to colonial Massachusetts in the 1640’s and back to Somerset in England. One ancestor of ours was Samuel Wardwell, a Quaker who was hanged as a warlock during the Salem Witch trials in the 1690’s. You might be relieved to know that he was eventually cleared of the charge, but unfortunately it wasn’t until after they had hanged him. Anyway, Mary’s family had moved out west, where she met George, because their father William, a ship’s captain, had drowned in a ship wreck in 1851 in the treacherous waters off Cape Horn on a voyage to California.
George and Mary’s son was my great grandfather. He came to Canada to prospect for silver during a silver rush much like the California Gold Rush of 1840. Unfortunately, he died in an avalanche near a town called Sandon in the Kootenays in 1918 after which his son, my grandfather, moved to Ontario and took up the much safer profession of farming near Orangeville.
So where are all these Burke family stories going? A few years ago after my wife received some very serious medical news, we both read a book called Living a Life that Matters. In it, amongst many important lessons, the author Harold Kushner talked about what he learned from the 9/11 attacks in the USA and wrote something that really resonated with me. He said that when all those people who were in the towers or on the planes began to realize that they might not make it, they all tried to contact their families. They didn’t call lawyers or brokers or send out e-mail that they regretted not having spent more time at work. No doubt many prayed but what we know for sure was most people spent their final moments reaching out to their families. I think it really crystalizes what’s truly important in life. It’s not money or stuff or even what you do, but the people who love you. I think it’s a lesson my Aunt Stella finally began to appreciate toward the end of her life.
So why did I tell you all these stories about my ancestors? Because these stories are my stories and they are the stories of the genes that were passed down to me. These ancestors are with me; they are in my bones. I can see them in the faces and personalities of my siblings and my children. And it’s the same with all of you. Always remember that you are your families; you carry them in every cell in your bodies. Generation upon generation have led to you and so the stories in your families are your stories and you need to know them to understand yourself. You may not realize it yet, but there will come a time when you will want to know your stories.
I want to make a couple of suggestions. Now that all the elders in my family have passed away I can’t ask the many questions that I still have. So I’m recommending that whenever you have a chance, talk to the oldest members of your family and ask them as many questions as you can. Remember their stories and be sure to pass them on in the years to come. And second, I suggest that you start a box like the one my sister gave me last spring. I actually did this many years ago. Put photos and letters and mementos in it and make sure it is safe, because maybe, someday far in a distant future, children or grandchildren of yours will open the box and while hoping to learn about you, will learn something about themselves.