A Sunday essay: TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS
How heavy is this present burden which befalls us? This “unprecedented in our time” pandemic unleashed upon the world however by China, fulfilling predictions I have oft heard in the decades of my life: we were due.
We had it coming. It was just the odds, you see.
Not because anyone deserved this—for the moment suspending judgment over the intent of its origins—it was likely the simple arithmetic of probabilities which have brought us to where we are. It will happen again.
I didn’t know my mother’s parents much, having met her father just once as a child. But I think of my grandparents on my father’s side now, whom I knew much better for they lived in our city in their later lives. Calamity of one kind or another was a common feature of their time. In fact, it largely defined them.
Grandpa Gimpy we called him, though his name was Howard Vincent Wallace. Grandma Rita we called her, and she often referred to her husband as HV, differentiating him from HC, my father, Howard Carew Wallace.
Grandpa Howard Wallace was born in 1893, Grandma Rita Carew in 1897.
As a little boy of 5, Grandpa Gimpy lost his mother, Mary Wallace, when she bled to death at the family home in Truro, Nova Scotia while delivering twins. Twenty women from the neighbourhood worked round-the-clock trying to stop her hemorrhaging, but she succumbed after days.
In 1901, Little Howard, then just 9 or so years old, lost his two elder sisters to typhoid fever spread by the milkman. He heard them crying to each other in the night, one trying to console the other. In the morning he found them dead.
In 1914, The First World War breaks out. Young Howard, enlists. He`s a scout, venturing behind enemy lines and ascertaining troop strengths, sketching uniforms, and equipment. He is shot by a sniper at Passchendaele, left for dead. His buddies retrieve his corpse and he surprised the nurse the following morning by suddenly “waking up.” He switches to the air corp.
There’s a picture of grandpa with chum recovering in a British hospital. On the back of the photo, he writes, “Summer of 1918, except one at rear right, each of us is recovering from a busted jaw, etc. caused in crash of planes. Face hit compass.”
Canada had about 7 ½ million souls at the time. It enlisted 628,462 of which 60,661 perished, dad writes in “Erin O’Neills,” the family lore book he wrote for his children. The war ends with 22 million dead.
Grandma Rita Carew lived in Halifax. On December 6, 1917, two ships collided in the narrows of Halifax Harbour. One a cargo ship, the other munitions. It caused the largest explosion ever in the world to then, eclipsed only later by the atomic bomb blasts.
From Ken Cuthbertson’s book, The Halifax Explosion: Canada’s worst disaster December 6, 1917:
“The crew members of the British cargo ship the SS Picton were also watching the Montblanc burn. The Picton was moored next to the Acadia Sugary Refinery while a crew of about eighty longshoremen emptied her cargo holds of crates of goods and explosives; the ship was about to into dry dock for repairs. The unloading was still under way when the Montblanc drifted ashore on the Halifax side of the harbour. When it did, the heat from the fire was so intense that Francis Carew, the sixty-year old foreman of the workers aboard the Picton, feared it could set the ship alight or ignites the explosives that were still in the holds.
“That’s some hot, boys. We’d better secure those hatch covers before we have a fire!” Carew shouted.The men set about securing the ship in a race against the clock. But it was a contest they were destined to lose.
At ground zero in Halifax Harbour, along with the Mont-Blanc, the explosion obliterated Pier 6 and Pier 8 and all the buildings on each of them. All disappeared.
Aboard the SS Picton, which was moored at Pier 8, supervisor Francis Carew along with his two assistants and sixty-four dock workers and members of the ship’s crew died instantly; fortunately, they had secured the ship’s hatches before the blast and so the munitions in the cargo did not explode.”
— Ken Cuthbertson, The Halifax Explosion, Harper Collins, 2017, p.159 &172.
Afterwards, my grandma Rita searched for her father in a snowstorm for three days before finding out his fate. All the rest of her life, she remains heartbroken over the loss of her father on that fateful day.
At the end of World War One, a global pandemic appears. Gimpy is 26, Grandma is just 22 and they haven’t yet met. The Spanish Flu kills 50 million worldwide.
She finds a job working for Frank Wallace’s Wallace Advertising in Halifax. Gimpy returns from England in 1920 and goes to work for his brother. Rita and Howard marry in 1923. Eventually, she produces four children, three girls then a boy, my father, and his father’s namesake.
Yet, Grandpa Gimpy’s demons catch up with him: he’s jealous and possessive and distrustful of his charming young wife.
My father’s first memory is sitting at the top of the stairs in their house in Fredericton, New Brunswick where Howard was running a branch of the Wallace Advertising Agency. He hears his drunken father smacking his mother around in the kitchen. He wants desperately to intervene but is too afraid. He was about 85 when he told me about this episode during one of my afternoon visits. It seemed to me he could still feel it in his bones.
My father is born in 1929, the year of the great stock crash and start of the Great Depression. The family splits up and dad and siblings move into Grandma Rita’s childhood home in Halifax to live with her mother. All of them witness the economic inflation, unemployment and in places, famine.
My father later saves every bent nail he come across. I still find myself hammering old nails straight and putting them in tin containers in my garage just as he did. We exist in each other.
Meanwhile, Grandpa Gimpy is institutionalized. We’d call it PTSD these days I suppose. Rita and Howard don’t reconcile for decades.
In the interim, in the early 1930s, the Nazis come to power in Europe. A few years later, World War Two breaks out, ending when Grandpa Gimpy is 52 and Grandma Rita is 48. 60 million die in that war. The Holocaust takes 6 million Jews.
When Grandpa is nearing 60, and Grandma is 55, the Korean War begins. One of my first adult mentors as a teen, an old lawyer, was a Korean War vet on pension because of malaria contracted there. The war ends when a million-man Chinese army swarms into North Korea to face allied troops. It forces a cease-fire and an entrenchment of the division of the country into North and South. It begins the family dynasty rule under Kim Il-sung which continues today.
In the mid-1960s, my grandparents reconcile after one of their daughters searches out Grandpa Gimpy and re-introduces them. They arrive at my boyhood home one day where us nine kids are told he’s “Uncle Gimpy” and a war vet. He regales us with tales of fighting and shows us the great pink scar on his leg which gave him his name (for Limpy Gimpy). After several more visits, he’s acknowledged as our long-lost grandfather.
On his first visit, Grandpa Gimpy physically feels my father’s head with his hands to check for “Wallace corners,” directly questioning dad’s lineage. My father told me about the episode, filling in the details of what was really going on in the driveway of our home that first day. “I should have decked him,” said dad all those years later. He was still hurt. My father and him argue loudly about Gimpy disavowing him as his son in the living room on other visits.
The world post-WW2 is in a cold war, as the stand-off between western democracy and eastern Europe and China under communism stalemates for decades. The threat of nuclear annihilation is forever present. As a little boy, I remember the air-raid sirens screaming loudly in practice over the Ottawa south neighbourhoods where I lived each summer.
Around this time, the Vietnam War starts and doesn’t end for 11 years. Its unpopularity creates a cultural revolution among baby-boomers in resistance. In that same stretch of time, the gold standard is abandoned under the Bretton Woods agreements and the monetary supply increases exponentially causing inflation and cycles of economic corrections under rapid capitalist growth.
US president Nixon shakes hands with one of the world’s greatest tyrants, Chairman Mao Tse Tung in 1972. After the Chinese leader’s death in 1976, China opens for business.
Grandma Rita dies in a nursing home in Embrun in 1985. That was just about the time I was leaving the streets and going back to school. When they lived together before they were each forced into separate nursing homes, I used to do their gardening. Grandma would sneak a menthol cigarette with me which she kept hidden in the freezer because Grandpa Gimpy did not approve.
Grandpa Gimpy dies at the Rideau Veterans Home on Smyth Road, precursor to the Perley Rideau Veterans Home built in its place. It was June 1991, his mind still active but his eyesight and body failing. My father held his hand up to the last moment, secretly hoping for a death-bed reconciliation. It never comes.
It was my mother who acted as liaison, keeping my father connected in some way to his father regardless of Grandpa’s cruel reticence. Ma dutifully visited and ensured he had everything he needed. Grandpa loved her like a daughter, while my father, his real son, sat quietly on the sidelines and endured his father’s ostracism.
Ma dies at home about five years ago. We had a two-day vigil where her nine adult children gathered to say goodbye alongside her husband of sixty-two years.
Dad passed away last November in the Perley-Rideau Veterans Home, not far from where his father died in 1991 at age 98. Dad dies in the arms of his children.
I am struck by the difference in these lifetimes compared to our own.
I have never known war. To be sure, I have had personal misfortune and tragedy in my lifetime. It hasn’t been all roses. Yet, I’ve not suffered famine. Nor have I seen economic collapse the likes of the Great Depression though annoyed by the occasional recession and inflationary pressures on goods and services.
Billions of people have been lifted out of poverty in my time, though at a cost to the environment. Wars still rage across the planet but no world wars. Communism has been soundly defeated through attrition, though tyranny abounds. But the big calamities suffered by those of my grandparents’ generation are largely absent.
I have a boy of six with airway disease. His throat is as wide as a pencil. Kid’s got to wear a CPAP at night and use a nebulizer to take steroids before bed and again in the morning. He’s got a typewritten page full of other complicating issues.
Given the current state of things, if the authorities ask me to take extra precautions, count me in.
Sure, part of me thinks back to the days when I associated with a lot of bank robbers and thinks, “Imagine if this happened then?”
But it’s not then… and I’m not the nihilist I once was. I’m no longer ungovernable, my immaturity and anger and confusion has resolved itself over the years. Sure, if I was the only person in the world, morality would mean nothing. But it’s not about me. It’s about doing small things for all of us.
We must be aware enough to not hand over our king energy to the state for the sake of security. Sure, keep that in mind.
But I wouldn’t risk little Howard for the moon and the stars.
If I am required to wear a mask and wash my hands before and after wherever I go for the sake of people like my grandparents and those whose physical defenses are less robust than mine, it seems like a small price to pay.
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” as John Donne wrote.
Even if it’s only a gesture, in honour of my grandparents and ancestors I am happy to do this in support.
Suffering builds character. Inconvenience begets discipline.
Service equals freedom.
Stay powerful, never give up,
advisor to men, mentor at large
A Sunday essay: TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS