Nathaniel Bartholomew

For a man who died over 90 years ago, and who, at the time of his death in Ypres, was 35 years old, Nathaniel has played a large part in my life; in the lives of my children and now, in the lives of my grandchildren.  Nathaniel was my grandfather.

I never knew him.  I knew and loved his wife, my Nana, Hilda Exton Bartholomew, and their daughter, my Aunt Hilda Bartholomew Burke (known in our family as ‘Hildy’) Hilda Burke was and continues to be the best woman I’ve ever known. We named our first child, our much-loved daughter, Hildy after my grandmother and my aunt.

There’s something potent about family names.  Certainly there was something potent about the fact that Ted and I chose to name our third child and second son, Nathaniel.  Our Nathaniel was born on Remembrance Day and in a very real way, our Nat has brought his great grandfather into our lives.  From the time he was very young, our Nathaniel has seen his name and the fact that he was born on November 11th as both an obligation and a gift. He has never missed attending services at the Cenotaph in Victoria Park, and he has a solid knowledge of the history and of the poetry of World War I. 

A couple of years ago our Nat heard about the Canadian government’s Virtual Memorial Program.  He followed the necessary links on the internet and discovered that his great-grandfather was born on May 4, 1883 and died on November 18, 1918.  Nat printed out the attestation papers that Nathaniel Bartholomew signed to join the army.  Nathaniel Bartholomew’s height and weight were noted on the paper and his signature was at the bottom of the page.  Seeing my grandfather’s signature on the paper that would lead him from his wife, children and the home he had built on Prescott Avenue in Toronto to death in Ypres was an experience I will carry with me forever.  Through something called The Maple Leaf Project, our Nathaniel found a picture of the grave of Nathaniel Bartholomew.  The picture is in my office where I write, and I look at it often and I wonder about the man he was.

I’ve seen a picture of course. He was a handsome man – dark haired, with the luxuriant moustache that was the fashion of the time.  My grandmother seldom spoke of him.  When I asked her why she had never re-married, she replied, “Once was enough.”  I have contemplated that terse and enigmatic statement for many years.  Nathaniel Bartholomew was a brick-layer by trade and he built the house at 84 Prescott Avenue where I grew up. I visited the house last summer when we were in Toronto.  It’s still standing and it’s still a good house.  My aunt adored her father. In a day when working class children were not pampered, Nathaniel built his daughter a playhouse in a section of the garage on Prescott Avenue.  My own father was very young when his father was killed and has no memory of him.  My uncle Ben who was with his brother at Ypres had a breakdown after Nathaniel died.  It was years before Ben returned to his wife and family in Toronto.  He was the kindest man I’ve ever known.  Our son Max Benjamin and our grandsons, Ben and Peyton Benjamin are named after him.

I learned yesterday in our Remembrance Day service at church that while the families of those who died in the first World War were often told that their fathers, brothers, husbands and lovers had ‘died instantly’, the reality was less comforting.  Most soldiers died agonizing deaths—often from wounds that became infected from the sludge of mud, blood and human feces through which the Canadian soldiers trudged day after endless day.    The fact that my grandfather died seven days after the Armistice was signed suggests that his death was not an easy one.

This week our Nathaniel sent his brother, sister and Ted and me the link to a vigil in Ypres, Belgium.  During the vigil, the names of all those killed in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, The Canadian Merchant Navy and the Canadian Army Medical Corps would be displayed two at a time on screens large and small throughout the world.   By going on-line, you could discover exactly when your family member’s name would appear.  Nathaniel Bartholomew’s name, along with the name of Francis H. Beaufort, appeared at 10:17 yesterday morning—at the exact moment when it appeared in Ypres.  Seeing Nathaniel Bartholomew’s name and knowing that tens of thousands of others were seeing my grandfather’s name was another moment I will carry with me.

Later at church, we heard the old words: 

          They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;

          age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

          At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

          We will remember them.

          We will remember them.

Then M/Cpl Dave Ramsey played The Last Post and Reveille, and together, we wept. 

©2017 Gail Bowen.  All Rights Reserved.