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Tuesdays with Clara

I have a confession: nursing homes make me uncomfortable.
After 98 years of life, Clara Clarke has learned much about life, and if you have the time, she'll be happy to tell you tales of a world quite different from the one we live in today.

I have a confession: nursing homes make me uncomfortable.

As a recent graduate who has finally said goodbye to the carefree days of school, and who is just now coming to terms with the fact that no, we do not have all the time in the world, nursing homes are just too much a harsh reminder that one day, sooner than I could ever imagine, I will be looking back instead of forward, remembering instead of aspiring.

And so, when the assignment of a 98-year-old Villa Pascal resident who still paints fell on my desk, I inwardly groaned, imagining a half hour of exchanging pleasantries with a confused old woman.

I was wrong.

First of all, Clara Clarke is no confused old woman - she has the mental sharpness of someone decades her junior.

Secondly, there were no pleasantries exchanged; we didn't discuss how lovely peonies are in the spring or how cute her great-grandchildren are.

Instead, Clara took me back to turn-of-the-century England, where women "were worth less than this," she informed me, flicking a piece of paper.

As she sat in front of a canvas, readying her paints and brushes, she launched into the story of her almost art future, describing situations and reproducing conversations in as great a detail as the completed works of art surrounding her.

Growing up in Stratford, Clara loved painting in school. She recalls one of her earlier paintings, a mournful child whose knickers' elastic had broken. Her teachers loved it so much, they submitted it in an art contest, which Clara won. A company that manufactured underclothing also used the painting, sending Clara 50 pounds, which was a significant amount of money at the time.

A few years later, Clara won a prestigious art scholarship, the Estefrord, for a painting depicting sailors cleaning barnacles off their boats. The scholarship would allow Clara to attend art college when she turned 14. However, her mother would have none of that.

"I know what goes on in those places," Clara told me her mother said.

"But you're destroying her future," the college representative pleaded.

"Oh, I've got plans for her future," her mother said, putting the final nail in the coffin of Clara's hopes.

Instead, at 14, Clara went to work with her mother in a sweatshop, glueing bristles into floor brushes. From what she described, I can't imagine it would be a fun place for a teenager. Clara was, however, proud to inform me the brushes were used in Buckingham Palace.

"We were the best ones in England," she said of the company, John Mason and Sons.

The art scholarship wasn't the only thing Clara's mother had opposed over the years, but sometimes, Clara was able to secure her father's approval before her mother could deny her.

One time, Clara's school was offering swimming lessons. This was something Clara wanted to take part in, but knowing her mother, sadly told the teacher she wouldn't be allowed. Her teacher asked if her father, who served in the army, was home. Clara informed her teacher that yes, her father was on leave.

"Then you run home and ask your father," her teacher told her.

Clara took her teacher's advice, and was permitted to take swimming lessons, although her mother objected fiercely and forbade Clara from ever swimming.

One Sunday, Clara was walking about town. She relates to me the colour of her dress, and how her golden hair, which was the envy of many, was curled in ringlets. Clara heard a woman screaming and went running to see what was wrong. The woman had a baby in the pram and was pointing frantically to where her other child, a boy of about five years old, had gotten into the pond of one of the public parks. He was crying for his mother, too afraid to move, as he had gotten in up to his chin and the bottom of the pond, which wasn't intended for swimming, was covered in slippery algae.

In those days, parks were closed on Sundays, the iron gates enclosing them locked. The boy had somehow managed to get through a hole in the fence. Clara quickly removed her Sunday dress, stripping down to her undershirt and petticoat. She instructed the distraught mother to move her pram close to the fence, so Clara could hoist herself over the top.

She was wading into the pond when she felt a sharp pain in her foot. She realized she had stepped on a broken bottle, but didn't want to alarm the boy, so said nothing. When the young lad asked why the water was turning red, Clara told him the dye of her undershirt, which was red, was running into the water. Despite her injury, Clara managed to get the boy back to his mother, who cried with joy and offered Clara money, which she refused.

Clara made her way back home, but afraid she would get into trouble for swimming, and in pain, crawled into bed. Her mother came in shortly after and, feeling her underclothes were wet, immediately accused Clara of swimming. Not letting her explain, her mother dragged Clara over her knee, hitting her again and again with a whale bone hairbrush.

Eventually Clara's screams, whose skin had begun to break under the beating, brought her father running into the room. He pulled her mother away, and was aghast at the blood, even further upon discovering the gash in Clara's foot.

He screamed that if Clara's mother ever hit her again, he would beat her black and blue.

Although it seems Clara was shortchanged on the hero's welcome she deserved, a while later a letter arrived in the mail. The letter, Clara remembers, was written with gold lettering.

It was an invitation to the palace. The queen consort Mary had heard of Clara's deed and invited her to supper. Clara recalled being extremely nervous at the time, and overawed with the splendour of the palace.

Although Clara's memories were fascinating, and my respect for the woman was growing, I belatedly realized I had spent over two hours listening to Clara.

Hurrying back to the office, I took stock of my notes. I had plenty of information, but nothing that would make a cohesive feature story. I had to go back.

The second interview, which also took over two hours, was just as fruitless. I heard fascinating stories, but every time I tried to direct the conversation towards Clara's painting - having to shout my questions, as Clara is hard of hearing - Clara would simply say, "I'm telling you," and then continue with whatever story she was in the middle of telling.

I heard about Clara's father's time in the army, fighting in the Boer war.

I heard about Clara's second husband, a Canadian soldier in the Second World War, who brought Clara back to Saskatchewan with him.

I heard about the first man she ever loved, a man by the name of Harold Whitehead.

"Oh, he was a gentleman," Clara sighed.

But she had to stop seeing him because her mother disapproved of the match, telling Clara "he can't keep you in the way you've been kept."

Clara remembers the day she had to tell him the bad news; "my tears were rolling down my face."

She vowed to love him until the day she died, a promise she's kept.

Through the tears welling up in my own eyes, I saw with dismay the hour hand had, once again, made it's way around the clock, not once, but twice.

As I drove back to my office, I despaired over how I would ever be able to condense these stories of Clara's life into a piece about an elderly woman who likes to paint.

I believe at this point, I had an epiphany.

On the wall in our office, there is a sign that says: Everybody has a story.

Often, in our line of work, we decide what story people tell. We condense and we edit for newsworthiness. But after 98 years of life, Clara is so much more than a woman who enjoys painting. She is a vibrant masterpiece of accomplishments and hardships, of joys and sorrows. In her own way, Clara was telling me her story - not a simple story about painting, but a story of what is really important, of what I, myself, will remember when it is all said and done. Often, in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we let the important moments pass us by. I'd like to thank Clara for reminding me what the real stories are.