If the heart of a community could be a person, Clotilda O’Brien is certainly that for Cape Broyle on the Southern Shore.
“Aunt Clo,” as she is most affectionately known, celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this month by greeting a large gathering of family and friends at the community hall overlooking the harbour in this small fishing town known in folksong as “the Southern Shore Queen.”
In addition to the locals in attendance, relatives travelled from other areas of Canada and the United States to take part in the event.
There was music, dancing and a lot of food to go with handshakes and hugs. The heap of cards and well wishes amazed even the woman who has been around for a century.
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And as the afternoon progressed, Aunt Clo was not satisfied to just sit in a wooden rocking chair — lined for her comfort with a white furry throw — and greet familiar faces as people bent down towards her.
With the aid of a walker, she decided to stretch her legs and move around the lines of long tables, saying hello, sometimes lost in a wrapping of arms with only her curly, grey hair visible.
Later on, she had a scuff.
A slide show presentation offered a glimpse of a woman who, though small in stature, has lived a big life — from her young days with her parents and siblings in Cape Broyle to her 30 years of teaching, to working at Fort Pepperrell in St. John’s during the Second World War, to her travels and her love of music and her guiding role with the church choir.
She also spent two years at St. Martha’s Convent in Antigonish, N.S.
“I didn’t like that,” she said, laughing. “I came home. It wasn’t for me.”
At one point during the celebration she was handed a microphone and recited “The Highwayman,” a narrative poem written by Alfred Noyes and first published in 1906. For that she received a standing ovation.
Greg O’Brien, Aunt Clo’s nephew, drew laughter when he asked the crowd, “How many of you were taught by Aunt Clo? How many of you can spell, write and do math because you were lovingly jabbed in the head by a sharpened pencil?”
Aunt Clo said later it was more of a tap on her students’ heads than what Greg made it out to be.
“I don’t know how that story got out. That was my nephew who put that story out,” she said, shaking her head.
“He was always tormenting me about that, you know. They still keep that going. It will be a memory of me, I s’pose, when I’m gone.”
Patricia O’Brien, Aunt Clo’s niece, said her aunt was looking forward to her 100th birthday party for months.
“She just loves having people around. Her family and friends,” Patricia said. “She is always in a good mood, always pleasant and happy.”
With Cape Broyle being a community-oriented town, close friend Catherine Blake said marking Aunt Clo’s birthday became a community event.
“Clo has been an important person in a lot of people’s lives, a stalwart member of the community,” Blake said. “Clo has such a warm and giving personality that people are endeared to her. They come to her house for visits. She’s interested in people. She engages you in conversation.”
Blake said getting up in age doesn’t keep Aunt Clo down. At 95, after noticing her hearing wasn’t what it used to be, Aunt Clo took a
course at the School for the Deaf in
St. John’s to learn lip reading and basic sign language.
A couple of years ago she took up painting — landscapes and flowers, mostly.
Sheila Kelly said Aunt Clo had a huge influence on her family, having taught her and her children at the school in Cape Broyle.
“She was a good teacher. We learned a lot from her over the years,” Kelly said. “I used to do some housework for her, too. She has a great personality, is fun loving and a great storyteller. Everybody in the community calls her Aunt Clo, or Auntie Clo, or just Clo.”
As for teaching, Aunt Clo says times have changed and she’d be lost in today’s classrooms.
“I wouldn’t want to be teaching now — everything is so technical, but much better I s’pose,” she said. “Everything is computers now. Technology today is getting so fast, you can’t keep up to it.
“The kids today have wonderful opportunities that we didn’t have years ago.”
For 17-year-old Sarah O’Brien, however, her Great-Aunt Clo still has lots to offer young people.
“She’s been through almost every era, the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s … the ’20s, ’30s … all those iconic eras I hear about and wished I could be a part of,” Sarah said. “There’s only so much I can get from reading a book or watching a documentary, but hearing it from her, and seeing who she is as a person and how that has changed her is amazing.”
Greg O’Brien has always known the value of having Aunt Clo as part of his family’s life.
“People don’t reach 100 all the time, so it’s a huge thing for us,” he said. “She is someone who truly does care about people. Clo is one of those people who wants to be around people, and I honestly believe that’s why Aunt Clo is 100 years old … because she wants to be with people. She wants to enjoy their company.
“I think if anybody has their state of mind about them at 100 years of age and they can reflect back over that period of time, they are going to be interesting and engaging.
“And 100 years is a long personal history to draw on, just from the perspective of, what were things like? How did they change? And for me, it’s a personal history. It is who I am. What were my relatives like, what was my father like as a young man? She was there with him, every step of the way.”
For more on Clotilda O'Brien and the celebration of her 100 years, watch Telegram TV, 8 p.m., April 24, on Rogers TV, channel 9.
Clotilda O’Brien sits in her home in Cape Broyle on the Southern Shore surrounded by cards she received marking her 100th birthday. A celebration was held at the community hall on Saturday, April 6. — Photo by Glen Whiffen/The Telegram