Shedding Light on the Family Tree: What’s in a Photo?

The third in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Favourite Photo

Naming favourites is a challenge for me. As a photographer, choosing any one of my creations over another is difficult for each tells its own story. I favour different images for different reasons. The tree image selected from my archive to act as the “banner” for this project is only one of many from which I could have chosen. Is it my favourite? The short answer is that it is for this project.

When it comes to choosing a favourite family photo it’s really no different, though I will say that focusing on images where I have some sense of their story seems the most appropriate. For the sad thing is that many of the faces in the photos we have can no longer be identified, their lives and legacies lost forever. I am reminded again of my great grandmother, Mary Lewis (Belton) McDonall, who burned all her family photos believing that later generations would have no interest in them. If only she’d known.

Nevertheless, in the spirit of the theme “Favourite Photo,” the following are three that capture my imagination.

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Dipping a toe into the Gene Pool

Dorothy and Alice

These two baby photos illustrate a strong gene pool. The top one is of me at 10 days old, and the image at the bottom is my Scottish Granny, Alice (Gordon) McDonall. We’re the spitting image of one another! What’s interesting is that we had more in common than just the shape of our faces. Granny (d. June 1994) and I shared a love of horses, singing and ancestry. She inspired me with her strength and tenacity, and is the inspiration for a woman’s-triumph-over-adversity novel I’m writing based on part of her life story. Her sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 78 rocked my world, so much so that to honour her memory I made a commitment to live the rest of my life in a way that would make her proud. My intention was to offload the emotional baggage I was carrying around. This required a deep dive into my underworld and the unearthing, and healing, of a lot of family issues and related trauma. As it happened, researching the family tree helped. Granny’s death also made me realize that to do with my life anything less than that which brought me joy was a waste. So, within six months of Granny’s death I quit my corporate gig in public relations and began training as a national equestrian coach. Little did I know that this was to be the beginning of my healing journey with the horse.

In addition, I pursued a creative path in art and writing. To help stay on point I dubbed my creative brand “Aimwell.” The first three letters are Granny’s initials (Alice Isabel McDonall), and the word “well” was added as a reminder to be on target with my thoughts, actions and deeds. This is how Aimwell CreativeWorks was born.

The road has not been easy, but I can honestly say I’ve done my best to live up to my commitment and to make Granny proud. As I write I’m thinking how wonderful it would be to sit down with her as the person I am now to talk about life, and horses and family … and these baby pictures. I have a feeling we would laugh a lot.

There’s so much I could say about Granny’s life, and the event of her passing, but I’ll save that for another post (and my book!)

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A Slice of Life

William George Stephen (Steve) McDonall in his barbershop, Youngstown, Alberta

This image was captured some time in the 1920s when great Grandpa Steve McDonall was a successful farmer and business owner in southern Alberta. Within a few years the Great Depression (1929), and Alberta Dust Bowl, would cast their long shadows and the family would lose everything.

There are a number of funky details in this picture that appeal to me: the large dog in the chair to the right looking out of the window; the casual cigarette in great Grandpa Steve’s right hand; the non-committal expressions on the faces. Who are the other fellows? Did they work with him? Were they customers? Was this a trade shot or merely something to be kept for posterity? The large banner in the middle ~ “Great Britain” ~ is intriguing because as a proud Irish-American great Grandpa Steve had no time for the British. His constant teasing of his daughter-in-law, my Scottish-born grandmother, Alice, was later evidence of this, and so I’m curious as to why he would have had this decoration above his counter. Was it a gift from someone or was he just contrary enough to hang the banner up to keep people guessing?

After the Dust Bowl great Grandpa Steve migrated, with his wife, Mary Lewis (Belton) McDonall, and three grown sons, Joe, Stanley and Earl, to Larkspur in northern Alberta to start again. It proved to be a gruelling trauma that played out in successive generations, and it was part of my commitment to Granny to heal what I could for myself.

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Harry Belton poised to join the local saddle club

And finally … the obligatory horse photo

It’s hard to believe it wasn’t that long ago when horses played an integral role in the industrial and societal landscape. Our family were people of the land going back generations so horses always figured prominently in our story somehow.

Harry Belton is not a direct line ancestor, but he was the brother of great Grandma Mary Lewis (Belton) McDonall. In the early 20th century he and many other male family members, including great Grandpa Steve, migrated with their families west across the northern states, from Bantry, North Dakota to Great Falls, Montana, making tracks for the landscape-altering iron horse of the Great Northern Railway. He had a reputation for being the funny man in the family and this photo offers a fair representation. It tickles my funny bone because of the affinity I have for horses and the fact that this mini appears not the least bit concerned about the giant of a man standing over him. My mother tells me that Harry was a gentle, sociable man, well-liked and respected. He loved animals, and was known for the bird houses he built from scratch and gave away to neighbourhood children.

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There are many other photographs I’m fortunate to have within my possession and which I hope to be able to highlight as this project unfolds. In truth they are all my favourites for the fact they exist at all. ❦

Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Magical Connection made by Music

The second in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Favourite Find

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Part of the thrill of shedding light on the family tree is discovering who’s hanging out on its numerous branches. During my meanderings I’ve located many interesting people and stories, and so far this is my favourite find. It relates to my mother’s story and a magical connection made to an ancestor through music.

Let’s start with some background on my mother, Lois Jeanette McDonall:

Dimings and Sparklings
Mom was born during the night of a frigid February 7, 1939, in a one-room log cabin in the middle of nowhere northern Alberta. By all accounts she was a “miracle baby,” born three years after her mother, Alice, had suffered a traumatic event giving birth to stillborn twins and been told by her doctor it was unlikely she would ever have more children.

Still, she was an only child raised among adults, encouraged to read whatever was on the bookshelf (Voltaire!), and to sing. Music was a vital thread in the family fabric. Everyone sang and played at least one musical instrument, so on many an evening her parents (Alice and Stan), paternal grandparents (Steve McDonall and Mary Belton), and uncles Joe and Earl, gathered around the old upright piano and made music. The harmonies of old hymns; parlour songs and Irish folk tunes filled the air and were among the happiest of times for a family beset with challenges while recovering from the trauma of losing everything after the Dust Bowl.

These lamplit musical interludes left an enduring impression on young Jean. “I fell in love with singing the moment I knew what it was,” she told me recently. “It spoke to my heart like nothing else.” In fact, she loved it so much that at the tender age of four she announced to her mother that she was going to sing on the stage one day wearing “dimings and sparklings.” Her mother’s response: “Hitch your wagon to a star, darling, hitch your wagon to a star.” And that’s precisely what Jean did.

A little more than 20 years later Jean was married with two small children and attending the Opera School at the University of Toronto. After graduating she had a chance to get her professional feet wet by fulfilling a one-year contract in some of the smaller German opera houses. This necessitated a difficult separation from her two young children (who stayed with their grandmother Alice) and from her husband (foreshadowing divorce). During this time she adopted the professional name, Lois McDonall, and secured a one-year contract with Sadlers Wells Opera (soon to become English National Opera) in London’s West End. In 1970 she moved to London with her children and raised them as a single parent while pursuing her career. The initial contract was renewed for 13 more years and she enjoyed an illustrious career as a dramatic soprano specializing in the Bel Canto repertoire. Among her major roles: The Feldmarschallin (Der Rosenkavalier, R. Strauss); Countess Rosina Almaviva (The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart); Miss Jessel (Turn of the Screw, Britten); Rosalinda (Die Fledermaus, J. Strauss); Violetta (La Traviata, Verdi), and more. In addition, Lois was a regular guest on BBC Radio’s Friday Night is Music Night, and toured Britain’s many opera houses and concert halls.

Lois McDonall at centre stage as Rosalinda in
Die Fledermaus (J. Strauss)

Just as she’d dreamed the little girl from the middle of nowhere Alberta grew up to sing on the international stage. Naturally the story is far more nuanced than this and deserves further scrutiny, but it sets the stage, as it were, for what follows.

Expect the Unexpected
When I felt prompted to take another look at our ancestry last year I hooked into FamilySearch.org, plugging in our family information until it linked to related lineages already uploaded by other researchers. There ensued hours of ooh-ing and ahh-ing as I traced back through the maternal ancestral line. The Fairchild name (my 5th great grandmother, Ruth Fairchild, married Daniel Springer in Delaware, Ontario in 1794) proved to be the most fruitful. During my exploration, (and without going into detail about all the generations that made this possible ~ that requires a book!), I was transported back to the American colonies and beyond to Britain and Western Europe. As it happens many of the lines reach back to royalty. One name in particular caught my eye, Maria Juana de Padilla.

There are many sources of information on this colourful woman, however for simplicity’s sake the following is taken directly from the entry under her name on the FamilySearch.org website.

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“María Juana de Padilla (c. 1334-Seville, July 1361), mistress of Pedro I “el Cruel” Rey de Castilla (1334-1369)

Maria Juana de Padilla

Maria was a Castilian noblewoman, daughter of Juan García de Padilla (died between 1348 and 1351) and his wife María González de Henestrosa (died after September 1356). Her maternal uncle was Juan Fernández de Henestrosa, the King’s favorite between 1354 and 1359 after Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque fell out of favor, and the mediator in an apparent pardon for Fadrique Alfonso, King Peter’s half-brother. She was also the sister of Diego García de Padilla, Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava. María’s family, members of the regional nobility, originally came from the area of Padilla de Abajo, near Castrojeriz in the province of Burgos.

She is described in the chronicles of her time as very beautiful, intelligent, and small of body.

Relationship with Pedro I “el Cruel,” Rey de Castilla
King Peter met María in the summer of 1352 during an expedition to Asturias to battle his rebellious half-brother Henry. It was probably her maternal uncle, Juan Fernández de Henestrosa, who introduced them, as mentioned in the chronicle of King Peter’s reign written by Pero López de Ayala. At that time, María was being raised at the house of Isabel de Meneses, wife of Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque, a powerful nobleman. They became lovers and their relationship lasted until her death despite the King’s other marriages and affairs. The Padillas were raised to various offices and dignities. Her uncle, Henestrosa, became Alcalde de los fidalgos.

In the summer of 1353, under coercion from family and the main court favorite, Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque, Peter wed Blanche of Bourbon, the first cousin of King John II of France. Peter abandoned Blanche within three days when he learned that she had an affair with his bastard brother Fadrique Alfonso en route to Spain, and that the dowry was not coming.

Children
María and Peter had three daughters and a son:
Beatrice (born 1354)
Constance (1354-1394)

Isabella (1355-1394) [our ancestor]
Alfonso, crown-prince of Castile (1359-October 19, 1362)

Two of their daughters were married to sons of Edward III, King of England. Isabella married Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, while the elder, Constance, married John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, leading him to claim the crown of Castile on behalf of his wife. Constance’s daughter, Catherine of Lancaster, married Henry III of Castile in order to reunify any claim to succession that may have passed via Constance.

Death and burial
María de Padilla died in July 1361, possibly a victim of the plague, although Pero López de Ayala does not specify the cause in his chronicle of the King’s reign. She was buried in the Real Monasterio de Santa Clara de Astudillo which she had founded in 1353. Shortly afterwards, however, her remains were taken, following the orders of King Peter, to the Cathedral of Seville where she received burial in the Royal Chapel with other members of the royal house.

Depictions in fiction
Gaetano Donizetti composed Maria Padilla (1841), an opera about her relationship with King Peter.”

FamilySearch.org

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Lois McDonall graces the original cover for the 1980 recording of Maria Padilla

The Magic Unfolds
In 1980, Lois McDonall was signed by Opera Rara, a music organization whose mission it is “to rediscover, restore, record and perform the lost operatic heritage of the 19th and early 20th centuries,” and the Donizetti Society, for whom she’d already made a number of recordings, to sing the title role in Gaetano Donizetti’s dramatic opera, Maria Padilla. (This link takes you to a platform featuring snippets and options to download. For an initial preview I recommend tracks 7 and 8. The full recording is also available on Spotify and other platforms. ) When asked about the experience of doing the recording mom shares how she loved the music of Donizetti and was thrilled to be asked to do it. As with all 45-plus major roles she’d performed during her career, she familiarized herself with the character of Maria by researching her story and the times in which she lived. “Beyond that,” she notes, “I gave it no further thought. It was an easy production that went off without a hitch. This made all involved immensely happy.” It was, indeed, well received. The New York Times called it, “A fascinating and valuable recording.”

Here’s where it gets trippy … Imagine our delight last summer when mom and I discovered that Maria Juana de Padilla is her 19th great-grandmother!

“It makes me giggle,” says Lois, now in her 80s and astonished by the synchronicity of it. “First of all that an esteemed composer of 70 operas would find Maria’s story worthy of a musical retelling. Secondly, that I should have the opportunity to record it. And lastly, because never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that such a blood connection existed to this remarkable woman to whom I’d loaned my voice. And that I’ve lived long enough to know about it? Simply marvellous!”

As I muse about this favourite find it occurs to me that it isn’t until we allow ourselves the curiosity to peek beyond our perceived realities that life’s magic can truly begin to unfold. Shedding light on the family tree is one of the ways to uncover that magic … and maybe it even involves a little music. ❦

Related posts:

Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Beginnings

Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Beginnings

The first in a series of posts about my family tree, and my part in it.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt Week One: Foundations

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Every journey begins somewhere, and so it is with the climbing of the family tree.

My interest in family history began early with my Scottish maternal grandmother, Alice McDonall (nee Gordon). Our visits with her always included at least one drive to the old homesteads not far from the town in northern Alberta to which she gravitated for most of her life. She had roots there, planted when she, her parents and six siblings emigrated from Glasgow, Scotland in 1927 as part of Canada’s Soldier’s Settlement Act. Though they endured many hardships she spoke fondly of those difficult early years. Pioneering in the northern climes was no picnic.

It was in that remote farming community that her British roots knitted with American; where the first generation of our 20th century Canadian family was born. During those car rides with Granny she would share her childhood memories and reminisce about community chicken suppers and dances where her father often played the accordion. It was at one of those suppers that she met and fell in love with a young American farmer, Stanley Lewis McDonall, a man seven years her senior and a masterful, self-taught musician. They tied the knot after a short, intense courtship.

It proved a difficult marriage and ended in divorce  27 years later (the subject of a novel I’ve been working on for some time.) Grandpa Stan was an irascible character (to put it mildly). His temperament more aligned with the tortured artist than the weather-toughened farmer, his unfulfilled creative dreams only exacerbated his miserable outlook on life. The reasons for this will not be explored in this missive ~ there’s plenty of opportunity to go down that rabbit hole later. The focus here is how this rather unlikely character, whom I’d met only a few of times as a young child, managed to fuel my interest in family history. 

The answer is quite simple: Grandpa Stan loved his rich heritage, and saved stuff.

My mother relates how she would listen to her paternal grandparents retell the stories and lore passed down the generations. There was, for instance, the family’s trek from Michigan to Montana at the turn of the 20th century while employed in the construction of the Great Northern Railroad; tales of our United Empire Loyalist ancestors who were among the earliest settlers of Southern Ontario, and the ongoing lament of the family’s great loss of farmland and businesses in Youngstown, Alberta, following the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. 

Beyond the stories, however, what other evidence demonstrated Grandpa Stan’s affection for his heritage?

Grandpa Stan died in 1987 at the age of 78 in Libby, Montana, and it was while we were in his house cleaning up his affairs that we unearthed a large and rather beaten-up leather railroad bag. It was stuffed with old documents and photographs he’d inherited from his great aunt Margaret Cox (nee Belton) and was all that remained of the family’s documented memories after his mother had burned all her records under the mistaken belief that future generations wouldn’t care. That weathered railroad bag and its precious contents came to me. Hand-written letters and tattered photos offered a glimpse into the lives of our Irish-Canadian, UEL and American ancestors, and opened my mind to periods of history I’d not previously entertained. Perhaps the most exciting find was this document:

This Statutory Declaration drawn up for Mary Jane Belton, my grandfather’s maternal grandmother, in response to what turned out to be the Springer Heirs hoax,  provided the impetus I needed to shed light on our family story. For a while I was the proverbial sleuth, working with professional genealogists and doing my own personal research to gather as many resources as I could. I also widened the search to include other lineages. The whole experience was exhilarating and I became eager to learn about the times and places in which my ancestors lived so I might get to know them. I imagined the strength, resilience and ingenuity it would have taken to survive, never mind thrive, under difficult and ofttimes perilous circumstances. Strange as it may sound I felt the more I got to know them the more I understood myself, for their blood and DNA ran in my veins. I am not here without them.

Eventually a change in life circumstances forced me to put my research to bed. Years later I sought counselling for a variety of issues and the subject of family surfaced. Who were my people? What were they like? How did the traditions, prejudices and conditioning of the generations impact my own experience of  life? During our conversations I began to realize that to understand myself and heal old wounds I needed to acknowledge the lives and experiences of those who’d laid my foundation. I needed to decide how much I was going to allow their stories to impact mine. My family history was going to help me help myself … and it did.

Fast forward to 2021, thirty-plus years after finding that beaten-up black leather railroad bag full of musty old documents, and I’m nurturing the family tree once again. When I started down this road in the late 1980s it was my intention to leave a legacy for future generations. As it happens I have no children and therefore will be an ancestor to no one. Turns out I plod the ancestral path for my own enjoyment and without agenda except to acquaint myself with those whose love for one another made my life possible.

Though my grandparents had their differences they certainly had one thing in common ~ a love for family roots. Through them began my ancestral path, and for that I shall always be grateful. ❦