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
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. ❦