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.


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!)


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.


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.


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. ❦

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

  1. Ah, yes, those unknown people in old photos. It sure would be nice to know who they were, how they were related (if they were), what happened to them and did they have descendants. I wonder if some of them were friends and whether the friendship lasted or not. I’ve got an old photo of my maternal great grandfather at work in the pump house of the artesian well that supplied the water to little Morgan Park, Illinois before it was annexed to Chicago and the well capped. The island in the middle of a traditional English go-around is just grass now with a cement and metal cover that looks like a manhole cover, the building and equipment long gone. The man who laid out Morgan Park copied an estate in England for the streets and there are islands and winding streets unlike the rest of the area. My mother’s father’s people were early settlers of the area and both my grandfather and my mother and her siblings were born in Morgan Park, not Chicago. A couple miles north in Beverly HIlls in the front yard of a former church, now a home, there are 2 gravestones in German, haven’t seen them in a long time but it’s one of the little oddities of the area. In fact, I’m the fifth generation living in this area, lots of family history here.

    1. Wow! That’s amazing to still be so close to your roots. Does that help with your research? I find it sad that “modernists” are so quick to knock down and pave over the old places. So much history lost.

      When my maternal grandmother, Alice, died that was the end of the connection to that area north of Edmonton where I’d felt so rooted. Really sad. I’ve only been back once since and that was many years ago. And so much time has now passed that I don’t want to go back because I know so much of it will have changed. The memories must stay intact as they are. 🙏

    2. Wow! That’s amazing to still be so close to your roots. Does that help with your research? I find it sad that “modernists” are so quick to knock down and pave over the old places. So much history lost.

      When my maternal grandmother, Alice, died it marked the end of the connection to that area north of Edmonton where the families conjoined. I’ve been back only once in the past 30 or so years and while the area hasn’t been developed (and likely never will) it’s just not the same without granny’s commentary and zest for telling the stories. Some moments can simply never be repeated. … Thanks for sharing your ancestry-related thoughts and experiences here. Be well 🙏💫

      1. Lots of changes here and while most of the homes are still standing some are not. In a way it’s hard being where my close family lived and died. I’m the only one left here now, the cousins all are a distance away and no longer in contact – their choice as they said there were “too busy” to stay in touch (their loss). I’m looking to move myself this year, I’ve had it with this city and am looking for a small house in a small town. It’s never the same after some time has passed, people gone or dead, places changed and the connections broken. I have found more online than in the area. the local historical society is closed most of the time, the younger people in the area have little or no connection to it and don’t really care about what was before they came. It’ll take a good 30 years before any of them want to know about the history of this area and by that time no one will be around to tell them.
        All the best.

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