Shedding Light on the Family Tree: What Courtship?

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

Prompt: Courting

What is courting? Conventional thinking, and the dictionary, describe it as “paying special attention to (someone) in an attempt to win their support or favour.” This could be the wooing of someone into marriage/romantic relationship, or a business arrangement or a political scheme. In the case of romance or even friendship it often involves a flurry of grand gestures and promises fuelled by hopping hormones, intense desire and a need to be needed. Those of us who have been run through that mill know that once the fuel runs out so too do all the pronounced overtures. Promises made are either broken or never materialize. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me speaking, but I’ve seen it all too often in many areas of life. It is a truth … inflamed passion inevitably fizzles; the slow burn of nurtured love lasts forever.

In my attempt to shed light on ancestral courting rituals I came up empty. No records kept; no wedding photographs available. Either my forbears weren’t a very sentimental bunch or they just didn’t have the resources to make a big deal of it. At any rate, it would be my guess that the marriages that fizzled were preceded by grand overtures and empty gestures, while those that flourished were more gently cultivated from start to finish.

I offer the following examples …

Alice and Stan

My maternal grandparents, Alice (Gordon) McDonall (1916-1994) and Stanley Lewis McDonall (1909-1987) met in April 1934 and married the following October. Nothing is known for certain about their courtship, however based on my knowledge of grandpa’s charismatic character and granny’s fiery, independent temperament there’s little doubt in my mind that their courtship was likely intense. Alice’s family were pioneer farmers (see my previous post, The Gordons have Landed) in the small farming community of Pibroch north of Edmonton, Alberta, while Stan’s farmed a section a little north and east of that in tiny Larkspur. The young couple probably met at a community chicken supper or dance, or perhaps even a local baseball game. Stanley was a natural musician and excelled in sport; Alice loved to sing and dance. She was a petite sprite. Stanley was a tall, brooding charmer and a chick magnet. In the end, Alice was the hen who came home to roost. Their respective families had faced, and come through, their fair share of trials ~ the Gordons, a loving, generally happy family with a distinguished military tradition, were thriving; the McDonall’s, victims of their own hubris, merely surviving. And yet, I am told, it was Stanley’s father, Steve McDonall, who hitched his horses to the log wagon and drove around the community seeking character references for the Gordons once an engagement had been announced.

Stanley McDonall and Alice (Gordon) McDonall
ca 1950, Edmonton, Alberta
Source: Family Archives

With myriad girls flocking around young Stanley I suspect Alice spent a good deal of her energy playing interference during their six-month courtship. He loved the thrill of the chase, and that was part of the problem. Once the chase was over the charm all but disappeared.

From Alice’s memoir…

“Our young courtship was very honest and very clean on both our parts. I think that the Depression of the 1930s, the poverty of it, the despairing sense of defeat, the hopelessness of trying to express art as Stan needed to do posed the greatest challenge. No money for oil paints or teachers in music or otherwise, contributed to our sad marriage failure. He was so proud and so talented and so frustrated by conditions that he became difficult to deal with… Stan and I lost our optimistic illusions about life when we were very young. When we were married, he 24 and I, 18 years old, we composed songs and we sang. He painted his pictures and there was always the little dream that life and conditions would improve. We, of course, like everyone else who lives had to find out about realities. We did love each other. We really were suited to each other in many ways. We really were both dreamers.”

Alice and Stan wrote the following song. The music is long gone, but the words live on and prove a sad foreshadowing.


Locked in my Heart

Years have passed long since we have parted
Years full of pain and regret.
You left me sad and broken hearted
But still I cannot forget.

Locked in my heart is your love divine
Locked in my heart is your smile.
Since you have left me my heart does pine
Why can we not reconcile?
Won’t you return with your loving charms
And your smile, peaceful sublime.
I want to hold you close in my arms
But locked in my heart you’re mine.


They were newlyweds yet they’d written what amounts to a break-up song. The sad fact is that their marriage was doomed from the start. Almost immediately his interest waned and Alice was left fumbling in the emotional dark. Their happiest times were spent singing around the piano and raising their only child. After 27 mostly miserable years their marriage came to an abrupt end. A novel I’ve been working on for a number of years is based on my grandmother’s experience of, and departure from, their connubial non-bliss.

Jane and William

Contrast Alice and Stan’s “courtship” story with that of Alice’s parents, Jane (Robson) Gordon (1883-1959) and William Alexander Gordon (1880-1954). By all accounts theirs was a happy marriage even with the tragic family losses and other challenges they’d faced. We don’t know anything about their lives before they tied the knot, nor do we know how they met. What we do know, however, is that they married December 26, 1902 and enjoyed a nurturing union for more than 50 years.

William Alexander Gordon and Jane (Robson) Gordon ca. 1950, New Westminster, B.C.
Source: Family Archives

What might it look like to court someone throughout a marriage? To me it means mutual caring and genuine affection; an ability to show empathy for individual and shared pain. Their courtship may have had some grand gestures in the beginning, but it matured into something more tender and enduring that demonstrated kindness and true love. During their long, loving marriage they endured the loss of seven of their 13 children ~ six under the age of 10 and the last, Archie, at the age of 23 when his plane was shot down during WWII. A couple of excerpts from granny Alice’s memoir serve to illustrate their tenderness toward one another. The first demonstrates affection:

“She was a very neat and tidy lady. Small boned, quick in the mind and quick in her movements. She sometimes got angry at our dad when he teased her … and he just laughed. They always loved each other even if they were not all that demonstrative all the time. They were married the day after Christmas and my mother’s father thought my dad too rough for my mother and didn’t welcome him too kindly for a long time. Then he liked him.”

The second shows how they looked out for one another:

“One girl, Nan, named after my dad’s mother, died at age eight from meningitis. One boy, Willie, died at age five from appendicitis. These were the two oldest children. The terrible sorrow. She, my mother, told me that she sat for days hardly moving when Nan died. She was in a daze. Then she noticed Jean and Hilda looking so dirty and uncared for that she moved to look after them. I don’t think the deaths were far apart. This happened in Dundee and I believe the move to Motherwell could have been a result of the sorrow. They never really got over it. My dad would tell us in a whisper, “You know your mother has never been the same since.” And mother would look to see if dad was within earshot and then say, “You know your dad has never been the same.”

I wish I had more information on family courtships, but there you go. What isn’t shared cannot be spoken. There have been happy marriages and, for whatever reason, there have been failed ones. At any rate, whatever manner of courtship my ancestors employed it worked or I wouldn’t be here struggling to write about it. ❦

4 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: What Courtship?

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