Shedding Light on the Family Tree: The Memories of Flowers


The 11th in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Flowers

My first true memory of flowers stems from when I was six years old. It was 1968. My younger brother, James, and I lived with granny Alice (Gordon) McDonall in Westlock, Alberta for a year. Our mother, Lois Jeanette McDonall, was a young singer fresh out of the University of Toronto Opera School and had secured a one-year contract in Germany. A common practice for someone wanting to establish themselves in the competitive world of opera. It was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. Realizing her soon-to-be single-parent status mom was determined her long-held dream of singing on stage was going to provide for the family. She had to do what she had to do.

It was a challenging time made all the more so by dad’s choice to absent himself from the family picture both emotionally and financially.

At the time granny Alice was still rebuilding her life. A few years before she’d strategized her own dramatic departure from a turbulent 27-year marriage, escaping grandpa Stan in Vancouver and returning to her roots in Westlock. While climbing her own mountain of challenges she established a hairdressing business and by the time we arrived her business was booming.

I have no doubt that minding two young grandchildren while managing her busy salon (she’d reconfigured her living room into a beauty parlour) must have proven taxing. Still, granny Alice, being the strong and independent-minded woman she was, pulled it off. She found creative ways to amuse us, among them getting us involved in her garden.

Like her mother, Jane (Robson) Gordon, granny had a green thumb so in the growing season her garden was a cornucopia of edibles. I’m not sure how much actual help we could have been given how young we were, however I do remember cheerfully digging out potatoes and beets; picking pea pods and sneaking a few succulent green pearls as a self-professed taste tester; pulling up carrots, green onions, and radishes, and other veggies to which my memory won’t stretch. And I remember granny Alice canning and storing as much of it as she could.

In addition to abundant vegetables the garden hosted a plethora of colourful flowers that festooned the beds around her house and fragranced the air. There were dahlias, poppies, holly hocks, gladiola, marigolds, daisies, sweet peas, morning glory, to name a few. Under granny Alice’s practiced thumb everything seemed to flourish. Her garden was a refuge from a world of cares and, no doubt at the time, a couple of demanding, and confused, grandkids.

Flowers always remind me of her ~ tender yet resilient; fragile yet strong; vibrant; cheerful, and bearing a pleasant commingling scent of lilies of the valley, lavender, and perm solution.

This seems like a long way to get to the point that flowers are markers of time and joggers of memory. Consider the following:

Flowers and grief

Flowers have the power to stir and heal emotions.

“There were other babies stillborn. Edward was the last one. Thirteen days old. How I loved and held him. The minister came to our house and baptized him as he and my mother were too ill to go to church. We were all dressed up as for church and I remember the little white baptismal shawl and the sobering moments. He died in the night. We all filed passed his little body next morning. We had him at home until the funeral. We walked to aunt Mary’s that day. All dressed up. Met aunt Mary coming to our place loaded with flowers. That is when I wept and cried and wanted to go back home, but I could not. We were not to be at the funeral. (I think I was nine.) But dad told us about it and he bought a lovely grave marker with birds and angels inside a glass bowl and we went and saw it. Dad was soft-hearted. Mother had to tell us about angels again, and how Jesus gathers little children first, like lambs to his breast. She made it sound miraculous and good.”

Source: Memoir of Alice (Gordon) McDonall, Family Archives

Dandelions

Dandelions are a mundane little flower. In fact, most people would consider them weeds and a nuisance. However, my mother remembers the springtime ritual of waiting for the first dandelions to emerge on their farm. “We’d been eating mother’s canned goods all winter and, of course, getting weary of it,” she recalls. “I can remember her and my paternal grandmother, Mary (Belton) McDonall, peering through the window and into the fields watching for the first yellow heads of spring. As soon they appeared they’d take to the fields and harvest as many greens as they could. The first fresh food in months! Bitter in taste, perhaps, but such a welcome change from a winter of canned and pickled everything.”

Poppies

The poppy holds its own mournful place in our family history. Granny Alice’s younger brother, Archibald Don Gordon, was flight engineer on a Halifax bomber that was shot down over the Bay of Biscay off the coast of France April 7, 1943. He and five fellow crew members lost their lives.

I wondered about the poppy being adopted as the tribute flower for fallen soldiers. Here’s what I found:

” … from classical mythology is that the scarlet flower with its ebony interior – black is also a color of death – signifies the promise of resurrection after death. Since these ancient times, poppies have long been used as a symbol of sleep, peace, and death. In both Greek and Roman myths, poppies were used as offerings to the dead. Poppies were also used as emblems on tombstones to symbolize eternal sleep.”

Source: http://www.flowerpowerdaily.com

And, of course, we remember the immortalized words of Canadian surgeon and soldier, John McCrae, from his poem “In Flanders Fields” written May 3, 1915, as a tribute to a friend and fellow soldier Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, a poem that has played a potent role in ceremonies of Remembrance ever since.

“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky.”

Granny Alice always wore a poppy for Remembrance Day. Her written tribute to her brother and other fallen soldiers can be read in my Remembrance Day post. (Lest We Forget: Sacrifice and the Ultimate Price)

A bouquet from the Metropolitan Opera for
Lois Jeanette McDonall
Source: Family Archives

Show Business and Bouquets

Ending on a more upbeat note and circling back to the beginning of this post where I wrote of my mother embarking on her operatic career …

As I was rummaging through some journals the other day this old photo (right) surfaced in a most synchronistic way, especially as I don’t recall ever having seen it before. The notation on the back was “New York 1964.”The timeframe told me it was a memory from mom’s Met Audition. I asked her about it, and this is what I learned.

Having won the Vancouver and Seattle Met competitions that year mom secured a spot at the Metropolitan Opera auditions in New York City. “I was a prairie girl and had never experienced anything like it,” she recalls. “My eyes were full of stars; it all felt terribly exciting. The organizers booked all of us into the Hotel Astor and a floral bouquet from the Met was placed in each room.” The icing on the cake was, of course, singing on the stage at the Old Met. “To have the opportunity to sing where so many operatic greats had sung before was almost overwhelming. I was lucky I got a note out!”

While mom’s audition didn’t get her into the top three (she was the least experienced of all the competitors) the judging panel were impressed enough to recommend her to the Opera School at the University of Toronto. To that end a door was opened and, driven to pursue her passion and make a career doing what she loved, she walked through. A year later and only a few months after James was born, mom moved to Toronto with us in tow, and chased her dream starting, she notes, from zero. The rest, as they say, would become her hard won, illustrious story in the world of opera.

The Met bouquet was the first of hundreds she’d receive over the course of a celebrated 20-year performance career. Every opening night; every stand alone concert; every radio broadcast; every special event garnered an abundant bundle of stunning flowers from the organizers. I recall many an opening night at the London Coliseum, where she was a principal soloist for the English National Opera for 14 seasons, her dressing room filled with all manner of flowers sent by adoring fans. Once a fan sent her 48 roses!

Another triggered memory involves getting the flowers home. In my mind’s eye I can see the three of us on the London Underground travelling from the West End to North London, our arms filled with magnificent bouquets. The train’s clickety-clack a metronome to our thoughts as we each relived our own experience of mom’s latest triumph. Forty-five minutes or so later we’d alight and walk the last half mile home. Now, as I look back I can see, and feel, how magical it all was.

Triggered Memories

The flower’s power lies in its ability to trigger memory. Until I found that photo of the Metropolitan Opera bouquet a few days ago memories of opening night flowers had been locked away and forgotten. Just that one photo unlatched the floodgates to reminiscing about opera and the theatre, growing up in London, and watching mom live her dream. In fact, I feel like a part of myself has been reclaimed with the sharing of this memory.

Flowers do that. They invite us to cherish; love; honour and celebrate. Whether a simple spray of tulips or a voluminous armful of exotic flowers their candy-coloured beauty and heady fragrance can take us on a sentimental journey to granny’s garden or, perhaps, the shared memory of a moment of personal triumph.

I love flowers.

What flowers trigger a memory for you?❦

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

All images are mine unless otherwise noted.


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