The 13th in a series of posts about my family tree
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks
When it comes to writing about sisters I hit a brick wall. I don’t know the first thing about it. I’m a big sister to my younger brother, and I hope a good one, but when it comes to describing the relationship between sisters I’m at a loss. My mother was an only child. My father had three sisters, but due to the fact he opted out of my life early I hardly had a chance to know them.
For this post, therefore, we return to my maternal great grandparents, William Alexander Gordon, Jane (Robson) Gordon and their gaggle of girls ~ Jean (b.1905), Ann (b.1907), Hilda (b.1910), Ina (b.1913), Alice (b.1916), and Eva (b.1921).
My thoughts are likely to be scattered, but here goes …
I imagine as in all households sweetly fragranced with feminine energy that there was an abundance of rivalry when it came to boys, hair styles, clothes, who mother loved more and the like, though I dare say, given the 16-year age difference between Jean, the eldest and Eva, the youngest, their experiences of such things would have been quite different. Jean grew up in Dundee and Motherwell, and moved to Toronto when she was 18 to help a severe asthmatic condition. Eva, on the other hand, left city life behind at just five years old, emigrating with the family to the middle-of-nowhere Alberta ~ an entirely different environment. Jean, 23, and Hilda, 17, were city girls born and raised who had to adjust their expectations to fit into that of a more primitive rural setting. As it happened both were married and left home within a year of the family’s arrival in Canada and adopted the life of farmer’s wife. Ina, 14, worked at sewing jobs and made clothes for her younger sisters. Alice, 11, and Eva, 5, spent their formative years attending the one-room school house and helping their dad with the farm he’d taken on as part of the Soldiers’ Settlement Act. Compared to their two older sisters they were country bumpkins with just a hint of a city twist. Nevertheless, their mother’s refined and gentrified influence was evident throughout their lives. This all of the sisters most certainly had in common.
And what of their sister, Ann (Nan), who was two years younger than Jean?
“…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. … This happened in Dundee and I believe the move to Motherwell could have been a result of the sorrow. … Then [mother would] tell me how poor Nan came out of her coma and told [her] how the angels were there to get her. That is where my firm belief in angels and spiritual things got started. And has never ended.
“When I was quite small I became aware that at times my dad would sing a song, with his eyes closed, about a girl named Nanny. When he sang it everything in the house would seem to halt; to go still, and my mother would stop still. It was very sobering to a child. Very emotional.”Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall
Jean, the eldest, was the one who lit the fire under the family about migrating to Canada and joined them in Alberta from Toronto. Soon she met and married a young, prosperous farmer, Floyd Marshall.
“Our first year in Canada we were all home and I will always remember it as the very best. The Depression hadn’t got us all in its terrible grasp yet. We had a lot of gifts. … all the sisters and our mother cooking meant lots to eat. After that everything was different. Jean was courted by Floyd. He was dashing and had the most beautiful horses in the whole country. They got married. We had a big chivaree for them. The neighbours re-married them with a ring made from a horse shoe nail. We all danced and partied at their house until the wee small hours then we all rattled and shook our way home in wagons across the frozen muskeg. I remember what a grand time it was.”Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall
There was a large age difference between Alice and her older sisters, and many happy memories:
“My sisters [Jean and Hilda] would give me dresses and clothes when they came home. Eva was too small yet. They were so good to us. Remembering our birthdays. Sending things to us often. Ina was a good sewer. When she came home she would bring yards and yards of cloth with her and she sewed for us all. Really nice things and as I became a young lady and wanted to be very elegant it was Ina who made me some really nice clothes. I was proud to wear them. All the girls had to get out and work and support themselves then. Not just our family. Times were very hard.”Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall
Jean and Floyd had five children: Floyd, Gordon (died at nine months), Audrey, Sandra and Shirley. After a productive farming life the couple sold up, retired to Edmonton, and spent their summers travelling between Alberta and BC in Floyd’s homemade camper. Jean died of a heart attack while on a camping trip in the Rockies. She was 64.
There were five years and two siblings (Ann and a stillborn brother, James) between Jean and Hilda. Granny Alice shares the story behind Hilda’s name:
“[Dad] had been a whaler, sailing the North Sea. Up the coast of Labrador going for whales and seals on the old sailing vessels. He also spoke of porpoises. He was shipwrecked while sailing on the “St. Hilda.” They sailed from the Port of Dundee. The captain’s name (of the St. Hilda) was Captain Cooney. Dad was lost at sea when Hilda was born. My mother thought he was lost forever. As she was still bed fast at Hilda’s birth some people came to her house and told her that some of the men from the St. Hilda were at port. They had been rescued after being tossed around on the North Sea in a lifeboat. Dad came home, looked at the baby and named her Hilda Cooney Gordon. After the ship and the Captain. Hilda changed it to Hilda Connie later on. She felt it was more feminine and much nicer. Hence, her baby daughter was named Connie.”Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall
Like Jean, Hilda immediately found work to help support the family while their father tamed and tilled the land. She landed a waitressing job at the Westlock Hotel and it was there she met her future husband, George Beach, the adopted son of a prosperous local farming family. They were 18 and 21 respectively when they married and farmed most of their lives together near Westlock while raising four children, Connie, Bill, Bud (George) and Frank. In time they sold the farm and moved into Edmonton where they bought a small apartment block. They too lived out their years travelling. Hilda died of pancreatic cancer. She was 67. Granny Alice notes, “My sister, Hilda, showed it all ~ pride, honour, dignity, and bravery when she had a terminal illness and knew it. Never once did she grovel or beg. I could easily see these great qualities in her at that time. Even her doctor remarked that she was a good soldier.”
The next sister, Willimina (Ina), was born three years and one brother, Frank, after Hilda. She was also three years older than Alice who describes their relationship as follows:
“Ina and I used to get dresses somewhat the same style, also our hats, purses and shoes and so on. She was a great competitor and would always maintain that the ribbon on her hat was longer than mine. The ribbons were usually very long then, or that her purse was nicer, and so on. She was well ahead of me in school. Because of illness I couldn’t start until I was 6, but she and the rest started at 4 1/2 and 5 years old. So we had different sets of friends. Ina was a good [seamstress] and she, when we were older and in Canada, was glad to have the job of making dresses for us all. She really had a natural talent for it.”Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall
Ina married Don Sherwin, another farmer though there are few details. We only knew them as city dwellers in Vancouver, B.C. They had five children, Gordon, Dennis, Don, Roy and Debbie. Don Sr. died relatively young, and a few years later Ina married a British gentleman, Robert Craig. Like her older sisters Ina travelled in her later years. She made several trips to Britain to visit us, and especially enjoyed attending the opera and the odd after-party that being related to a successful opera singer offered. “Ina was sassy,” remarks Alice in her memoir, “and among [our] group of playmates was known as the gramophone. She never stopped talking. She has always been very sociable. She seemed to always have friends.”
Youngest sister, Eva, offers her own observations:
“There was always a sibling rivalry between Alice and Ina. Alice and Archie and I (we were referred to as THE THREE KIDS!) would be slopping hogs, mucking out the barn, milking cows and such while Ina stayed inside doing pretty things. Alice truly resented that. If Ina was baking we had to get wood for the stove, water from the well AND clean up after Ina was finished baking.”Source: Letter from Eva (Gordon) Madu, Family Archives
I have no details regarding the date of Ina’s death, though I believe she lived into her 70s and died of kidney failure.
Alice, my maternal grandmother, was born during an air raid on April 3, 1916, in Motherwell, Scotland. As her father was away fighting in Gallipoli at the time she didn’t meet him until much later.
“I remember one morning standing on a table while my mother dressed me when a great hull-a-baloo got up among the family that “There’s Daddy!! There’s Daddy!!” Sure enough Daddy came walking to our house. (Dad was returned from the war.) Hilda ran to meet him even if she was only half dressed. All was excitement. I hid behind the door and I saw this big boot cross the threshold. There was much greetings and all kinds of running and jumping and shouting. I stayed behind the door. They finally remembered me and brought me out. That was the first time my Dad and I saw each other. I was three years old. He picked me up and held me against his rough uniform, but I was afraid of him. I had lived in a very feminine world up until then. My granny Robson had died when I was six months old. My dad said that I gave him many dirty looks for a long time. I resented it that his big chair was his own and not ours anymore, and that he seemed to be the boss. I didn’t like the chocolates he brought us and I was afraid of him. He brought me a little dog one day. He named it Tim the Irish Terrier. I called him Tim. Tim didn’t live for long. How I loved that little dog. I had to accept Dad in time. He was a big man and he laughed at my fears of him.Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall)
Alice had the distinction of being the so-called black sheep of the family ~ single-minded; fiery in nature and tough in a feminine kind of way. She’d survived a variety of childhood illnesses, including scarlet fever, and it was perhaps a honed resilience that helped her survive a turbulent marriage to Stanley Lewis McDonall. She fell hard for his charismatic charm embellished with musical talent not realizing that behind the facade lived a disenchanted, misogynist whose pleasure it was to make her life as miserable as possible. She was courageous enough to stand up to him many times but it cost her a terrible nervous breakdown and, for a time, her mental health. She made a dramatic escape after 27 years, but her experience of him scarred her for life and she never remarried.
My great sadness is that as close as Granny Alice was to her sisters she refused to confide the truly destitute nature of her marriage to them. She was proud and, perhaps, afraid to ask for help. “No one must know” was her constant admonition to her daughter, Jean, even though she too was exposed to her father’s volatile and unkind nature. No one, not even my mother who’d already left home, knew of Granny Alice’s plan to escape.
Alice and Stan had three children: twin girls, Francis and Julie, who died at birth, and their only living child, Lois Jeanette McDonall (my mother). Granny Alice lived a nomadic life after leaving Grandpa Stan, moving around Westlock and between there and Edmonton several times. She was unable to settle in any one place for very long; wanting to be one-step ahead of Stanley in case he should ever come looking for her. (Which he did, once. A story for another day.) Granny Alice died at home in Westlock of a heart attack (broken heart). She was 78.
Five years after Alice and two brothers (Harry ~ stillborn January 1919; Archie b. December 1919) Evelyn (Eva) arrived on the scene. She would would up being the youngest in the clan even though two years later another boy, Edward, was born and died about 10 days later. Eva was five years old when the family came to Canada and, along with Alice and Archie, was known as one of “the three kids.” With their siblings much older and finding their own way through the unfamiliar Canadian landscape these youngsters helped on the farm as age permitted.
“Archie and Eva were mischievous. I suppose I was, too. We helped in the barn pitching hay down from the loft to feed the cattle and horses. It was great in winter to bed them all down for the night. Nice clean straw and mangers full of hay. We’d take the lanterns and leave them all crunching contentedly for the night. That is a good life. In the morning we’d throw open the barn door. The horses would throw back their heads and neigh in pleasure to see us. The cows and calves and all looking for feed, milking and care. For a time I milked about four or five cows before going to school and also in the evening. I didn’t have to wash the dishes then. I liked helping with the chores.
When [dad would] fill the hay loft with hay he’d get Archie and Eva and myself to tramp it down as he pitched it in. He delighted in hitting us with great forkfuls of hay, burying us under it all. I can smell that hay yet. He’d laugh at us and he had a big laugh. We would come out of the hay loft with hay sticking to us everywhere. Then to the house for a good supper.”Memoir, Alice (Gordon) McDonall
When the farm was sold after 10 years William, Jane and the remaining two children, Archie (17) and Eva (15) moved into Edmonton. Eventually Archie went to war and Eva met and married Wally Madu. They moved to B.C. when he received a job transfer with Coca-Cola. This marked the beginning of the tight-knit family’s dispersing, as they were soon followed by Ina and Don, and their parents, Jane and William. The Beaches and Marshalls stayed in Alberta. Alice and Stanley moved to Vancouver for a short time and then Alice moved back to Alberta on her own.
Eva and Wally had two children, Barrie and Wendy, and prospered in their life in Vancouver. Much loved they were married for 63 years until Wally died in 2002. Eva passed away shortly thereafter. No further details are available at this time.
In writing this I have relied heavily upon Granny Alice’s memoir, my mother’s recollections, and my own impressions based on limited exposure to this spirited group of girls. That there are so few resources to draw upon is a direct result of the scattering of family and the lack of communication this implies.
I suppose in the end what’s important to remember is that Jean, Hilda, Ina, Alice, and Eva were raised in a loving home environment and, to the extent possible given their personal choices and individual characters, created this within their own families. Like their mother, Jane, the Gordon Girls raised their children to be honourable and hard-working. They also endured with their husbands life’s many challenges until the bitter end. The exception, of course, was my grandmother, Alice, who was forced for sanity’s sake to make a dramatic exit from an untenable 27-year marriage. Her sisters were there to catch her, though even they were blindsided by her action. Notwithstanding her daring escape Alice remained devoted in her heart to Stanley until the day she died. The fact he divorced her and married three more times could not deter her from calling herself his widow after he died. In her heart she never left him; she just couldn’t live with him.
Scattered thoughts or no, I have a great respect for these women and their light-hearted, industrious and courageous approach to life. It’s my hope that all of us in subsequent generations can live up to the sisterhood that was the Gordon Girls. ❦
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