Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Born for the Stage

The 14th in a series of posts about my family tree
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Check it out!

We’re at week 14 of this 52-week ancestral adventure and already it’s proven quite a ride. Unearthing old stories and solving family mysteries is all part of the fun, of course, and an enormous part of the frustration. The focus of this journey is my maternal family, and this narrows the playing field. There are only so many stories to work with at any given time and so writing without sounding repetitive becomes a challenge. Still, there is enough richness in this heritage that some themes are worthy of deeper exploration.

To this end, here’s a “check it out” moment from the life of my mother, Lois Jeanette McDonall, and her unlikely journey to a dream career on the international operatic stage.

Some background

Jean, as she was known early on, was born February, 7, 1939, at around 4:30 a.m. in a crudely built one-room log cabin, in the middle of a snowstorm in the middle-of-nowhere Alberta. Her parents, Alice (Gordon) McDonall and Stanley Lewis McDonall, were a struggling young couple trying to make a go of their small acreage consisting mostly of muskeg. Times were tough.

By all accounts Jean was a miracle child. In spring 1936, twenty-year-old Alice was seven months pregnant. She went into early labour shortly after fighting a small fire in her sister’s home where she’d been babysitting, and was delivered of a set of identical twin girls (she was only expecting one baby), both of whom died at birth. The trauma to Alice’s body was such that her doctor warned it was unlikely she’d have anymore children.

And then by some miracle three years later, Jean arrived.

So, check this out …

In a previous post (A Magical Connection made by Music, January 11, 2022) it was mentioned that little Jean was just four years old when she made a declaration to her mother. My mother elaborates: “I told her that when I grew up I wanted to sing on the stage wearing dimings and sparklings,” she shares with a hint of nostalgia. “Bear in mind that I’d never seen a stage nor did I have a clue about dimings and sparklings. I just knew that’s what I wanted. As unlikely a dream as it was given our spartan lifestyle mother encouraged me to hitch my wagon to a star; you never know where it will take you. I remember walking out of the kitchen feeling pretty pleased with myself.”

Jean was an only child who played with imaginary friends (acted) in the farmyard, read Voltaire and the like (studied complex scripts) from the book shelves of her grandpa Steve McDonall, and confidently sang the songs of her childhood. Everything Jeannie did, whether she knew it or not, was preparing her for the fulfillment of her dream. Notwithstanding the enormous challenges at home, her mother did her best, often at great sacrifice, to support her daughter’s chosen path.

Some years ago I unearthed an image of Jean perched in a mountainous haystack on the family farm. Her mother had captured the moment with an old Brownie camera which is still in the family’s possession (see below). This childhood photo somehow put me in mind of a professional shot taken years later ~ Lois Jeanette McDonall as Violetta in Guiseppe Verdi’s dramatic opera, La Traviata.

What captured my imagination? Look at her hands; her bearing in both images. It’s as if she was born to command a moment in time.

The old Brownie
Source: Family Archives

With the help of her parents and numerous notable teachers, coaches and mentors Jean, the farm girl, transcended her family’s mean circumstances and evolved over time into Lois, the lyric soprano who performed as a principal soloist at the English National Opera in London’s West End (London Coliseum) from 1970 to 1984, sang regularly on the concert stage, and made numerous recordings of rare operas.

Naturally, this story demands more space than is available here. The strength and determination it took to fulfill her declared dream enabled my mother to do what she loved while raising two children by herself. To me, these two lovely photos are the bookends to a voluminous library filled with stories of triumph and tribulation that mark her hero’s journey.

The complete story of my mother’s rise from rags to creative riches is currently in the works as a memoir. I’m confident this will be an inspiring volume worth checking out.❦


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

4 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Born for the Stage

  1. I remember your earlier post. Her story does sound inspiring. I’m always mystified by those people who have a dream of their future from an early age. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be – at age 60!

    1. I hear you. It’s still hard for me to fathom how mom knew her path at such a young age. Still, when you know the story it all makes sense. It was a calling that has sustained her entire life. She’s still teaching voice and piano at 83! … Like you my journey has not been so clear cut, but it has been, and continues to be a life full of hope and possibility. I’ll be 60 at the end of this year. This family history project has provided some much needed focus. I’m interested to see where it leads. … Thank you for stopping by and engaging with me. 🙏💫

      1. I have also found that family history gave me focus. It’s a never-ending sleuth show, personal, and reels in many different subjects. Plus it’s given me a new “career” as a writer. If I ever make money at it, I’ll let you know.😆

      2. Well, it’s re-ignited my writing, which is one thing. And what I love about learning about my ancestors is it gives me a deeper understanding of myself. And I love to honour that. I’m not here without them. … I have other interests that compliment this work and I’m wondering if at some point it will be possible to bring them all together. We’ll see. In the meantime I have fun (and some frustration … gotta be some balance in the energy after all) getting to know my family and its history. 😊🙏

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