Shedding Light on the Family Tree: We’ll Never Know

The 31st in a series on my family tree

Prompt: Help


There was no official cry for help that day. A dark, smokey plume on the horizon was the only evidence to local farmers that something was terribly amiss.

“Drop tools!”

This instinctive rallying cry rippled in a seeming psychic wave through farmyards across that northern prairie community; a community built upon the ethic of looking out for the other. Drop tools they did and leapt into action …

24 October 1966

We’ll never know what 84 year-old Mary Lewis (Belton) McDonall was doing that mild October afternoon. Puttering in her old yet scrupulously clean log farmhouse, perhaps, or mending a pair of her eldest son, Joe’s, overalls at her old campaigner Singer sewing machine. Most likely she was packing for her trip that week to the old folks’ home in Westlock where for several years she had spent the harsh Alberta winters. Joe, by virtue of an unsightly eye impediment he’d lived with since birth and that undermined his social confidence, had lived with his mother his entire life and was in town fetching parts for the tractor when the unimaginable ending began.

We’ll never know what alerted great grandma Mary to potential danger. A whiff of smoke would not have been an unusual occurrence at that time of year as the neighbour across the road frequently burned brush in the fall. She might not have been too happy about it, but would have been used to the minor and temporary inconvenience. The pungent bouquet of burning leaves and other remnants of Indian Summer’s lumbering demise signalled a transition to the impending frigid presence of Old Man Winter. She didn’t get along with him anymore, thus the welcome move into a warm, accommodating seniors’ residence to while away the cold months among remaining friends made over decades.

We’ll never know when the alarm bells began to ping in her head. Had she looked out her kitchen window and been horrified at the sight of burning embers licking the dried grasses that surrounded the old barn? Had her pulse risen and heart sunk upon realizing the neighbour’s burn had leapt across the road and was threatening the old familiar home of horses and cows and pigs of a bygone era? The chicken house, too?

We’ll never know what instinct compelled her to leave the relative safety of the solid log cabin to embark on an incomprehensible task for a woman in her golden years ~ the dipping of a lone water bucket time and again into the well’s dark depths, and the lugging of that slopping bucket across the yard only to toss its meagre contents upon what would soon become a raging fire. Was it the ghost of a memory from the September 1881 Great Fire of Michigan which had haunted her parents who’d been living in Fremont at the time? Mary was born in the shadow of that horrifying event just two months later. Did this out-of-control burn awaken a buried family trauma that compelled her to fight?

If only she’d stayed in the house

When the multitude of neighbouring farmers who came from far and wide finally converged at the McDonall farm they were too late. The barn had collapsed and great grandma Mary had, sadly, perished.

We’ll never know how she succumbed in the end. Had her old lungs been overwhelmed with smoke causing her to collapse, or had her soft heart broken from the strain? Our truest hope is that she didn’t suffer as the flames consumed her.

Burned beyond recognition, Mary’s body was placed in a lead coffin and soon buried in the family plot at Beechmount Cemetery in Edmonton.

The Final Word

Many years ago when visiting the Westlock Co. Historical Museum we met a volunteer who related to us how he, with his father, had seen that faraway plume, dropped tools, jumped in the farm truck and rushed to the scene to offer help. His tone was melancholy as he described the awful moment when they realized they’d arrived too late.

While the nature of Mary’s passing was difficult to process for all who loved her it was, perhaps, toughest on Joe who never recovered from the profound sense of guilt he felt about being away when his mother needed him most. If only he’d been there to tell her to stay in the house the unimaginable ending would never have been, for the house survived.

Mary Lewis (Belton) McDonall with great grandchildren, Dorothy and James, April 1966
Source: Family Archives

Shortly after his mother’s death Joe closed up the farm and moved into Westlock where he died in the hospital in January following a short battle with lung cancer. He was 61. The farm was soon sold and all its contents auctioned off by his brothers, Stanley (my grandfather) and Earl.

We’ll never know all the circumstances that led to great grandma Mary Lewis (Belton) McDonall’s tragic death that day. However, we remember her for the kind, creative and stalwart life of a prairie farmer’s wife she led and by way of this pictorial memory of the only time she saw her great grandchildren, my brother James, and I. We met for the first, and last, time in April 1966. My mother, Mary’s granddaughter, tells me it was a really happy day.❦

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

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