Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Playing Dead

The 35th of a series on my family tree

Prompt: Free Space


For this post a bit of license as I share an excerpt from the novel I’m writing based on the life of my Scottish grandmother, Alice Isabel Gordon. It’s a story of redemption and more than that I cannot say.

This novel has been many years in the writing and is still not complete. My intention is to tell granny’s story in a way that brings both honour to her memory and is inspirational to others.

Again, this is a work in progress. The title, “Playing Dead,” reflects the state of mind adopted as a passive way of self-preservation in untenable circumstances. When I am invisible no one can harm me. When my light is hidden there’s no flame to be extinguished. Too many people live lives locked away from their own truth. Granny Alice found a way out after 27 years … and a nervous breakdown from which it took three years to recover.

Some names of people and locations have been changed … it is a work of fiction based on fact after all. This excerpt is from the novel’s beginning and sets the scene for … well, take a look …

Playing Dead


I had been waiting all day for Jackson’s beat-up jalopy to pull into our laneway, so when it finally arrived lurching and sputtering over the pot holes before coming to a hard stop outside the chicken house I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. The love of my 18-year-old life had arrived and with him a legion of my own goosebumps and heart palpitations. We were to be married the next day, and I would be Mrs. Jackson McHenry, my itch for adventure finally scratched even if it only meant a move from one family farm in the middle-of-nowhere Alberta to another. At the very least my adult life would begin and, of course, it would be wonderful.

Jackson wasn’t like the other local boys. First of all being 26 years old he was a man. He’d arrived with his family to this pioneering farm community just two years before and was still a bit of a dark horse ~ sporting a mysterious unexplored danger my feral fiery nature longed to stoke and imprint on my own heart. He wore the mantle of tortured artist and musician, a foreign concept to me, and it was this, perhaps, what made him all the more alluring. He had nothing like the jolly, creative spirit that pervaded my family home, nor did he resemble the boring ol’ farm boys with whom I’d grown up. His sarcastic wit and brooding melancholy intrigued me. I was too naive to recognize that this, and his occasional embittered flare-ups, was a foreshadowing of the tumultuous life in which I was about to become entangled. To my romantic heart it was all part of the big adventure. Love would conquer all. I knew no better.

As the driver-side door of the jalopy opened I leapt from my rocking chair perch by the living room window and ran to the front door. Flung it open.

“Jackson!” I squealed, waving my arms with wild abandon. Mother said it was most un-ladylike to demonstrate such impassioned feeling for any young man, even one I was about to marry, but she was in the kitchen busily preparing pies for the next day’s wedding supper and so too pre-occupied to reel me in. With unchecked delight I stood at the threshold and continued to wave like the crazy girl-in-love I most certainly was. Da’ would not have approved of such unseemly behaviour either, but he was nowhere to be seen and thus I lived my joy.

Jackson maneuvered his tall, linear frame from the old truck, banging his knee on something, maybe the steering wheel. There was cursing. I giggled. He stood to his full height and slammed the truck door. My heart leapt at his rough and rugged handsomeness ~ the determined scowl; his mousey hair slicked back in the style of the day. He hadn’t a lot of money but somehow he always looked dapper. At community gatherings the girls all flocked about him like twittering birds, yet it was me who’d managed to capture him, or perhaps it was he who’d charmed me into his cage. Even now the jury is still out on that one. His moods were mercurial ~ you never really knew where you stood. Again, it intrigued me. 

My own family had a military tradition steeped in all the challenge that represents. Da’ had shrapnel in one of his knees and suffered from bouts of malaria from time to time since serving in Gallipoli with the Gordon Highlanders during WWI, and yet he somehow remained circumspect and managed a happy-go-lucky outlook on life. Love abounded in our home. As well, he’d led the rest of us to rise above the many difficult challenges we’d faced since arriving from Scotland in 1927. We learned to rely on our personal strength, resilience and each other to survive what for us had been unimaginable trials. Our faith had also helped us through. It was our foundation, and so we thrived. Of course, it was my belief that everyone lived that way until I learned otherwise.

The McHenrys’ approach to life was somewhat different. Defeatism, comes to mind. They’d lost their farm and businesses in southern Alberta after the Great Depression and Dust Bowl and it was like a dark cloud had followed them north. It cast a broad shadow over Jackson, as if he was constantly battling something. In my innocence I thought I could help him; bring him some of the happy-go-lucky that had always been my reality and which, I’d decided, he so desperately needed. I day dreamed about living in love with the love of my life and how happy we’d be together. It wasn’t until much later that I came to realize I’d been in love with the idea of love and its illusory happiness. Naive, indeed.

Anyway, Jackson was a man of the world ~ a musician, an athlete and, a good kisser. Spicy. And soon we would be married. Unable to contain myself any longer, I lit onto the porch, plucked a daisy from a nearby flower pot, and playfully set it between my teeth. My eyes delighted in the handsome, smirking figure of my betrothed as he strode purposefully toward me. His mood felt a little dangerous. Mine, however, was playful.

I removed the daisy stem from between my teeth and twirled it around my fingers. “Who is this handsome devil before me?” I plucked a petal from the flower head. He loves me.

“Who the hell do you think I am?” he grinned with a hint of menace. He loves me not.

“Language like that will get you kicked off the farm,” I warned, giggling. He loves me.

“Says who?” He loves me not.

“My da’.” He loves me.

“Your dad’s not the boss of me.” He loves me not. 

Jackson stopped at the bottom porch step and pulled a large, white handkerchief from the pocket of his grey, pleated cotton trousers. He wiped his forehead and the back of his neck underneath his wrinkly shirt collar. It was warm for October. His gaze never left me.

“I am as long as you’re on my property!” Da’ called from the nearby cowshed. He loves me.

“Excuse me, Mr. Gordon, I didn’t mean anything by it.” He loves me not.

A growl emanated from the shed. “Da’!” I whined in frustration. He loves me.

Jackson returned the handkerchief to his pocket and took the first step. “C’mon, Pix, give us a kiss.” 

I pulled the final petal. He loves me not. “Darn, it! What do daisies know anyway?” I tossed the denuded stem to the ground and stomped down the wooden steps directly into my beloved’s open arms. With wild abandon I planted a lip-smacker on his five o’clock shadow.

“Ha’e ya missed me?” I squealed as he effortlessly lifted me into the air and twirled me around.

“What d’ya think?” Jackson whispered pulling me close, his icy blue eyes penetrating deeply into my own chocolate brown ones. He set me down. His hands, lightly calloused from farm labour, slid with predatory ease through my neatly curled ginger mop of hair. He smiled with the charm of a Cheshire Cat. “Tomorrow,” he purred hotly into my ear and then heartily kissed me on the mouth. I pushed him away. 

“Jack, my da’ will see!” I mock protested giving him another playful push. Not to be denied he stole another kiss, picked me up and twirled me around again. I couldn’t help myself and lapsed into more giggles. A sadistic flash darkened his eyes. I flinched.

“Put me down!” 

“What’s wrong now?” We stopped twirling; he almost dropped me.

I hesitated not really sure what to say as I struggled to regain my balance. “Nothing. I was getting dizzy, that’s all. My nerves are jangled. You know … tomorrow.” I dropped my gaze to the ground and stepped back. Something had shifted but I couldn’t put a finger on it. 

“C’mon, Pixie, it’s gonna be fine.” He smirked.

“And that’s another thing,” I pouted, “don’t call me Pixie. I don’t like it. My name is Isla.” It was true. He’d coined this nickname because of my small stature and while at first I thought it cute it was now annoying.

“But I like calling you Pixie.” He leaned in. “C’mon, it’s just a playful pet name.”

“But it isn’t my name. And I’m not your pet!” I stepped back again.

Jackson kicked the dirt. I slumped on the porch steps and retrieved the discarded daisy stem to pick the leaves off.

“Look, Isla, if I promise to never call you Pixie again will that make you happy?”

I snapped the daisy stem in half and gazed into Jackson’s hypnotic eyes. Resistance was futile. Whatever menacing flash I thought I’d seen a few minutes before had gone. Ach, Isla, ye daft cat. Will ye nae g’him a wee chance. I sighed. Mother would kill me for lapsing into brogue.

“Well, only if you promise,” I insisted.

“Isn’t that what I said?” And there was that irresistible grinning charm again. 

Without hesitation I jumped from the step, locked onto his seemingly adoring gaze and grabbed his hands. “Well, alright then! Do you want to see Fanny?” 

Before he could say no I tugged at him and led him toward a nearby pasture where Fanny, my old, bay mare and the other love of my life, stood grazing. Jackson groaned in protest. He couldn’t see the point. To him horses were dumb beasts of burden and nothing more.

I released his hand and ran over to the barbed wire fence. Fanny looked up and nickered before returning her nose to a patch of autumn’s dying grass. “Isn’t she lovely?” I cooed.

“Just lovely.” A comment scorched in sarcasm. “And no, you can’t bring her with you.”

“I know.” There were no pets on the McHenry farm, only working animals, and Fanny’s days of toiling on the farm were well behind her. Besides, as Mrs. Jackson McHenry I’d have little time for chasing childish fantasy. It was time to grow up.


“Isla, hinny, are ye sure he’s the one, lass?” 

As we waited in the foyer of the newly-minted community hall for the wedding ceremony to begin my sweet, protective father, Bill Gordon, set his moist, concerned eyes upon mine and searched. I knew what he was looking for ~ fear; uncertainty ~ but there was none. I was all in to this new adventure. He sighed and squeezed my hand; dropped his gaze to the cluster of tiny diamonds mounted around an equally tiny sapphire set in 14k gold on my ring finger. He had a low opinion of Jackson, convinced there was no substance to him. Still, he didn’t know my handsome renegade the way I did. We’d been going together six months, time enough for me to know he was the one. Da’ was not convinced, however. 

“It’s nae too late to change your noggin, lass.” 

“My noggin is just fine, da’.” I patted his hand and tried to reassure him. He pulled it away and wiped sweat beads from his forehead with a large handkerchief pulled from the inside pocket of his well-used tweed jacket from the old country.

His concerns were justified to an extent. As any loving father would he wanted the best for his children, and yet it occurred to me while we stood waiting for the future to unfold that he probably knew too much of Jackson’s family to feel comfortable with the idea of me joining it. Heloise and Henry McHenry, and their three grown sons ~ Jason, Jackson, and John ~ lived near the hamlet of Lochner not far from our farm at Pinroch. Though they kept pretty much to themselves it wasn’t long before Mr. McHenry had a reputation for being difficult. Indeed, when he found out Jackson and I were to be married he made a point of interrogating our local community about my family’s character. This put a lot of people off as my family was well-respected.

My Jackson was, in my father’s opinion, too much a man of the world for his teenage daughter. His chief concern was Jackson’s ability to provide for he demonstrated no ambition and little patience for the mundane tasks of the day-to-day. He was a dreamer of little substance, my father argued. He was also uncertain about us starting our new life together as adjuncts in the McHenry household, and often wondered aloud why we couldn’t just save some money first, get a place of our own and then get married. Still, his opinion was worthless in the shadow of the younger man’s charms, good looks and multiple artistic talents.

And then there was Mr. McHenry’s racism. In truth the angry Irish American was already bullying me about my British heritage. “Do ye really want to start a new life on the defensive?” my gentle father, who’d served in two wars and new a coward when he saw one, would ask noting it was not exactly a golden gateway to happiness. “Ye’ll hae to grow a thick skin there, lassie.” Of course I didn’t believe him. Surely I was too loveable to be the object of bullying.

I put my hand on da’s arm and squeezed. He turned; our eyes met. “He’s the one, da’.” I smiled disarmingly. “I cannae explain it. I just know.” I pulled my hand away and reached for the posey of pinks and daisies my youngest sister, Bonnie, had prepared.

Da’ returned my smile, but it was a pale reflection. “Ye’re an innocent, lass. That young man’s sarcasm will be funny for only so long. Ye need someone to match yer wit, not dismantle it. To feed yer dreams, not demolish them with the disappointment of his own.” No, he didn’t like this union with Jackson one bit, but there was nothing to be done. Unlike my three older sisters I hadn’t had to get married. Jackson McHenry was my choice, not a decision made for me. There was no way I was going to be talked out of it. 

Da’ sighed seeing his efforts to change my mind were pointless. “Ach aye, hinny.” He leaned forward and planted a fatherly kiss on my forehead. “Go wi’ God.” He offered his arm; I linked mine through. A tear dropped from the corner of his world-weary eyes. “I just want ye to be happy. I hope this is the way.” 

I squeezed his arm again. “Come on, da’, it’s time to go.” 

“Aye” he sighed with resignation, and held my arm tight to him as we processioned toward the next chapter of my life. ❦

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

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