Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Magical Connection made by Music

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

Prompt: Favourite Find

~*~

Part of the thrill of shedding light on the family tree is discovering who’s hanging out on its numerous branches. During my meanderings I’ve located many interesting people and stories, and so far this is my favourite find. It relates to my mother’s story and a magical connection made to an ancestor through music.

Let’s start with some background on my mother, Lois Jeanette McDonall:

Dimings and Sparklings
Mom was born during the night of a frigid February 7, 1939, in a one-room log cabin in the middle of nowhere northern Alberta. By all accounts she was a “miracle baby,” born three years after her mother, Alice, had suffered a traumatic event giving birth to stillborn twins and been told by her doctor it was unlikely she would ever have more children.

Still, she was an only child raised among adults, encouraged to read whatever was on the bookshelf (Voltaire!), and to sing. Music was a vital thread in the family fabric. Everyone sang and played at least one musical instrument, so on many an evening her parents (Alice and Stan), paternal grandparents (Steve McDonall and Mary Belton), and uncles Joe and Earl, gathered around the old upright piano and made music. The harmonies of old hymns; parlour songs and Irish folk tunes filled the air and were among the happiest of times for a family beset with challenges while recovering from the trauma of losing everything after the Dust Bowl.

These lamplit musical interludes left an enduring impression on young Jean. “I fell in love with singing the moment I knew what it was,” she told me recently. “It spoke to my heart like nothing else.” In fact, she loved it so much that at the tender age of four she announced to her mother that she was going to sing on the stage one day wearing “dimings and sparklings.” Her mother’s response: “Hitch your wagon to a star, darling, hitch your wagon to a star.” And that’s precisely what Jean did.

A little more than 20 years later Jean was married with two small children and attending the Opera School at the University of Toronto. After graduating she had a chance to get her professional feet wet by fulfilling a one-year contract in some of the smaller German opera houses. This necessitated a difficult separation from her two young children (who stayed with their grandmother Alice) and from her husband (foreshadowing divorce). During this time she adopted the professional name, Lois McDonall, and secured a one-year contract with Sadlers Wells Opera (soon to become English National Opera) in London’s West End. In 1970 she moved to London with her children and raised them as a single parent while pursuing her career. The initial contract was renewed for 13 more years and she enjoyed an illustrious career as a dramatic soprano specializing in the Bel Canto repertoire. Among her major roles: The Feldmarschallin (Der Rosenkavalier, R. Strauss); Countess Rosina Almaviva (The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart); Miss Jessel (Turn of the Screw, Britten); Rosalinda (Die Fledermaus, J. Strauss); Violetta (La Traviata, Verdi), and more. In addition, Lois was a regular guest on BBC Radio’s Friday Night is Music Night, and toured Britain’s many opera houses and concert halls.

Lois McDonall at centre stage as Rosalinda in
Die Fledermaus (J. Strauss)

Just as she’d dreamed the little girl from the middle of nowhere Alberta grew up to sing on the international stage. Naturally the story is far more nuanced than this and deserves further scrutiny, but it sets the stage, as it were, for what follows.

Expect the Unexpected
When I felt prompted to take another look at our ancestry last year I hooked into FamilySearch.org, plugging in our family information until it linked to related lineages already uploaded by other researchers. There ensued hours of ooh-ing and ahh-ing as I traced back through the maternal ancestral line. The Fairchild name (my 5th great grandmother, Ruth Fairchild, married Daniel Springer in Delaware, Ontario in 1794) proved to be the most fruitful. During my exploration, (and without going into detail about all the generations that made this possible ~ that requires a book!), I was transported back to the American colonies and beyond to Britain and Western Europe. As it happens many of the lines reach back to royalty. One name in particular caught my eye, Maria Juana de Padilla.

There are many sources of information on this colourful woman, however for simplicity’s sake the following is taken directly from the entry under her name on the FamilySearch.org website.

~*~

“María Juana de Padilla (c. 1334-Seville, July 1361), mistress of Pedro I “el Cruel” Rey de Castilla (1334-1369)

Maria Juana de Padilla

Maria was a Castilian noblewoman, daughter of Juan García de Padilla (died between 1348 and 1351) and his wife María González de Henestrosa (died after September 1356). Her maternal uncle was Juan Fernández de Henestrosa, the King’s favorite between 1354 and 1359 after Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque fell out of favor, and the mediator in an apparent pardon for Fadrique Alfonso, King Peter’s half-brother. She was also the sister of Diego García de Padilla, Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava. María’s family, members of the regional nobility, originally came from the area of Padilla de Abajo, near Castrojeriz in the province of Burgos.

She is described in the chronicles of her time as very beautiful, intelligent, and small of body.

Relationship with Pedro I “el Cruel,” Rey de Castilla
King Peter met María in the summer of 1352 during an expedition to Asturias to battle his rebellious half-brother Henry. It was probably her maternal uncle, Juan Fernández de Henestrosa, who introduced them, as mentioned in the chronicle of King Peter’s reign written by Pero López de Ayala. At that time, María was being raised at the house of Isabel de Meneses, wife of Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque, a powerful nobleman. They became lovers and their relationship lasted until her death despite the King’s other marriages and affairs. The Padillas were raised to various offices and dignities. Her uncle, Henestrosa, became Alcalde de los fidalgos.

In the summer of 1353, under coercion from family and the main court favorite, Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque, Peter wed Blanche of Bourbon, the first cousin of King John II of France. Peter abandoned Blanche within three days when he learned that she had an affair with his bastard brother Fadrique Alfonso en route to Spain, and that the dowry was not coming.

Children
María and Peter had three daughters and a son:
Beatrice (born 1354)
Constance (1354-1394)

Isabella (1355-1394) [our ancestor]
Alfonso, crown-prince of Castile (1359-October 19, 1362)

Two of their daughters were married to sons of Edward III, King of England. Isabella married Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, while the elder, Constance, married John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, leading him to claim the crown of Castile on behalf of his wife. Constance’s daughter, Catherine of Lancaster, married Henry III of Castile in order to reunify any claim to succession that may have passed via Constance.

Death and burial
María de Padilla died in July 1361, possibly a victim of the plague, although Pero López de Ayala does not specify the cause in his chronicle of the King’s reign. She was buried in the Real Monasterio de Santa Clara de Astudillo which she had founded in 1353. Shortly afterwards, however, her remains were taken, following the orders of King Peter, to the Cathedral of Seville where she received burial in the Royal Chapel with other members of the royal house.

Depictions in fiction
Gaetano Donizetti composed Maria Padilla (1841), an opera about her relationship with King Peter.”

FamilySearch.org

~*~

Lois McDonall graces the original cover for the 1980 recording of Maria Padilla

The Magic Unfolds
In 1980, Lois McDonall was signed by Opera Rara, a music organization whose mission it is “to rediscover, restore, record and perform the lost operatic heritage of the 19th and early 20th centuries,” and the Donizetti Society, for whom she’d already made a number of recordings, to sing the title role in Gaetano Donizetti’s dramatic opera, Maria Padilla. (This link takes you to a platform featuring snippets and options to download. For an initial preview I recommend tracks 7 and 8. The full recording is also available on Spotify and other platforms. ) When asked about the experience of doing the recording mom shares how she loved the music of Donizetti and was thrilled to be asked to do it. As with all 45-plus major roles she’d performed during her career, she familiarized herself with the character of Maria by researching her story and the times in which she lived. “Beyond that,” she notes, “I gave it no further thought. It was an easy production that went off without a hitch. This made all involved immensely happy.” It was, indeed, well received. The New York Times called it, “A fascinating and valuable recording.”

Here’s where it gets trippy … Imagine our delight last summer when mom and I discovered that Maria Juana de Padilla is her 19th great-grandmother!

“It makes me giggle,” says Lois, now in her 80s and astonished by the synchronicity of it. “First of all that an esteemed composer of 70 operas would find Maria’s story worthy of a musical retelling. Secondly, that I should have the opportunity to record it. And lastly, because never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that such a blood connection existed to this remarkable woman to whom I’d loaned my voice. And that I’ve lived long enough to know about it? Simply marvellous!”

As I muse about this favourite find it occurs to me that it isn’t until we allow ourselves the curiosity to peek beyond our perceived realities that life’s magic can truly begin to unfold. Shedding light on the family tree is one of the ways to uncover that magic … and maybe it even involves a little music. ❦

Related posts:

Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Beginnings

Shedding Light on the Family Tree: Beginnings

The first in a series of posts about my family tree, and my part in it.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt Week One: Foundations

~*~

Every journey begins somewhere, and so it is with the climbing of the family tree.

My interest in family history began early with my Scottish maternal grandmother, Alice McDonall (nee Gordon). Our visits with her always included at least one drive to the old homesteads not far from the town in northern Alberta to which she gravitated for most of her life. She had roots there, planted when she, her parents and six siblings emigrated from Glasgow, Scotland in 1927 as part of Canada’s Soldier’s Settlement Act. Though they endured many hardships she spoke fondly of those difficult early years. Pioneering in the northern climes was no picnic.

It was in that remote farming community that her British roots knitted with American; where the first generation of our 20th century Canadian family was born. During those car rides with Granny she would share her childhood memories and reminisce about community chicken suppers and dances where her father often played the accordion. It was at one of those suppers that she met and fell in love with a young American farmer, Stanley Lewis McDonall, a man seven years her senior and a masterful, self-taught musician. They tied the knot after a short, intense courtship.

It proved a difficult marriage and ended in divorce  27 years later (the subject of a novel I’ve been working on for some time.) Grandpa Stan was an irascible character (to put it mildly). His temperament more aligned with the tortured artist than the weather-toughened farmer, his unfulfilled creative dreams only exacerbated his miserable outlook on life. The reasons for this will not be explored in this missive ~ there’s plenty of opportunity to go down that rabbit hole later. The focus here is how this rather unlikely character, whom I’d met only a few of times as a young child, managed to fuel my interest in family history. 

The answer is quite simple: Grandpa Stan loved his rich heritage, and saved stuff.

My mother relates how she would listen to her paternal grandparents retell the stories and lore passed down the generations. There was, for instance, the family’s trek from Michigan to Montana at the turn of the 20th century while employed in the construction of the Great Northern Railroad; tales of our United Empire Loyalist ancestors who were among the earliest settlers of Southern Ontario, and the ongoing lament of the family’s great loss of farmland and businesses in Youngstown, Alberta, following the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. 

Beyond the stories, however, what other evidence demonstrated Grandpa Stan’s affection for his heritage?

Grandpa Stan died in 1987 at the age of 78 in Libby, Montana, and it was while we were in his house cleaning up his affairs that we unearthed a large and rather beaten-up leather railroad bag. It was stuffed with old documents and photographs he’d inherited from his great aunt Margaret Cox (nee Belton) and was all that remained of the family’s documented memories after his mother had burned all her records under the mistaken belief that future generations wouldn’t care. That weathered railroad bag and its precious contents came to me. Hand-written letters and tattered photos offered a glimpse into the lives of our Irish-Canadian, UEL and American ancestors, and opened my mind to periods of history I’d not previously entertained. Perhaps the most exciting find was this document:

This Statutory Declaration drawn up for Mary Jane Belton, my grandfather’s maternal grandmother, in response to what turned out to be the Springer Heirs hoax,  provided the impetus I needed to shed light on our family story. For a while I was the proverbial sleuth, working with professional genealogists and doing my own personal research to gather as many resources as I could. I also widened the search to include other lineages. The whole experience was exhilarating and I became eager to learn about the times and places in which my ancestors lived so I might get to know them. I imagined the strength, resilience and ingenuity it would have taken to survive, never mind thrive, under difficult and ofttimes perilous circumstances. Strange as it may sound I felt the more I got to know them the more I understood myself, for their blood and DNA ran in my veins. I am not here without them.

Eventually a change in life circumstances forced me to put my research to bed. Years later I sought counselling for a variety of issues and the subject of family surfaced. Who were my people? What were they like? How did the traditions, prejudices and conditioning of the generations impact my own experience of  life? During our conversations I began to realize that to understand myself and heal old wounds I needed to acknowledge the lives and experiences of those who’d laid my foundation. I needed to decide how much I was going to allow their stories to impact mine. My family history was going to help me help myself … and it did.

Fast forward to 2021, thirty-plus years after finding that beaten-up black leather railroad bag full of musty old documents, and I’m nurturing the family tree once again. When I started down this road in the late 1980s it was my intention to leave a legacy for future generations. As it happens I have no children and therefore will be an ancestor to no one. Turns out I plod the ancestral path for my own enjoyment and without agenda except to acquaint myself with those whose love for one another made my life possible.

Though my grandparents had their differences they certainly had one thing in common ~ a love for family roots. Through them began my ancestral path, and for that I shall always be grateful. ❦

Lest We Forget: Sacrifice and the Ultimate Price

Another November 11; another Remembrance Day and sometimes I wonder if we’ve dropped the ball. I certainly hope not.

Am re-sharing this post from a year ago as a remembrance of the young man my maternal grandmother’s family sacrificed for the cause of responsible freedom and democracy.

Lest we forget …

~*~

When I was a little girl I loved to hear the stories my Scottish granny, Alice Gordon, would share of her parents swapping the civilized life of gentry in Glasgow for the pioneering life of the wilds of northern Alberta.

My great grandfather, William Alexander Gordon, had served as a member of the Black Watch for many years, and when he retired was eligible to take advantage of the Canadian Soldier Settlement Act which provided returned WWI veterans who wished to farm with loans to purchase land, stock and equipment. And so, in the early 1920s, this man of middle age with his wife, Jane, and seven of their 13 children (six had died in childhood) abandoned everything they knew of their life in Glasgow and traveled by boat and train into a great new adventure.

Little did they know what that entailed. Their 200-acre parcel was situated about 100 miles north of Edmonton, Alberta, near a sparsely populated hamlet named Pibroch. The mists and rains of a Scottish city winter hadn’t prepared them for the long, bitterly cold months of the open prairies. Nor were they accustomed to the bombardment of large, angry mosquitoes in the depths of a hot summer. It was a rude awakening. Of the seven children, five were girls between the ages of three and 18. Of the boys, one was an early teenager, the other was five years old. So, this retired soldier was left to clear the land of tree stumps and boulders by himself with nothing but an axe, a rope and a horse. Meanwhile, Jane focused on turning an abandoned pioneer log cabin into a comfortable home for their large, confused family. The whole experience was such a shock that had they the means they’d have returned to the old country after the first year.

Still, they prevailed and granny was proud to tell of their sacrifices, hardships, and the ultimate satisfaction of taming a hostile environment that provided a foundation for future generations to grow and prosper. She was also proud to call herself a Canadian.

In defense of freedom and to serve their new country both boys, Frank and the youngest Archie, joined the war effort of WWII. The latter, at 21, paid the ultimate price. Frank lived with survivor’s guilt the rest of his life.

I am reminded that nothing of value comes without a price.

Here, in my late granny’s own words from a memoir I discovered and typed up a couple of years ago, is a short account of Flight Engineer, Archibald Don Gordon RCAF, Squadron 405 Bomber Command, and the family’s experience of his loss. Though her thoughts are personal it feels appropriate to share, especially in these times when we appear to need to be reminded of the value of a life. May her words be a poignant reminder to us all.

~*~

Archie Gordon

Archibald Don Gordon was born December 15, 1919, in Dundee, Scotland ~ the 12th of 13 children (seven made it to adulthood) and the first after dad’s (William Alexander Gordon) return from the war. He was named for a superior officer who was killed. The officer’s name was Archibald Don. Dad wrote to the family in England and asked permission to do so. Archie came from a proud family of soldiers. Indeed, our father was a member of the Black Watch and served out his time in WWI as a Sergeant Major.

He was a chubby, sturdy little boy with hazel eyes and red hair who grew into a good looking young man with a ready grin. He had a sunny disposition and was popular with everyone who knew him. Archie was always ready for a prank. Always willing to go along with his friends in all of their various and, sometimes, daring activities. When he was angry it never lasted for long. However, he had lots of grit and his temper, when roused, was something to see. As he grew up he was very well liked by the girls. He was wonderful dancer and very sociable.

When he joined the RCAF he had been training as an electric and acetylene welder in Edmonton. Frank, his older brother, and he enlisted as volunteers at the same time. Before doing so they set aside a few weeks at home and travelled with dad and sort of did the town. Then they went their separate ways into the services. One Army; one Air Force. Frank tried later to get a transfer to the Air Force, but was unsuccessful.

The war got very grim as history books will tell. Archie started out as ground crew, but studied to become air crew. He was very happy when he made it. He flew in a Halifax Bomber as a Flight Engineer. Those bombers were big and awkward and had very little maneuverability. They were really sitting ducks for enemy planes.

Of course, it happened. He and his crew were shot down over the Bay of Biscay while on a mine laying expedition. Six fellows in the crew. Some bodies were washed up on islands in the Bay. He was reported as missing in action for six months, then he was officially presumed dead. The bodies that washed up, including Archie’s, were buried by the French civilians in a cemetery in La Rochelle. Later, after the war was over, they were gathered up from their various burying places and laid to rest in a big military cemetery. Archie’s body, along with those of his crew companions, was reburied at Pornic cemetery in France.

The correspondence regarding these events were thrusts of sorrow and pain to my mother and father, and to the rest of us. So many tears. Archie had met a girl in Brandon, Manitoba, who was in training as a nurse and became engaged to her. Her name was Dot Hurle.

Who can write sorrow? Those who feel sorrow can hardly tell it. It is a leaden weight ever present in the heart. The night Archie was killed, April 6th, 1943, I dreamt I was a way high up in the sky. It was very dark. Then I felt a great crushing on my chest, and I woke up. I felt very strange, but went back to sleep. I then dreamed I was in a great field of very beautiful white lilies. I was desperately searching for a coloured lily, but I searched and searched and didn’t find one. Word came the next day that Archie was missing in action.

Can you imagine my mother’s sorrow; my dad’s sorrow?

My mother was alone when the telegram arrived. She ran to a neighbour who got to my dad at his work. Such a dark day. My mother couldn’t eat or drink fearing that Archie was a war prisoner, or that he had no food or water. I cannot tell all details here of the agony of it. My mother had been listening to the news on the radio the night before. The results of raids and which planes had not come back to England were broadcasted. She heard that the Bomber “P for Peter” had not returned, and said she sort of knew that Archie had been on it. He was 23. My mother didn’t sleep for nights on end. The darkness that descended on us when the dreaded telegram came never did leave. Words cannot express the very depth of our sorrow. Hearts were broken never to heal. Our big, tough dad wept until the tears rolled down his cheeks when his face, he thought, was hidden behind his newspaper. But I saw those tears. We all did, and turned away and wept. I don’t believe (and some others feel the same) that Frank ever got over the loss and the grief.

Trips were made to the Red Cross headquarters in Edmonton every day to find out if anything had been heard. My family were not the only ones who made these sad trips. There were many families hoping against hope.

Anyway, after six months they were all presumed dead. Archie’s clothes came home in a box. Not many. No uniforms. All the shirts and socks needed washing. He’d had some of his pay sent home each month and deposited in my mother’s name in a bank. She didn’t spend a cent of it for many years, until my dad urged her to.

I never forget them, the hosts of the great volunteers. They unselfishly and bravely and willingly offered their all. Their all was taken, but the spirit is beyond harm and death, so triumphantly they live. I know they live. I know Archie lives.

These boys were great. They gave their lives for a great cause. Read about Hitler and concentration camps and the Holocaust of that time and realize that these boys knew why they were fighting and they didn’t die in vain. Read of their joking and laughing as they boarded their bombers for the raids knowing that the big thing was to do the job, and knowing they were facing almost certain death. Archie and his great host of fighting heroes are forever alive and forever with Almighty God in a safe place. Because God loves the ones who give their lives for a good cause. And did not God’s own Son set them an example? Believe me I know that they are all ok and safely home, and we shall all meet again as sure as the sun rises each day. I look forward to seeing Archie. I long to see him. And I will see him. I’ll also see all my loved ones who have gone on before me. Each of us are spiritual and alive and better off than ever, and I know that Christ was with the men fighting for right and that He gave them all a welcome home to their new and spiritual life. He was on the shore at La Rochelle and He guided them in to a safe harbour.

Time goes on and time does heal.

Dear reader never forget these boys and men who paid the full price for the freedom of Europe and for us, too, as had Hitler not been stopped he would have been in England (he already had France and Holland and Belgium and many other countries). These boys had a saying. If crews didn’t return after a raid they said that the crew had “bought it,” or so and so had “bought it,” and so on. So Archie and his crew “bought it,” too. The “it” being our freedom. They considered they were buying our freedom, and that they certainly did. And Jesus also “bought it.” You see? They paid the price. Out of my family of seven raised, one paid for the freedom for the rest of us. And for many others.”

To conclude, Granny penned this beautiful poem tribute to the lads who lost their lives in defence of freedom. It appeared in the Edmonton Journal some time in the 1950s during a Remembrance Day feature. Sadly, I don’t know the specifics, still her words live on.

~*~

A Lad and a Lark

Alice Gordon McDonall

Upon the death of Flight Sergeant Archibald Don Gordon, RCAF,
405 Squadron, killed in action April 6, 1943, over the Bay of Biscay.
Buried in Plot 1, Row AB, Grave 5 Pornic War Cemetery, France

1
From far off shores they wrote and said,
“Your boy lies here among the dead
With softest care and gentle hands
We laid him with Canadians.”

2
See how the grain is bending low.
See how the rivers cease their flow.
The wild flowers drop their saucy heads
The winds hide in their mountain beds.

3
Silent and sighing the whole land
Grieving my lost Canadian
Bowed in sorrow and despair
Broken my heart beyond compare.

4
The land, the sky so very dark,
But, what is this? A meadowlark?
Hear it! Hear it! Through the haze?
“I love dear Canada,” it says.

5
“He is not dead!” he bravely tells,
“He’s here! He’s walking in the dells.
He wanders by the river wide
He’s here! He’s here! He has not died.”

6
His little voice, so sweetly true
I must believe! Oh, wouldn’t you?
The meadowlark my laddie loved
And deathless Life to me was proved.

7
Oh, leap you rivers, run you fast.
You flowers lift up your heads at last.
Blow, blow you winds and toss the grain
I know my lad is back again.

8
I raise my head and bow no more
Lift up my heart and am quite sure
He is not dead. He walks the land.
For is he not Canadian?

9
Oh, meadowlark you little bird
Who in my darkest night was heard.
Love you my Canadian lad?
“I love all Canada,” he said.

~*~

Lest we forget …

My grandmother’s generation is gone now, and with them the terrible burden of memories they carried of a most brutal time in our world’s history. I pray, for all our sakes, that the price paid by those who gave their lives in pursuit of freedom, and the sacrifices and sorrows of those who loved and lost them and had their lives forever changed because of it, shall not be in vain.

Thanks for visiting …

Dorothy

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2021 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

Lest We Forget: Sacrifice and the Ultimate Price

When I was a little girl I loved to hear the stories my Scottish granny, Alice Gordon, would share of her parents swapping the civilized life of gentry in Glasgow for the pioneering life of the wilds of northern Alberta.

My great grandfather, William Alexander Gordon, had served as a member of the Black Watch for many years, and when he retired was eligible to take advantage of the Canadian Soldier Settlement Act which provided returned WWI veterans who wished to farm with loans to purchase land, stock and equipment. And so, in the early 1920s, this man of middle age with his wife, Jane, and seven of their 13 children (six had died in childhood) abandoned everything they knew of their life in Glasgow and traveled by boat and train into a great new adventure.

Little did they know what that entailed. Their 200-acre parcel was situated about 100 miles north of Edmonton, Alberta, near a sparsely populated hamlet named Pibroch. The mists and rains of a Scottish city winter hadn’t prepared them for the long, bitterly cold months of the open prairies. Nor were they accustomed to the bombardment of large, angry mosquitoes in the depths of a hot summer. It was a rude awakening. Of the seven children, five were girls between the ages of three and 18. Of the boys, one was an early teenager, the other was five years old. So, this retired soldier was left to clear the land of tree stumps and boulders by himself with nothing but an axe, a rope and a horse. Meanwhile, Jane focused on turning an abandoned pioneer log cabin into a comfortable home for their large, confused family. The whole experience was such a shock that had they the means they’d have returned to the old country after the first year.

Still, they prevailed and granny was proud to tell of their sacrifices, hardships, and the ultimate satisfaction of taming a hostile environment that provided a foundation for future generations to grow and prosper. She was also proud to call herself a Canadian.

In defense of freedom and to serve their new country both boys, Frank and the youngest Archie, joined the war effort of WWII. The latter, at 21, paid the ultimate price. Frank lived with survivor’s guilt the rest of his life.

I am reminded that nothing of value comes without a price.

Here, in my late granny’s own words from a memoir I discovered and typed up a couple of years ago, is a short account of Flight Engineer, Archibald Don Gordon RCAF, Squadron 405 Bomber Command, and the family’s experience of his loss. Though her thoughts are personal it feels appropriate to share, especially in these times when we appear to need to be reminded of the value of a life. May her words be a poignant reminder to us all.

Lest we forget …

~*~

Archie Gordon

Archibald Don Gordon was born December 15, 1919, in Dundee, Scotland ~ the 12th of 13 children (seven made it to adulthood) and the first after dad’s (William Alexander Gordon) return from the war. He was named for a superior officer who was killed. The officer’s name was Archibald Don. Dad wrote to the family in England and asked permission to do so. Archie came from a proud family of soldiers. Indeed, our father was a member of the Black Watch and served out his time in WWI as a Sergeant Major.

He was a chubby, sturdy little boy with hazel eyes and red hair who grew into a good looking young man with a ready grin. He had a sunny disposition and was popular with everyone who knew him. Archie was always ready for a prank. Always willing to go along with his friends in all of their various and, sometimes, daring activities. When he was angry it never lasted for long. However, he had lots of grit and his temper, when roused, was something to see. As he grew up he was very well liked by the girls. He was wonderful dancer and very sociable.

When he joined the RCAF he had been training as an electric and acetylene welder in Edmonton. Frank, his older brother, and he enlisted as volunteers at the same time. Before doing so they set aside a few weeks at home and travelled with dad and sort of did the town. Then they went their separate ways into the services. One Army; one Air Force. Frank tried later to get a transfer to the Air Force, but was unsuccessful.

The war got very grim as history books will tell. Archie started out as ground crew, but studied to become air crew. He was very happy when he made it. He flew in a Halifax Bomber as a Flight Engineer. Those bombers were big and awkward and had very little maneuverability. They were really sitting ducks for enemy planes.

Of course, it happened. He and his crew were shot down over the Bay of Biscay while on a mine laying expedition. Six fellows in the crew. Some bodies were washed up on islands in the Bay. He was reported as missing in action for six months, then he was officially presumed dead. The bodies that washed up, including Archie’s, were buried by the French civilians in a cemetery in La Rochelle. Later, after the war was over, they were gathered up from their various burying places and laid to rest in a big military cemetery. Archie’s body, along with those of his crew companions, was reburied at Pornic cemetery in France.

The correspondence regarding these events were thrusts of sorrow and pain to my mother and father, and to the rest of us. So many tears. Archie had met a girl in Brandon, Manitoba, who was in training as a nurse and became engaged to her. Her name was Dot Hurle.

Who can write sorrow? Those who feel sorrow can hardly tell it. It is a leaden weight ever present in the heart. The night Archie was killed, April 6th, 1943, I dreamt I was a way high up in the sky. It was very dark. Then I felt a great crushing on my chest, and I woke up. I felt very strange, but went back to sleep. I then dreamed I was in a great field of very beautiful white lilies. I was desperately searching for a coloured lily, but I searched and searched and didn’t find one. Word came the next day that Archie was missing in action.

Can you imagine my mother’s sorrow; my dad’s sorrow?

My mother was alone when the telegram arrived. She ran to a neighbour who got to my dad at his work. Such a dark day. My mother couldn’t eat or drink fearing that Archie was a war prisoner, or that he had no food or water. I cannot tell all details here of the agony of it. My mother had been listening to the news on the radio the night before. The results of raids and which planes had not come back to England were broadcasted. She heard that the Bomber “P for Peter” had not returned, and said she sort of knew that Archie had been on it. He was 23. My mother didn’t sleep for nights on end. The darkness that descended on us when the dreaded telegram came never did leave. Words cannot express the very depth of our sorrow. Hearts were broken never to heal. Our big, tough dad wept until the tears rolled down his cheeks when his face, he thought, was hidden behind his newspaper. But I saw those tears. We all did, and turned away and wept. I don’t believe (and some others feel the same) that Frank ever got over the loss and the grief.

Trips were made to the Red Cross headquarters in Edmonton every day to find out if anything had been heard. My family were not the only ones who made these sad trips. There were many families hoping against hope.

Anyway, after six months they were all presumed dead. Archie’s clothes came home in a box. Not many. No uniforms. All the shirts and socks needed washing. He’d had some of his pay sent home each month and deposited in my mother’s name in a bank. She didn’t spend a cent of it for many years, until my dad urged her to.

I never forget them, the hosts of the great volunteers. They unselfishly and bravely and willingly offered their all. Their all was taken, but the spirit is beyond harm and death, so triumphantly they live. I know they live. I know Archie lives.

These boys were great. They gave their lives for a great cause. Read about Hitler and concentration camps and the Holocaust of that time and realize that these boys knew why they were fighting and they didn’t die in vain. Read of their joking and laughing as they boarded their bombers for the raids knowing that the big thing was to do the job, and knowing they were facing almost certain death. Archie and his great host of fighting heroes are forever alive and forever with Almighty God in a safe place. Because God loves the ones who give their lives for a good cause. And did not God’s own Son set them an example? Believe me I know that they are all ok and safely home, and we shall all meet again as sure as the sun rises each day. I look forward to seeing Archie. I long to see him. And I will see him. I’ll also see all my loved ones who have gone on before me. Each of us are spiritual and alive and better off than ever, and I know that Christ was with the men fighting for right and that He gave them all a welcome home to their new and spiritual life. He was on the shore at La Rochelle and He guided them in to a safe harbour.

Time goes on and time does heal.

Dear reader never forget these boys and men who paid the full price for the freedom of Europe and for us, too, as had Hitler not been stopped he would have been in England (he already had France and Holland and Belgium and many other countries). These boys had a saying. If crews didn’t return after a raid they said that the crew had “bought it,” or so and so had “bought it,” and so on. So Archie and his crew “bought it,” too. The “it” being our freedom. They considered they were buying our freedom, and that they certainly did. And Jesus also “bought it.” You see? They paid the price. Out of my family of seven raised, one paid for the freedom for the rest of us. And for many others.

To conclude, Granny penned this beautiful poem tribute to the lads who lost their lives in defence of freedom. It appeared in the Edmonton Journal some time in the 1950s during a Remembrance Day feature. Sadly, I don’t know the specifics, still her words live on.

~*~

A Lad and a Lark

Alice Gordon McDonall

Upon the death of Flight Sergeant Archibald Don Gordon, RCAF,
405 Squadron, killed in action April 6, 1943, over the Bay of Biscay.
Buried in Plot 1, Row AB, Grave 5 Pornic War Cemetery, France

1
From far off shores they wrote and said,
“Your boy lies here among the dead
With softest care and gentle hands
We laid him with Canadians.”

2
See how the grain is bending low.
See how the rivers cease their flow.
The wild flowers drop their saucy heads
The winds hide in their mountain beds.

3
Silent and sighing the whole land
Grieving my lost Canadian
Bowed in sorrow and despair
Broken my heart beyond compare.

4
The land, the sky so very dark,
But, what is this? A meadowlark?
Hear it! Hear it! Through the haze?
“I love dear Canada,” it says.

5
“He is not dead!” he bravely tells,
“He’s here! He’s walking in the dells.
He wanders by the river wide
He’s here! He’s here! He has not died.”

6
His little voice, so sweetly true
I must believe! Oh, wouldn’t you?
The meadowlark my laddie loved
And deathless Life to me was proved.

7
Oh, leap you rivers, run you fast.
You flowers lift up your heads at last.
Blow, blow you winds and toss the grain
I know my lad is back again.

8
I raise my head and bow no more
Lift up my heart and am quite sure
He is not dead. He walks the land.
For is he not Canadian?

9
Oh, meadowlark you little bird
Who in my darkest night was heard.
Love you my Canadian lad?
“I love all Canada,” he said.

~*~

Lest we forget …

My grandmother’s generation is gone now, and with them the terrible burden of memories they carried of a most brutal time in our world’s history. I pray, for all our sakes, that the price paid by those who gave their lives in pursuit of freedom, and the sacrifices and sorrows of those who loved and lost them and had their lives forever changed because of it, shall not be in vain.

Thanks for visiting …

Dorothy

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2020Aimwell CreativeWorks

Lest We Forget …

Archie GordonIt is that time, once again, when our thoughts turn to the great sacrifices, whether through loss of life or limb or sanity, of those who fought in wars to protect our freedoms. I’m re-posting this from last year because my grandmother’s voice, as she talks about the loss of her brother, Archie, during WWII needs to be heard.

Hers is just one voice.

Lest we forget.

Thanks for visiting …

Dorothy

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2018 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

In So Many Words

When I was a little girl, I loved to hear the family stories my Scottish granny, Alice Gordon, would share of her parents swapping the civilized life of gentry in Glasgow for the pioneering life of the wilds of northern Alberta in the 1920s. A family of nine stepping into the unknown to start anew under some of the most undesirable conditions possible. The longest, bitterest winters. The angriest mosquitoes. The biggest, immovable field stones. What a shock to the system! I’ve heard lately that if they’d had the money they would have returned to the old country after just a year of these, and other, challenges. Their life was just that hard.

Still, Granny was proud to tell of their sacrifices, incumbent hardships and the ultimate satisfaction of taming a hostile environment that provided a foundation for future generations to grow and prosper. She was also proud to call…

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Lest We Forget …

When I was a little girl, I loved to hear the family stories my Scottish granny, Alice Gordon, would share of her parents swapping the civilized life of gentry in Glasgow for the pioneering life of the wilds of northern Alberta in the 1920s. A family of nine stepping into the unknown to start anew under some of the most undesirable conditions possible. The longest, bitterest winters. The angriest mosquitoes. The biggest, immovable field stones. What a shock to the system! I’ve heard lately that if they’d had the money they would have returned to the old country after just a year of these, and other, challenges. Their life was just that hard.

Still, Granny was proud to tell of their sacrifices, incumbent hardships and the ultimate satisfaction of taming a hostile environment that provided a foundation for future generations to grow and prosper. She was also proud to call herself a Canadian.

Her younger brother, Archie, was just five when they landed. Barely 15 years later he would pay the ultimate price for his new country, in the cause of freedom.

I am reminded that nothing that is of value comes without a price.

Here, in my late Granny’s own words from a memoir I discovered and typed up earlier this year, is a short account of Flight Engineer, Archibald Don Gordon RCAF, Squadron 405 Bomber Command, and the family’s experience of his loss. Though her thoughts are quite personal I feel it appropriate to share. May her words be a poignant reminder to us all.

Lest we forget …

~*~

Archie Gordon

Archibald Don Gordon was born December 15, 1919, in Dundee, Scotland ~ the 12th of 13 children (seven made it to adulthood) and the first after dad’s (William Alexander Gordon) return from the war. He was named for a superior officer who was killed. The officer’s name was Archibald Don. Dad wrote to the family in England and asked permission to do so. Archie came from a proud family of soldiers. Indeed, our father was a member of the Black Watch and served out his time in WWI as a Sergeant Major.

He was a chubby, sturdy little boy with hazel eyes and red hair who grew into a good looking young man with a ready grin. He had a sunny disposition and was popular with everyone who knew him. Archie was always ready for a prank. Always willing to go along with his friends in all of their various and, sometimes, daring activities. When he was angry it never lasted for long. However, he had lots of grit and his temper, when roused, was something to see. As he grew up he was very well liked by the girls. He was wonderful dancer and very sociable.

When he joined the RCAF he had been training as an electric and acetylene welder in Edmonton. Frank, his older brother, and he enlisted as volunteers at the same time. Before doing so they set aside a few weeks at home and travelled with dad and sort of did the town. Then they went their separate ways into the services. One Army; one Air Force. Frank tried later to get a transfer to the Air Force, but was unsuccessful.

The war got very grim as history books will tell. Archie started out as ground crew, but studied to become air crew. He was very happy when he made it. He flew in a Halifax Bomber as a Flight Engineer. Those bombers were big and awkward and had very little maneuverability. They were really sitting ducks for enemy planes.

Of course, it happened. He and his crew were shot down over the Bay of Biscay while on a mine laying expedition. Six fellows in the crew. Some bodies were washed up on islands in the Bay. He was reported as missing in action for six months, then he was officially presumed dead. The bodies that washed up, including Archie’s, were buried by the French civilians in a cemetery in La Rochelle. Later, after the war was over, they were gathered up from their various burying places and laid to rest in a big military cemetery. Archie’s body, along with those of his crew companions, was reburied at Pornic cemetery in France.

The correspondence regarding these events were thrusts of sorrow and pain to my mother and father, and to the rest of us. So many tears. Archie had met a girl in Brandon, Manitoba, who was in training as a nurse and became engaged to her. Her name was Dot Hurle.

Who can write sorrow? Those who feel sorrow can hardly tell it. It is a leaden weight ever present in the heart. The night Archie was killed, April 6th, 1943, I dreamt I was a way high up in the sky. It was very dark. Then I felt a great crushing on my chest, and I woke up. I felt very strange, but went back to sleep. I then dreamed I was in a great field of very beautiful white lilies. I was desperately searching for a coloured lily, but I searched and searched and didn’t find one. Word came the next day that Archie was missing in action.

Can you imagine my mother’s sorrow; my dad’s sorrow?

My mother was alone when the telegram arrived. She ran to a neighbour who got to my dad at his work. Such a dark day. My mother couldn’t eat or drink fearing that Archie was a war prisoner, or that he had no food or water. I cannot tell all details here of the agony of it. My mother had been listening to the news on the radio the night before. The results of raids and which planes had not come back to England were broadcasted. She heard that the Bomber “P for Peter” had not returned, and said she sort of knew that Archie had been on it. He was 23. My mother didn’t sleep for nights on end. The darkness that descended on us when the dreaded telegram came never did leave. Words cannot express the very depth of our sorrow. Hearts were broken never to heal. Our big, tough dad wept until the tears rolled down his cheeks when his face, he thought, was hidden behind his newspaper. But I saw those tears. We all did, and turned away and wept. I don’t believe (and some others feel the same) that Frank ever got over the loss and the grief.

Trips were made to the Red Cross headquarters in Edmonton every day to find out if anything had been heard. My family were not the only ones who made these sad trips. There were many families hoping against hope.

Anyway, after six months they were all presumed dead. Archie’s clothes came home in a box. Not many. No uniforms. All the shirts and socks needed washing. He’d had some of his pay sent home each month and deposited in my mother’s name in a bank. She didn’t spend a cent of it for many years, until my dad urged her to.

I never forget them, the hosts of the great volunteers. They unselfishly and bravely and willingly offered their all. Their all was taken, but the spirit is beyond harm and death, so triumphantly they live. I know they live. I know Archie lives.

These boys were great. They gave their lives for a great cause. Read about Hitler and concentration camps and the Holocaust of that time and realize that these boys knew why they were fighting and they didn’t die in vain. Read of their joking and laughing as they boarded their bombers for the raids knowing that the big thing was to do the job, and knowing they were facing almost certain death. Archie and his great host of fighting heroes are forever alive and forever with Almighty God in a safe place. Because God loves the ones who give their lives for a good cause. And did not God’s own Son set them an example? Believe me I know that they are all ok and safely home, and we shall all meet again as sure as the sun rises each day. I look forward to seeing Archie. I long to see him. And I will see him. I’ll also see all my loved ones who have gone on before me. Each of us are spiritual and alive and better off than ever, and I know that Christ was with the men fighting for right and that He gave them all a welcome home to their new and spiritual life. He was on the shore at La Rochelle and He guided them in to a safe harbour.

Time goes on and time does heal.

Dear reader never forget these boys and men who paid the full price for the freedom of Europe and for us, too, as had Hitler not been stopped he would have been in England (he already had France and Holland and Belgium and many other countries). These boys had a saying. If crews didn’t return after a raid they said that the crew had “bought it,” or so and so had “bought it,” and so on. So Archie and his crew “bought it,” too. The “it” being our freedom. They considered they were buying our freedom, and that they certainly did. And Jesus also “bought it.” You see? They paid the price. Out of my family of seven raised, one paid for the freedom for the rest of us. And for many others.

To conclude, Granny penned this beautiful poem tribute to the lads who lost their lives in defence of freedom. I’m told it appeared in the Edmonton Journal some time in the 1950s during a Remembrance Day feature. Sadly, I don’t know the specifics, still her words live on.

~*~

A Lad and a Lark

Alice Gordon McDonall

Upon the death of Flight Sergeant Archibald Don Gordon, RCAF,
405 Squadron, killed in action April 6, 1943, over the Bay of Biscay.
Buried in Plot 1, Row AB, Grave 5 Pornic War Cemetery, France

1
From far off shores they wrote and said,
“Your boy lies here among the dead
With softest care and gentle hands
We laid him with Canadians.”

2
See how the grain is bending low.
See how the rivers cease their flow.
The wild flowers drop their saucy heads
The winds hide in their mountain beds.

3
Silent and sighing the whole land
Grieving my lost Canadian
Bowed in sorrow and despair
Broken my heart beyond compare.

4
The land, the sky so very dark,
But, what is this? A meadowlark?
Hear it! Hear it! Through the haze?
“I love dear Canada,” it says.

5
“He is not dead!” he bravely tells,
“He’s here! He’s walking in the dells.
He wanders by the river wide
He’s here! He’s here! He has not died.”

6
His little voice, so sweetly true
I must believe! Oh, wouldn’t you?
The meadowlark my laddie loved
And deathless Life to me was proved.

7
Oh, leap you rivers, run you fast.
You flowers lift up your heads at last.
Blow, blow you winds and toss the grain
I know my lad is back again.

8
I raise my head and bow no more
Lift up my heart and am quite sure
He is not dead. He walks the land.
For is he not Canadian?

9
Oh, meadowlark you little bird
Who in my darkest night was heard.
Love you my Canadian lad?
“I love all Canada,” he said.

~*~

Most of my grandmother’s generation are gone now, and with them the terrible burden of memories they carried of a most brutal time in our world’s history. I pray, for all our sakes, that the sacrifices of those who gave their lives in pursuit of freedom, and the sorrows of those who loved and lost them and had their lives forever changed because of it, shall not be in vain.

Thanks for visiting …

Dorothy

©Dorothy Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2017

 

Hallelujah!

Daily Prompt: Buffalo Nickel

Dig through your couch cushions, your purse, or the floor of your car and look at the year printed on the first coin you find. What were you doing that year?

~*~

In the desk drawer to my right ~ where I keep paper clips, and pencils and the like ~ there’s a small ornamental bowl where the tiny things dwell. In it I find three coins, and opt to go with the now extinct ~ the Canadian penny.

Poor old penny. A relic from a time when we cared about pocket change.

The date on this penny? Well, there are two. It seems to be a commemorative coin … 1867-1992, it says … signifying 125 years of Canadian confederation.

Since I wasn’t even a hint of a gleam in anyone’s eye in 1867, I’ll focus on 1992 ~ a year on the downward slide, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Indeed, I don’t recall much of it. You know … that dissociation thing.

I was 29 years old and floundering. It was the year my marriage began to disintegrate (the seven year itch is not a fallacy.)

It was the year we tried to have a baby (thinking, at some level, it might help to save the marriage … duh!) Two (or three) failed in-vitro attempts and their subsequent terrible emotional, hormone-induced breakdowns later, my husband’s telling me I belong in the nut house (his exact words) and I’m telling him there will be no baby unless it happens naturally, because I am not going through that hell again.

Well, there was no “nut house” for me (but years of therapy after I left him), and no baby either. Thank god for small mercies. Not that I didn’t want children, just not under those conditions.

Anything good in 1992? Hmmmmm …

I was gainfully employed and on the public relations career track, writing for a living ~ producing a weekly newsletter circulated to a membership of 25,000 realtors. I also produced copy for and edited the monthly employee newsletter and other promotional materials as needed. I loved it! My secretarial years well and truly behind me. This is when I started taking a serious interest in photography as well, as I needed to produce images for these publications.

Musically, I was singing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. I don’t recall everything we performed that year, but there were at least five Handel’s Messiah concerts at Christmas, and four Beethoven Ninth’s in the summer, all with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall. The choir, though dependent mostly on amateurs (who must all pass a rigorous audition process) supported by a professional core of about 16 voices, has upwards of 30 performances a year. So, my involvement with the choir kept me quite busy learning music and attending rehearsals at least once per week. I believe I was also serving on the Choir’s Communication’s Committee.

The Choir was my sanity; the musical panacea for my broken heart. The only thing I had that kept me sound. For, you see, in those days there were no horses in my life. I’d given them up “for good” in 1990 after an incident that stressed me beyond my will to want to ride again. And, though I didn’t realize it at the time, the stress of not being around horses at all was taking an even greater toll.

So, 1992, the year the Cold War officially ended, Prince Charles and Lady Di agreed to separate, the Summer Olympics were held in Barcelona, The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture at the Oscars, Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for the last time and Lawrence Welk died, was a year I’m not inclined to revisit too often.

I guess the best that can be said about this year is that my eye’s were beginning to open … and I had my music.

As George Frideric Handel and the angels would say, “Hallelujah!”

Thanks for visiting …

Dorothy

©Dorothy Chiotti … Aimwell CreativeWorks 2015

A New Life

fwf

Clearing land, you know, it never ends. My land, and then Henry’s down the road.

Hard work. Real hard.

We came here with our families, see. From the ol’ country. Across the pond in one of them big vessels packed with other hopefuls looking for a new life.

We left everything behind that wouldn’t pack in a steamer trunk or two.

Ol’ Sal, my honey love, not so thrilled to leave behind gran’s antiques passed down the generations. Cupboards, and such. But passage for eight children is dear and sacrifices must be made.

We came here because the Canadian government was giving away land to newcomers to clear and make productive. One-hundred acre parcels in northern Alberta. Things is rough in the ol’ country and we want to give our wee ones a fresh start. So, we took the bait and, after months of planning and saying goodbye to the life we knew, find ourselves ‘ere ~ in this right pickle.

Imagine. Homesteading at my age. In my late 40s with a war wound or two. My hands ‘ave known hard labour, but nothing like this. I was a soldier. The Great War. It was hell, but a different kind. And I was younger then.

Clearing boulders and bush and dead trees by hand in all weathers, with the ‘elp of my wee ones and a couple of old plough horses is gruelling work. Friendly neighbours lend a hand when they ‘ave the extra time, which is rarely. They are farmers, after all. Like me from the old world trying to eek out a living in a new one.

It’s the 1920s. Times are tough all over.

We’ve been at this now for several months. Ol’ Sal cries into ‘er pillow ever’ night wondering why we came ‘ere. Can’t say as I blame ‘er. I wonder sometimes myself. And now we’re heading into winter which, I’m told, is hell frozen over.

So, we knock down all the dead pines and ash and maple, and a few healthy ones too, and break it up to store as fuel. Till the soil, saving some of the smaller rocks to heat in the stove for when we go out in the sleigh. I’m told it gets to 40 below around ‘ere. Neighbours who’ve already been through an Alberta winter are kind enough to ‘elp us prepare.

Ol’ Sal is putting in canned goods; buried in an ‘ole in the ground ’til we get the cellar done. It’s ‘ard times, but we do our best to smile through it. The wee ones, ranging in age from 18 to six, are getting tough with it.

We remember fondly the dear ones we lost and left behind. Five cherubs, all buried in Motherwell. Sad times.

Still, it’s not all bad. Weekly chicken suppers and dancing on a Friday night down at the school house lifts our spirits. Jim O’Malley plays the fiddle, right enough, and Will Grogan tickles those upright ivories with his giant farm labouring hands like it’s nothing. When we’re not dancing a jig we’re singing the ol’ songs around the piano. Kids run around making mischief, as they should. Hard labour is soul destroying when not balanced with a little high jinx.

My music talent lies with the bagpipes, but not at the suppers. Church on Sunday and funerals, mostly. Amazing Grace the most popular choice. I’m ‘appy to do it. Reminds me of my homeland. Brings a tear to these jaded eyes.

But, I must get on. The winter waits for no one and I and ol’ George Ivey from the farm across the way ‘ave wood to pile by the makeshift barn. We’ll fix that up next spring.

Tough times, sure enough, but at least there’s hope in a new life.

~*~

My response to Kellie Elmore’s Free Write Friday image prompt.

Thanks for visiting.

Dorothy

~*~

©Dorothy Chiotti, Aimwell CreativeWorks 2014

Traces of Them; Traces of Me

Traces of Them

We are admonished by some that history belongs in the past. And perhaps it does.

I’m here to offer, however, that we ignore history at our peril, especially as it pertains to our family. The people who preceded us were shaped by world events and their experiences. How they were shaped, shapes us.

I believe that if we are to be able to move forward positively with our lives, and leave history behind, it is important to examine the past, how it effects us, and make peace with it.

Allow me to demonstrate, albeit scratching the surface, with my own experience.

~*~

I am well acquainted with my family history.

After a considerable amount of time spent in my early 20s researching through old family documents, records libraries and history books (in the days before the Internet, I might add), and with the help of professional genealogists, I managed to trace branches of my family tree back to the Middle Ages. Perhaps, more importantly, I began to see the ancestral story that is the backdrop to my life and learn to appreciate, for good or ill, its impact on me.

I began to recognize the sources of prejudice and the pain, of strength and courage. Began to see the talents and traits that had passed down the generations and landed on my doorstep. Ideas, beliefs and emotions that had been programmed into me and that I could examine, accept (or reject) according to my own sense of truth.

This is the story in a nutshell. You’ll likely notice some recurring themes:

My illustrious German and English ancestors settled in New England in the late 1600s, and made lives as magistrates, farmers and politicians. At the time of the American Revolution my branch of the family tree sided with the British (United Empire Loyalist (UEL)) and fought with the notorious Butler’s Rangers. With all their lands and possessions confiscated the remaining family walked from Poughkeepsie, NY, to Niagara, Ontario (Upper Canada at the time) to start a new life. My direct line ancestor was the first white settler in Middlesex County (the area now known as London).

Irish PastoralA couple of generations down the road this family linked up with my Irish ancestors who, in the 1850s, fled the effects of the great potato famine to start a new life as farmers in southern Ontario. My Irish great, great grandmother is purported to have been mad (which looks about right when I consult the old photo in the family archives). Her mental instability left its mark on my great grandfather who grew up to be a rather unpleasant man. The upside ~ being Irish, of course, music was part of the way of life so wherever they settled they became a part of the local music scene. In northern Michigan, where they were farmers for a time, they proudly played in the local brass bands.

A generation or two later, in the late 1800s, the family left Michigan and trekked west across the northern US, helping to build the Great Northern Railway along the way. Eventually they settled in Montana, where the railroad ended, and successfully ran a railroad cafe. My great aunt Margaret, an artist in her own right, studied painting with iconic Western painter, Charles Russell. (A little name dropping never hurts. 😉 ) Her natural forté, however, was apple sculpture.

Around 1920 my great grandparents headed north to Canada, settling in southern Alberta. My great grandfather owned a barber shop and pool hall in town as well as farmed. They did well for a few years before losing everything during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 30s. This took a terrible emotional and financial toll from which they, and their three teenage sons, including my grandfather, never fully recovered. They, like many other families in the area, moved hundreds of miles to northern Alberta to clear more land and start again. Music was the main social outlet and a positive focal point in a home filled with strife. My grandfather, a charismatic (mad) drifter, could play any instrument you handed him.

Alberta PrairieIn the early 1920s my genteel Scottish great grandparents, well into middle age, left their comfortable life in Glasgow, Scotland, to give their eight children a chance at a better life in Canada. (My great grandfather was a retired soldier in the Black Watch.) With a 100-acre land grant from the Canadian government at their disposal they made the uncomfortable journey by boat across the pond and then by train across the prairies to begin a new life as homesteaders in northern Alberta. (I am told that my great grandmother once confessed that if she’d known how hard the life was going to be she would have stayed in Scotland.)

It was a rude awakening from Old World charm to New World insanity ~ clearing fields, building barns and log homes, battling hungry mosquitoes in the summer and enduring long and fiercely cold winters. It was a difficult life that tested the family in many ways. My grandmother, an independent spirit and therefore considered the “black sheep” of the family, adored her horse and sang like a bird. She married the charismatic (mad) musician of Irish descent and endured 27 years of emotional abuse before leaving him and striking out to successfully rebuild her own life. It was at this time she discovered her talent for oil painting. (Theirs is a compelling story that I started to put in a novel some time ago. I might finish it one day.)

They had one daughter, my mother, who excelled as a singer and miraculously found her place on the international operatic stage based in London, England, which is where I grew up. You’d have to know her parents’ story to understand why it was such a miracle she had this career. I wish she’d write a memoir.

My Hungarian roots were planted in southern Alberta in the 1920s. Peasant stock seeking a new life in a new land. Hardworking but dysfunctional. My nagymama was not allowed to learn English. I recall, however (and I only saw her twice when I was a little girl) she had a lovely productive garden, was a wonderful cook and created the most beautiful lace work. Still, like my other grandmother, hers was a troubled marriage. Nagypapa was a troubled soul. My father ran away from home when he was 14. He became writer; a musician; jack of all trades and master of none. A deadbeat dad. (Though I doubt he’d ever see it that way. If he ever disputes me on this I’ll be happy to engage.)

~*~

Again, this is the tip of the iceberg but, perhaps, you notice the general themes: a lot of starting over; a lot of emotional and financial hardship. Good, hardworking, industrious people with their share of trials and tribulations. People of courage, strength and character. Music, the panacea; the source of joy, of laughter and relief.

Traces of Me

And here I am ~ a veritable melting pot of all of this, plus everything I brought to the world, plus all the things I’ve experienced since I was born.

The marvellous thing is that understanding my family’s story has helped me to understand myself.

Dance Like No One's Watching
Dance Like No One’s Watching by Dorothy Chiotti

Coming from a long line of musicians, artists and writers has been a great blessing. I have sung in one of the world’s great symphonic choirs. Performed in my own vocal group and recorded three CDs. I have been a commissioned animal portrait artist and produced a number of veil paintings. I have written all my life and presently pour my creative focus into the writer’s path.

I have a passion for the land because it is in my blood. We were never city people. My passion for horses rises from this love of the land.

Several years ago, while I was going through divorce, I had an intense dream about my ancestors and awoke in the early morning to write a 20-page journal entry about family history. In the process I realized my purpose ~ to stop the pain. To give myself a chance of a new life unencumbered by the weight of the past. In the ensuing years I have worked tirelessly to make this happen.

As I have no children (my brother and I are the last twigs on this particular branch of our family tree) my focus must be to blossom to my full potential while reclaiming my right to thrive. To go out in a blaze of glory, honouring my place in the world while remembering those who came before and made my journey on the planet possible, is my sincere desire.

Me and BearI have worked extremely hard over the past several years to release the past, so the traces of me that live on in the lives of those I influence are positive, uplifting, meaningful and joyful.

My own journey of moving on and rebuilding a life is not, perhaps, the arduous geographic and physical challenge of my ancestors. Nevertheless it tests my mettle and proves my character, and it is my choice to reclaim the triumph of spirit demonstrated by generations past who lead me by their example.

My mother and late grandmother, each in their own way, escaped emotional tyranny to rebuild their lives on their terms. They are my inspiration as I continue to rebuild my life and endeavour to inspire and move, through art, music and the written word.

Traces of me leaving traces of inspiration in others.

At least, that is my wish.

Thanks for visiting …

Dorothy

~*~

©Dorothy Chiotti, Aimwell CreativeWorks 2013

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