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

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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.

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“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

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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

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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. ❦

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.

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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.)

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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

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©Dorothy Chiotti, Aimwell CreativeWorks 2013

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