Friday, December 18, 2015

The Lansdowne Letters: Bittersweet

About this time fifty-five years ago,
my father was cut off from the Outside,
as he and others in Northern Ontario waited 
for the lakes to freeze solidly enough for bush planes 
to land and connect them with civilization again.

Winter in Northern Ontario

While Dad waited it out in Lansdowne House, 
Mom persevered alone, looking after we five children
in her mother's home in Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia. 
He had no contact with his wife and family,
and they had no contact with him.

In Our Grandmother MacDonald's Backyard
Roy, Donnie, Louise (Me) with Bertie, and Barbie
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia
Photo by Sara MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

During this period my mother made a special effort
to write letters to her mother-in-law, a widow,
living alone in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Being unable to communicate with my father
was a hardship for my Grandmother MacBeath 
because Dad was her only surviving child.

A Rare Photo of My Father
with His Parents,
Roy and Myrtle MacBeath

Prince Edward Island, Canada

© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

My mother's letters were usually simple.
With five children aged one to ten,
she was lucky to cobble a few words together.
But her scant sentences, followed by a few of my own, 
trigger bittersweet memories for me,
and remind me again, of a path not taken.

On Friday, November 25, 1960 
My mother wrote to her mother-in-law:

Dear Mother:
The children are at Sunday School now, 
so I thought I’d get some letters are written.  

I made Don’s Christmas cake yesterday.  
It made a lovely big cake.  
I hope he gets it all right.  
I put a couple of boxes of icing sugar in with it.  

I will get the rest of his parcels off before the end of this week.  
I will return the receipt with this. 
I have made several copies and included your changes.

The children are writing exams this coming week.  
Here they are now, home from Sunday School.  

We planted daffodils yesterday.  
There isn’t any new news.  

I hope you write soon and tell me 
what you and Aunt Maude would like for Christmas.  
I am going to get Louise to add a few lines to this.
With love,

P.S.  Could you send the animals from Red Rose Tea 
        for Barbie and Donnie?

Dear Nana and Aunt Maude,
Yesterday I sold $16.00 of Christmas cards.  
We also planted daffodil bulbs, baked a cake, 
and I did the dishes for Mom.
At school I have an average of 96.7, 
and I haven’t gone below ninety yet.  
I am also the smartest in music.  
Hardly anyone knows their notes.  

The teacher bought me a special book all about music.  
It’s called “Fun with Music.”

How many times have I washed dishes
in the little pantry off Grammie's kitchen?
Many, many times over a lifetime,
carefully rationing the hot water from 
a five gallon tank heated by her oil stove.
That memory is bittersweet, because 
Grammie's house is coming down in 2016.

Looking Out Grammie's Kitchen Window
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

The Christmas cake ~ a fruit cake! 
Does anyone bake them anymore?
I haven't made one in years.
For the sake of family peace,
we usually made two.

My Nana MacBeath and her sister Maude Cox,
squabbled for decades over whose fruitcake was best,
Nana's light fruitcake or Aunt Maude's dark one.

I loved both, but in my mind, 
Aunt Maude's edged Nana's out.  
It was stuffed with dark raisins, tiny currants, 
fat sticky muscats, and exotic dates and figs
mixed into a rich batter with strawberry jam and molasses
and fragrant with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Guaranteed Mom sent Dad Nana's light fruitcake
loaded with golden sultanas, lemon and orange citron,
and jewellike red and green glace cherries, 
and flavored with sweet-smelling almond extract.

Dad loved his mother's fruitcake, 
but he was very close to his Aunt Maude,
so Mom was up to her elbows in fruit and batter
for a good two days each Christmas season.

Nana and Her Siblings
Maude (back), Belle, Myrtle, and Chester
St. Peter's Bay, P.E.I.
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Selling those Christmas cards was my first paying job!
At ten, I longed to buy Christmas presents for my family,
and if I wanted to do that, I had to earn money.

I don't remember how I found the Christmas card company,
but I sold enough of its cards in Smith's Cove
to make a little over $5.00.
I spent every cent of it in Kinsman's General Store, located
halfway between my grandmother's and great-grandmother's homes.

I remember searching the shelves of that tiny rural store
looking for gifts I could afford, and I found them:
Yardley English Lavender Bath Salts for Nana,
a book of lifesavers for Roy, barley candy toys for my sisters,
a small box of chocolate Turtles for my mom, 
several Cherry Blossoms for my dad,  
and best of all, a tiny baby doll for little Bertie.

I learned then that there is nothing better
on Christmas morning than watching loved ones
unwrapping presents that you've gotten for them.

Cherry Blossoms

As for that path not taken?
I can't sing.  
I can't dance.
I can't play an instrument.
And yet time and time again,
I was encouraged to study music.

From my fifth grade teacher giving me a music book
to a placement advisor at Cal State Fullerton
calling me to come in and talk.
"Why on Earth are you enrolled in geology courses?
You have the highest scores I've ever seen for music?"

Too bad the tests measured aptitude 
and not talent or skills.

I often wonder, though. 
I had had a similar meeting at Acadia,
eleven years earlier, in a different country,
on the other side of the continent.

That was our November so long ago,
as we waited for the ice to thicken in the North
so a bush plane could land in Lansdowne House
and start letters from Dad on their long journey to us.

And how about you, kind reader?
Did you have fruitcake battles in your family?
Do you remember your first paying job?
Did you have a path you didn't take, 
that you often wonder about?
I'd love to hear!

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Beautiful Cove on Long island,
in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Links to Earlier Posts:

TLL: Hints of a Troubled Future

TLL:The Howling of Dogs 

1.  My Grandmother's House nearly passed out of our family's hands
     some twenty years ago.  My sister Bertie and her husband Peter managed to save it,
     and because of them we all got to enjoy it many more years.
     But the day we all knew would come has arrived.
     Thanks Bertie and Peter for never once giving me a hard time over
     of calling it "Grammie's house" when, in fact, it was yours!
     And thanks for all the extra years of memories.

The Back of My Grandmother's House,
aka Peter and Bertie's House 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

For Map Lovers Like Me:

Lansdowne House, Ontario, Canada

Location of Nova Scotia in Canada

Location of Digby in Nova Scotia

Location of Smith's Cove
on the Annapolis Basin between Digby (left) and Annapolis Royal (right)
It was about 6 miles or 9.7 kilometers from the Cove to Digby.
Birch Villa Cottages  Smith's Cove


  1. You were sure a go getter. I never knew you could sell cards, just see them at Hallmark and such now a days haha Always a road not taken though, if you would have taken that road you'd be there wondering about this road. Can't win lol

    1. You're right, Pat! You can't win! And I would have wondered! As I look back over my life I see the map so clearly now, with all the critical junctures that led me to where I am. Even though I wandered in circles sometimes, I know in my heart that my feet carried me to exactly where I'm supposed to be. Happy Friday!

  2. When I was a kid, I only liked light fruit cake. But as an adult, I learned to like dark fruit cake too. I've never made one -- only ever purchased them. Last week in London Drugs, I was looking at a Book of Lifesavers and remember what a BIG DEAL it was to get one when I was a kid. I think I only ever received one once.

    1. I guess what I'm saying is -- your post was a real trip down memory lane for me!

    2. If I triggered a trip down memory lane for you, then writing my post was worth it. Debra! Writing about those fruitcakes last night made me long to taste them again. Maybe I'll make one or both next year! We'll be eating them all year, LOL. The store bought ones don't come close in flavor. Have a great weekend with your Rare One!

  3. Why must the house come down? It looks lovely. I don't like fruit cake. It's so sweet that you sold Christmas cards so you could buy gifts. My first paying job was babysitting for fifty cents an hour.


    1. Hi, Janie! I guess most of we females babysat at some point growing up. I started in Lansdowne House a few months later for 25¢ or 50¢ an evening.

      Grammie's house was built by my grandfather so he and Grammie would have a place to live when they got married. He adapted it from an old carriage house located across the street. Now, despite heroic efforts on the part of Bertie and Peter, it has become too structurally unsound, and the wiring, plumbing, the crumbling foundation, and the steep, steep stairs are scary. It did start out as a stable for horses, and the cost of fixing it would be astronomical. Bertie and Perter are going to replace it with a small, modern home, so energy efficient they can go off the grid. And no stairs the likes of which have bedeviled generations of aging, arthritic members of our family. Bertie and Peter are adamant that they will salvage the pegged wooden floors and whatever they can to use in the new house.

      It's sad because Grammie's house has been our home all of our lives, and we have so many memories. Bertie and Peter have been unbelievably generous and patient with us all over the years, as we've all walked in and out as if it were still our home. Last summer there were a lot of my generation trooping through and photographing every nook and cranny and saying goodbye.
      But we are a close family, and we are looking forward to making lots of wonderful memories in the new house, which will finally be Bertie and Peter's house. That said, I was still teary-eyed to learn this morning that the demolition permit has been approved.

      Have a great weekend, Janie!

  4. Louise, this was a very heartfelt post! I could feel your passion and compassion.
    Music eh? Hey, you can't be GREAT at everything....or can you? Never too late to give it a try my dear.
    Now those cards you sold wouldn't have been from 'Regal Stationary', would they? They were very popular around N.S. and my mother sold them for years at Christmas time.
    I lean towards dark fruitcake and I loved my mom's! I made it a couple of times over the years but it never was the same as mom's.
    My first paying job was shoveling snow when I was about 12 years old. It was BIG money back then!!
    And the path I didn't take was that of a dancer. I know it would have been a rewarding career for me. That path back then was not 'in the cards' for me.
    Louise, have a wonderful Christmas and all the best to you and Terry.

    1. Hi, my dear friend! I can't be sure, but I'll bet those cards were from Regal Stationery! I think I learned about the chance to see them through something that came in the mail; but again, I can't be sure.

      I'm a really good fruitcake baker, because I grew up helping with the cakes, from cutting (and sneaking) the cherries, to making the whole cakes under Mom's watchful eyes. The trouble is the Barbour family thinks fruitcakes are more of a topic for a joke than something to eat, so Terry and I were ending up eating fruitcakes for months.

      LOL, girls babysat, boys shoveled snow and mowed lawns, and it was BIG $$$ back then!

      A dancer ~ I'll bet you would have been great, Jim! No wonder you and Ron enjoy DWTS so much. I still dream of dancing lessons and taking up the Celtic fiddle, but I can't seem to find time for those, let alone studying French, learning to paint, and taking up quilting. If I could just get faster at writing, crafting my blog and manuscript, organizing a lifetime of letters, manuscripts, photographs, and family history, not to mention downsizing contents of my house and body. LOL!!! But I'm an optimist! I'll get there!

      You and Ron have a wonderful Christmas too! Sending you three love and best wishes for the new year!

  5. Dearest Louise, this is such a lovely post! All your posts touch my heart, and this one brought me way back with beautiful childhood memories! I remember receiving a Life Savers Story book as a child for gifts, and I loved Cherry Blossom. Never buy it now, though, but back then I really enjoyed it! I have read the comments before mine and saw Jim mentioning about Regal. I remember Regal and I used to sell a lot of their things as a representative. Cards, stationery, gifts, kitchen items, you name it. They have great products. I also used to sell Avon products as well way, way back. Thank you so much for sharing all your lovely photos. What a heartwarming post! :)

    1. Thank you, dear Linda! I burned the midnight oil into the late night writing my post last night, after finishing decorating the Christmas tree. LOL! Terry went to bed about 11:00 pm, giving me a quick kiss and brief shoulder rub while shaking his head and saying, "Don't stay up too late." He knew full well that I wouldn't go to bed until I was satisfied with my post! If I could just get ahead and stay ahead! More LOL!

      I'm thinking the card company was Regal, but I can't be sure. I've sold Avon too, had a paper route, shoveled snow, and babysat at different times growing up. But I was the only one in my family who escaped working as a waitress or waiter. My sister Donnie was a housekeeper one summer (if I'm remembering right) at a motel in Smith's Cove, just like her mother and great aunt before her.

      It brings me joy to know that people enjoy my photos, old and new. I'd rather share them than have them languishing in forgotten boxes.

      Have a lovely weekend, my special Montreal friend!

  6. So you have to tear down your grandmother's house? That's sad. But even without the structure, you still have all of the memories.

    1. You're right, Alex! I cherries my memories and the stories my mother and grandmother told me. Whenever I think of the house, I feel love wrapped around me, and nothing can take that away! Enjoy your weekend, my friend!

  7. Hi Louise, I loved this post and the pictures of Grammie's house, well a few tears fell. Bert popped into my office earlier this week to say the demolition permit had come through for Grammie's house and we both got teary. I always liked the dark fruit cake with the hot lemon sauce on it. As for paths not taken - WOW - so many - best not to think of them. Hugs your sister Barb

    1. I'm so glad that this post resonated with you, Barb! By the time I finish writing one, I have no sense of how it sounds or will come across. The feedback keeps my nose to the grindstone! If I'm touching people's emotions, then I feel I'm succeeding in my efforts. And I count on my siblings to keep me on the right track!

      The demolition permit approved? ~ It's getting really real! But I totally support Bertie and Peter and am very grateful for all the extra time I got to have in Grammie's house. It will always be in our hearts.

      You know me, I'm forever thinking about paths I didn't walk and all the sudden, life-changing turns I took! Sometimes I feel like I'm living in parallel universes in my mind. LOL

      I'll bet you're going to have a happy, happy, relieved weekend! I'm so happy for you!! And relieved. Big hugs to you, Barbie!

  8. Heartfelt words, every one, What memories you have of your Grammie. My first real paid job was when I was 14 or 15, in a tea factory in Auckland.I collected the mail,opened the letters with a proper letter opener, laid them out on the top man's desk, guess he would be called the CEO now. Made the tea, swept the floor,and the wages paid for my first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie, and I still have it, from 1955 or so. Dreams, I wish I had gone to university, but we lived too far away, I would have had to board, and it wasn't an option.The cake will get baked this weekend, an easy one that doesn't need to wait for weeks to mature.

    1. Hi, Jean. I can feel your young pride at laying out the letters on the top man's desk. I'm sure you did a meticulous and well-organized job! Having to earn money to buy something we longed for pushed us out into the working world, and what a heady feeling earning those few dollars was.

      Your university story is so familiar. So many talented and deserving kids did not get the opportunity to pursue their university dreams. Mom came from a poor family, and she was the first one in a direct bloodline in her family to ever go to university. She got there by serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force during WII. The irony? She was the "pretty one" among her siblings and considered the "least smart." HA! My mother was very smart, and once she acquired good glasses in the air force, she proved it. And kept proving it all of her life. Dad inspired us and taught us the value of a good education; Mom inspired us and taught us grit.

      Have a lovely weekend, my friend! I'm hoping you, Hugh, and Boris are now 100%

  9. I love the pictures of Grammie's house and the memories you share. Too bad it couldn't be saved. My mother and I found a recipe for fruitcake in an old cookbook and made it from scratch one year. It was a lot of work, but worth the effort. It was moist and so flavorful, unlike the dry bricks you buy commercially. Merry Christmas!

    1. Merry Christmas, Sharon. Nothing beats homemade fruitcake. Thanks for visiting and you kind comment.

  10. I marvel at your remarkable memory. How industrious you were at such a young age. And how generous. You were a gifted student,,I know, I taught the gifted class for nine years. That explains a lot about you to me. Your curiosity and outstanding writing ability..although you may have gotten that from your father.

    1. Hi, dear Peggy! You're right, I was, still am, "gifted." It has been both bane and blessing. It is very cold here tonight, and I think I just over-microwaved our bed warming bear Also I'm "into my cups" since the bartenders at my favorite restaurant and bar poured me very generous wines. Thanks you for your kind, kind words! Sending you hugs! I definitely hope to get around to everyone before Christmas, but just in case things pile up, Merry Christmas, my dear friend!

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