Friday, December 2, 2016

The Lansdowne Letters: A Lesson Learned

I was tired when we finally arrived in Lansdowne House,
but I can't imagine how worn out my mother must have been.
As a young girl, I took her energy and optimism for granted; and especially so,
because she sheltered my siblings and me from her challenges, big and small.    

My mother had a core of steel and powered through life with an unbelievable will.
No matter how difficult it was, she faced life with a courageous optimism.

Some women might have looked around on arriving in such a remote place
and taken the return trip to Nakina with the pilot.  
My mother looked around and embraced the positive.

My Mother, Sara (MacDonald) MacBeath
Studying at Acadia University
Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1947
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

On Friday, February 24, 2016 she wrote
to our extended family in her unassuming way:

When we landed I expected the Indians would look at us blankly.
Instead they were all smiling and seemed to love watching the children.
We went to Maureen’s and Dunc’s and they gave us dinner.
Then Don and I came to visit our house.

Don said the house was small,
so I was quite amazed to find it spacious.
It has lovely cupboards and drawers in it,
seven drawers and four sets of cupboards.
There is a lovely dinette set in it.
Best of all, though, is the lovely gas range.

Love to you all, 

The Forestry Shack
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Sketch by Maureen McRae
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

My mother was not a Material Girl.
The only things she truly wanted in life during my childhood
were her husband and children close, healthy, and safe,
and if that came with a gas range thrown in she was delighted.

My father returned from the forestry shack and collected us from the McRae's,
leaving my mother behind in her new home for a few rare minutes alone.

By then it was dark, and brilliant stars filled the sky like I had never seen before.
The starlight cast spindly tree shadows on the deep snow,
as we trudged through the bush to our home on the other side of the peninsula.

It was the coldest cold I had ever experienced;
and when I breathed in, my lungs burned.
I remember wrapping a scarf around my face to cover my nose and mouth.
Within a minute or two the front of my scarf was a sodden mess,
the inside warm and wet, the outside already stiff and freezing.
My moist breath froze on my eyelashes,
and my eyes watered making it hard to to see in the dark.

Half blind, I stepped off the packed down snow.
There was a reason the narrow path through the bush was well-trodden.
The moment my foot veered off the path, my leg sank in the snow to my crotch,
and I was down on my left knee struggling to pull my right foot out.
It came, but with no boot.

"That will teach you," my father laughed,
as I retrieved my boot and banged the snow out.
He was a big believer in experiential learning.  

I managed to haul my stiff boot on my icy foot and stumble along the path,
peering through upper and lower eyelashes now frozen together.

Later in the spring, as the snow melted away,
everyone tottered around on those frozen snow paths
that stood above the muck like slippery balance beams.

It was the strangest sight,
but so much fun for veteran rail-walkers like Roy and me.

But very soon, the well-trodden snow paths melted too,
and we were all slogging through the mud,
in a world alive with the sound of trickling, running water.

Winter Sky

We came out of the bush and into the open.
On our right was a long, dark, log church; and on our left,
a cluster of log houses spilling dim light through the odd window onto the snow.
Directly ahead was our new home, and home looked really good!

Nothing stirred around us as we rushed for the door,
except for the Indian dogs bedded down in nearby snowbanks.
A few rose to their feet and stared at us with hungry eyes.
We didn't have to be warned to be wary around them.

Sled Dog
Wikimedia ~ edited

The kitchen was lit with two softly hissing kerosene lamps,
but the rest of the house lay in shadows.
Dad lifted one lamp off its hook in the kitchen ceiling,
the shadows swinging wildly as he carried the lamp to show us around:
from our water supply (a twenty-five gallon drum with a wooden cover)
to our bathroom with its chemical toilet (a low seat over a bucket in a tiny room),
to the bunk-crammed bedroom we five children would share.
Our parents had a second bedroom just big enough to squeeze in a double bed.

Last was the small living room with a big window that looked out into darkness
beyond the pool of light from the kerosene lamp.
I'm sure if you made a beeline from there to the North Pole and beyond,
you wouldn't have encountered a single light in the vast, empty bush.

Before I knew it, we had found our pyjamas, brushed our teeth,
tried out the chemical toilet, and claimed our bunks.
Roy and I were on the top, with Donnie below me
and Barbie and Bertie toe-to-toe under Roy.
Roy was close enough that I could lean across the space
between our bunks and poke him (and him me).

We lay on our stomachs in our top bunks and stared out the  window,
me on the left and Roy on the right.  It was a moonless night,
but the Indian homes stood out starkly against the starlit snow.

We whispered excitedly in the starlight gleaming on our pillows.
We couldn't believe it ~ 
We were finally here:  in the mysterious North! 

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Crossing Petite Passage
Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia
Photo Copy by Roy MacBeath 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

1.  Photo:  For the view from our front window, click here.  This is summer in 1956 before the forestry shack was built.  The Indian tent is pitched just to the right of where I went down to our waterhole on the frozen lake.  The tip of the Father's Island is in the middle right of the photo.

2.  Rail-Walker:  
Walking the Rails
Flickr ~ Rafael Clemente   License 

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Map of Canada
Highlighting Ontario

Location of Lansdowne House
Wikimedia   edited

Lansdowne House
Sketch by M. Louise Barbour
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Peninsula and Island
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario
Credit: Canada. Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development 
Library and Archives Canada:  PA-094992

Rough Sketch of Lansdowne House
by Donald MacBeath, Fall 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

This sketch shows the Father's Island and the tip of the "Mainland" peninsula
that contained the community of Lansdowne House.
                                                                    #18 McRae's
                                                                    #16 Anglican Log Church
                                                                    #15 Forestry Shack (Our Home)
                 Black Dots ~ Indian Homes



  1. Sphagnum moss drying on the line, was this for insulation? Lining baby nappies? or fuel for winter fires ? I know the feeling of getting a foot and boot caught, mine was in a bog, I thought I would have to take my boot off, but Hugh said leave it on and HEAVE !! I did. Love your letters, your Mum was a remarkable lady, and like so many mothers, hid so much and carried on bravely.

    1. Good guesses, Jean! The moss was actually a kind of nappy. The Ojibway would line a baby's tikinogin (cradleboard) with moss that functioned like an absorbent diaper. It sounds strange to us, but I'm sure it functioned very well. It's amazing to me how ingenious people are at using the resources in their environments to survive. That tent was long gone by the time we moved into the forestry shack. I guess many of us have lost a boot or shoe one way or another! Personally I'd rather snow than a bog! Thanks for your lovely email crammed with information! I haven't had a chance to sit down and answer it properly. I've been running around like crazy trying to squeeze in appointments, write a post and handle things here, because in about 30 hours I'll be back to no internet. Life is never dull! Sending you and Hugh hugs and loves ~ scratch-scratches for the kitties too!

  2. I can't imagine it so cold your eyelashes freeze together. And I've been outside in some damned cold weather.
    I was looking at the map and wondering where on earth is the bathroom - I guess the kitchen sink doubled as a bathroom sink?

    1. LOL, Alex! Have you been out at night at 50 below??? The eyes were always a challenge in the north. The glare of all that sunshine on snow would make them ache. The cold would make them water. And a wet scarf was a disaster as I found out ~ all that condensing moisture. Eyelashes frozen together was definitely a pain! I learned that the reason many of the Indians wore parkas with the hood fringed in fluffy fur was that it kept their faces warmer than hoods without fur. I always hated the darn soggy scarves! The bathroom was labeled by Maureen as the utility room. There was actually a washbasin in it that drained into a bucket. I was always emptying buckets, carrying water ~ an adventure since it wasn't the permanent state for my childhood. No bathtub though ~ just a metal tub filled up in the kitchen with kettlefuls of heated water and used there. To this day I LOVE my shower!!! Have a great weekend, my friend!

  3. Damn, wouldn't want to pee outdoors there, things may freeze off lol

    Learning the experimental way is the best, as you'll never do that again once you experience something you don't like, etc. Got my boot caught in quicksand lol like a fool I wanted to see how far I could sink.

    1. Hey, Pat, where you're at! We were lucky to have an indoor chemical toilet, even if I had to lug the bucket daily to the community disposal site. The Indians had outhouses, and that was no fun in the winter!

      LOL about the quicksand! Kids are something else! When my father was stationed at Greenwood and we lived briefly in Margaretsville, we had a couple of hours after school waiting for Dad to pick us up and drive us home. A bunch of us would sneak onto a restricted part of the airbase because there was some quicksand there. We used to all dare each other to jump over it. I never tried sinking as far as I could in it though. But we had lots of fun lobbing rocks in and watching them sink. I sometimes think it was a miracle that we survived to adulthood. Have a good weekend!

  4. What would we have ever done without our mothers?
    Your mother, Louise, was there for you comforting that must have been then....and now.
    So, the excitement begins. I am looking forward to this story.
    Thanks so much for sharing your life here.

    1. I feel so badly, Jim! You keep thinking it's all about to begin every week! But it is! It finally truly is! Thanks for being so wonderfully encouraging as I've worked through all of this! I was very fortunate to have the most amazing mother. Her health was fragile when I was little, and it was touch and go as to whether she would live. But she did and she made the most of the gift of life. Right down to the last minutes she was conscious. Just incredible! Hey, you, Ron, and Ms SD have a lovely weekend! (Now you know where I get all the lovelys from! Lovelys from Mom, exclamation marks from Dad, LOL

  5. Hi Fundy, you brought back memories for me. The snow paths in spring, the bunk beds and of course the chemical toilet and the water drum.Bertie and I shared a bed until I was in grade 5. Hugs your sister Barb

    1. I'm so glad that this brought back memories for you, Barb! I'm having a blast with the writing. And things come back to me too! I can't wait till Roy gets to Calgary for Christmas, because I'm going to bug the heck out of him for his memories (via phone)! I have got to get Skype up and working! I look at all that kids think they have to have today and can't help but laugh. We had so much fun! Sending you hugs and love!

  6. I love all your photos, Louise, and your mother's photo made me smile! Lots of memories here....thank you so much for sharing! Love and hugs to you. :)

    1. Thanks, Linda! You are such a sweetheart!!! I get a lot of pleasure from sharing. Thanks for hanging in with me as I find my path through all of this! That photo of Mom is one of my most favorite of hers. Sending you love and hugs, my special Montreal friend!

  7. Your marvelous descriptions make me feel like I'm right there with you! Frozen eyelashes, soggy muffler, big sky full of stars! And that's a great photo of your Mom too -- I can see you in her face.

    1. Thanks, always for your kind words, Debra! Supposedly I'm the "child" who looks the most like my mother, whereas Donnie is the image of my father. Roy and Bertie are mixes of the two, and Barb is a throwback to the Pratts on my father's mother's side ~ funny how it all works out. Wishing you and your Rare One a great weekend!

  8. What an adventure, and you describe it perfectly so that your readers experience it with you, although it's hard for me to imagine being that cold. I haven't always lived in Florida. I've been in blizzards, but the cold in your new home--that's beyond my imagination.


    1. Thank you, Janie! Your kind words are appreciated ~ especially since you are an editor! I wouldn't like that cold now! Cold always feels really clean to me ~ like it kills all the bad bugs. I don't mind blizzards ~ you get advance warning and can prepare. It's hurricanes and storm surges that scare me. I hope all is well with you! Sending you a big hug!

    2. And I send a big hug right back to you. When we had a hurricane earlier this year, we had lots of warning. We weren't in the evacuation area, but we stocked up on supplies just in case. We lost power for twelve hours, but some people lost it for days. We are so dependent on electricity.

  9. What a lovely photo of your mother, Louise. She sounds so much like my own who has always been a simple woman who loved her family more than anything and took pleasure in the simple things. So it doesn't surprise me that she has always been happy.

    This is an incredible adventure and I feel as if I'm right there with you. It is fun to read about your family's history!

    1. Thanks, Martha! Your encouraging words mean so much to me! I'm glad that you feel like you're right there. Feedback is what has kept me going!!! I hope that you and George are starting a great weekend together. Terry is in Bullhead City, and I'm in Aurora, so it's a little lonely. A few days apart once in a while make you realize how important that partner is! Take care!

  10. reading you is unique pleasure in blogging world for me as you share with so detail and i can see so clearly the painting of situation through your beautiful words.
    i adore your mother for her humbleness and simplicity as she loved her family more than anything and wanted less materialistic life.

    your description of cold reminded me my worse cold in my childhood .
    thank you .
    have BLESSED LIFE each moment.

  11. And so you have arrived. I can't imagine the joy your father must have felt to have his family with him after such a long lonely time. And bless your mother for bringing the children into such an unknown environment. I look forward to reading how you all adapted.

  12. Great story. I hope you're planning to publish these as a personal history. It's a wonderful thing to share with your descendants.

    "experiential learning" yeah

  13. Thank you tropics. Your mother was indeed a trooper. You have so much history in your family. I wish mine collected these letters and pictures like you did. I swiped an old photo album a long time ago and so glad I did.

  14. I love these stories. Your mother and mine would have been friends. My mother was also a remarkable human being. Courageous, resourceful, with a beautiful singing voice. She taught herself to play the guitar, accordion and piano. I lived in Whitehorse, which is probably close to the lateral of Lansdowne. One winter the temperature dropped to -62. My lungs burned. The air looked frozen.


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.