Friday, January 19, 2018

The Lansdowne Letters: A Mother's Touch

What is your most compelling memory of your mother?
For me, it is my mother's soothing touch when I was sick.

I'm thinking of her a lot as I write this post because I may have the flu,
and I'd give just about anything to feel my mother's cool hand on my flushed forehead.

Right now in the USA, we are experiencing the worst flu season in over a decade.
Fortunately I had my flu shot a few months ago.
My symptoms are milder and will prove shorter, I hope. 

A Mother's Touch ~ Always Welcome
On My Birthday
Mom with Me (center)
Sister Donnie (lower right)
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada 1956  
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Whenever I was sick, my mother always cared for me.
She gave me medicine, brought me hot soup and soft custards,
held me when I vomited, changed my sweaty clothes and sheets,
bathed me, and watched me when I had bad reactions to antibiotics. 

My mother did whatever she could to ease my misery;
but the most important thing, the thing I remember most,
was the brush of her cool hand on my forehead comforting me.

When I was twenty and at university, I had an emergency operation.
As I began to regain consciousness, I started batting 
at all these tubes in me, not understanding what they were.
Suddenly there was my mother catching my flailing arms, 
holding my hands in one of hers, and soothing my forehead with her other.

I didn't know where I was,
and I couldn't grasp why she was there,
but that familiar touch calmed me and reassured me
that all would be right in my world.

I later learned that when she got word of my unexpected operation,
she ran out of her classroom, jumped in her car, 
and raced 90 miles (145 kilometers) to be with me
when I came out from under anesthesia. 

My Mother's Greatest Joy:  
Her Children
Mom and I
Stanhope, Prince Edward Island, Canada
Photo by Ella MacDonald
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Fifty-seven years ago medical care in the remote villages
of Northern Ontario was difficult to access.
In Lansdowne House we were fortunate because at least we had a nursing station,
and a dedicated nurse in the person of Mike O'Flaherty.

The nearest hospital and doctors were 150 miles (241 kilometers)
away in Nakina, a small northern rail outpost.  (Source)
However the nearest regional hospital with specialists
was 225 miles (362 kilometers) away in Sioux Lookout.  (Source) 
The only way to reach Nakina or Sioux Lookout was by bush plane,
when weather and landing conditions permitted.

When a bush plane had to fly a critical patient to Sioux Lookout,
a non-medically-trained adult in Lansdowne House
would fly with the patient to Sioux Lookout
and accompany him or her to the hospital,
a task my father undertook more than once.

Austin Airways Norseman CF-BSC 

Flying into Sioux Lookout
Attribution:  Photo by User:  P199 at Wikimedia Commons

You can read about the isolation and remoteness of villages like Lansdowne House,
but I think it's hard to comprehend how remote and isolated they are,
if you haven't flown over the vast emptiness of Northern Ontario.

Even today this region is one of the least visited in Canada,
and, by some measures, is more remote than much of the Arctic.
Even now, more than than half a century after my family lived there,
the First Nations people continue to live off the land
and depend on it for shelter, food, and medicine.
(Canadian Geographic, March/April 2017)

I can't imagine how my mother must have felt,
landing on skis in Lansdowne House with five tired children,
one throwing up, and a shivering dachshund. 
We had flown for well over an hour
across the frozen emptiness from Nakina in a Norseman.

The Only Way in and Out:  by Bush Plane
A Norseman on Skis
Flickr ~ NOAA:  Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren   License 

One thing I'm sure my mother understood quickly
was the risk of illness in the distant North.
I can imagine her taking stock of our medical kit after arriving,
and worrying about the what ifs as she sorted through
the bandaids, gauze dressings, adhesive tape, ace bandages,
calamine lotion, iodine, tweezers, safety pins, aspirin, and morphine.

I don't know what she thought, for my mother never burdened
me or my siblings with her worries when we were children.
She was the rock on which we could weather any storm.
She surrounded us with safety, certainty and optimism.

Fortunately while we were in Lansdowne House,
we children had only the usual colds and flu ~
Well, except for my brother who frequently had severe tonsillitis
and my sister Barb who stuffed an eraser up her nose
while clowning around in kindergarten with her Ojibwa friends. 

Whenever we were sick, however she cared for us,
the most welcome comfort she gave was sitting by our beds,
tucking our blankets up around us,
and soothing our foreheads with her cool hand.
Under her gentle touch, we knew we would be better soon
and all was right with our world.

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

On the Shore of the Annapolis Basin
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada
July 24, 2016
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Map of Canada
Highlighting Ontario

Location of Lansdowne House and Nakina
Wikimedia  edited

Route Map for Austin Airways, 1985
with Lansdowne House west of James Bay
Geraldton is near Nakina.


  1. Sounds like she was a wonderful mother indeed. How can one not worry about all the what ifs when going to some place super isolated? She must have had a ton of them going through her head. An eraser up a nose is better than the flu, unless it is too far up to get out lol Hopefully the germs don't stick around long for you. Hate the crummy flu.

    1. Thanks for the well wishes, Pat! I'm laying low and taking care of myself. As for the eraser, Barb couldn't get it out of her nose and got a little panicky. Dad couldn't get it out of her nose; so more exasperated than worried, he hustled her out of the classroom and across the schoolyard to the nursing station. Then he dumped Barb in Mike's capable hands and rushed back to the school. After some uncomfortable minutes for Barb, Mike managed to extract the eraser with tweezers. I can't be certain, but I'll bet just-five-year-old Barbie being so cute, subdued, and crying was coddled and pampered by Mike's wife Anne before she scampered home through the bush to Mom. Have a good one, my rhyming friend!

  2. Can't replace a mother's love when you're sick.
    I'm sure she worried often about one of you getting really sick or hurt up there. What happened when the planes couldn't land or take off?

    1. Happy Friday, Alex! When the planes couldn't fly, people in the northern villages were on their own. Our nurse Mike had to deal with whatever came up with whatever equipment and supplies he had. He could access doctors via shortwave radio in Nakina and Sioux Lookout for advice and directions to get him through an unfamiliar situation. I overhead stories among the adults about emergency operations on kitchen tables via shortwave radio in isolated areas in the North, but that certainly didn't occur while we were in Lansdowne House. Sometimes people died because the planes couldn't fly.

      I remember two things that happened while we were there. Mom got a terrible tooth ache, and Mike extracted the tooth with pliers in his kitchen. Only problem was, he pulled the wrong one and had to turn around and pull the correct one. Mom was lucky.

      Milt MacMahon, one of the two Department of Transport employees in Lansdowne House, had five teeth that were really bothering him during break-up. He had Mike pull them out in the nursing station kitchen and then walked home to his nearby home, after stopping on his way to visit Duncan and Maureen. Milt passed out at home from a reaction to whatever Mike used to freeze his mouth. I don't know what Mike did to counteract Milt's shock, his soaring blood pressure, and his erratic heartbeat, but I do know there was a point when Mike thought Milt would die. Fortunately he recovered. Such was life in the North when planes couldn't fly.

  3. I hope your flu quickly disappears. There is nothing like a mothe's touch. My mother would always give us hot water with lemon and a Vick's warm rag around our neck. Even now when I have a sore throat I rub Vick’s on my nose and throat and feel comforted. When I read your accounts I see the isolation of living in the wilderness. You were so lucky that nothing serious happened to the health of any of you

    1. Hi, Peggy! Thanks for sharing your memories! Vick's was a standard in our home, too, and I still use it as you do. We were grateful for Vick's because our great grandmother swore by mackerel-mustard poultices for the chest and boiled onion-sugar syrups for coughs.

      I never had to endure the poultice under Great Grammie's care, but I certainly had to suffer through the syrups and hot milk with ginger. I can remember stuffing the corner of my pillow in my mouth and trying to stifle the sound of my coughing, because at night the onion-sugar syrup congealed into a disgusting mess that I didn't want to swallow and Great Grammie had ears like a bat. I was sick a lot growing up, but fortunately not in Lansdowne House.

      Wishing you and Don a happy, relaxing weekend!

  4. I couldn't fathom using a plane for both in and out

    1. Hi, Adam! It was a different time for sure. Now these isolated communities have all-weather airstrips which make flights possible during freeze-up and break-up. Unfortunately people still have to fly to Sioux Lookout for serious medical treatment. I hope you and Daisy have a great weekend!

  5. Feel better soon, Louise! And you're right -- no matter how old we are, no matter how many years have passed, when we are sick, only ONE person will do . . . MOM!

    1. Thanks, Debra! Mom's are the best, no doubt about it. I hope your mother is doing well. It must be hard to have her so far away. Take care! Enjoy putting those retired tootsies up!

  6. The flight map, so many small places for it to visit, I wonder about refuelling along the way? Did you have fuel drums? Yes, Mother's hands, gentle, full of love, and in your isolated lives there, the most important hands of all. Yes, she must have had so many worries, and kept them hidden, as so many Mums do. Lovely memories.

    1. Hi, Jean! Oh yes, we had fuel drums. Unfortunately, rusting abandoned fuel drums are the scourge of the North. Our fuel drums were hauled in over the frozen muskeg and lakes by tractor trains during the winter. Now they're brought in by trucks over ice roads. Unfortunately, with climate change, the time the ice roads are opening is shrinking, and this is making getting supplies to isolated communities more challenging. Mom's are the best, aren't they? I hope you and Hugh have a great weekend together!

  7. Greetings Louise. Sorry you are feeling under the weather! Keep warm. It sounds like you had a special relationship with you dear mother. A mother's love can be unconditional. I used to get migraines when I was about seven, and my mother used to care for me for weeks sometimes! I used to like lying in her bed while she cared and comforted me. It must have been a worry for your parents with the hospitals being so far away. And you father was nice accompanying the sick on occasion. Blessings to you.

    Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

    1. Thank you for your well-wishes, Andrew! Mothers are the best, aren't they? Enjoy the rest of your weekend, my friend!

  8. What a lovely tribute to your mom, Louise. I have similar memories of my mother taking care of me when I was ill. They go straight to my heart!

    1. Thanks, Martha! Like me, you were blessed with amazing parents! I hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

  9. Hi Louise, how nice to post such nice things about your mom. :)

    1. Thanks, Rain! My mother was an amazing woman, the person who inspires me most in the world. I hope that you are enjoying a great weekend!

  10. Feel better Louise!!! Your post made me smile and cry! I was thinking of when I was in the hospital and came out of it, the first thing I saw, was my mom praying over me! A very heart warming post!! Big hugs!!

    1. Thanks, Stacy. I'm starting to feel a lot better. There's nothing like a mother for comfort, is there? Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

  11. Hope you are better soon!
    Your mother just sounds like such a wonderful woman, very much like YOU.
    Lovely post.
    Take care!! xx

    1. Thanks for the kind comment, Kay! I'm definitely on the mend. My mother was one of a kind, but then I suspect many sons and daughters would think that, starting with Christopher! Sending you a big hug!

  12. I miss my mother, too. She had a wonderful disposition. Thank you for sharing these stories, Louise. You can't imagine what they mean to me. Sadly, very few Canadians know anything about the region. Its remoteness can be felt even now. Your photographs should be seen by every living Canadians. Have you ever thought of writing a book? You could tour the schools and never reach the end of your stories. I, for one, wish my grandchildren understood your contribution. Best to you, always.

    1. Hi, Joylene! We always miss our mothers, don't we? Thanks you for your encouraging words! It means a great deal to me to know that my stories are impacting people. Just one person finding value in them is enough to keep me going, so thank you from the bottom of my heart! I am slowly working on a memoir. This blog is helping me process everything and write. Writing a book is overwhelming at times. I plan to hire a researcher to provide additional documentation, but I've held off until I work through everything I experienced untouched by others' information and details (other than my family papers, of course). Thanks for the shot of courage this morning! I hope all is well with you! Sending you a big hug!

  13. what a heart holding and touching piece of writing dear Louise!!!
    Thank You so much for this as while reading your content i realized how close i was to my mom we both were like shadow to each other
    mothers of all of us are so kind and best shelter for us but everyone is not as lucky like you to explain it so graciously !

    your warm descriptions of you mom;s love made my eyes teary
    yes either i have most beautiful memory in my life is her touch of hand on my forehead which took away all my sickness almost away from me

    love you my friend and tight hug!please be well and stay safe

    1. Hi, Baili! Thank you for your kind words. I was thinking of you and your mother as I wrote this piece,
      especially about how your mother carried lunch to you over the steep hills and how she stood behind you and supported you. She was a strong and loving person. I am relaxing and sleeping well in our little hotel in Honolulu. I walked three miles (4.8 kilometers) along the ocean and through Queen Kapiʻolani Regional Park this morning. My husband went to play pickleball, so I walked with him to the pickleball courts and then walked back to our hotel by myself. There were lots of birds singing in the trees, lovely calm ocean water, and tropical sunshine pouring down. Tight hugs back to you, my special friend!


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