Friday, January 24, 2020

The Power of Family Stories

Writing the Lansdowne Letters was a daunting, but ultimately healing, process for me.
The more time I spent with my family's letters and photos,
the more I felt my parent's love wrapped around me.
Despite the challenges and hardships of living in an isolated northern community,
my time in Lansdowne House was some of the happiest in my childhood.

Happy Days in Lansdowne House
Mom, Gretchen (dachshund), Roberta (clockwise), Donnie, Roy, Barbara, and Louise (me) 
Shore of Attawapiskat Lake, Northern Ontario, Canada
June 4, 2018
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

When you are a small child, the life you experience is normal for you.
You may not realize that your life is different
when compared with the lives of your friends and neighbors.
I had no idea how different my life was.

Sixty plus years ago, before television became common,
before computers and cell phones, before the internet and social media,
children were more sheltered from events beyond their doors.
And in many families, children were shielded from problems
that affected their parents or their extended families.

Sheltered Days in Charlottetown
My Brother Roy, My Sister Donnie (on sled) and Me (Louise) 
Edward Street, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada
Likely Winter 1955-56
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

There is no question our parents sheltered us from their problems.
We heard the good, and the bad was hidden.

My childhood was filled with wonderful stories,
told by compelling storytellers on both sides of my family.
Family stories passed from generation to generation and were repeated over and over.
It didn't matter if we had heard them before.
Comfort, reassurance, and love filled us as familiar stories were retold.

On one of the last nights of my mother's life,
while she still in the hospital and before she came home to die in palliative care,
my brother Roy took the midnight shift by her bed.

He had just flown in from Kuwait and had slept some on his flight.
Those of us who had been there for many, many hours
asked if he could stay overnight with Mom, so we could go home and get a little sleep.

Roy willingly agreed, even though he admitted that
he was nervous about spending long hours alone with Mom. 
Her tenuous state and all the unknowns were unsettling.  

When we returned early the next morning, I asked Roy how it went.

He said, "It was one of the best nights of my life.
I'm so glad that I got to be there with Mom."

Mom and Roy
Christmas Hug
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

"What happened?" I asked, surprised and relieved.

"When Mom came to, she was shocked to see me, but so happy I was there.
She wanted to talk, and we shared all the old family stories.
We laughed and cried and had so much fun.  It was the best time, Weese."

My mother made a brief and miraculous recovery.
"Resurrection," was her doctors' term.
Medical staff kept coming by all day to visit.  
They couldn't believe that our mother was alive.
She was discharged and spent several exquisitely precious days with us.

I think that shared retelling of our family stories
helped propel my mother out of that hospital bed
to come home with us, even briefly.

Such is the power of family stories.

Holding It Together for a Last Family Photo
Bertie, Roy, Me, Barb, and Donnie
Mom with Daxie on her lap
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
May 19, 2002
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Not all family stories are filled with fun and love.
Some are darker stories, whispered about through the years.
Often they are conversations among adults overheard by curious children like me,
children who grow up, ask questions, and pass these stories along.

My family has its share of dark stories handed down:
tragic fires, religious strife, betrayal, alcoholism, and jealousy,
families ripped apart and devastating illnesses, even a possible murder.

The whispered story that frightened me most as a child
was the story of the mental illness that plagued my father's family.
This illness had struck each generation beginning with my great grandfather Pratt.
Beyond that we couldn't trace, for he had arrived in Prince Edward Island
as a young and unknown orphan on a boat from Scotland. 

It struck my father who grappled with manic depression throughout his life,
and I worried that this darkness would come to me.

"Don't worry, Weesie," Mom would assure me.
"You have all my good MacDonald blood to protect you."

My Mother and I 
(Me ~ perpetually tied on, because I was a runner)
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada
Summer 1951 or 1952
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Despite my mother's comforting assurances, the same illness
with its wild emotional swings, depression, and suicidal thoughts passed to me.

I have struggled over whether or not I should address this in my memoir.
But a memoir is about truth, and my story wouldn't be truthful if I omitted this.

Throughout my life my feelings toward my father and his illness changed.
As a small child I learned to read his moods and know when to lay low.

As a teenager I was angry with him because of the impact of his illness on our family,
then frightened as I began to recognize his illness in me.

As an adult I struggled with my depression, anxiety, and suicidal urges on my own,
watching helplessly from afar as my father's mental and physical health spiraled down.

A decade after his death in 1984, I finally sought treatment.
It changed my life for the better and continues to do so.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how different things might have been,
if my father had had access to modern treatments like me. 

When I retired, I decided to confront my past,
and I began to read my family letters and other documents.
I started a blog and began to post The Lansdowne Letters,
sharing family stories of our time in the North.

As I worked through my father's letters, I excavated my personal muskeg,
discovering things that I longed for and others unlooked for and unexpected.

I began to see my father's life and mine through the lens of maturity.
I began to understand the magnitude of my father's struggle
and, despite all his misfortunes, the depth of his love and sacrifices for his family.
I found my hero again.

Most importantly, I came to understand my younger self,
my Lac Seul self, to be kinder and gentler with her.

Such is the power of family stories.

Two Unforgettable Brothers 
Fritz and John with Bertie and Barbie
(and likely Roy behind Fritz)
Lac Seul, Ontario, Canada
Summer 1961
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

My Father with a Furry Friend 
St. Peter's Bay, Prince Edward Island, Canada
Circa 1930
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

On the Bay of Fundy
Nova Scotia, Canada
July 31, 2014  
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


  1. I'm glad you were able to find that peace through help and the letters. Now your life is enriched. And so is ours.

    1. Thanks, Alex! It was a struggle for me to commit to go in this direction. Even late last night I was thrashing around in bed resisting the urge to unpublish my post. But I woke up feeling I had made the right choice for me. Thanks for your support and encouragement, always! I hope hat your editing is going well. Enjoy your weekend!

  2. "...the more I felt my parent's love wrapped around me."

    Hold onto that.

    I am searching for words to say to tell you it's so important to speak and it is also good to shield children and I think God gave your brother that time with your mother because He is good and He loves you. But I feel like I am just throwing words here when really, truly the only thing to say here is the look in my eyes and the look in yours. So I will stop the words. I may have sent you this before, sorry if so, but here is my story:

    1. Thanks, Sandi, for the encouragement to hold on to my parent's love. It keeps me going.
      Agnostic me, in an obvious contradictory feeling, has always felt that God did give my brother and our family that precious time. Thanks for the link to your previous post. I had read it before, but it was well worth reading again. It breaks my heart every time I read the story of what someone has endured in the past, especially when it's about suicide. I'm thankful that you made it through that dark place. You have become a bright light, definitely seen and appreciated. Hugs to you!

  3. I am so glad that you made this post. In the Lansdowne letters you gave an honest representation of family life through your eyes and through the eyes of your parents. That legacy will always be with you. I envy the family stories that you shared with your parents. I don't remember hearing any like that from my parents. You are honest about your struggles and I am so happy that you have found the outlet of writing to be able to express yourself there. Bravo, my friend.

    1. Thank you, Peggy. You post brought tears to me eyes and a choke to my throat. I'll continue to forge ahead with my story, even when it's hard. All the best to you, my friend!

  4. Despite all of the darkness you mentioned Louise, this was a very positive post to read. I am intrigued about your family history. We have skeletons too but I've dealt with those in therapy. Maybe one day I'll write my memoirs as well, but it'll be a long time from now! :)

    1. Thanks for sharing your view of my post, Rain. I hoped that my post would be perceived as positive in spite of its topics. Regarding the writing of memoirs, I have definitely found it takes distance and time. I suspect every family has a skeleton hidden somewhere. Hugs to you my friend.

  5. Our family has some dark stories of mental illness too. But the real darkness in those stories is how others (both inside and outside the family) treated those who were ill (so meanly and judgmentally), the horrible awful psychiatric treatments they received, and how breakdowns/suicides were covered up and lied about for decades afterwards. I'm so glad that in today's world there are better treatments and an increasing understanding that mental illness should carry no more of a stigma than any physical illness. It is what it is, part of being human.

    1. You are so right, Debra. In some post or posts I'll address the barbaric things that were done to my father. I just don't know how or when yet. The closest I could approach it in this post was to share the picture of my father as a beautiful, vulnerable, and sensitive child who had no knowledge of what would come to pass. It's so hard, and it has me in tears right now. So I'll stop. Thank you, my friend. You mean so much to me.

  6. Is that tiny animal suppose to be a baby goat?

    1. Hi, Adam! I'm not sure which animal you mean. My dad is definitely holding a cat. The animal in the photo of the five of us with our mom is a pig statute in her garden. If there is another animal hidden somewhere, let me know. All the best to you and Daisy this weekend!

  7. Great that you were able to share and with a murder to spare lol it just popped out.

    Being able to go back and see things from a different viewpoint really can allow for healing, or at least a different aspect of what one thought. Seeing his and now knowing your struggles really must bring things to a whole.

    Great that your mom got a spark and you were all able to hear and share the stories again with her. Oh what family stories can do.

    We've got a few that aren't pretty, one of which I snuck into Delivered haha

    1. Haha, you can resist a good rhyme, can you, Pat? We were beyond grateful for my mother's spark, Those last few days with her were some of the most powerful in my life. Now I have to go back and reread "Delivered," a book of yours I really loved. Have a great weekend, my friend!

  8. As my died died when I was three I only had a mother. Her love and devotion was excellent. Always put the family first and was always there in such times we needed a shoulder to cry on. Life does change over the years sometimes for the good other times not so good, I lost a good mother and friend when mum passed on 21 yrs ago.
    Loved the post and pictures Louise.


    1. Your Mum was the solid rock you could stand firm on while growing up after the devastating lost of your father, Yvonne. And also a warm and safe place when you needed comfort. Those of us who have strong, loving mothers are truly fortunate. To lose them creates a hole in our hearts that can never be completely patched over. We may lose them physically, but their love is with us always. That said, what I wouldn't give to sit down and have one of those long wonderful chats I used to have with Mom. Hugs to you, my friend!

  9. i feel lucky to have you as friend dear Louise

    depth of intellect ,purity of soul and honesty of thoughts is rare that you have my friend!

    thank you so much for this treasure post
    what a powerful sharing that gripped my heart strongly
    christmas hug of your brother and mom made me cry and so did her story of survival ,i agree completely that it was power of family stories that held her back
    i remember my mom used to say to us (her both daughter) that if she had not us she would have died long ago ,our love and our want to stay close to her ,our care and warmth of touch did magic to her that is she used to tell us which i will never ever forget
    i am so blessed to have past where i had extended family and stories telling was common ,i know how it works not just then but for listeners it works for their whole life
    deep impact of those bonding stay with us .makes us live with strength and grace and selflessly most of the the time

    this was such relief that you found way out to deal with that illness my friend ,this is gift of advancement and media that such helps are available for who seek
    i found this part of your story really touching ,
    you relationship with you father was transformed when you started to put yourself in his shoes ,this is insight and wisdom that we get with age and our approach towards life
    thank you for telling it so magnificently .i loved it

    1. Thank you for this kind and loving comment, Baili! You always encourage me and support me with great insight and heart. Thank you for sharing what your mom used to say to you and your sister. My mother expressed similar thoughts throughout my childhood. She was gravely ill at times when I was a small girl, and she said many times that it was her love of us that brought her back from death. You eloquently speak to the value and power that family stories have on the listeners. It is so true ~ that deep impact and bonding stays with you always, even beyond the death of the storytellers. People have always said how much I am like my mother, but as I worked with my father's letters I was shocked to realize how much my father and I are alike (beyond the common sharing of manic depression). When I was a child he was a towering, strong figure in many, many ways. Maturity on my part allowed me to see him through experienced and more equal eyes. I am beyond grateful that I finally got help with my manic depression. I still get depressed and anxious, and I still have suicidal thoughts, but nothing like I experienced in the past. I'm in a good place. And I have Terry, who understands me so well and who loves me and supports me even in my worst moments. If God is anything, He is love and has given us love. Hugs to you, my special friend!

  10. A wonderful testimony to the power of stories. I, too, feel I was often protected from much when growing up. I'm not sure it was always good. It certainly had impact on early relationships when I had expectations that exceeded reality. You have given your family a tremendous gift.

    1. Thank you, Sage! Your words mean a great deal to me! Take care, my friend!

  11. This really touched me and brought tears to my eyes. The story of your brother there at the hospital with your mom brought me back to the time my siblings and I spent around my dad's bedside before he passed away. I'm so grateful now that we were able to all be there and he was able to die peacefully at home.

    Family memories can be a treasure and I am glad going through your own helped you find peace. Take care!

    1. Thanks you, Julie, for your comforting comment. Being with a loved one when they die is so wrenching and wonderful at the same time. Your father and my mother were fortunate because they died peacefully at home and surrounded by love.

  12. This was such a heartwarming post, Louise. It reminds us all how complicated families can be, and what a huge impact the experiences we share with each other have on us. Every family has its fair share of ups and downs, dark and light moments. I'm glad you found your peace. I think we see things from a different perspective as we get older. We certainly grow to understand things better. Hopefully :) Thank you for sharing these stories with us!

    1. Thank you, Martha, for your perceptive and kind comment. Life is quite a journey, isn't it? Both challenging and magnificent. I hope that you and George are enjoying a relaxing and happy weekend together!

  13. Wow this post was really touching, reabout the family stories of someone else can be powerful too. My best wishes to you

    1. Thanks, Sakuranko, for your kind words and encouragement! Have a good one!

  14. Life is filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. This was your truth and I'm glad you found the strength to put it out there. I'm sure this post will shine a light on some of your readers who may have went through something similar, and encourage them to share their truth and seek peace as well.

    1. Thanks, Theresa! This was one of my reasons for sharing this post. I hoped that it might encourage someone to find peace, whether through sharing or seeking help. I hope that you are having a good week!


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