Author Archives: Dorothy Nixon
1958 St-Eustache, Quebec. Super 8 film ‘capture.’
I never thought I would write about my Uncle Frank Walter, my Aunt Flo’s husband and my mother’s brother-in law. He is, perhaps, the least controversial figure in our family. One might even call him boring. I never heard a word uttered for or against him – and, believe me, that’s saying a lot .
Frank married Flo her late in life, in 1955, when she was 50 and he was 63. He was a tile painter by trade. He was French from France, my mother told me, but in Quebec that’s hardly exotic. My mother also told me his last name “Walter” was really pronounced “Valter,” but that didn’t seem important.
Frank and Flo, the giddy ‘newlyweds’ would visit us occasionally, in St. Eustache, north of Montreal, where we lived in the mid 1950’s. They had a big black Buick and they took it everywhere on day trips. They also had a Super 8 movie camera and I have a few seconds of faded film of Aunt Flo and me by the swing set. On another visit, they brought me a giant stuffed panda bear. I was enraptured. My brothers later beat the stuffing out of it, out of jealously, I imagine.
My family visited them at Christmas at their apartment in the city on West Hill Avenue in 1964. I have a colour photo with my Dad and us kids sitting on their fancy pink French Provincial style couch that I would inherit much later in the 1980’s and put in our basement.
Frank was very old (in my eyes). He was the closest I came to having a grandfather around. He had grey hair on the thin side and sported a debonair pencil moustach. He was always smoking a pipe. I could sense, even as a child, that he was a bit on the vain side. He had a twinkle in his eye and he still flirted with my Aunt Flo who happily flirted back. They made quite a pair.
Frank died in 1977 and I clearly recall the scene at the grave on a hill with trees in Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery on the mountain, as Aunt Flo wept uncontrollably and the tears rolled down my cheeks in empathy. She was crushed at the loss of her “Ptoutsi.”
I thought of Uncle Frank again, in 1990, when Aunt Flo went into a retirement home. Helping her clear out her apartment, I found a photo album from his WWII service. The album contained many pictures of younger female servicewoman. His girlfriends? He was a ladies man, after all! The album creeped me out, so I tossed it in the garbage.
At the same time, my aunt gave us her ‘junk’ to sell in a garage sale in our suburban garden. One piece was Frank’s foot locker from WWI. (Yes, he participated in two world wars.) A collector came around before the start of the sale, gave the tables in the yard a quick scan and immediately pointed to the foot locker.
“I guess French Infantry foot lockers from WWI are worth something,” I said to my husband, suddenly wishing I’d held on to it.
Intimate ‘captures’ of Frank and Flo from a Super 8 film taken in the mid to late 1950’s in their home.
Left: Domestic life on West Hill, in NDG. Right: A visit to a war memorial in Montreal.
Aunt Flo died in 1999.
The other day, checking up on Aunt Flo in Notre Dame des Neiges cemetery1 where she was laid to rest, I realized she wasn’t in the family plot but buried with Frank and his family.
So, I took a closer look. To my surprise, I saw that Uncle Frank’s full name, at least as listed at the cemetery, was Ferdinand Francois Walter and that he was named after his father, who was buried beside him.
Frank’s Mom, Octavie Turgeon, was there, too. A Quebecois name, that’s for sure. So Frank had a German-sounding father and a French Canadian mother. He wasn’t even from France. He was Canadian-born.
I checked on Drouin and sure enough, Frank’s father, Ferdinand married his mother Octavie in Quebec, in 1890.2 Ferdinand, an engineer, was from Willers, Alsace Lorraine, the son of Francois, and Octavie was from Levis, Quebec.
(Willers, by the way, is one of those achingly picturesque towns in the Haut Rhine.) Ferdinand’s mother was a Berkertz, also German sounding.
Ferdinand’s signature on the marriage document was remarkable in that it was executed in a meticulous ornamental font. I can see where Uncle Frank got his artistic talent. Octavie’s brother signed for her indicating she was illiterate.
The couple sounds like a mismatch. Maybe she was beautiful or rich.
Other Drouin records reveal that Ferdinand Francois, my Uncle Frank, was born in Montreal in 1893.3 WWI military records at LAC reveal Frank enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1916.
“Frank Fern” is how he is registered. So, that prized foot-locker was Canadian Army issue. Fern? Is that a typo, or, back in 1916, did Ferdinand sound too German?
Was Uncle Frank, French or German? Actually, he was something in-between.
I checked the 1891 census to see that Frank’s father, Ferdinand Walter, emigrated to Canada in 1878, a few years after the Franco Prussian war, when Alsace was turned over to the Germans in the Treaty of Frankfurt, 1871. He is listed as “French” and “Catholic.”
I further learned that in 1872 residents of Alsace who wanted to remain French citizens had to make French Citizenship Declarations or automatically become German citizens. These declarations have been digitized and are available on Ancestry with an explanation. Apparently, there were 124 Walters from Alsace who were determined to keep their French citizenship. Five are listed under Francois.
I wonder if most in the Walters clan wanted to remain French. That would take a lot more research.
In the end, I picked up some interesting European history while I learned a rather boring truth about my still very uncontroversial “French” Uncle Frank Walter – the “W” pronounced like a V.
Sorry if I led you to believe otherwise.
Still, I wonder how my young uncle felt in 1916 going back ‘home’ to shoot at his cousins. Perhaps it was just business-as-usual. Alsace-Lorraine was been the site of a vicious tug-of-war between Germany and France for generations.
Ferdinand’s pretty signature on his wedding certificate.
- Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery: Locate a deceased person. https://www.cimetierenotredamedesneiges.ca/en/recherche-defunt
- Ancestry.ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
- Ancestry.ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
- Ancestry. ca. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection) 1621-1968. Marriage and death.
The first novel I ever read was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I was ten or eleven years old. I didn’t read the book in school. My mother bought it for me along with a number of Deluxe Junior Classics published by the Doubleday Company.
I can remember the look of the book: grey with a yellow spine and sketches of the four March girls in blue ink embossed on the cover. I can remember the feel of the book: the pages thick and slightly hairy, typical of Book-of-the-Month Club editions. I can remember the smell of the book: inky and acidy. It was a new book, after all. And I especially recall the thrill of opening the book, which I understood was my rite of passage into the brave new world of grown-up reading.
I loved Little Women. It changed my life as great books often do, but I can’t say the plot stayed with me. It was only recently, when I decided to learn Italian by listening to ‘easier’ audio books, that I became re-acquainted with Louisa May Alcott’s American classic. Over and over again, I listened to each delightful chapter, first in English, then in French, then in Italian. “Piccole Donne”. Superbo in any language.
It is understood that Louisa May Alcott used her own Massachusetts family as a model for Little Women, a work of fiction. Authors often lean on real-life characters for inspiration. Who wants to read about unrealistic characters?
The authors at Genealogy Ensemble are publishing a book of authentic short stories about their ancestors, Beads in a Necklace: Family Stories from Genealogy Ensemble. These stories, many of which saw first light on this blog, will soon be available in a glossy hold-in-your-hands hardcopy format.
Beads in a Necklace also includes personal essays by the nine authors, explaining how each of us was inspired to begin the long, difficult and rewarding journey of writing down our family stories.
Claire Lindell was surfing the Net, way back in its early days, when she came upon an article about her father, a pioneer in the Canadian mining industry.
Barb Angus was inspired by missed opportunities and a book called The Wolfe Pack by a McGill University author, Dr. Mildred Burns.
Lucy Anglin lost her mother very early in life and feels that her stories help honour her memory.
Janice Hamilton grew up with oil paintings of her ancestors on the walls around her.
Tracey Arial first wrote about genealogy for a classroom exercise; not a great experience, but one she looks back on with amusement.
Marian Bulford immigrated to Canada from Great Britain in 1978, but it’s her English sea-side roots that move her to write.
Mary Sutherland was inspired by her father once saying, “Find your way home,” and by some fine family heirlooms.
Sandra McHugh was inspired by her ‘two solitudes’ marriage and her Greek husband’s very different kind of family.
I myself got my start when I found 300 family letters from the 1910 period that had belonged to my husband’s ancestors from Richmond, Quebec. I read them out loud to a good friend who said, “Ick. They sound so old-fashioned.”
But I saw something else in these letters. I saw the story of a strong matriarch and her very spirited young daughters, who had known much better financial times but were making the best it.
I saw women who were on their own, in their fine house in the good part of town, because their men-folk were far away.
I saw proud, independent women who sometimes relied on the kindness of a well-off, gentlemanly neighbour to drive them to the post office or to shovel out their walk in winter.
It was the plot of Little Women, but with characters from real-life closely related to my husband and my very own children! How could I possibly resist that?
Beads in a Necklace: family stories from Genealogy Ensemble will be launched in mid-November. A limited number of hard copies will be available for purchase, locally.
Check back with http://www.genealogyensemble.com to find out how to buy one of these rare first editions. An e-book version will be available at launch, as well, with print-on-demand capability by Christmas.
The chapter on the Laurier Era from Canada Then and Now, my fifth grade history textbook. I read this, too, back in the day, but I was not impressed. This was a typical textbook, filled with sturdy but dull prose and employing a narrative style devoid of colour and controversy. This chapter, about a most pivotal time in history, made no mention of suffragettes and restless young women in harem pants. In fact, there are only two women in the entire textbook: Marguerite Bourgeoys and Jeanne Mance, worthy women, no question, but only two? Beads in a Necklace showcases many of our worthy women ancestors. It’s terrific social history.
Writing stories about your ancestors can seem a bit self-indulgent. Who wants to hear about your long dead aunties and uncles? Your own relatives may roll their eyes when you pull out your tablet and talk about the blood, sweat and tears that went into a year-long investigation into an-all-but-forgotten life.
Sure, the genealogy writing exercise may start out as a purely personal exploration (as in Why am I here?) but with careful attention to detail and a sense of humility on your part, the practice can become so much more than that.
Exploring ancestry through prose provides you with a versatile platform to inform and delight your readers. Your stories even may inspire others to take the plunge and explore their own roots while polishing their writing skills.
Genealogy writing is often personal in nature, as in “My great grandmother, Lydia Tittle, was born in 1897 in the poorest part of Ulster,” and it sometimes it comes in the form of the personal essay, as in “When I was a little girl growing up in rural Georgia, I was very close to my Ma Tante Mathilde, my father’s French sister.”
It may sound counter-intuitive, but my top tip to avoid sounding self-indulgent when writing about yourself and/or your ancestors is to use your own natural voice.
What is ‘voice’? Well, storytelling was once a sacred art. The storyteller invoked a muse to tell a certain tale to an enraptured audience. I like to think of ‘the writing voice’ as something similar. Before I get down to writing a first draft, I invoke a piece of my personality to tell the story. For me, it’s a feeling I conjure up, much like I’m told a method actor does before walking onto the stage, and sometimes, as with acting, it can be a bit unsettling to bring up this feeling/personality, even scary. It certainly doesn’t feel self-indulgent. Enveloped in this character/feeling, it’s easier for me to choose the appropriate words and expressions while writing and to maintain a consistent tone for the piece.
The biggest mistake any beginning writer can do is to try to imitate someone else’s voice because readers will pick up quickly on the deception, but if you write stories in your own voice, even if you are still developing your style and technical skills (and what writer isn’t?) your readers will be inclined to be generous with you because they will sense you are ‘opening up’ to them, taking a risk, giving them a little piece of your heart, as it were.
Ask yourself these questions before you embark on the personal essay writing journey:
- Are you using your own unique voice?
- Is your essay and the information contained within worthy of the time the reader will spend on it?
- Does your story have substance? Is it useful, as in informative; diverting as in surprising or funny; or moving, as in sentimental or touching?
- Does your story have universal human appeal so that all readers can relate, or is it aimed at a specific reader with a specific interest?
- Does your story have a take-away, a gift that keeps on giving such as a fascinating fact or two, a broader insight, or some useful research tips that the reader can call upon later?
Young Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Virginia. Daughter of Elizabeth Hardy, who was sister to Mary ‘Pinky’ Hardy, United States General Douglas MacArthur’s mother.
As a schoolgirl back in the 1960’s before Expo 67 opened in Montreal, the only works of art I would have recognized were the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. I would have seen them, you see, on TV caricatured in advertisements for toothpaste or gloves, or on sophisticated Saturday morning cartoons like the Bugs Bunny Show.
Today, when I think of the Venus de Milo, I think of my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth.
In 1910 Elizabeth Hardy Fair,a single society girl from Warrenton, Virginia, USA, was visiting the Continent for the first time. She was in her mid twenties.
The aging ingénue kept a written record in diary form and I have it. This European diary reveals that she started her trip in London (hated it, too gloomy) and then went on to Paris, (loved it, so pretty).
Sorry to say, that’s about as deep as she gets.
Still, Elizabeth penned this one rather intriguing phrase from a visit to the Louvre: “Saw Gaylord Clarke coming out of the Venus de Milo Room. Second time we have met since abroad.”
Now, if this were a scene from an E.M. Forster novel, and Miss Elizabeth Fair were a luminous young woman of head-strong character, this ‘chance meeting’ at the Louvre would have been, no doubt, a significant turning point in the trajectory of Miss Elizabeth’s life.
Just think of it. In 1910, women such as Elizabeth covered themselves, neck to toes, in starchy shirtwaists and princess skirts.
Now contemplate the Venus de Milo with her sumptuous drapery dipping below the upper curve of her perfect buttocks, and then figure what it must have felt to be a young man coming out of the Venus de Milo room in that era–before the age of California beach volleyball. And then imagine what an opportune moment it was for the very eligible Miss Elizabeth Hardy Fair of Warrenton, Virginia.
As it is, this Mr. Clarke left for England the next day. End of their story.
Elizabeth soon returned to Warrenton, still very much single. Eight years later she would travel to Montreal (to visit her older sister, Mae) and find a husband in the form of one Frank Tofield, banker.
She would live out her life in the posh Linton apartments on Sherbrooke Street West in ‘uptown’ Montreal, impressing her great nephews and nieces at every Sunday dinner with the button on the floor under the dining room table that she used to summon the staff with her foot.
Now, as someone who likes to write about ancestors, I like to think that everyone who ever lived is worthy of at least one book, or at least a good short story, but my husband’s Great Aunt Elizabeth may be an exception.
Elizabeth and Frank had no children and all she left behind to her nephew is a tattered scrapbook with a few yellowed clippings like this one from a 1904 St. Louis Social Notes page: .
Miss Elizabeth Fair of Warrenton VA is the guest of Dr. and Mrs. John O’Fallon and is a beautiful girl who has been a great deal feted and admired around St. Louis. The 1904 World’s Fair!
The year before, in 1903, she attended her soon-to-be famous first cousin, Douglas MacArthur’s, West Point graduation. She glued the dance card into her scrapbook. Mae had the first dance, a waltz; she had the third, a gavotte.
And then there’s this diary, this pedestrian record of her 1910 European experience visiting all the usual landmarks, Hyde Park, Les Champs Elysees and Le Bon Marche where she bought handkerchiefs and gloves. It is a diary exposing no wicked sense of humour, sharing no penetrating insights, and including not even one memorable phrase like, say, “I shall return.”
Well, she did mention seeing suffragettes on the march in London.
Oh, she does pencil in this candid opinion on Da Vinci’s most famous work.
Went to the Louvre in the morning. Pictures most interesting. Mona Lisa was carefully inspected but it does not appeal to me in the least. After lunch, shopped and then drove through Parc Mont Claire. This park is lovely, abloom with flowers, statuary and strollers galore. Great place for lovers and babies… So, no surprise, in 1910, Elizabeth, had love and babies on the mind.
I wonder what was wrong, then, with this mysterious Mr. Clarke? If things had gone well, it might have been a very good thing for one Frank Tofield. Family legend has it the well-to-do couple argued incessantly over the decades over her spendthrift ways.
(I found Frank’s signed Bible and it was filled with dozens of brittle, faded four leaf clovers.)
So, no book about Great Aunt Elizabeth Hardy Fair, by all definitions a most ordinary Southern Belle and first cousin to a genuine history-book legend. No short story either.
Just this short blog post.
Below: Elizabeth at her wedding: lavish tastes