• Creative Writing,  Georgian Bay,  Life Lessons

    Picking Blueberries: A Memory

    Mom’s Homemade Blueberry Pies

    I remember going blueberry picking in the bush near the cottage in Britt when I was eight or nine. Mom carries baskets. Dad carries peanuts in shells. We always bring Princess with us, my great-Aunt Irene’s German Shepherd. Princess leads the way over the granite and moss, into the desolate, dense back bushes on the coast of Georgian Bay, guarding us from the possibility of walking into sleeping black bears or sunning massasauga rattlers.

    We find a clearing with smooth, warm rock bordered by thick, low blueberry bushes. Mom gets to work right away, kneeling by a bush, filling the basket with only the good luscious blueberries, not the shriveled or mangled ones.

    Dad lays on his back on a rock in the sunshine, his arms spread, soaking in the fresh air, settling in for a nap. My little brother, Colin, runs around the area with Princess. He carries a big beaver-chewed stick that he uses like a bat, whacking piles of rocks and dead, grey trees while Princess barks with excitement.

    I sit near Mom, eating the berries she places in the basket—too scared to put my hand in the bush and pluck them, imagining fanged snakes will chew my arm to bits.

    “Do I need to tell you the story of the Little Red Hen?” Mom notices I’m eating her berries. “These are for pies.”

    So I make a fist, plunging it into the bush real fast, hoping to punch the imaginary snake in the fang.

    “You do it like this,” Mom says. She reaches into the bush with her right hand, holding some leaves back with her left hand. She gently plucks the berries off one by one, carefully placing them in the basket.

    I don’t like moving so slowly, being so gentle. It takes too long to feel like we are making progress.

    Dad starts to shell peanuts, still lying in the sun, throwing the shells by the tree line. Colin and I run over to Dad and grab a handful too, pulling the shells off. We sit side by side, waiting with anticipation for Chippy the chipmunk to appear while Mom works steadily in the bush, filling the basket with berries for pie.

    Eventually I return to sit by Mom, picking berries and placing some in the basket, but mostly I eat them.

    Mom grew up picking blueberries. Grandma would send her out into the bush in the morning with a basket and say, “Don’t come home until it’s full.”

    Mom said she often got distracted in the bush too. She spent most of her time in the bush making houses out of moss by peeling up layers of moss off the rock and repositioning them, making floor plans on the granite, then playing ‘house.’ She waited until the last minute before frantically filling her basket with blueberries for Grandma.

    I like to think that distraction is a natural part of the process of getting things done.

    Georgian Bay
    Share
  • Georgian Bay,  Gereaux Island Lighthouse

    Growing Up In Gereaux Island Lighthouse in the Early 1900s

    Gereaux Island Lighthouse
    Gereaux Island Lighthouse, Family Photo (early 1900s)

    The Lamondin family has lived in Britt, Ontario since the beginning of Britt’s history. I’ve heard stories about when Britt was a logging town, when the coal docks were the centre of activity, when the railway was installed, when electricity arrived, and when the lighthouse became automated and no longer required a keeper. As my parents drive up and down the Britt road, they recite histories of the buildings and the families, sometimes going back a hundred years.

    My grandfather, William Lamondin, lived at Gereaux Island Lighthouse as a child. His father, Louis Lamondin, was the lighthouse keeper there for at least 29 years. My grandfather died before I could ask him about his experiences there. It was so much a part of the family story that no one talked about life at the lighthouse much.

    Grandpa’s sister, Bernice, also lived in the lighthouse. We were lucky to spend lots of time with her each summer. I often asked her to tell me stories about her life growing up in Britt and living in a lighthouse. In June 2002 I took notes on our conversation. Aunt Bernice was in her eighties at the time. Here is what my great-aunt Bernice shared:


    Joseph Normandin

    Aunt Bernice’s grandfather, Joseph Normandin (1835-1912), piloted the first ship into the Britt Harbour. She didn’t remember the name of the ship or the year and I haven’t been able to find any sources to verify this. Joseph Normandin became the first keeper of the Gereaux Island Lighthouse in May 1875.

    The year he was born, Joseph moved to Penetanguishene from Drummond Island as a displaced Metis family. (His father, Joseph Normandin Sr. (a Voyageur born in Quebec, 1797), describes the move in a documented oral history. And it’s likely that Joseph Sr.’s father was also named Joseph Normandin and a Voyageur.

    In 1858 Joseph Normandin Jr. married Scholastique Berger (1839-1923) in Simcoe, Ontario.  It is likely that they moved north to find work and they were probably in the Britt/Byng Inlet area from the beginning of its history in the late 1860s  when the sawmill was built. Other families had also moved from the Penetanguishene area during this time too.

    Joseph Normandin and Scholastique Berger had six children:

    • Charles Napoleon Normandin (1863-unknown); born in Penetanguishene
    • Marie Josephine Normandin (1866-unknown); born in Penetanguishene
    • George Normandin (1872-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
    • Gregoire Normandin (unknown)
    • Jean David Normandin (1874-unknown); born in Byng Inlet
    • Louis Normandin (1877-1948); born in Byng Inlet
    • Adelia Normandin (1879-unknown); born in Byng Inlet

    In the records, the family name can appear as Lamondet, Lamondin, Narmandin, and Normandin. Even my grandfather, William, often interchanged between Normandin and Lamondin.

    I wonder if the name changed because the family felt out of place. After generations of living in a community of Métis people in Michigan, the family was given land but not jobs in Penetanguishene.  I wonder if they tried to hide their Métis heritage by using “Lamondin” to appear more French and less Métis. Or maybe I’m over thinking this and it was simply a family feud among siblings trying to create space in a small town by changing their name. Or maybe it was just bad spelling skills!


    Louis Lamondin

    Aunt Bernice’s father, Louis Lamondin (1877-1948) lived in Britt all his life. He worked at the lighthouse for about 30 years. Aunt Bernice says Louis was upset and disappointed when his term as keeper came to an end in 1946. Perhaps at 69 years old, the work was getting too challenging for him to manage. He didn’t want to retire. Louis wanted to keep working.

    Some other details:

    • At some point Louis worked as a Tug Captain for the lumber mill Graves Bigwood.
    • Aunt Bernice talked about how he won a sail ship race and received a silver medal.
    • During the winter, Louis worked for a lumber camp in Britt (located behind St. Amant’s current store).
    • He earned $62 per month to feed the whole family.
    • Louis and Cecilia (1888-1966) had five children: Alcide, William (my grandfather), Florence, Ernest, and Bernice (1921-2012).
    • Louis was a self-educated man. Cecilia only learned to write.

    At the Lighthouse:

    • In the early 1900s, when the railway came to Britt, the town became a centre for coal. Louis would notify the coal docks when he could see boats six miles away. He would keep the town posted on their whereabouts so they could be greeted and receive help with tying. (There was a big boom on the coal ship, a deck hand would jump from it as it swung to the dock to tie the ship.) The coal served all of Northern Ontario. Sometimes there were up to 5 ships at the coal docks in Britt. Aunt Bernice remembers going to the coal docks to play, sliding down the coal dumps in her new silk pants.
    • Louis hauled five gallons of gasoline up the lighthouse stairs. She described it as an inside and outside staircase.
    Louis, William, Alcide, and Cecilia Lamondin 1912
    Louis, William, Alcide, and Cecilia Lamondin 1912

    Childhood Memories at the Lighthouse

    Aunt Bernice said they sometimes ate seagull eggs as they were “very poor.” The eggs were grey in colour and some eggs had real seagulls in them. (We always wondered if this was a long “I remember when I was your age” story like the classic walking to school six miles in the snow story.)

    When they were on the island, they used ashes to brush their teeth. The kids bathed in big metal tubs; the water had to be carried in jugs from an outdoor waterhole.

    The kids began working at a young age. Her brother, Alcide, began working in the tower at the coal docks at 10 years old. He would dump coal from the ship into a moving car (that went by like as a conveyer belt). My grandfather, William, would take the cars of coal and help dump the coal into train cars. The boys made 20 cents an hour and when they came home they were all black, covered in coal from head to toe.

    Louis put a swing for the children in the boathouse on Gereaux Island. The kids would swing for hours on a rainy day. Louis also made candy out on the rocks. He boiled water and added brown sugar, waiting until the sugar was stringy. He put the mixture outside in a puddle in the granite. Then he would pull and pull and pull. He broke off a piece of candy for everyone. Aunt Bernice said it tasted like caramel.

    Her brother, Earnest, sometimes tied a string to a leg of a huge turtle. When Aunt Bernice was a little girl she would stand on the back of the turtle and Earnest would lead her around the island, taking her for a turtle ride. The boys also played with snakes as though they were pets. Turtles, snakes, fish, rock, windblown spruces, water, and each other were all they had to pass long summer days.

    Louis would often make eggs for the kids. He’d put the eggs on toast. When the eggs were ready, Louis would clang a pot and yell, “Okay snakes and rabbits, chicken ass on toast!”

    They all slept in one room in the lighthouse. They ate a lot of local fish, so much so that Aunt Bernice wouldn’t eat fish as an adult for many years.

    Salem Island, location of the former Dance Hall on Georgian Bay (Britt/Byng Inlet)
    Salem Island, location of the former Dance Hall on Georgian Bay (Britt/Byng Inlet)

    Aunt Bernice went to a school that was in the same location as the current Britt school. It had three rooms for Grade 1-8. She remembers there being 3 teachers. It was common for students to skip grades. After Grade 8, Aunt Bernice took extra lessons at the school in Latin, French, Geometry, and Algebra. Aunt Bernice wanted to continue her education by becoming a nun. It cost $54 to buy a habit to be able to join the convent. Unfortunately, the family didn’t have the money for a nun’s habit to help her achieve her dreams of becoming a teacher or a nurse.

    The local youth went to weekly dances hosted on Salem’s Island, not far from the lighthouse. Boat access only.The island dances always fascinated me. Aunt Bernice talked about these the most over the years.

    While her brothers worked at the coal docks, Aunt Bernice worked at the local store for 10 or 15 years. She said she worked for $20 a month and worked 14 hour days. After she got married she negotiated 6 hour work days and $75 a month wage.

    Aunt Bernice spent a lot of her time sitting in a docked boat at Gereaux Island, watching the ships roll into Byng Inlet. She ended up marrying a ship boat Captain, an American named Art Armstrong. She had only danced with Uncle Art a few times before he proposed.

    Lamondin Shore Picnic
    Lamondin Shore Picnic
    Share
  • Family History Stories

    Could I Be a Family Historian?

    Last weekend was truly decadent. My car rested in the driveway from Friday after work until Monday morning. For two days I played. I felt like a child wrapped up in some important project like digging a hole in the sandbox and hoping it would lead to China or creating a dramatic play in the garage with all the kids from the neighbourhood. The work felt overwhelming, necessary, thrilling–just like the adventurous projects of my childhood.

    Monday morning at work I bubbled and popped, telling anyone who would listen that I had started a new project.

    “I spent the weekend researching my family tree,” I said.

    “Ancestry?”

    “Yes!” The popularity of the genealogy site is ubiquitous.

    “My cousin is a historian. We have a binder with our whole family history. Both sides.” A newly married teacher smiled.

    Another coworker said, “Someone contacted me yesterday about my family history. I didn’t learn anything new though. Our family history was compiled years ago. We have a family historian.”

    A family historian. It sounded so official.

    Last year I took a research methods course as part of my graduate program at University of Toronto. I read Lives in Context: The Art of Life History Research by Ardra L. Cole and J. Gary Knowles. They write:

    “In as much as it is humanly possible, life history inquiry is about gaining insights into the broader human condition by coming to know and understand the experiences of other humans” (11).

    By becoming a family historian I can serve my family, document their stories, learn about my family’s journey from arriving in Canada hundreds of years ago to today. But family history research can have a broader context too. We look to the past to understand the present. We search for resonance in stories that are shared among generations, across cultural divides. In learning about my family I will learn about humanity.

    I have not earned the title of family historian yet. This is the beginning.

    Deanna Corbeil notes the importance of the word “story” in “history.” I like that. Family Storian. This blog is as much about story as it is about history.

    Do you have a family historian? What led him or her to life history research?

    Share