An Art Journey Into Family History Part 9

It feels like forever since I last posted! Unfortunately, there was a battle of the wills between me and the sciatic nerve in one of my legs … and the sciatica won! Sitting at the computer for anymore than ten minutes was excruciating… so writing was out for the time being.

My cousin Kathy came to visit a few weeks ago and we had a wonderful time! What fun it was to discover how much we have in common. It was interesting talking about our families and experiences growing up. It was fun discovering our mutual interest in “artsy fartsy” stuff and finding out that we have the same type of quirky humour that tickles our funny bones!

Kathy put on a clever disguise to arrive in at the Victoria airport. A long black wig with reddish highlights, sunglasses, lace tights under a rather short dress and the piece de resistance… a nose ring! Of course I didn’t recognize her.

When hubby saw “this woman” come through the security gate door, he laughed and said: “Get a load of that! You’d think that middle aged women would know they are rather past the nose ring stage…damn she looks like a hooker ten years past her prime!”

What a hoot it was when this same woman sauntered over close behind us and just stood there. Hubby just raised his eyebrows and gave me this rather comical sideways look.

Well, guess what? She was listening to us! Kathy thought it was me… but she needed to hear my voice to be sure. We hadn’t seen each other since we were little kids but have talked on the phone a number of times. She waited and waited. Finally I said something to hubby about I wasn’t sure whether I would recognize her or not.

This woman tapped me on the shoulder, leaned over towards me and said: “Are you waiting for someone named Kathy?”

A little taken aback, I said: “Well as a matter of fact, yes, I am.”

She took off her sunglasses and I got it! She has the “Burnett” eyes. I would have recognized her immediately had she not hidden behind the dark glasses.

We all roared with laughter… made even funnier when hubby told her what he had said when he first spotted her!

It turns out this was something she had always wanted to do for a good laugh but never had had the opportunity. She told her brother (whom I know quite well) about what she wanted to do and he told her I had a great sense of humour and would get a big kick out of it. He was right… I did.

It was a great start to a wonderful couple of days together getting to know each other as adults. For two people who are not “chatty Cathy’s”, we talked up a storm the whole time she was here. We have promised each other that we’ll get together again soon!

She had brought her copy of my book, “Scraps of Memories, Slices of Life” and wanted me to autograph it! I was quite touched. Just before she left I wrote this dedication “To Kathy, Family by blood, Cousins by birth, Friends by choice, Love Sharon”

That’s exactly how I felt as I watched her turn and wave goodbye at the airport on the day she left. Not only had I got to know my cousin but I had found a friend as well. It doesn’t get any better than that…!

On to this week’s “installment“ from “Scraps of Memories, Slices of Life…

When my great-grandmother arrived back in New Brunswick in the fall of 1929 with my aunt Flo who was now 7 and my aunt Ina, now 4, she was at a loss. Who could she talk to about finding these young girls a good home where they would be loved and cared for?

The details are rather sketchy as to whom she talked to or approached at first. Aunt Flo was too young to remember what transpired during this time. She remembered meeting some of her aunts from the Burnett side of the family. She was especially fond of her Aunt Ruth who was married to her father’s brother Frank.

Most of Frank and Ruth’s children were much older than Florence and Ina. But Flo felt happy being around all these “new” relatives. Being surrounded by people always gave her a sense of comfort and security. She hated being alone when she was a child and hated it even more as an adult!

Aunt Flo recalled how the memory that stuck the most in her mind was feeling very overwhelmed by shyness when meeting all of these cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives for the first time. She had a very high need to feel accepted and be part of the group.

As personable as my aunt Flo was, she often worried whether people would like her. Most people just adored her. She was a fun, kind person to be around, When her girls were teenagers, Flo’s house was filled with all the neighbourhood kids. They loved to come her house to chat and get one of her famous hugs. She gave the best hugs in the whole wide world!

She recalled meeting her Aunt Belle and Uncle Goldie for the first time. Shortly after returning from Ontario, Commela and the two girls went by train to St. John’s for a visit to meet her mother’s brother Goldie and his wife Belle.

Belle and Goldie

Belle Nugent was a Kansas gal with a wonderful sense of fun! The daughter of John Green McKaughan and Emma Reid, she was born in Edgerton Kansas on August 16, 1894.

Belle came from a large family of ten children; six sisters Chloe, Freda, Liddie, Dora, Mildred and Henrietta and three brothers, Albert, Roy and Robert.

She first met Goldie when he was studing for his medical degree at the Unviersity of Kansas. Goldie received his medical degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1914 and opened a practice in Kansas.

Belle married Goldie Nugent, Ina Burnett’s only surviving family member, in August of 1916 when she was 22. Shortly after their marriage, they moved to Fredericton where Goldie opened up a medical practice. Although I found no indication that Goldie took over his father’s medical practice (Dr. John had died in January of 1916), in all likelihood he probably inherited some of Dr. John’s patients when he returned to Fredericton.

Goldie soon had a thriving medical practice. A few years later, in addition to his practice, he became the coroner for Queen’s County and began teaching at the school of nursing.

After fourteen years of marriage, Belle and Goldie still had no children. Whether this was by choice or not is unknown. Belle was a strongwilled, ambitious woman, very active in the community. Goldie, although active in the community, was a quiet, reflective and shy man who would rather go fishing than spend time gladhanding his way around town. He needn’t have worried… he had Belle who was good at doing that for him in her own gracious way.

At the time of Commela and the girls visit, Belle was 35 and Goldie was ten years her senior. Quickly grasping the gravity of Commela’s concerns for the future welfare of the girls, they immediately offered to give both of the girls a home. They were most willing to adopt both girls as their own and make a warm, loving home for them. They would make the necessary arrangements. But first, they needed to do some re-arranging and renovations in their home to accommodate their new, small family. Belle was just thrilled that she would now have some daughters to fuss over!

Belle on a broncing horse whopping it up! When I was a kid, I thought this horse was alive! But alas, it is not. The horse is stuffed and attached to the railing. What a hoot! Yep, Rodeo Queen indeed...

Commela returned to Fredericton with a sense of real relief and gratefulness in her heart. She had found a good home for “her girls”. Belle was a kind, outgoing woman with a wonderful sense of humour and a streak of the “dare devil” who would be good to her granddaughters. She was young and vibrant. She would be able to offer the girls many things as they grew older that Commela could not. Stability, education, a young person’s point of view and a good home being among the most important.

Once Belle and Goldie had all the arrangements made, they sent for the girls. Commela would accompany them to St. John, stay for a few days and then return to Fredericton.

Young Ina was excited. She really liked her aunt Belle and this would be a wonderful adventure. She could hardly wait and chatted incessantly about going to live with her aunt Belle in the big city.

Florence, on the other hand, was very quiet. The thought of leaving her grandmother filled her with terror. She had already lost her mother and now her grandmother? She remembered feeling so helpless. Her grandmother was going to give her away. Didn’t she love her anymore? She had tried to be so good ever since grandpa had died. She felt confused and hurt. She recalled how her grandmother had asked if she wasn’t feeling well on that trip to St. John’s. Upon reflection, she later remarked that she must have been unusually quiet for her grandmother to wonder if she was ill.

Aunt Flo couldn’t remember how long they were there before the day came when her grandmother was to go back to Fredericton. She did recall telling Ina she didn’t want to stay with aunt Belle and Ina pleading that she change her mind and stay with her there.

“Of course, gramma didn’t know this is how I felt. I hadn’t said anything and Ina, for once, didn’t snitch on me. It might have been easier if she had.” Aunt Flo recalled. “But as the day neared when gramma was to go back to Fredericton, I remember feeling very panicked I must have put up a pretty good fuss of some sort. All I remember is Gramma with tears in her eyes and in the end, she took me back with her to Fredericton. Since my mother had died, Gramma had become my mother and I remember feeling terrified to lose my mother again.”

Over the next few years, Florence and Ina visited each other often. Florence really looked forward to going to St. John’s and getting together with her sister and aunt Belle.
They had fun together and it created a bond between the three of them that lasted though their lifetimes.

When both of the girls married, Belle became a “gramma” to their children. She loved every minute of it! She enjoyed her “grandchildren” and enjoyed having them around.

Both girls moved away from St. John’s with their husbands. But the girls would often “go home” for a couple of weeks each summer. My cousin Laurie recently recalled, “They would shoo us kids outside to play in the backyard of gramma’s house and the three of them would sit at the kitchen table drinking coffee and talk, talk, talk! They never seemed to talk themselves out”, she said with a smile in her voice.

When Florence was 12, her beloved grandmother, Commela Grant Burnett died. Florence was devastated. Where would she go now?

For the next couple of years, she lived with her aunt Ruth and uncle Frank. “They were always nice and very kind to me.” she said. “But I never got over the feeling that I was being “taken in”. It certainly wasn’t anything that they ever said or did. I just missed my grandmother so much. I felt like I had been abandoned by everyone who loved me and I was the third wheel at the dinner table.”

When Florence finished school, she went to live with her Aunt Belle, Uncle Goldie and sister. She decided to attend secretarial school so she could get out on her own as soon as she could.

The next couple of years were good years for both of the girls. They had many fun times together and managed to get into all sorts of “mischief”. Aunt Belle was always “game” for anything fun and they enjoyed each other’s company immensely.

Flo recalled. “Aunt Belle was somewhat old fashioned. But then again, most teenagers think their parents are old fuddy duds. Ina and I did a lot of crazy, fun things together that aunt Belle didn't approve of. See honey, some things don’t change over the years after all.” she said with a chuckle in her voice "Kids still think their parents are fuddy duds!"

See you next week,



An Art Journey Into Family History - Part 8

James Willis…

Sometime in the early 1920’s, James Willis, Jasper’s brother and my great-grandparent’s youngest son decided to strike it out on his own. He left the family farm in New Hampshire and headed “west” to Fort Frances, Ontario. There he found work as a hotel clerk in one of his Uncle Charlie’s (my great grandfather’s youngest brother) hotels.

Not much is known about young Willis today. I remember my Dad talking about his uncle Willis when I was a child. He remembered him quite vividly. Being his uncle’s namesake appeared to make a big impression on my dad as a young boy. He adored his uncle and trailed after him wherever he went.

The family ring, given to my Dad when he was in his teens, originated with his Uncle Willis. When my Dad died, the ring passed to my brother Bob (another Robert in the family!). When Bob was tragically killed in an industrial accident in 1992, the ring was eventually given to my cousin Jay (another James in the family!)

Once again, I didn’t pay as close attention to the family stories that my Dad told when I was young as I would have later on in life.

As the tragic event that was to enfold in the spring of 1926 would show, it is a high probability that once on his own, Willis took a cue from his brother Jasper’s behaviour as a young, unattached male. A good looking young man, he enjoyed his new found freedom, was sought after by all the young ladies in town and did his share of partying with the “boys”!

In April of 1926, news reached Commela and Henry that their youngest son was dead. He died of a gunshot wound. Family lore has it that Willis was shot by an irate husband while lying in the arms of his wife (and Willis' mistress).

Even though I was able to confirm his death from a gunshot wound (I found his death certificate that noted his cause of death in one of my searches), I did not find any newspaper accounts (they are not available to the public) to confirm the shooting. Being a small town then (and now), it would have created quite a stir.

I do remember my maternal grandmother and one of my aunts talking about it when I was quite young. That long ago memory was triggered when I found Willis' death certificate! It is a very vague memory but yet distinct... both at the same time.

This shooting "affair" was likely a sensational story when it occured. I can just imagine that it had the tongues of the town's finest matrons wagging furiously for weeks!
Old family postcards, birth and death certificates, mementos

Leaving New Hampshire…

In the late spring of 1926 when school let out for the summer, the Burnett family left New Hampshire. Looking for a “fresh start”, they headed “west” to Ontario.

Charles Medford Burnett was my great grandfather’s youngest brother. Uncle Charlie (as he was known to my aunt and her siblings) was sixteen years younger than my great grandfather. Charlie had done very well for himself financially over the years. In addition to the hotels and resort lodge that he owned at Spring Lake, Ontario, he also owned a diary farm just outside Fort Frances, Ontario.

Aunt Flo remembered the trip “west” vividly.

“Gramma and Grandpa took us little ones on the train to Fort Frances. Ina was just a toddler at the time and I remember how much attention she received from the passengers on the train. She was so cute and I must admit I was rather jealous that people paid so much attention to her!

Jimmy and I amused ourselves as best we could on the long trip. But I sure missed my big brothers. I wasn’t used to them not being around and of course, as a little girl, I tagged after them like a puppy dog wherever they went. They were my big brothers and I adored them.

My dad drove with the boys (Wilfred, Guy and Willis) across the country. It must have taken at least a week or more for them to get there. The cars in those days didn’t go very fast and the roads weren’t like they are today.

I think I had just turned five when we left so I don’t really remember arriving in Fort Frances. I just remember how happy I was to see my brothers again.”

At Uncle Charlie's dairy farm
Grandparents Commela and Henry
Grandchildren Ina, Jimmy and Florence

School Days … Moving to Town

“I don’t remember much about that first summer in Fort Frances”, she continued, “I think we all stayed on the farm. I do remember that Gramma was so sad and I didn’t know why. I just remember trying really hard to be good so she wouldn’t be sad anymore.”

As the new school year approached, the eldest boys moved “into town” to go to school.

“They lived with Uncle Charlie and Aunt Maude.” Flo said. “They didn’t have any children of their own. They had adopted their daughter Gertrude, but I don’t know when. “

I was curious. “Where was your Dad?” I asked.

“I don’t really know.” she said. “I know he was in the Fort but I don’t think he lived with the boys. I just remember him coming out to the farm to see us little ones and how upset Gramma would get.”

“I think he must have been up to all his old tricks.” she continued, “because I remember Gramma telling him he couldn’t come to see us if he had been drinking or was with a woman.”

Once he showed up with some woman and she actually brought me a dress. It was covered all over in red cherries. It was a beautiful dress and I can still see it in my mind today. But we never saw her again after that… at least not that I can recall.”

“After my mother died, I think my dad just gave up.” she said sadly. “At first, Gramma and he seemed to get along but as time wore on, they would get into some pretty wicked arguments with each other. If I remember correctly he worked in one of uncle Charlie’s hotels but was pretty unreliable. After awhile, when Gramma saw him coming, she would shoo us off outside or send us to our bedroom.”

“The highlight of our week was always those days when my brothers came to visit us on the farm. I would get so excited when I saw them coming and I would be so sad when they went back to town. I just wanted to go back to town with them.”

“I remember the day that Gramma told me that soon I would be big enough to go to school after the summer and could move into town. I was so excited. I thought I was going to be able to be with the boys all the time. Little did I know that I was going to have to stay someplace else.”

“When it was time for me to start school, Gramma found a lady in town who would take me in during the week. I remember being so scared. I didn’t know this lady and when your Dad came to get me to bring me there, I just cried and cried. I didn’t want to leave Gramma and go live with a stranger. Your Dad tried so hard to get me to stop crying. He told me that this was a nice lady and I would get to see my brothers all the time now. But I was so miserable. After he left me there, I just cried myself to sleep that night.”

The following summer, in July of 1929, my great grandfather Henry dropped dead of a heart attack while working on the farm one day. He was 70 years old.

My great grandmother was devastated. Whatever would she do now?

Following her husband’s burial, she made the heart wrenching decision to leave my youngest uncle, Jimmy, with Uncle Charlie, Aunt Maude and the boys and return to New Brunswick. There she could live with her daughter Stella while she tried to find someone to take care of the two girls.

She was all worn out. She did not want to die suddenly, leaving these young children to fend for themselves. She had to find a good home for them even if it was the last thing she did on this earth. She would not leave them motherless again!

With a heavy, grieving heart, she gathered the children's belongings together, said goodbye to the boys and boarded the train for "down east" with the two young girls, Florence and Ina in tow.

More mementos
Ina & Jasper's children as young adults

Just two or three posts to go now.... however...

There will be no post next week. My cousin Kathy, my uncle Jimmy’s daughter, whom I have not seen since we were very little, is coming to visit me in Victoria. I am so excited! We lost touch with each other over the years but doing the book for my aunt brought us back together. It has been amazing to me to find out over the past year or so just how much the two of us have in common… we’ll have a great time together!

See you in two weeks,

An Art Journey Into Family History Part 7

Moving to New Hampshire

In August 1920, Jasper and Ina moved with their three boys to New Hampshire. Young Georgia remained behind in Fredericton with her Aunt Ida, her deceased father’s sister.

Lured by the prospect of greater prosperity and nearing retirement age, my great grandfather Henry decided to sell the farm in Fredericton and along with my great grandmother Commela and their youngest son Willis accompany Ina and Jasper to New Hampshire.

But the 1920’s in New Hampshire turned out not to be good years to be in farming.

During World War I, the government had encouraged farmers to up their food production but after the war was over and life returned to normal, the demand for farmer’s goods decreased. With it went the profits they had enjoyed.

Perhaps my grandfather and great grandfather thought it would be different south of the border. It was, at first. However, it didn’t take long before farmers on both sides of the border were feeling the financial pinch.

Life on a New Hampshire farm during the 1920’s was hard.. Not only did the men work from dawn to dusk but the women did not enjoy the conveniences of modern life as we know today. They all went to bed with the chickens, thoroughly exhausted and got up with the rooster’s crow to start all over again.

More Children

During the 1920’s, three new additions were added to Ina and Jasper’s quickly growing family.

Shortly after arriving in New Hampshire, Ina discovered that she was pregnant with her fifth child. Florence Commela was born the following May.

Aunt Flo had often wondered where her first name had originated. A search through existing family records indicated nothing. Had she been named after a friend of her mother’s? That, of course, we would never know.

It was only when I decided to do a search for popular baby names in the 1920’s that I discovered that Florence was a popular girl’s name at the time. Did Ina love that name so much that she decided to give it to her new baby girl.? I like to think so. So did my aunt when we chatted about it a few months later.

Her second name, of course, came from her grandmother Burnett. However, most of her life, aunt Flo had spelt it Camella (with an “a”) and not Commella (with an “o”). Her birth certificate, which she acquired much later on in her life had Commela spelt with an “a” and only one “m”. The discrepancy in spelling was only discovered during my research and was likely a transcription error from her original birth record. Handwritten “o’s” were often mistaken for “a’s” and dropping an “m” made the pronunciation look “right”! Another mystery solved LOL.

Florence was not yet a year old when Ina discovered she was pregnant again! Another son, James Henry was born in November of 1922.

In the latter part of the summer of 1923, the announcement of yet another child on the way, her sixth pregnancy since marrying Jasper in 1915, may have caused some very serious discussions within the family. Times were hard. Money was scarce. Their farmhouse with five adults and five children was already bursting at its seams. The prospect of yet another mouth to feed, clothe and care for likely came as a shock.

Ina, never robust, continued to struggle intermittently with her health. The financial burden of a large family, hard, heavy work on the farm, the care of five children all under the age of eight and aging in-laws (65 in those days was much different than it is today!) was beginning to take its toll. The strain began to show on her face. Photographs of her during this time show a woman putting on a brave face but appearing frail and looking much, much older than thirty three years of age.

In May of 1924, her last child, another daughter, Ina Bertha was born.

That summer, Georgia came to visit with her mother and step-siblings during her school holidays. Georgia was introduced to her new baby sister Ina. She was very taken with Ina and it was a relationship that remained strong throughout their lives.

Below is a photo of "little" Ina at age 9 sittin' on the woodpile behind Goldie and Belle Nugent's (Ina's only surviving brother and sister-in-law) home in Fredericton.

The Tragic Loss of a Mother

By the fall of 1925, Ina’s health had deteriorated even more. In late November she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Already in poor health, the diagnosis was a death sentence.

Ina Bessie Nugent Thomas Burnett died on the family farm on Dec. 6, 1925.

In those days, the rearing of children was left up to the female members of the family. Although I knew some of the details that followed my grandmother’s death, it had never occurred to me until I was creating this family book that the burden for raising these children fell squarely upon my great-grandmother’s shoulders when Ina died.

Conversations with my aunt Flo confirmed that indeed this was the case.

I felt a strong bond of empathy growing with my great grandmother. Women at that time in our history did not express their feelings openly. I began to imagine what it must have been like for her when Ina died.

All indications are that she was fond of Ina and to lose her daughter in law must have been very difficult all by itself. But to be faced with the prospect of raising six children, all under the age of 10 at age 62 (she was four years younger than my great grandfather) had to be very overwhelming.

“What must have been going through her mind?” I wondered. “How must she have felt?”

I decided to write a letter for my great grandmother to a female relative on her side of the family to express some of those feelings that had, in all probability, never been expressed. It was my gift of release and thanks to my great grandmother for all that she did to help these young, now motherless children, in the best way she knew how.

The letter reads:

“My dear Augusta,

It is with a heavy heart that I write to you this day to tell you of Ina’s passing on Saturday, December 6 at age 34. The poor dear girl was taken with tuberculosis, such a wretched disease, which if you recall took her brother Arthur, her sister Alida, her father and her mother. However will Ida tell young Georgia that she is now an orphan and will never be able to visit with her mother again?

Such a cross Ina had to bear in her few short years. Losing her first husband so shortly after their marriage and before Georgia was born, then her dear mother a few short months later. How heartbreaking it must have been for her to lose her dear father, Dr. John in ’16. At least he lived long enough to see her re-married and meet his first grandson Wilfred.

Jasper, as you can imagine, is beside himself. Whatever will he do now with 6 young children to raise? And oh my heart aches for those children. Wilfred is but 10, Guy is 8 and Willis just turned 7. The little ones, Florence (4), Jimmy (3) and baby Ina will never know their mother. They don’t really understand what has happened and keep asking when their mother is coming back. How sad it is to bear witness to the bewilderment on their tiny faces and know there is nothing one can do to mend their little hearts.

Ina so adored her children and she will be sorely missed by them. However much I love these young souls who have now been entrusted to my care, a grandmother can never replace a mother. I pray each night that I am given the strength to carry on and do right by them. Whatever should I do if I am not up to the task as I grow older? Oh dear Augusta, I dare not even entertain the thought.

Stella [my great-grandmother’s only daughter with whom she was very close] and young Lenore {Stella’s daughter and my great grandmother’s granddaughter] are arriving next week to help….”

The letter remains unfinished.

It took me a long time to write that letter. I shed many a tear while composing it Perhaps those tears were the ones my great grandmother felt inside but felt couldn’t or wouldn’t show at the time.

My aunt Flo cried softly when she finally got to read it a few months later. As she dried her tears, she said: “My grandma was a wonderful woman. She took care of us as best she could for as long as she could. Where ever did you find that letter?”

I told her I had written it myself.

She stared at me in disbelief.

“Sharon, I honestly thought it was a letter grandma wrote. It sounds just like grandma used to talk. I could hear her voice as I read it. I thought she had written it to Augusta. I have needed to hear everything in that letter since the day my mother died.”

My dear auntie slept soundly that night for the first time in a very, very long time. I know because I was there with her.