No Stone Unturned
No Stone Unturned
A Coin Toss
Many illegitimate newborns in Canada were sold or illegally given away by the Catholic Church and other institutions in the 1950’s. On December 18, 1952, I became one of those babies.
Six days after my birth, my mother signed documents relinquishing all rights to me and instructing Mother Superior Dympna to find adoptive parents. She then boarded an afternoon train in Blind River, Ontario on Christmas Eve and left me behind at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Sid and Rita Russell were a young, accomplished couple living in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, eighty-four miles from Blind River. Rita was stunningly beautiful; Sid was charming and handsome.
They owned a grocery store called Russell’s Confectionery, a bowling alley and a beautiful 200-year- old home called “The Old Stone House,” which was subsequently declared a historical monument and is now a museum.
The Russell’s were desperate for a child since Beverly, their son born at the family farm in Blind River, died at birth in 1941. Rita’s mother, Mary Tessier, who lived at the family farm with her husband Henri and his brother Omer, approached Mother Superior Dympna at St.
Joseph’s Hospital inquiring if any children needed a home. At the time, St. Joseph’s was known to have a ward on the 3rd floor for unwed mothers. Young, unmarried women travelled from many towns in Ontario to live with the nuns in the convent for several months, work at the home for the aged to pay for their room and board and to give their babies up for adoption.
On January 11, 1953, Sid, Rita, Nestor, Rita’s brother, and Antoinette, his wife, left the farm in Blind River to drive back to Sault Ste. Marie after spending the weekend with their large family.
Nestor and Antoinette, twenty-year-old newlyweds, were in shock as they listened to Sid and Rita talking about a baby girl who was at St. Joseph’s Hospital and available for adoption. No one hadspoken about a baby that weekend and now Sid and Rita were discussing whether they should go back to the hospital and take the child.
“Let’s stop the car and talk about it,” Sid said to Rita. “You have breast cancer and had operations and radium treatment. We don’t know what is going to happen. How can we take such a risk with a baby?”
“Sid, I really want a baby. I am strong, I know that if God gives this baby to us then he is going to let me live long enough to raise it.”
Rita begged Sid to turn back toward the hospital. “Let’s flip a coin,” Sid said. “Heads we go back for the baby, tails we continue home.”
The coin landed on heads, they turned the car around and headed back toward the hospital. In the two seconds it took, my life’s trajectory was determined by the toss of a coin.
Half an hour after Sid and Rita entered St. Joseph’s Hospital, the couple emerged with Mother Superior Dympna and a baby wrapped in a blanket.
“This is our baby girl,” Rita said to Nestor and Antoinette as she climbed into the front seat.
As the group left the hospital, they noticed a young woman standing by the windows on the upper floor watching their departure. She was in shadow. They couldn’t make out her features. This was a practice of the nuns, to have a young woman appear in the distance to make the adoptive parents believe it was the child’s mother. The nuns thought it would give comfort to the new parents.
They returned to the farm where Mary helped them cut up cotton material to make diapers and blankets. Rita named me Nadean — she had found the name in a novel and liked it.
Upon arrival in Sault Ste. Marie, her sisters were concerned and upset that the hospital gave Rita a baby.
“Rita how can the hospital do this when you are so sick?” Rita’s sister Patricia said.
Rita did not reply and instead, set about making my nursery.
“That is the homeliest baby I have ever seen! She has huge eyes and is so skinny. She looks like a hungry bird,” Rita’s sister Rachel said, which made Rita cry.
Over the next two years, Rita flew to Toronto, Montreal and Dallas, Texas looking for cures forher breast cancer. She underwent radium treatments and had a double mastectomy. As her condition worsened and the entire family was consumed with her illness, no one thought to question or complete my adoption papers.
As Rita’s illness progressed, the cancer spread from her breast to her lungs and she became more weak and unable to care for me. Her brothers and sisters set up shifts during the day and after work when one would always be present to care for Rita and me. My routine was chaotic. I would not sleep regular hours. Nestor said that, “On many nights I would walk with you on my shoulder to get you to sleep. When I looked down into your face, you would always be wide awake looking up at me with those huge brown eyes.”
During the last nine months of Rita’s illness, I was sent to live with Rita’s sister, Phyllis and herhusband, James, as Sid and the family needed to care for Rita. Sid, who loved Rita passionately,became increasingly depressed and began to drink heavily. Fearing for my future, Rita prepared a will leaving me to her mother Mary to be raised on the family farm in Blind River. Sid was upset, but resigned.
He knew he could never win in a court of law against his mother-in-law who would battle vigorously for me.
Rita died on Valentine’s Day, 1955 at the age of thirty- six, two years after taking me. In two years, I lost two mothers. The wake was held on the farm that Rita had loved so much. Her casket was placed in the living room for viewing and many mourners visited the family to pay their respects. She was remembered fondly by many. The townspeople reminisced and told stories about Mrs. Tessier driving into town with her horse and carriage, her four attractive daughters riding beside and behind her, Rita being the most beautiful.
Men admired them from afar, but dared not approach as Mrs. Tessier was known as a fiercewoman, who was excessively protective of her daughters.
My aunts recalled me sitting on the floor near the casket and banging my forehead on the floor until my nose bled. After the funeral, Sid said his goodbyes and left the farm.
After Rita’s passing, Mary took me back to the hospital and introduced me to Mother Superior.
“Sister Dympna, my daughter Rita has died. This is Nadean, the child you gave to her two years ago. Rita left her to me to be raised on the farm. I just want you to know that I have raised nine children, but Nadean will be loved and cared for and I will do my best to raise her like the others. Can you tell me anything about Nadean’s mother and father?”
“Mrs. Tessier, I am so sorry for your loss. Nadean’s mother is from Yugoslavia. She worked at St.Joseph’s Hospital in North Bay. The reason she gave Nadean away is that her mother was coming over from the old country and she did not want her mother to know she had had a child. She has gone back to North Bay. I should also tell you that if Nadean looks anything like her birth mother, then she will resemble your daughter Rita. In taking Rita away from you, God has given this child to you to raise. You have been blessed with this wonderful gift.”
Mary was 60-years-old.
How to Set a Rabbit Snare
My first memory of the farm house is an early winter morning, standing at the top of the stairs and staring down into the glazed-over eyes of a large grey Canadian wolf.
On the landing at the bottom of the stairs, it stood rigid, atop scattered logs. Its lips were pulled back in a gruesome snarl revealing enormous bared teeth.
I don’t remember shouting or screaming, but suddenly, my grandmother and great uncle appeared on the landing next to the wolf. They were smiling.
“Don’t be afraid, Nadean,” Grandma said. “It’s dead; it won’t hurt you.”
“Viens, mon petit,” Mon Oncle said, which is French for, Come, my little one.
Mon Oncle stepped over the wolf, climbed up the stairs and scooped me up into his arms. He carried me over to Grandma who sat in a rocking chair next to a large window that looked out onto a snow-covered field.
“Your mother Rita has gone to Heaven with Jesus, Nadean,” Grandma said as she clutched me to her bosom. “She was very sick and left you with us to be raised.
“You don’t need to be afraid of that wolf. It is frozen. Mon Oncle is a trapper. He caught the wolf in one of his traps out there on the ridge. Can you see the ridge way over there? Can you see the foxes running? Well, that is what he does. He traps animals and after they thaw out, he skins them and sells their pelts. We are trappers and farmers. You are going to live on the farm with us now and we are going to take care of you.”
I remember looking out the window, seeing a fox running on the ridge and thinking I had arrived in another world. I was in shock and confused! I did not know these people. I was bereft and sensed that I was about to embark on a new journey in a strange world.
That summer Sid visited me for the first time since Rita’s passing.
He brought a navy blue and white sailor suit, white socks, blue and white saddle shoes, a toothbrush and toothpaste. He held me over the kitchen sink, showed me how to brush my teeth andsaid, “You must do this every day.”
Afterwards, he sat with Grandma and they spoke for a long time. He took a photo of me standing in front of a dog’s house with a puppy in my arm. He hugged and kissed me when he left. I would not see Sid again for many years.
I grew to love my Grandma, Papere, my grandfather and Mon Oncle, Papere’s brother. All in their sixties, it must have been a shock for them to take on the care of a small child.
Mon Oncle made small snowshoes for me and together we visited his traps daily in winter checking for beaver, rabbits, muskrats and weasels. He showed me how he set traps in the snow.
“You see here, Mon Petit,” he said as he showed me how to set the trap, “I place the snare for the rabbit where we see rabbit tracks. That means he is going to come back this way and when he does,we will catch him in the trap. This is how we place it, just under the snow, on the tracks.”
He set the traps for beavers, muskrats and weasels at the edge of the frozen lakes. When I became tired, he placed me on the sleigh he pulled next to the animals he collected from the traps. I loved following Mon Oncle. His life was so exciting to a child!
Papere worked as a supervisor for the Division of Highways, building roads, so would be away from the farm during the week. Papere spoke fluent French and some English, so was always able to find work supervising men in either bush camps or on the building of railroads and roads. Grandma took care of the farm house and Mon Oncle took care of the horses, cows, chickens, pigs, ducks and the three large gardens. It was a division of responsibility that worked. They owned 160 acres of land.
In summer, Mon Oncle would place me behind the yoke on top of the harnessed workhorse, Pete. He trudged behind in his rubber boots and held the plow with both hands as it moved with the horse.
“Hold onto the reins, Nadean and make sure Pete stays straight in the rows.”
The long reins were slung over his shoulders in case Pete bolted. I was so happy to have this huge responsibility of making sure the rows in the garden patch were straight.
Grandma took in laundry from American families who owned cottages on Lake Lauzon, a few miles from the farm. She, Mon Oncle and Uncle Joseph opened up and cleaned the cottages in early summer and closed them in the fall. And they also sold chopped wood and blocks of ice to the Americans. Grandma was a trusted resource for so many families who left the keys to their cottages with her as they departed each fall.
The seasons followed a predictable nature: trapping in the winter, feeding and watering all the barn animals in the morning and at night, cleaning out their stalls, planting the gardens in spring and haying in the summer. We had no electricity or running water and no indoor plumbing. Water was supplied to the kitchen by a pump handle over the sink that drew water from a well near the house. Light was provided at night by kerosene lanterns. There was an outhouse a short distance from the house and chamber pots were used at night.
Grandma dressed me in knee length bloomer underpants until my aunts insisted that she change to more modern clothes.
I loved the weekends because my aunts, uncles and cousins visited the farm. In summer, the men worked in the fields cutting and bringing in hay for the animals and the women worked in the gardens and prepared large cooked breakfasts, lunches and suppers. We had huge gatherings of 20 to 30 people for meals.
After the dishes were cleared and washed and the kitchen swept, chairs would be moved and there would be playing of guitars, fiddles and harmonicas, tap dancing and cigarette and pipe smoking. There was much laughter and teasing of one another. French and English were spoken equally.
I loved the haying season as my cousin Charles and I would run in from the fields to be the first to reach the farm house. Whomever arrived first would have the honor of carrying the jug of Kool-Aid back to the barn for the men, while the other carried the glasses. Just because I was two years older and faster did not mean that I would always win the race as I was horribly pigeon toed and would often fall flat on my face, much to Charles’ amusement.
The family would tell me stories about my mother, Rita. “Nadean, she adopted you because she wanted you and she loved you so much. She was the kindest and most beautiful woman.” They grieved her loss immensely, but found comfort in having her daughter.
Aunt Leona, her closest sister and best friend, missed Rita especially and thought everything she did was fabulous. She would hold me on her lap, talk about Rita and then sing, How Much is that Doggie in the Window?
“Nadean, one time when your mother and I were teenagers, we entered a singing contest as theTessier Sisters. We were dressed identically in blue and white sailor suits. As we arrived on stage, I panicked and could not even open my mouth to sing so your mother sang the song alone. She saved us. She was so special!” Leona laughed and cried in relating this story.
During the long winter months when it was cold and dark so early in the day, Grandma and I would sit at the kitchen table by the light of the kerosene lamp and she would read to me from her Bible. She had me memorize long passages. As time passed, she taught me how to read, write, spell, count and do sums.
One year after Sid’s visit, a car stopped at the gate to the farm. A strange man climbed out and beckoned me to his car. I was playing on the swing near the house. He was holding a doll. As I started toward the car, Grandma ran from the house and screamed at me to stop. She carried a rifle.
She turned toward the man, raised the gun to her shoulder and shouted: “Get off my property now or I will shoot!”
The man climbed into his car and sped away from the farm. Grandma took my hand and walkedme back to the house.
“Nadean, never speak to strangers. Always hide if they approach you and never get into a car with anyone you don’t know,” she said as she looked into my eyes.
My grandmother always believed that the man at the gate was sent by Sid to kidnap me.