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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

A Tribute to Uncle Donat and Uncle John at Christmas story

We are soon to be on a Christmas like no other, but really it won't be so bad. Not many of you know of my Uncle Donat and my uncle John. Part of that reason is that Uncle Donat lived for only a few days. My uncle John only for a few years.

Donat, born the first child of my Grandparents, Arthur and Theresa Duval, was born a few days before Christmas and died Christmas day. I can't tell you very much about him, as the only words I heard about it was , "It wasn't a very good Christmas" as my Grandfather's faced darkened as quickly as a winter storm. Quickly he shook it off and rose from that bout of bad weather and went on with his day.

This was a microcosm for the event itself, they probably paused for awhile and went on with their lives. Times were different, tougher as it were, my other Grandparents, John and Mary Beausoliel also lost a son, he lived for a few years before succumbing to scarlet Fever. His name was John and he was the last of eight, as Donat had been the first of eight. Whether first or last makes no different when losing a child, the pain was always there, but never visible to us.

This was something repeated in so many families at the time. Children died, in childbirth, childhood or whatever, whether by accident, virus or sickness it was a part of life, we almost don't understand today.

So how did they get through it? Well probably how we get through everything, inconceivable today, it was a part of life then. As family and friends came to see them, they probably knew what it was like to lose a child, or a young sibling, my Grandfather Duval had lost his mother long before this, so it was part of their lives...not a good part but still...they were hardened, like steel in a forge, when the heat of life is quenched in the chill of death, you get hard or you crack apart.

My father tells of a cousin who visited and, by what we know today died of an apparent allergy to something that was new to him but perfectly safe to anyone else. This was a thing, people dropped dead and that was it, we didn't have all the answers.

At one point we had a photo of my Grandfathers class in elementary school. Following his index finger across the row of young faces he would say died in the war, was in an accident, etc. His voice unwavering, continued to return to died in the war until it would seem many of his childhood friends had one day left for Europe and would not return and lie in far off graves. Drafted, He went to Toronto with every intention of serving, his having a herd of cattle was seen as reason enough to return him home. My father was born in 1941, the second child so this had not been too long after they had lost that first child. Some would not be so lucky, which is an incredible claim to make.

In 1918 Antoine Beausoleil would lose his daughters, Maggie 15, and Ella May 20, a few weeks after she was married in the Spanish influenza epidemic. (Spanish flu.)

The tragedy of losing children would weigh heavily on my Grandmothers, though they also did not show it. But if you delved deeper, you could see it, you may just not recognize it at first as it was buried inside.

Five children of the Monck family had passed in 1876. They ranged in age from 1 to 14 and died in nine days. So there was always some out there who had it worse.

My Grandfather Beausoleil had been drafted in the first World War, in the summer of 1918. He left for Europe but was never in battle as he arrived too late. He likely lost many of his childhood friends as well. He would be in England for awhile while they demobilized the veteran troops. He would see those who were deemed to damaged to return to civilized society right away. I wonder if any of them ever did. I remember one friend who would tell of his Grandfather having hiding places where he would periodically dive to avoid gunfire he had heard decades before.

Even missing the war affected my Grandfather Duval, as he would seem to need to justify a Government decision to not go to war. This was a macho time and some would attack him for not going. This resulted in one being thrown out the second story window, luckily there was a cordwood lile there, orthere may have been jail time. The bitterness would sometimes be shown, but life would go on.

We, hopefully will never see those times. My Grandfather would tell stories of OLD Charlie Scott and Arthur Capistrand, both of whom had gone to war and returned to their lives.

My Grandfathers brother, Antoine Duval, had avoided the war in an unusual way. Having been working "up the lakes" he and a buddy came to town, where they met Mr Thompson the Mayor. They asked if the war was on and if they needed them. Mr Thompson told them that many had enlisted, so they should go back to their jobs and if needed they would find them. The call never came.

His sons answered the call of the second World War, the Korean war, and more serving their country nobly. Antoine, would go on to serve the town of Penetang in various capacities.

Antoine lived to a ripe old age in his nineties, but as a younger man, while taking in a load of logs, he fell off, and would find himself in a Toronto Hospital. At the time cars had not been built for Canadian Winters. The roads probably were not that good either. Four of Antoine's Brothers, my Grandfather included, set off in car with only two seats inside and two brothers huddled together under a "buffalo rob" blanket in the rumble seat. In this manner they set off for Toronto, but would have to stop in the cold and run around to warm up every twenty minutes to half an hour. This would probably be an endless trip through terrible road conditions, but a brother was there and in that was probably beyond dire. Antoine lived but had a bump on the back of his neck for the rest of his life.

I only ever met Antoine once, as aging people he was in the old Penetang hospital at the same time as my Grandfather. Seems a life of working hard had wore them down a bit. They brightened when they seen each other and the stories they told were jovial. At one point they spoke up, another patient could not get across to the nurse what he wanted. HE kept saying to her to put another log on, put another log on in his aged and accented voice. So Antoine said to the nurse, he's cold, he wants you to put a log on the fire. Of course the hospital was not warmed by woodfire, but probably a life lived by the fire, you got used to putting a log on when it was cold. So they knew the vernacular this old guy was using.

My Grandmother with her father and sisters

That is a way of life now lost of the woodstove or fireplace as a primary means of heating. For more years than we can tell man lived by the fire, cutting, splitting and burning wood cut with your own hands. Keeping a woodstove to heat your house solely was a part of everyday life. Cold nights you would have to make a fire that would last all night. IF you left you had to make sure you had a fire that was safe and would hopefully last until you got back. IT was ever most important to keep your stovepipes clean. This also led to another thing, if a man had some land, and wanted to work, they could always cut cordwood. Even late in a man's life the respect for another mans land was present when a "rodain" a small unsplit piece of wood was shook at someone trying to take wood from his land. On the other side of it, a tree needed to be cut that was not on my Grandfathers property, and we cut it and delivered it to the bewildered neighbour who would probably not have recognized the loss.

My Grandfather would tell of trading stamps with others during the war. HE had beef, but needed sugar, and due to rationing, he was limited and with a growing family needed sugar.

Not just those who went overseas saw lost due to the war. One local company managed by Bert Corbeau had just completed a Government contract when they went for a celebratory cruise. Due to a calamity no one could predict, the Wawinet, the boat they were on, capsized, and although close to shore they did not realize it and many were lost that fateful night. In our shed for many years was a bizarre looking tool. It had many hooks and was given to my Grandfather to drag for bodies. If he ever found any, I wouldn't know.

You didn't mess with a mans wood. Or a man's money. Money was scarce, some of the old stories told of the loss or security of money. Money wasn't just put in banks, and sometimes a small fortune (at least to the owner) was in a man's pocket, closet or bush. My Grandfather purchased his farm across from Toanche Park off his father, for a monetary sum, a cow, chickens and love and affection. OF that of these tough men, love and affection was on the surface. There would not be electricity to this home for many years due to the high cost of those at the end of the street.

Times were different, to make ends meet, my Grandfathers would go to camps, where on the first day, they would build their shelter for the winter of cutting lumber. The only way to really advance was to learn to "swamp wood with horses. So off they would go for days at a time, maybe weeks if it was to far, in conditions that were tough. Whether snow or cold or...and with lumber barons who would do anything to take back the money they paid you. This was in the days of two man saws and log booms. If the logs got jammed in a river, someone would have to go out on the logs with a pole and hope to both free the logs and keep his life. Many of the jobs were dangerous, and medical aid was a long way away. Many of the old timers knew how to set limbs and sew up gashes. My Grandfather was doing that at the kitchen table one day.

My Grandfather Beausoleil had a knowledge of the Great Lakes. As one old timer once told me nobody knew them better, he used to yell at me all the time, "what are you doing there, get out of there". I wish I knew where his knowledge came from, as the Beausoleil's had been around the lakes since the times of Louis, so was on Beausoleil from 1819 on. Louis had squatted on land in Penetang bay, and that property was n the family till recently. So fishing has been in the family for generations. He would bring people out, staying in a little cubbyhole to sleep.

So now when I see people asking if there was any traditions at Christmas, I have to think that probably many rejoiced that their families had remained intact for a whole year, while others mourned those they lost, loved those they still had, and made it a point to visit. I think Christmas was as much to take a breath as to be any big celebration, a time to visit and be with family. Maybe this year we just take a breath...

Art Duval

Pipesmoke of the past

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Dec 13, 2020

Well written Art. It was a very difficult time for my parents and you're right, they did not dwell on their misfortune. Donat was born on December 22, 1939 and died on Christmas day, 1939. Sherri too was born on December 22nd. and so was Antoine Grozelle.

Take care. Eileen

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