Happy to be traveling to my hometown of Deep River this coming week, where I’ll be doing a presentation with sister and co-author Tracy. What with COVID wreaking havoc, it’s been a long time since we’ve had the chance to talk to an audience about our books and our love of weaving social history with family history. The event is part of a larger program called “Not Born From a Virgin Forest,” which aims to explore the history of the Deep River area before the nuclear research plant moved in in the 1940s. Here’s a description of our event, which takes place at the Deep River Public Library on March 17:
Sisters Kristen den Hartog and Tracy Kasaboski are the co-authors of two highly acclaimed social histories told in the form of family memoir. The sisters will discuss the nuts and bolts of researching their family’s past, and share the possibilities for local history research using specific examples from the Ottawa Valley long before the town of Deep River came into existence.
This discussion will appeal to anyone interested in family and local history, and will demonstrate how to look behind the dry facts for a glimpse into the real lives of people long gone.
Free Program, no registration. This event is part of the project: “Not Born From a Virgin Forest: Deep River & Area’s Earliest History” in partnership with the Laurentian Hills Public Library and the School House Museum.
Funded by the Government of Canada’s New Horizons for Seniors Program.
We are still working away on the new paperback edition of The Occupied Garden and promise it’s coming very soon! It’s been so fun examining the old photos again, and reconnecting with the story of our oma and opa, Cor Post and Gerrit den Hartog. Recently on a visit to our aunt, who features prominently in the story, I noticed Cor and Gerrit’s engagement portraits on her wall, together in a frame. I’ve always loved these pictures — but what I hadn’t noticed before was an intricately cut paper tucked behind the photos, forming a pretty backdrop for their likenesses. Papercutting, or papierknipkunst in Dutch, is an old art form that has evolved all over the world in varying ways. My aunt doesn’t think my oma made this piece, but it’s certainly very old, and may have been made for her by a sister or a friend. In any case, with its mirror-image pattern of hearts and birds and twisting vines, it makes an appropriate backdrop for Cor and Gerrit, and a fine offering for Valentine’s Day.
“It is astonishing that the human spirit is so resilient…” ~ Quill & Quire
Fifteen years after its original release, my sister/co-author Tracy Kasaboski and I are delighted to present our very own new edition of The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-Torn Holland. The book was published to enormous critical acclaim in 2008, and we still hear from readers who are moved by this intimate account of an ordinary family living under occupation in WW2. The e-book is ready now and can be read on any device (smartphone, tablet or computer) with the free Kindle app. The paperback – unique for its inclusion of hand-drawn maps of the town where our family lived – is coming very soon.
Here’s a description of the story from the back jacket:
Set against the great tapestry of the Second World War, The Occupied Garden is the haunting and inspiring story of a young family’s struggle to survive the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Gerrit is a market gardener, and he and his wife Cor do their best to navigate the war years: a harrowing period of intimidation, disappearances, starvation and bombings. After liberation, the family immigrates to Canada, rarely speaking of the tumultuous years that changed their lives forever.
Long after Cor and Gerrit’s deaths, their granddaughters grew curious about those experiences, and using letters, photographs, documents and interviews, began to explore that fascinating and horrible time. The result is this book: a meticulously stitched tale, and an intimate re-telling of an ordinary family’s courage and resilience.
I’ll post again when the paperback is ready. Until then, here are a couple of excellent reviews that commend our ability to tell this story, and make us proud of our connection to the people who lived it:
“The authors interpret so harmoniously, are so guided by respect and common sense, that these reconstructed lives just hum with authenticity.” Read Ernest Hillen’s Globe and Mail review of The Occupied Gardenhere.
“This is intimate history: the writers recover not only the facts, but the tastes, smells, and lived experiences of events that today almost defy belief. … It is astonishing that the human spirit is so resilient.” Read Maureen Garvie’s Quill & Quire review of The Occupied Gardenhere.
A little while ago I was scrolling the Facebook page for my hometown high school in Deep River, Ontario, where I often see great old pictures of the town where I grew up or catch up on news from people I knew long ago. This time, to my surprise, I noticed a post about “British Home Child Day.” After I read the story, I wrote to its author, Ron Baker, and asked if he’d allow me to publish it here. So thanks to Ron for this touching piece about his dad Edwin Matthew Baker, a home child who came to Canada in the 1920s.
For decades, I and my brothers and sister believed that our father Edwin was an American born in Boston, USA; in fact, in 1970, I actually wrote letters to the City of Boston archives and to the Boston State House seeking information on my father. They replied that they had no records of him or his mother, Rachel Rebecca. I chalked it up to possibly poor record keeping back in 1913, the year my father was born.
That all changed on August 15, 2008, when I came across an old torn envelope addressed to my late father at the Gibbs Home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, sent from India. I googled ‘Gibbs Home’ and a couple of emails later, I discovered a whole new chapter of my father’s life that was previously unknown to me and the rest of my family.
Yes, my father was born in Boston, but it was actually the Boston in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England. What I discovered was the quintessential story of the British home child.
At the age of ten his mother Rachel Rebecca died in a workhouse, probably of tuberculosis, according to a file sent to me from the Church of England Children’s Society, formerly Waifs and Strays. My father was placed into care by his grandfather Charles, age 60. (See Leicester Home for Boys.)
Later, at almost 15, my father was given the choice of coming to Canada or going to Australia. He chose Canada because some of his friends were going there. After farming training at Stoneygate Farm School, he was sent to Canada on the SS DORIC along with 32 other boys. He arrived at Quebec City on July 7, 1928, and went from there to the Gibbs Home in Sherbrooke, under the watchful eye of Thomas Keeley. He worked at several Quebec farms in Bulwer, Eaton, Ayer’s Cliff, Bromptonville and Lennoxville.
My father was like many of the home children, who did everything they could to distance themselves from their past to eliminate the bullying. They disposed of their trunks and their English accents. My father’s trunk was found at the first farm he worked at, the Gallup Farm in Bulwer. The trunk was returned to me by Sarge and Pauline Bampton (Bampton Home Children Collection), original members of Home Children Canada, Quebec Branch.
After marrying and serving in the military, my father worked at a munitions factory in Valleyfield, Quebec, before moving to Deep River, Ontario, to work at the newly established Atomic Energy plant, where he worked in the Chemical Extraction Division.
He successfully shed his English accent and never spoke of his native country, even in spite of the fact that we had English neighbours in Deep River. It amazes me to this day that there were no slip-ups when speaking with the neighbours.
This discovery doesn’t really change anything about the relationship my siblings and I had with our father, but it does give us a whole new appreciation for his ability to keep a secret. I am sure that sometimes he probably really wanted to tell us his story.
The Church of England Children’s Society did send me details of my father’s stay with them, which included details of his mother’s struggles, where he was born and baptised, his level of education, the names of aunts and uncles, and the fact they maintained some contact with him at the Gibbs Home, however briefly. More recently, I have discovered one of my father’s first cousins and his family in and around Boston, England. We have exchanged messages and pictures and visited.
Just a short post today, to share with you an article published recently in Geist magazine, called The Insulin Soldiers. It’s about a group of WW1 veterans who were patients at the Christie Street hospital in Toronto, and underwent the earliest trials for insulin back in the 1920s. As always, it was a fascinating journey to discover the soldiers’ stories. The image at left shows one of the men featured in the piece, Jim Ostrom, with his fiancee Grace, in about 1920. I hope you’ll enjoy the read.
“The most undesirable reputation of any slum in London…”
It’s been a while since I investigated the black and blue streets of Victorian Southwark, where our story is set. But I was prompted to revisit when a follower of this blog sent a photograph taken in the same neighbourhood where our cowkeeper family lived from the 1830s to the 1900s. How fun to be corresponding with someone whose ancestors were neighbours of our own, and to think that perhaps they even knew each other. When he sent me the image, Dean Kenny wrote:
Attached is the photo of what looks like the start of a “boys’ day out.” I can’t imagine what state they might have been in on their return! In the background is Red Cross Court, Southwark. My great grandfather William TOAL was born at 1 Red Cross Court in 1871. He’s in this photo, the rather large man wearing the straw boater on our right of the photo. I don’t know the year the photo was taken.
William worked in a local stables as a labourer and the family were described as being very poor.
Familiar territory for sure. Our own family, chronicled in The Cowkeeper’s Wish, lived on Red Cross Street, near the intersection of Red Cross Court, and just around the corner from Dean’s family’s address on that dark little alley. The whole area was known for its crime and poverty, but Red Cross Court, especially, was notorious for decades — it had “the most undesirable reputation of any slum in London,” according to the South London Chronicle, which published many articles about Annie Bennett, “Terror of the Borough,” who apparently broke out of prison to see her “beloved slum” one last time before it was torn down.
Born in the early 1870s, Dean’s great grandfather William was close in age to our great grandmother, Mary Anne. They were infants one winter night when screams of “Murder” burst through the window next door to the Toals’ place. According to the Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper report on the trial that followed, a 45-year-old labourer named John Casey had come home drunk after New Year’s Eve celebrations, grabbed a razor, and attacked his wife Hannah, half asleep in their darkened bedroom. She put up her arms to protect her neck as he came at her, and her fingers and forearm were badly slashed. She jumped out of bed, rushed to the window and called out for help, and soon police arrived; John was taken into custody, and Hannah to nearby Guy’s Hospital. In the retelling at court a week later, John gave a different version: Hannah had been drunk “all the day and night, and had broken all the crockery and thrown the chairs out of the window. She attacked him as soon as he got into bed, and must have cut her arm falling against the fender.”
It’s impossible to know now whose version was true, or what crucial details were missing entirely, but what’s certain is that troubling stories of domestic violence — as well as theft, drunkenness, and general thuggery — were common in the neighbourhood, where poverty was the prevailing theme.
William Toal and our Mary Anne grew up among these dramas, and would have had an entirely different perspective than the ones largely available to us now — after all, the journalists and the anti-poverty activists of the day were all outsiders looking in on the area. Reporting on the proposed demolition of some of the Borough’s worst slum buildings in 1901, the South London Press wrote that: “There are also being demolished a number of courts which lie hidden behind Borough High-street, and which are associated with many of Dickens’s works … but, apart from fiction, one court alone, Redcross-court, once tenanted by the worst of London’s living population, was the scene during the last century of no less than 12 or 13 murders, whilst the charges of manslaughter that arose out of fights over the division of the spoil of robberies could not be counted.”
The philanthropist Charles Booth and his “social investigators” spent plenty of time in the area when they compiled their massive poverty study in the 1890s and early 1900s. A map accompanied the work, colour-coded to show poverty levels, with Black being the poorest of all. The reason you can’t quite see Red Cross Court in the Booth map below is precisely because it has been blackened to convey the deep level of poverty that existed there. Not for the first time I find myself wishing I could rub away the black to see these streets more clearly, and to know how people like William Toal and Mary Anne would have described their neighbourhood. How it might surprise them to know we are curious about them now, all these years later.
It’s been a long time since I posted. In part, I’ve just been busily working on my new book, but to be honest I’ve also been a bit dejected — I haven’t been able to find out anything more about the mystery baby I was researching late last year, though I still haven’t given up that more information will surface. I often wonder what makes me so obsessed with the past, and finding clues to old mysteries that, for many people, just don’t matter anymore. But I’m overjoyed when I find kindred spirits (like my sister and co-author, and so many of the readers here) who share the same curiosity. I also love to learn about other approaches to investigating the past, and over the last many months I’ve had a close-up view, since my husband Jeff Winch has just finished his documentary Woodwriter: The Wordless Art of George A. Walker. It’s about a book artist and wood engraver who makes “wordless biographies” about such fascinating subjects as Tom Thomson, Pierre Trudeau, and Leonard Cohen. His latest chronicles the life of silent screen star Mary Pickford.
I think Jeff and I both fell a little bit in love with Mary via George, and she makes numerous appearances in Woodwriter, lighting up the screen each time with her funny facial expressions and her ability to say so much without talking. I guess that’s why she’s such a perfect subject for George’s books — a muse, in a way. Being behind the scenes during the making of Woodwriter has been like being in a little chain of creators inspired by creators: me watching Jeff film George make a book about Mary making films!
But the film is about more than Mary Pickford and George’s other subjects. In my mind, it’s really a film about creativity. It follows George through his process, starting with a blank wood block and ending with a gorgeous hand-made book. Throughout the film we see his craft close up: the old-fashioned tools he uses for engraving, and the hand-fed, Vandercook Press that dominates his charming back-yard studio. But we also hear George’s thoughts about his work — what moves him, why he chooses certain subjects, what he loves about the black-and-white form and about books and art and history. Living with the filmmaker, I had the added luxury of watching Jeff’s process as he captured George’s work, using “rotoscoping” to make footage of George look like his engravings; and through tricks of technology, sending George back in time to be a character in Mary Pickford’s films.
Though my own process is so different from Jeff’s and George’s, for me the film underscores the beauty of creating, and the power of reaching back in time to tell stories. As Jeff says in his description of the film, “the past and present never stop talking to each other – even if it’s without words.”
I’ll post again whenever there are screenings for the film. For now, you can visit the Woodwriter site and watch the trailer below:
Back in Part 1 of this tale, I posted a picture of the three eldest Cartwright sons with their parents, George and Emily, at the annual picnic for McCormick’s, the biscuit and candy company where George worked. An observant reader pointed out that the family appeared to be wearing mourning ribbons, and in Part 2, I explored that topic. I was hoping to find clues by establishing when the picture was taken and comparing that to events in the family. Who was the group mourning? I guessed at the date of the picture, thinking the youngest boy, our grandfather Bill, was either three or four years old, which meant that the year was either 1912 or 1913. If the picture had been taken in 1912, some time after baby Edna’s July death, then perhaps the ribbons were for her. If the picture was taken in 1913, why wasn’t baby Stuart, born that January, among his brothers? And who were the ribbons for?
I’ve made a couple of discoveries since then — as usual, somewhat by accident. I had already visited the London Advertiser at Canadiana Online to search for mentions of family members, but the search mechanism is a bit clunky, and if you get a “hit,” you have to read the whole page to find the word you searched for. “Cartwright” often proved disappointing, since there is a Cartwright Street in London that was frequently mentioned. Instead I decided to browse through the Monday, July 22, edition of the paper in the year baby Edna died, thinking it would be interesting to know what was happening in the city that day, and in the Cartwrights’ wider world. To my surprise, I stumbled on an article about the annual McCormick’s picnic, which had been held two days earlier.
Below the article was a list of winners in various races, with a “Mrs. Cartwright” included among three names for the “Married Ladies’ Race.” Was it Emily, flying along in her hat and long skirts, hoping to trounce Mrs. McCabe and Mrs. McInnes, George and her little boys cheering her on? Likely yes, since there weren’t that many Cartwrights in London at the time, let alone Cartwrights with a McCormick’s connection. The old family albums contain a number of pictures from games played at these annual outings over the years, so I think it’s safe, in this case, to surmise that the Cartwrights attended the picnic in 1912, just two days before Edna’s death, and that Emily, a few months pregnant with Stuart, took part in the festivities.
Curious to know if the paper would offer any more clues, I scrolled through the next day’s edition, and soon came upon a little notice:
So the Cartwrights must have attended the picnic on Saturday, and then shortly after that, baby Edna fell ill. The same edition that features her death notice carries a cheerful photograph of the winners of the baby show being held aloft by their parents and the judges, the picnic crowd behind them.
What a great sadness this death must have been for Emily, George and their three little boys. When the 1913 picnic rolled around, with pillow fights, three-legged races, and a tug of war between the biscuit and candy departments, surely the family was reminded of the previous year, of Emily taking part in the Married Ladies’ Race, and then Edna’s death soon after. Is this why they wore the previously discussed mourning ribbons? Or were they mourning ribbons at all?
Searching through the photographs we scanned years ago for The Cowkeeper’s Wish, I came upon a McCormick’s picnic image dated 1922. This one shows George and Emily with two of their younger children, Gordon and Mary, the great aunt who’d been the keeper of Stuart’s baptism certificate until her death earlier this year at age 100. If you look closely, you’ll see that George and Gordon are wearing ribbons; perhaps Mary and Emily are wearing them too, but it’s hard to see in the old photo. Clear enough, though, is the lettering “McCormick’s” on the other two. So more than likely, the darker ribbons in the photo taken a decade earlier were also to do with the picnic.
That same year, 1922, the London Advertiser carried a mention of “G. Cartwright” having the largest family in attendance — seven children in all. In the family tree as we knew it, that’s all the Cartwright kids accounted for: George, Jack, our grandfather Bill, Earl, Florence, Gordon, and Mary. Do, the youngest, was not yet born.
It’s very satisfying to solve these little mysteries, but of course the big one still lurks. What happened to baby Stuart, for whom we have a baptismal certificate but no birth or death record? Can we assume that, because baby Edna is not in the earlier picnic photo, it was taken in 1913, a year after her death? But if that is the case, Stuart was born in January of that year. Why is he not in the photo?
As we’ve seen, assuming can be problematic. When this whole tale first began, I assumed my great aunt Mary had tucked the certificate away in her bedside table, knowing it would be found after her death. Perhaps she knew something about baby Stuart that she’d never told anyone, and she didn’t want him to be forgotten. But there’s a danger in reading too much into the fragments that come our way in family research. And much can be learned by sharing information with other family members who might hold missing pieces. My mom’s cousin Susan Butlin, also an author and a lover of historical research (The Practice of Her Profession, McGill-Queen’s University Press), was the one who found Stuart’s baptism card after Mary’s death, and she describes the discovery this way:
“The Baptismal certificates, along with several Confirmation certificates, were found in the right top drawer of Aunt Mary and Dorraine’s long, low bureau of drawers in the bedroom, not the bedside table, I don’t know where that came from. They were neatly placed together in a small book, it might have been a New Testament, from which they stuck out. Also in the drawer were things like new gloves, small boxes with pieces of jewelry, small personal things that were valued. After I looked at them, I saw Stuart’s certificate and, according to my sister, I said ‘Oh my goodness, look at this!'”
Susan agrees that it’s highly likely that Jack, Bill, Stuart and Earl (Susan’s father, and the baby born after Stuart, in January 1914) were baptized at home, together, in September 1914. But why, and what became of Stuart after that, remains unknown. I still hope to find out that he was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, where Emily and Edna lie, but Covid, quite understandably, means that cemetery staff is slower than usual in replying to these sorts of requests. The history section of the website shows pictures of the old burial registers, dating back to the 1870s, so if Stuart was buried there, the details will be hiding somewhere in those pages. Finding Stuart’s grave won’t tell us how he died, but it will be one more piece of the puzzle, and might lead to still more clues as to what happened to him.
Home baptisms for multiple children? The plot thickens…
In the last few days, another clue has come in from the relative who found the scrap of paper containing burial details for babies Emily/Sissy and Edna. It turns out two other baptism certificates were in Great Aunt Mary’s possession: one was her own (born 1921), and the other belonged to John Frank Cartwright, known as Jack, the middle son in the trio of photos of George and Emily’s eldest boys. Mother Emily was pregnant with Jack when she came to Canada in the summer of 1907, and he was born that October, after “Sissy” had already died. The document shows Jack was baptized seven years later, on the same day as Stuart: September 26, 1914. Again the word “church” has been crossed out so that the place name for the baptism reads “Parish of Church of the Redeemer.”
Those of you who’ve been following the story closely (see parts one, two and three) might remember that when we originally discovered the card bearing Stuart’s baptism details, we thought it was strange that he’d been baptized more than a year and a half after his birth. George and Emily were regular churchgoers, at least in later years, so we assumed they’d have had their children baptized quickly. Was it a clue that there was something wrong with Stuart, and were they prompted to get it done when he was close to dying or being sent away? Now we know Jack was baptized with Stuart, which makes me wonder what the situation was for the other children, for whom we have no cards.
Here’s a list of the first seven of George and Emily Cartwright’s offspring:
Eldest boy, George, born 1905 in England. We don’t know when/if he was baptized, but presumably not in England, since the baptisms for that area/era (Bexley, Kent) are available online and his is not among them.
Emily Louise, George’s “Sissy,” born 1906, England, died August 18, 1907, buried the next day at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, London, ON. As with George, we have no baptismal info.
John Frank aka Jack, born October 1907, baptized in the parish of Church of the Redeemer, September 1914.
Edna May, born July 1911, died July 22, 1912, and buried two days later at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. We have no baptismal info.
William Charles, our grandfather Bill, born May 1909. We have no baptismal information for Bill.
Stuart Ingram, born January 1913, baptized in the parish of Church of the Redeemer, September 1914.
Earl Richard/Richardson Ingram, born January 1914. We have no baptismal information for Earl.
The new information, and the gap in age between Stuart and Jack, makes me suspect that several baptisms happened at once. If Jack and Stuart were baptized that day, surely Bill was as well, being between them in age. And since no baptismal record for their older brother, George, has turned up among similar records in Erith, perhaps he was also baptized that day, though by now he was nine years old. The daughters, of course, had died already, but the youngest of this group, Earl, may also have been included, since he was nine months old in September 1914. Come to think of it, if there ever had been baptism records for babies Emily and Edna, surely they would have ended up among Mary’s belongings as well, since Mary inherited the family papers etc., and the ill-fated girls never grew up to take their certificates off with them.
Of course, it isn’t unusual to find groups of siblings in baptism registers. In fact, when I went hunting for the English-born children George and Sissy in the register for Bexley, instead I found their mother Emily and her three younger sisters being baptized in June 1907, just before her departure for Canada, and after her husband had left to get settled there. Emily’s sisters were 16, 18 and 19, and she was 21 years old and already, according to family lore, estranged from her parents. So what prompted this group trip to the church? Why weren’t they baptized earlier? Were they something other than Church of England before this time, or were they simply not a religious family? Did the baptism provide Emily with a sense of security for her forthcoming trip across the ocean? If so, why didn’t she have her babies baptized at the same time? Whatever the reasons, the information is intriguing. George Cartwright — Emily’s husband and the father to the brood of 11 (if we count Stuart) — was baptized as a young child, as were his siblings.
One thing the new information tells us is to avoid assumptions. Speculation can be a great exercise, but it’s important to stay open to all the possibilities, because you never know where you might go wrong in closing a door. The other thing that comes to mind is that, if the siblings were baptized along with Stuart that September day at the beginning of WW1, they were gathered together, wherever the baptisms were performed. Bill was five, Jack was almost seven, and George was nine. So they were old enough to remember the occasion and the brother, too. Why did no one speak of him in years to come?
And what does it mean that the word “church” is crossed out on the cards? Were the children baptized at home? And if so, why? From what I can glean online, home baptisms in those days usually happened because a child was ill and not expected to survive, and couldn’t be brought to the church. If this was the case with Stuart, did the minister come to their home to baptize him, and perform the ritual for the other children as well, since he was already there? Or perhaps they had all come down with a some sort of illness, and only Stuart didn’t survive? It occurs to me that even if we do find out where Stuart was buried, we will still not know how he died, or why there is seemingly no birth or death registration.
Children’s graves, jotted notes, and an old nickname…
Curiously, the search for Stuart Ingram Cartwright, begun in Part 1, keeps leading us back to his sisters, Emily and Edna, who died young but unlike Stuart were always remembered by the Cartwright family.
In Part 2, I mentioned that we had birth and death records for Emily and Edna, but we didn’t know where they were buried. I thought if we could find their graves, we might also find a grave for Stuart, since all we have for that elusive child is a baptism certificate.
I wasn’t sure how to go about finding burial records, but I started at the Ontario Ancestors’ London Middlesex branch, where I found links to the Ontario Cemetery Index, the Ontario Cemetery Finding Aid, and The Ontario Name Index. None of these avenues turned up anything I didn’t already know, so I wrote to the London Public Library, and a helpful librarian looked through newspapers and cemetery listing for me, but nothing came up. Following the librarian’s suggestion, I wrote to the Diocese of Huron archives, and am awaiting their reply.
In the meantime, though, my recently deceased 100-year-old Auntie Mary has surprisingly revisited this story. As news of the Mystery Baby blog posts made its way to extended family members, another descendant of George and Emily wrote to say that several years ago she had helped clear out Do and Mary’s apartment so they could move into one better suited to their old age.
“There was one room that was FULL of furniture, magazines, etc.,” she wrote, “and we had to go through it and save anything valuable like family papers, photos.” Among the items, she found a wooden box of letters and telegrams and some handwritten notes, just jottings on scraps of paper, written at a much later date for the purposes of genealogy. One of these included a note about babies Emily and Edna May, and said simply:
Emily L. (Sissy) Born England. Died 14 mths. 1907
Edna May Born 1911. Died 1912.
Plot QB 583
I was surprised to see the nickname “Sissy,” which underscored what a loss her death must have been, not just to the parents, but to brother George, too, who’d crossed the ocean with his new little sister weeks earlier. I wondered, did the family attend these burials? Were there funerals for the girls too? My relative thought this might be the area in the cemetery where many children and babies were buried. Coincidentally, just the day before, I had been walking with my friend Anne, and telling her about Stuart. Back in the 1990s when she was in university, Anne had worked at a different Mount Pleasant Cemetery here in Toronto, and she remembered that there’d been a section for babies, and that it always got special attention from the groundskeepers.
After a bit of sleuthing, I discovered that the Children’s Garden, as it’s now known, has a heartbreaking back story that was detailed by Toronto Star writer Michele Landsberg in 1992. In the 1960s, the son of a woman named Mary Smith died at just five days old. He’d been born prematurely, and before that single tragedy, Mary had suffered five miscarriages in a row. The doctor advised the woman’s husband he didn’t think she could handle this new loss, and arranged for the child’s burial without her knowledge. Later, when she fretted the child hadn’t had a proper funeral, she was told his body had been put in a coffin with a woman who was being buried, to ensure he had a Christian burial, but that there was no way to know where the child lay. “The worst,” she told Landsberg, “was that I didn’t know where he was. I couldn’t go stand on the spot.” She grieved for this baby for years, and felt “perpetual anxiety” that something terrible would happen to her other children. She followed them to school to be sure they made it there okay, and she had nightmares that they’d been taken away from her.
Many years had passed when she told the story to some friends, who were shocked by the preposterous idea of the child being buried in a stranger’s coffin. Within days, they had clarified this detail was not true, and traced the baby’s grave to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto, in an area reserved for stillborn babies and children with no known parents or otherwise difficult family situations, like poverty. The discovery made an enormous change in Mary’s life, and eventually, with the help of others, she began to plan a commemorative garden for the area, full of native plants like sweet woodruff, highbush cranberry, and serviceberry. These she planted with her own hands, a cathartic experience that enabled her to tell Landsberg, “I don’t cry anymore. The bitterness is gone.” The garden was planted with each season in mind, so that, “like children, it [would] always be growing and changing.” Surely today it remains a special place for families of children gone too soon.
Having discovered Michele Landsberg’s article about Mary Smith, I’m touched to realize this is the same garden my friend Anne tended in her university years. It was fairly new then, and she didn’t know its history, but she went on to become a midwife, and has an intricate understanding of the griefs and joys associated with childbirth — the sweep of emotions George and Emily Cartwright experienced with the arrivals and departures of babies Emily, Edna, and perhaps Stuart, though we still know so little about him. This side trip into Mary Smith’s story, prompted by my walk with Anne, takes us a long way from those century-old tragedies, but history is a winding road, and we will make our way back using a different route, hoping for more clues to the mystery.
I have written to Mount Pleasant, London, to see what more can be learned about the girls’ burials, and to see if their brother — presuming he existed! — is there too. I would also like to know why the girls’ names don’t turn up on a search of people interred there. Are they in a children’s section like the one the Smith baby went to, and if so, how many other children lie there? Are their graves marked in any way? What led Emily and George to choose this place? Or did they have a choice?