There are times when news stories truly captivate my attention and sometimes my heart in a way I can’t let go. I can’t stop reading about the people, their lives, their journeys. Lately, there are so many things happening in our world and even just in our country that have pierced many of our hearts. School massacres, marathon bombings, rescued kidnap victims, disaster tornadoes.
I don’t even know how to begin this blog, this delicate story on my heart. There’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for years. It’s inspired by actual events from my own family. (And for once, no, it has nothing to do with how long it took God to write my love story, as shared through my books Never the Bride: a novel and Finally the Bride: Finding Hope While Waiting.) It’s more in line with the themes of my feature film, The Ultimate Gift: legacies and what we do with the time we have, and the gift one day of life brings to us.
This story is about my history, its roots, and how the ripple effect of events are why I am here today, why I was able to be born.
But this story also meant the death of someone else. That is sobering.
In fact, without death and the multiple tragedies reflected in this story, I wouldn’t be here today. I wouldn’t have been able to be born into the family I was born into.
Have you ever pondered the events that brought you to this earth? Have you ever asked yourself the question, “How was I born into my particular family? Why am I here? What was I meant to do?”
Many years ago, my father told me we should try to do a film about my grandfather’s life as a miner in Springhill, Nova Scotia. It took me a while to listen to him. Eventually, I woke up to this amazing town and the balance between tragedies and extraordinary miracles this place experienced! It’s one of those tiny towns that, in the 1950s, when tragedy struck multiple times, the entire world stopped and watched. Waited. Waited for good news, hoping for miracles, hoping for news of lives saved.
This place, its stories, and my grandfather’s life there, were all the inspiration for my screenplay, Song of Springhill, which I am currently adapting into a novel. (To be released in Spring 2014.)
My grandfather, Charles Hugh McKay—also known as “Dado” to his grandchildren—died when I was fifteen years old. I wish, when I was younger, I had been more interested in asking him questions about his life as a miner, and the miracles that spared his life. It wasn’t something he voluntarily talked about when not asked. I embarked on a quest to get to know more about what his life was like after he was gone. I wish I had taken better advantage of the time I had with him.
His first mining accident was in the 1940s, and contributed to him not having to go off to war because he suffered a broken pelvis. A rail car ran over him in the mines; it took him months to recover. There are stories surrounding two of Springhill’s biggest disasters, the 1956 Explosion and the 1958 Bump, that also affected my grandfather’s life.
My aunt, Joyce Harroun, told me of a story relating to the 1956 Explosion. The way she remembers it, her father (my grandfather) switched shifts that day with another man. The man wanted to go hunting during the day, and asked my grandfather if he’d work the day shift for him, and upon his return, the man would work my grandfather’s afternoon shift.
Because of this shift, “Dado” got off work just a couple hours before the mine blew up. His life was spared, but the man who switched shifts with him died. They had the same job working in the same spot by the rail cars.
It also meant that the team of men my grandfather was used to working with died that day too; he lost a lot of his friends. As my Aunt shares, it was the only time she ever saw my grandfather cry up until that point in his life.
When interviewing one of the survivors of the Explosion, this survivor supplied two names of those who had the same job as my grandfather. Both of them were killed in the Explosion. I found an article in the Halifax Chronicle that seemed to back up the story my Aunt told. It mentioned one of their names as one who was “working an extra shift for a friend” that day, implying he wouldn’t normally have been underground.
Despite the dangers, my grandfather continued to work underground. Then in 1958, he was trapped underground when one of the biggest disasters in coal mining history hit: The Bump. October 23, 1958.
My father anxiously waited for news of whether or not his dad was still alive, from the Lamp Cabin, a place where miners turned in their lamps when they finished their shifts. His father’s check number, #712, remained on the board, showing he had not yet surfaced. Not yet picked up his check tag.
Once the earliest miners were rescued, my grandfather was the third person to walk through that Lamp Cabin door. The first face he saw was my dad’s fourteen-year-old face, waiting for him, hoping and praying he was still alive. Seventy-five men died in that disaster.
After the rescue, “Dado” vowed to never go underground again. That meant he needed to find new work to support his family. This led him to take a new job and move his family to the Boston area. This move is how my father eventually met my mother, when she was an attractive 16 year old, a spunky Massachusetts girl that he was set up with on a blind date.
This blind date never would have happened if my grandfather had not been spared by the 1956 Explosion or survived the 1958 Bump, the tragedy that made him decide to leave his life of mining. My father has said, unequivocally, he would have had no reason to leave Canada had he not been moved to the United States with his father’s career change.
My parents have been married since 1966. It’s ironic to me to think that this disaster (and the fact that “Dado’s” life was spared 10 years before that time) is the catalyst that brought me to this earth.
At the same time, it’s sobering. I ponder the family who lost their husband / father / son because of the innocent desire this man had to go hunting that day. November 1, 1956. I ponder what he must have missed out on, dying so young. How those in his family must have questioned over the years “what if?”
This story helps me connect specific dots that allowed me to enter the scene. It makes me ponder why I am here and encourages me to want to make the most of the life I am given and do at least a little bit of good while I am here. It reminds me of how we are not promised any particular amount of days. I hope anyone reading this will be encouraged to make an impact with their lives, no matter how long they are blessed to be on this earth.
Any ideas for how you’d like to change the world? Your family? Or even just the life of one person? You never know when that may have a ripple effect on the lives of many others.
Some photos of the book author with Springhillers:
COMING Spring 2014:
(Reprinted from article written by Cheryl McKay for the History in Advance website) I wrote the screen adaptation of The Ultimate Gift, which shows a grandfather leaving behind legacy videos for his grandson. Each one is an assignment designed to teach … Continue reading
(This is a reprint from a tribute I posted on Facebook, Jan. 30, 2010, a week after my grandmother died, followed by a post originally published by History in Advance, one year after her death.)
Thanks to everyone who prayed and supported my family during the loss of my grandmother. She was one special lady. And honoring her this past week was a joy but also sad to those of us left behind.
Marcelle Neely was my last grandparent. Her 93rd b’day would have been Feb. 5th. But she’s been wanting to “go home to Jesus” for a long time now. Because of that, I always thought once she finally got her wish, her age and her desires would make it not as hard to accept.
I was wrong.
It has surprised me how much this affected me emotionally… and the loss of her is felt deeply by many, even though she lived a full life.
My sister and I realized we hadn’t been to a funeral since I was 15 years old, when our grandfather died. We felt much younger than we truly are when it came to facing certain things that happened this week. But it was neat to share that with her.
I was thankful to make it to Boston before Gramma passed away. I visited her at midnight when I got in, then returned the next day and had the privilege of holding her hand for hours. I whispered secrets in her ear, when I got some moments alone with her. I gave her permission to let go, to not worry about me. There were a lot of people at the home where she was staying who are clearly worse off than she was. It’s kind of hard to watch where life can end up for people. And seeing her suffer in those last hours was extremely difficult. But there was something amazing about it too: she waited for the arrival of her last child (there’s five of them) before letting go. All of them made it on time.
Gramma loved both Jesus and the Catholic tradition. The church limits eulogies and personal stories to just one person. They suggested three minutes only. Thankfully, my aunt, Jackie, took the liberty of speaking her heart for six minutes. And it was six glorious minutes. Jackie surprised us all by having a letter, handwritten by my grandmother, in the event of her death. It was clearly written long ago. Some guess maybe the 60s. But the remarkable thing about it is she could have written it recently. Her character and desires and legacy never changed. Her strongest desire was for her children to love the Lord and share her faith and pass it along to others, and to serve well and help others. Hearing her own voice left not a dry eye in the church.
The rest of us did not get to share publicly at the funeral how much we loved her and specific things she had done to touch our lives, which is why I’m sharing this. But naturally we had many opportunities to do that throughout the week.
My grandmother and I had a lot in common. We shared similar fears and struggles. She understood me like so few can. She prayed for me often and let me know it.
She once wrote to my mother after seeing The Ultimate Gift years ago and said now that she’d seen one of my biggest dreams come true, she could go ahead and “leave”. God made her wait a little longer than that. But she was always looking for other people’s dreams, supporting their hearts and desires. (I see where my mother gets that from!)
My last real conversation with her, in the earlier days of her dementia, was one of amazing clarity– she wanted to speak about my life, its struggles and pains. Given that she’d introduced me as her niece to someone that week, I didn’t know how much she really remembered about me and my life. But as I was leaving her … she stopped me to have a conversation I will never forget, speaking directly to my heart, remembering things I didn’t realize she could still recall. I knew in my spirit this was going to be our last ‘real’ conversation. It gave me peace regarding those dreams that still haven’t been fulfilled yet… that she wouldn’t be here to see. But I knew this conversation was extraordinary grace to help me through giving up the dream she’d be here. Her blessing upon me that day with her words was enough.
As sad as certain moments last week were, I was also happy to experience some moments of extreme joy. It showed me how incredible life really is when you embrace the sadness and joy. There were a lot of gems last week when she brought us together. I kept thinking (and many kept saying) this was a party she would have wanted to be invited to! I got to know my uncles and their spouses better. Seeing them all in the same place at the same time was amazing. I got to have “sleepovers” with my sister at “Chateau Richard” (my parents, sister and I were blessed to all stay at the same house of cousin Rita Richard and her amazing hubby Fred. I’ve skied many slopes and sang many songs about snow snakes with him.) I reconnected with my ‘long lost’ cousin Annie who I’ve missed terribly. A friend from childhood, Jessica, showed up at the funeral and for a visit and seeing who she’s become was awesome. We played Tripoly, one of my grandmother’s favorites, and lots of other games during our downtime. Gramma showed me how to play Tripoly during our summers in Cape Cod. (She always pretended I was helping her.) Hearing my dad and Fred sing and play guitar was a total blast. (And they kept it up for over 3 hours while Rita, my mom, Heather and I cheered them on.) Sharing traditions with Jackie is a must when visiting Boston, and this trip was no exception. Hearing Uncle John’s crazy stories (which can’t all be true-haha, seeing Uncle Jim’s beautiful, handmade journals, and hearing Uncle Bill read a poem for Gramma’s funeral with both heart and humor, hearing Mom laugh and joke with her siblings, talking to my many cousins (including Michael, Sam and Devin) were definite highlights. Hearing from friends in support of what we were dealing with, the encouraging notes and texts, was a big help.
Hearing my nephews missed my sister so much they slept in the same room every night (and one night her hubby even slept in their room, too) reminded me of how a new generation brings such life into this world.
We went to visit my grandmother’s last surviving sister (of 16 in the family, brothers and sisters). She still has her clear mind and is very grieved. To see her cry out how much she loved “Marcelle” broke all of our hearts in the room. She was too sick and immobile to come to the funeral herself, so on two days, groups of us went over to see her at the convent. She’s spent much of her life serving as a Sister at the St. Anne’s Convent. What a beautiful soul she is.
Grandma’s “graduation” moved our world forward. We are all changed, for having been there to experience this together. I have a deeper appreciation for my family and friends. And now as we disperse and all move back to our lives, I hope and pray we will never be the same in the best ways she tried to inspire us. That we will always remember the legacy she left behind. And that we will find reasons to see each other that do not just involve funerals.
We are blessed.
I will miss you, Gramma. ‘Til we meet again.
“Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us. And the art of life is to get the message.” (Malcolm Muggeridge)
The following photo was taken of my grandmother’s hand in mine the last day of her life:
(History in Advance article, Jan. 24, 2011)
Today is the one-year anniversary of my grandmother’s death. She died shortly before what would have been her 93rd birthday. I always knew she had great stories to share with us about her life, growing up in a Catholic family of 16 siblings, in Canada and the States.
Long before dementia harmed her ability to remember a lot of details about her past, I gave her a book called “Reaching Back.” It was filled with over 100 pages of questions about various eras of her life and family members. Gratefully, when I gave this book to my grandmother, she willingly began to share her life story with me. It was the late 90s. She labored over page after page, using her own handwriting to fill in the blanks. She even added about six additional long hand notebook pages to elaborate on a story she wanted to be sure to leave behind.
My grandmother gave this book back to me in the early 2000s. I read it back then. But I can’t tell you how meaningful it was to go back to reread this book after her death. How grateful I was that she took the time to fill in it! I was also glad I had the foresight to give it to her long before she lost many of her precious memories.
Often, when we think of leaving behind a legacy, we believe we have all the time in the world to take care of that and can do it closer to “the end.” But the truth is we have no idea how much time we have on this earth. And leaving a legacy should start today.
I’m glad my grandmother didn’t wait. I’m glad she filled the book out while she could still remember with detail the events of her life, her love story with my grandfather, her life with my mother and the rest of her children. Her book is one I will always treasure.
An additional letter written by her was opened after she died; it was addressed to her five children. We couldn’t tell when it was written, probably a couple decades earlier. But she wanted to express the inheritance she was leaving behind in writing: A legacy of her faith in God, memories of being raised by loving parents, her hope everyone would find a good and happy marriage, her good character, her faithful work ethic, and her desire that her children would always be there for each other. My grandmother obviously knew that a legacy wasn’t monetary but rather, passing along the values important to her.
Written by a granddaughter: In loving memory of Marcelle Trottier Neely, Feb. 5, 1917 – Jan. 24, 2010
A Ring for a Wedding (04/19/12)
I inherited my grandmother’s ring, as photographed in this blog above, the one she still wore until the end of her life. I am honored to say this ring became the ring I wear today as my engagement ring, with the wedding band my husband gave to me to go with it. I was still single and waiting when she passed away. That “last real conversation” I wrote about in Jan. 2010 blog above was when she told me she was sure that I was waiting for a long time for a husband for a good reason. She felt God had someone very special in mind for me who would be worth the wait. She was right. It was an honor to share my wedding day with her by wearing her ring, and having it be such an amazing reunion between myself, my mom, and all of her siblings who I last saw the week of her death. It was so wonderful to get together for such a happy occasion. I think of her every day when I look down at my left hand, grateful for the time we had with her.
(Reprint of article written by Cheryl McKay for HOSFU) There are three things I firmly believe: First, God still speaks to us today. Second, God uses pain and redeems what we’ve been through to help other people. Third, God speaks … Continue reading