Family History as a Healing Process
Lisa Chaston is an extraordinary person. She’s a tenacious survivor of adversity, some of which is the result of health issues, and some that’s generational. Lisa has worked hard on her recovery, assisted in large measure by a family research project that involved a series of interviews with her beloved Gram, Mary (Leask) Joyce.
“I realized I didn’t know anything about my Gram, nothing about her as a person or about her life. I thought I was doing these interviews for her,” says Lisa, but she soon realized it was a two-way exchange that had deep meaning for her too. She also discovered her Gram was a born storyteller with a need to share the troubling experiences of her childhood. Lisa started out with simple note taking but switched to a tape recorder, later transcribing every word into what became a 200 page manuscript.
Skookum Tom Leask of Quadra Island, BC
Mary’s favourite subject was her father ‘Skookum’ (Chinook Jargon for strong) Tom Leask. He was her childhood hero and, as Lisa discovered, he was a legend in the community too. Mary was his youngest daughter and the apple of his eye.
Tom Leask grew up in extreme poverty on Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands and left in his early teens, in the 1870s. The opportunity came, perhaps, with a tramp steamer. He is said to have wandered the globe for a few years until he arrived in Montreal in about 1883. From there he made his way across Canada laying track for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Tom must have been a valued labourer. He was a lean man and short, even by the standards of his time, but he had tremendous stamina, vigor and—for a man with a soft voice and a quiet demeanor—he had a lightening-strike temper. His friend of those years, Tom Backus, said Leask was the strongest man he ever knew. On one occasion Leask hurled an opponent through a window, breaking the whole thing, sash and all. But the real attention grabber for Tom Leask was his double row of teeth, which he used to chew up beer glasses for bets.
When Leask and Backus hit the Pacific coast in the late 1880s they decided to stay. Leask became a packer and labourer in logging camps in the Campbell River area on Vancouver Island, and both he and Backus registered for pre-emptions (homestead grants) across the passage on Quadra Island. Leask’s place at Hyacinthe Bay on Quadra’s east coast was—and still is—an extraordinarily beautiful place, backed by a mountain and bordered by a salmon bearing stream.
The life of an isolated immigrant settler, “grub steaked” through work in the bravado and swagger of logging camps, suited Tom Leask well. He became a regular at the pub at the Heriot Bay Hotel, a half an hour canoe trip away. Stories of his prowess as a fighting man are still told there. And like so many others among the predominantly single male immigrants, he had fleeting relationships with aboriginal women. When he met young Maggie Norman, however, it was different.
Maggie was the child of a Haida woman and a Norwegian settler named Harry Norman. Though Tom and Maggie weren’t married in a Christian church they became a couple and raised a family of five in his two room cabin. When Maggie died prematurely from influenza in 1919 Frank, her youngest child, was still an infant. Little Mary, who was just five, treasured vivid memories of her mother. She also recalled that shortly after her mother’s death her Haida family came to visit and offered to take the children—but Tom Leask refused. He wanted to raise his children within white society.
Tom stayed home with the children after Maggie’s death but island farms provided only a marginal income. It wasn’t long before Tom had to go back to logging, with lengthy absences from home. When he was away the eldest children—Sarah and Henry—were in charge. Sarah was not yet in her teens and both she and Henry were still in school. Their youth and the weight of responsibility made them quarrelsome.
As soon as Tom Leask was out of sight the fights broke out. Mary was warned not to tattle. “There were times they would hit us so hard,” recalled Mary, “it would leave marks all over our bodies.” Henry, in particular, was unstoppable when he got mad. If you fell down as a result of his blows the kicking began and his rage seemed to build with each strike.
Mary decided the answer was to run away, taking her little brother Frank, who was still a toddler. When the pair were found the next morning Mary finally told her father about the terrible beatings. Though Leask gave Henry and Sarah stern warnings, their beatings continued.
School was hard too. The Leask children were shunned for being “half-breeds” and called insulting names. Henry was challenged to daily schoolyard fights. And, as if life was not hard enough, one day—when Mary was about 10—their father did not return from a boat trip to Heriot Bay. Henry put a storm lantern out to light his father’s way into the pebble beach below their cabin, but when morning came there was still no sign of Skookum Tom Leask. The children found his pipe lying on the beach and a neighbour set out in search. He found Tom Leask lying on the shallow bottom of the bay, weighed down by a sack of flour. Though Leask was born on the seacoast and had lived much of his life on the water, he had never learned to swim.
Henry and Sarah wanted to keep their family together—and hang onto their farm. Henry, who had already begun to work in logging camps, promised to support his siblings and Sarah, now 16, agreed to care for the youngsters, aged 13, 10 and 7. Sarah’s disposition had not softened with age. She was a harsh task master. And when Henry was around he too was angry and abusive. Much as he hoped his earnings would suffice there was never enough to eat, especially after Henry began to drink.
The local Anglican minister visited sometimes, as did members of the Women’s Institute. They brought clothing and extra food, and hoped for the best, but they must have seen hints of how grim the situation had become for the children.
It was about a year before the authorities were alerted. That year burned itself into Mary’s memory. The children lived with constant hunger and Mary became the victim of sibling sexual abuse. She buried that aspect of her past into the deepest recesses of her mind until she opened her heart to her granddaughter at the end of her life. “She never told a soul,” says Lisa Chaston. “She lived all her life with that secret.”
The children’s school teacher must have noticed how hungry the Leask children were. One day when Mary came home from school the cabin was quiet and empty. She stepped inside to find Henry had brought home a bag of oats and a bag of brown sugar. In her famished state Mary snatched at handfuls of dry oats and sugar, stuffing them into her mouth and pockets. Henry caught her in the act and unleashed one of his beatings.
Perhaps it was the children’s teacher who finally alerted the authorities. Whatever the case, the police arrived one day and escorted all but Henry away to an orphanage in Vancouver.
Frank, the youngest, was seven by this time but in later years he could remember nothing of his early childhood—not his father, the farm, or any other details. His earliest memory was of the boat ride to Vancouver. George, who was thirteen, died of pneumonia shortly after the children were institutionalized. Henry, meanwhile, continued to live on the farm, assisted by the community, who raised funds to help him pay the taxes. Sarah, now about 17, was released at age 18 and moved to northern BC, remaining aloof from her siblings for the rest of her life. The two youngest, Mary and Frank, stayed in the orphanage for years, until Mary’s marriage to a childhood friend on Quadra Island at the age of 18. Frank was too young to leave but Mary’s husband, Lewis Joyce, took the boy in as his ward.
Lisa’s lengthy interviews with her Gram brought forth both sweet and bitter memories. Once her deepest secrets had been shared a burden was lifted and Mary took pride in the book length manuscript Lisa produced. “This is my granddaughter Lisa,” she’d say to others in her care facility. “She’s writing a book about me.” When Lisa gave her Gram a printed version of the draft Mary read and reread it. Her copy was always at hand.
“She died about four months after she read the manuscript,” says Lisa. While it remains unpublished and Lisa still hopes to fulfill her promise to see it in print, she knows her work has already produced its deepest purpose in the bond she forged with her Gram. Like many such stories, some of these family dynamics reverberated down the generations, but the solid core Lisa inherited from her Gram sustains her still as she works to regain her health and heal her own life’s wounds.
If you enjoyed this history tale you may also like my posts called Disturbing the Dead, about the fallout of a love triangle in the 1890s: http://thescribes.ca/disturbing-the-dead-a-read-islandbc-tale/; and A Forgotten Grave at Bold Point, Quadra Island, BC: http://thescribes.ca/580/.