December 09, 2018

Born To Die, A Christmas Gift

December 10, 1957, my dead sister was born. She'd be 61 now, and each year she is a part of my Christmas Advent—as surely as the Christ Child of so long ago. For it was her life and death that put me in the front row seat with a view into eternity and first-hand experience with the grace of God.

Heather Wilbee, Christmas 1959
She’d been born to die, Heather, a Christmas gift wrapped in grief. The year, 1957. Me, six. My mother returned from the hospital without my baby sister. My father explained. Heather had been born with a hole in heart and was not expected to live. He lifted me into my high yellow chair for supper and scooted me in. He did the same for Linda and Tresa. Seven, six, and five, me in the middle, I stared into the night and at our reflections in the large window on the other side of the table, wondering if the glass might fall in from the weight of sadness pressing against the house. Unable to eat, I pushed the food around on my plate. Dad cornered off some mashed potatoes. "Eat this much and you can be excused.

“Leave her be,” said my mother and I burst into tears.

But it was the grief, like sunlight through stained glass, which made Heather’s fragile life so lovely. She stayed with us for three years and how we loved her, my other sisters and I.

Wilbee sisters, 1961
The first eighteen months of her life we only knew her through hushed whispers and the occasional trip home. But when Mum and Dad brought her home for good—after her second open-heart surgery and not expected to survive the trip—one look at this frail little sister, so weak and so blue, and looking for all the world like me, my terrible grief eclipsed into magical wonder. God had hung a smile from the stars.

Heather Wilbee, 1960
For a long time we were not allowed into our parents’ room where Dad set up Heather’s crib under an oxygen tent. Exceptions were made if we donned surgical masks and scrubbed our hands just about raw with Fels Naptha. We didn’t mind; we could kill her with germs we didn’t know we had. We could, however, peek through the door all we wanted. Sometimes I just sat on the cold tile floor and watched. Mum usually had her propped up in a corner of her crib, and Heather amused herself by watching the butterflies Mum had made from candy wrappers, hung from a coat hanger. She also had Aunt Grace’s “Puppydids,” a mink shawl of heads and tails that she’d fallen in love with. When I softly opened the door lest I startle her and inadvertently kill her, she’d smile a weak soft smile that came mostly from her eyes. “Hi, Heather,” I’d say. What I meant of course was “I love you.”

Heather Wilbee 1960
She blossomed in the warm rays of family sunlight. She learned to sit up, to talk, and, delightfully, to sing—a clear sweet voice that floated through the house like bird song at dawn. Mum began taking her outdoors on sunny days and let us push her gently in the baby swing.

When she gave a Heather a bath out by the clothesline, we were allowed to pass the soap and help dribble water over her pale blue  skin—as delicate and translucent as a poppy open to the sky. It hurt me to see her scars, two zipper-like marks that ran horizontal around her rib cage, one under each arm. I’d distract myself by showing her how to wiggle her fingers in the water and make a splash; and I’d wonder at the courage she possessed.

Heather's shoesBy two-and-a-half she'd learned how to pull herself up despite the doctors' prediction, and could walk by holding onto our fingers in front of us. How she came by her black patent leather shoes I don’t recall, but the three of us didn’t begrudge her the shoes we had no dream of ever owning for ourselves. And as much as we loathed our Buster Browns—shoes so ugly and uncomfortable we had to stick our feet in an X-ray machine so the salesman could tell if a new pair was too big or too small—we took pleasure in Heather’s good luck. At eight years old and seeing her shoes, I understood that prayer was not a waste of time.

She had a bedtime routine. I might be busy doing cutouts, or playing a game with my other sisters, or coloring or reading to myself, but I found comfort in the schedule unfolding around me. Her jammies on, she first had to have her blue may-he-dun, then her pink. Never the reverse. Once when Aunt Grace was visiting she got it backwards. What a hullabaloo. We of course sprang to the rescue and explained the error, and prayed that the upset wouldn't stop Heather's fragile heart. After her mayhedun, she had to be carried about the house, shutting all the cupboards and drawers, everything tucked into place and put properly to bed. Jamie Boy had to have his bird cage draped and the counter wiped. Finally, sitting down on the yellow rocking chair before a fire, Mum had to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and two verses of “Silent Night.”

The routine was soothing as oil, a serenity that became as much my goodnight schedule as Heather’s. Her stints at the hospital left the house empty and I didn’t sleep well and I rattled around with a hole in my own heart. When she returned, the house filled back up and I shut my eyes at night to a world very much at peace.

Linda and Heather Wilbee 1961
She spent her third and final Christmas with us at home. We decorated our tree with her butterflies and I kept an eye on her, thrilled to see her open her stocking and smile with each surprise.

One night some time later I awoke from a deep sleep sensing something was wrong. I threw back the covers and crept into the hall. At the far end a sliver of light slipped through the crack at the bottom of my parents’ door. An eerie glow washed over Mum’s well-polished tile floor. I sprinted, bare feet cold against the tile, and inched open my parents’ door. Dad was sitting on the edge of the bed with Heather, carefully keeping the oxygen mask a few inches from her mouth. Put too close, she’d panic. Years later, I understood. Rubber suffocates.


He looked up.

“May I come in?”

Heather Wilbee just weeks before she died in June 1961
He motioned that I sit beside them. The bed sank a little under my weight. Heather startled. I reached over and took her blue fingers in my own and was happy it calmed her. Mum paced at the end of the bed. In front of me stood the oxygen tank.

In the terrible tension and rushed tiny gasps of my sister, I became fascinated by the gauge needle slipping closer to the red empty mark. I gave Dad a running commentary. Finally, in uncharacteristic abruptness, he said, “Brenda, it would be better to pray than to chatter.”

I instantly let go of Heather’s hand, and bowed my head in agony. I’d been caught pretending she wasn’t dying. But she was. I did know this. And I knew that if she didn’t regain her breath within minutes, before the precious oxygen was gone, the sun would rise without my sister in its light.

Frantically I prayed. I begged. I watched the needle sink into the red zone, like the spinner in Shoots and Ladders settling on the line between six and one. I reminded God of all the other times he'd saved her. Do it again. Please. The hiss of the oxygen tank suddenly sputtered out. I slid my eyes sideways, afraid.

She was asleep, her lovely translucent skin the soft pink of sunlight at dawn.


He looked at me with bone-weary eyes.

“She didn’t die.”

“No, she didn’t,” and he reached with a smile to ruffle my bangs.

She died two months later while I slept.

Did it hurt to die?

Portrait picture of Heather Wilbee just weeks before she died in 1961
“She just went to sleep, and woke up in heaven,” the preacher said that dull day mid-June, 1961, while I stared with stinging eyes at the little white box in front of the church. How did he know she just went to sleep and woke up in heaven? He wasn’t there; no one was there... Her third open-heart surgery and she’d been left in her hospital bed, needles sticking out of her, alone under the plastic canopy and surrounded by her beads, her Ned the Lonely Donkey which was really mine, her string of red monkeys looped across the crib bars—and her Puppydids, of course, kissing her face while the oxygen pointlessly hissed. Had she cried out? Found no one there? While I slept? 

God’s smile hung from the stars came crashing down, and I stared at the white box in mounting panic. I did not know where to find the scattered shards.

Over the years I've stumbled across them, finding her in my own suffering and finding, too, assurance that God gives us grace in the hard times. And so while I've spent my life missing my sister, I've never once regretted her birth. I'm so grateful she was ours, that our parents saw fit to allow me—and my others sisters—our eye-witness access to the fragility of life and it's exquisite beauty when reflected so clearly through the terrible prism of compromised life. A baby born to die, yes, a Christmas gift wrapped in grief. But a gift of life, too. 

Wilbee family 1961.

Heather Wilbee's grave marker
Merry Christmas to all, and may God bless us, Everyone!

December 01, 2018

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Curious Animal and Petroglyphs

Snarling Bobcat
Post-traumatic stress is a curious animal, like a bobcat lurking in the shadows, snarling, pawing the air. It circles, keeping you in its sights. Sometimes you can stick your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la-la-la and it goes away, but eventually the yellow eyes of the past don’t slink into the shadows anymore. The pointed tips of its ears instead lay straight back, and the beast crouches and crawls across the stones of time toward you. You hyperventilate on the fear but you know if you run, it’ll leap out of the past and take you down.

A few years ago and finding myself mired in a dark place of emotional and creative paralysis, I remarked to my youngest son, “I wonder if I have some kind of PTSD.”

Blake Kent, 1999Blake was twenty-nine at the time. He has blue eyes. When he's happy, they lighten to a bright, translucent color that reminds me of an Arizona swimming pool. When thoughtful, they turn a deep navy, and you can almost see his prodigious mind pulling data from every nook and cranny as he thinks and the color deepens. The day I blurted out my rather off-the-wall and oh-so-casual comment—"oh, BTW, maybe I have post-traumatic stress"—he slid his eyes toward me. They were a deep navy blue. “Perhaps in more ways than one,” he said. Ah…a circle of bobcats. And so I went to the Arizona desert to see what they would do.

They ganged up on me, that's what they did.

So much so that I checked out two books on post-traumatic stress disorder from the Glendale Public Library.

Have you ever been in a natural catastrophe? the authors ask.


Were you ever sexually assaulted?

Check, check, and check.

As a child, were you physically maltreated with excessive beatings or spankings?


Have you ever been kidnapped, abducted, raped, burglarized, robbed, or mugged?

Check to much of the above—if we count my ten-year marriage from hell and the seventeen years of single parenting that followed.

Were you ever injured in an accident?

Check. And more checks.

Have you ever been involved in a situation in which you felt that you would be harmed or killed?

Do I have to answer this?

A single “yes” is enough to tuck me snugly into the DSM-IV’s category of PTSD. No wonder I was overwhelmed. There are other questions in this list, of course, and my continued “yeses” should have alarmed me, but I instead felt relief. The circling chaos, closing in on me in the Arizona desert where much of my pain lived, actually held a said the books. A kind of dot-to-dot, if you will, that I, and anyone else traumatized, can find comfort in for all its tragic commonality. Night Sky with Big Dipper outlinedThe books went on to say that by learning to recognize these patterns I, and everyone else, could gain mastery. A bit like learning how to parse a night sky, I think, into Orion’s Belt, the Big Dipper, the North Star--that glimmering beacon of hope that led the oppressed out of a slavery to the past into a future unfettered.

My first observation upon recognizing that I actually did suffer multiple traumas was that not all my trauma carried the same import. For instance, my crippling anxiety over tornadoes is only triggered by certain weather conditions. Most of the time, I don’t even think about them. I only fall into hapless panic when the barometric pressure plummets a certain way. This simple discovery that I can sort and perhaps prioritize was a godsend. Because in the desert heat it had become clear that my sexual molestation of forty years before had become the lead bobcat of my original metaphor. Gain mastery of this crouching beast and I might, just might, find a way to contain them all.

So I came up with a plan to tackle at least this one cat. On the 40th anniversary of my initial sexual assault, November 11, I made a list of everything Dr. Don Mattson had ever done to me, burned the damning evidence, then got my high school BFF to take me up South Mountain, sacred to the Hohokom, where I could leave the ashes of my past in symbolic gesture and sit alone—and just “let” all those panic-instilling memories at last “intrude.” Sit and wait, see what happens. See if the bobcat, ears back and crawling across those stones of time, pounced and took me down.

I did need my BFF, though, to execute. In the old days Wayne had been the one to take me to the doctor. I’d get through by going "elsewhere" in my head, knowing he'd have me laughing before I could wobble outdoors into the beastly heat of the old days we shared. The whole idea of sitting alone in the desert, all by myself with those memories, was so scary I couldn’t imagine doing it without him. What if I started to keen? To howl? What if I couldn’t find my way back? What if all those memories took up residence and never left, leaving me forever crazy? Yes, I needed Wayne.

He agreed.

On the morning of the 11th I was crying before I ever got to his house thirty minutes away.

“How are you this day?” he asked when I pulled up. He was standing in the driveway.

“I’m okay."

We climbed into his car, a Saturn I don’t mind telling you I’d fallen in love with. Part of my trauma is the on-going saga of car troubles and I have, from time to time, had to borrow Wayne’s. Climbing into his bells-and-whistles vehicle was like climbing into the lap of a familiar and over-indulgent lover. “We’re going to make a stop first,” he said, “a surprise.” I love surprises. He knew this and grinned.

While we wandered through the lovely streets of Ahwahtukee in South Phoenix, he gave me a history of South Mountain rising up beside us and of the Native Americans who go back as far as the Hohokam, an ancient civilization that built multi-story apartments and ran miles of irrigation ditches that far surpassed anything Europe was doing at the time and which the city of Phoenix, to some extent, has appropriated.

Fr Marcos de Niza carving on Arizona stoneBy the time we reached a small parking lot of the world’s largest park, and were ascending by foot a short trail his friend had put in, Wayne was talking of Marcos de Niza and look, here’s his name etched on the stone, with the date of 1539. I was amazed. Wayne’s summation of the various interpretations of history, the various debates regarding the name’s authenticity, where he himself weighed in on the argument, fueled my delight. “There’s more,” he said, and I trotted excitedly along after him down and around the trail to a rock face that took my breath. Petroglyphs of unknown antiquity.

“There is no Rosetta Stone for this,” he said. “We have no idea what the symbols mean.”

Arizona petroglyphsSquared-off spirals, “lizard” men, boxes in boxes, concentric circles, squiggles all scraped into the desert “varnish” of the stone. What did they mean, these symbols? Perhaps they were simply names; perhaps warnings; maybe marks of possession. Or maybe they told a story. A sad story? I didn’t want a sad story. Yet if sadness stood here, wasn’t the narrative testament to survival? Or perhaps these markings were here to celebrate a victory, some kind of triumph, a document of achievement.

Gradually I became aware of Wayne telling me about the descendants of these now silent story tellers, people who live on the Gila River Reserve and who still make forages into the many hidden parts of South Mountain where white men are properly banned. They go, Wayne said, to practice their ancient rites, to seek the ancient gods. They take their own relics and leave them. I thought of Chief Seattle’s grave in the Pacific Northwest and of the many relics found there on any given day. “Just like you’re doing today,” Wayne told me. “Come on. Now that you’ve seen this and I’ve finished my lecture, we can go find a place for your ashes.”

South Mountain Park, ArizonaWe went to two more spots before he was happy. It was Veterans’ Day; the trails were busy. I needed privacy. We ended up where it was easy to duck off the main trail and scrabble up into the crevices of South Mountain just as the Hohokam must have done hundreds of years ago. I had no idea where we were on the map, but kept after Wayne as he climbed up higher into a hot seam that, when I turned around, opened onto the desert and Phoenix sprawl. Forty years ago it had been nothing but cotton fields.

“Is this good?” he asked, balanced atop a boulder. He pointed out numerous small caves and tiny hollows in the rubble of stone where I might leave my relic.

“It’s good,” I said, my palm sweaty from the plastic bag I carried.

He disappeared. I was on my own and found a hollow, hardly reachable, and scraped my skin leaning over to dump the ash from my bag into the basin of this small enclave. Not much substance, I thought, looking at the ash…for the damage it represented. For some reason, I suddenly felt protective, as if the ash was the girl who’d been so wronged, the girl who’d been me and was all burned up and now being banished. But the ash was not me; the ash was Dr. Mattson and his dark deeds. I leaned over and blew. The ash swirled deeper into the stone. I blew again, driving it up against the pocket wall. Let the Hohokam spirits take it, let God have this. Leave it in this sacred place that reaches back in time and still survives.

I clambered away, up the seam to a new place, and sat down into a place of three stones, a chair of sorts, the heat of the earth a cushion beneath me.

Can I name my thoughts? Describe my feelings?

Wayne came to check on me. Quietly he went away.

For the first time ever I didn't fight to keep tears at bay. Let them come. Let the bobcat take me down. But they didn't. Sitting alone in the desert, staring down the beast that circled, yellow eyes on me, I kept harking back to the petroglyphs. Something seductively new. My curiosity called me away from Dr. Mattson. Perhaps the ancient symbols of unknown meaning on weathered rock were a mixed bag of good and bad, triumph and defeat, momentous and mundane, and why not? Is this not life? Were they any different, I wondered, than what had been scraped into the patina and varnish of my own psyche? And how, I wondered with a terrific jolt, could one excise the tragic without marring the rest? How could I sandblast the "lizard" men without damaging the boxes-in-boxes and squiggle lines?

I stood up in agitation. Had I really hoped to cut from my mind this horrible piece of my past? Cut it out as a surgeon cuts cancer, throwing out body parts and leaving behind devastating mutilation? How could I expect to do this without destroying everything attached to it? For despite all its hellish aspects, my first year in Arizona was hands-down the best of my life. A Charles Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” sort of thing. Did I really want to rid myself of it all? In almost a state of panic I started back down the seam.

But where was Wayne? My heart started to pound. Where was he?

I descended farther, out to the open.

He was sitting atop a high stone about fifty yards off, guarding the entrance to my place. Down below bikers wheeled along the trail. I began picking my way over. He spotted me, started toward me, directed me this way, that, until only a sheet of stone stood between us. “Are you all right?” he asked when I stepped over.

I was not. Trembling, I took hold of his shirt and pulled myself into his arms, nose in his chest. “No,” I whispered, so agitated I couldn’t think.

He tucked me in. “But was it worth it?”

I think it took all of twenty seconds to figure it out. The bobcat had not pounced.

It’s been a few years since I tethered that bobcat to the sacred seam of rock in South Mountain of Phoenix, Arizona; where I looked past the yellow eyes of my pain to see instead a whole wall of symbols written on my soul. The disfiguring damage from Dr. Mattson remains, true, a cruel and deeply offensive marking that can make rock weep. It claims its space alongside other trauma I’ve endured and will one day be forced to sort through. But there are the other symbols as well, labyrinths, spirals, wheels--and the concentric circles that to me speak of friends and more friends—not only my bet buddy Wayne whose wisdom and kindness is a North Star in my life but all the others who made that year so wondrous: Gwen, Jeff, Rita, Tom, Jon, Rachel, Rod, Uncle Bob and Donna, Rachel, Jody, Nancy, Carol, Linda, Cherry, Marie, Jamie, Peter, the little church we all attended, McClintock High where I graduated, Legend City, Big Surf, Jonathon’s white ’59 Chevy pick up truck, drive-in movies, and scorpion hunting…

Sandblast Dr. Mattson out of my life? No wonder I'd been agitated. To do so would forever mar the surrounding etchings that better define me. I am all of these things and they're connected.

Sonoran Desert outside Phoenix AZ“What?” said Wayne. I’d stopped. The desert was sooo beautiful, and I just had to stand and absorb, and stare into the horizon. Other layers of my PTSD lurked off the skyline, I knew. More bobcats on the prowl.

"You okay?" Wayne asked.

I nodded. When they did, I’d drive a stake into their ashes and tether them too, in this place where demons have always been left in God's hands.

"I am," I said. And I was.

(see my statement on Dennis Hensley, 2018, another bobcat who made its appearance 19 years after this.)

November 06, 2018

Finding Fred 5 of 5: Finding Granny

Leona Bagley Goodfellow Bent, 92 years old.
IN LOOKING FOR MY GRANDMOTHER, I found my great-grandfather and then I found her: Leona Bagley Goodfellow Bent.

That first meeting was fraught with anxiety, I think for both of us. My Aunt Penny and Uncle Day and I tromped down the wide nursing home hallway, the tile floor glimmering in the florescent lighting. And then we were at the door. A narrow entry opened to nothing fancier than a hospital room, minus the paraphernalia. She sat in the corner on an easy chair, holding Baby.

I'd been warned about Baby. In her old age, Leona had taken to calling a small white teddy bear Baby. She wouldn't let go of it, and it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out what this is all about.

Brenda Wilbee talking to Leona Bent
We went down to the cafeteria, with Baby of course. My missing grandmother, Baby on her lap, asked, "Why did you keep looking for me?"

"Because you're my grandmother and I've missed you all my life."

Five minutes later, "Why did you keep looking for me?"

Five minutes later, again.

Brenda Wilbee, Penny Bent, Leona Bent
I finally figured I wasn't addressing her real question of why. When she asked for the fifth or sixth time, I said, "Because you're my grandmother, and I love you."

She put Baby down and reached across the table to take my hands. "And I love you, too."

For the first time in a very long time, she let go of Baby. Uncle Dale captured the miracle on film. My missing grandmother had, for just a few moments, found relief from the pain over losing my mother.

She wasn't much help in sorting out the story, though. "One mustn't speak ill of the dead," she told me and clammed up, much like my old aunties--her sisters-in-law.

Penny tried to prod her into speaking about Isabella, but Leona stopped her. "Now, Penny, I've told you before. Granny Goodfellow did what she thought best at the time. And in the end that's all any of us can do."

Blow me away with a feather.

Les Goodfellow, Leona Bagley 1924Between Penny and my mother this is what I had pieced together by the time I met Leona. Leona and Les were married the summer of 1927, childhood friends from two families who knew each other but didn't socialize. One was strict Protestant, the other nominal Catholics. One great-grandmother, Lucy May Bagley, pawned her pretty and costly purchases with my other great-grandmother, Isabella Stewart Goodfellow. They were neighbors, at one point living on the same street in Calgary, Alberta, in the same block, on the same side of the road. Sometimes Lucy May couldn't bring back the necessary cash to retrieve her precious purchases and lost them to Isabella. I didn't know growing up that my favorite bowl--a lovely large cut glass bowl we used for sugar--had actually been one of Lucy May's. Fred Bagley's Mountie pension and poorly-paid civil service job didn't allowed the Bagleys very many luxuries--and Lucy May apparently overspent her budget with some regularity. I suspect the arrangement between the two women spawned some level of resentment on Lucy May's part and disdain on Isabella's; and may have been the seed of disapproval from both families when Les and Leona unexpectedly married.

Les Goodfellow with Shirley Elizabeth
Grandpa Les had been living in Vancouver BC for two or three years, working as a mechanic for Begbie Motor Company when Leona, two years older than him and a school teacher on the Alberta prairie, went to Vancouver for summer vacation. They married unexpectedly, and no one was pleased.

From her savings, Leona bought a house, but things seemed to unravel quickly. Within a few months she was pregnant, Les invited his best friend Phil to come live with them, and he fell in love with Marguerite. By the time Leona went into labor the first of October, 1828, Les was living with Marguerite and Phil was still in Leona's house. Leona had to call a taxi and get herself to the hospital. She got herself home, too, with Shirley Elizabeth Goodfellow, the spitting image of my handsome 1920's playboy grandfather.

I can well believe Leona was depressed. Married only fourteen months, home with a newborn, husband living with another woman, a stranger in her means of income. Who wouldn't be? It seems she held out while her savings lasted--another year perhaps.

Isabella Stewart Goodfellow and Shirley Elizabeth Goodfellow
Isabella Goodfellow
Shirley Elizabeth Goodfellow
My mother was told a different story. Isabella and all the aunties told Mum that Leona had abandoned her when she was just six weeks old. That Leona wanted to leave Les and go home. That Leona's famous father had said yes "but leave the brat behind." Mum was also told that her mother had neglected her, that she was malnourished and had to be taken to the hospital where her father gave blood for a transfusion.

Leona's story differs. She managed to get a job teaching school in Alberta, and arranged for Les' parents, Isabella and Walter Goodfellow, to leave Calgary and come live in Leona's Vancouver house and look after Shirley while Leona, after teaching the week, took the weekend train from Calgary to Vancouver, paying the Goodfellows for Shirley's care from her meager salary. A strenuous arrangement for sure--and one that abruptly stopped when Shirley was about eighteen months old. I can't even imagine the shock. The cruelty.

Les and Marguerite picked Leona up at the train station that weekend. Les put her into the backseat and told her she'd be allowed to see their daughter only briefly and for one last time. He and Marguerite would take her right back to the train depot. My grandmother was not even allowed to enter her own home or hold her own baby. She was forced to say goodbye from the doorway. The Goodfellows took Mum to Calgary to grow up as Betty--where she was never allowed to dilly dally after school lest her mother come and kidnap her.

By the time I finally met Leona in 1996, this is all that I'd pieced together. Penny and I didn't get much more out of her, however, and I went home just as curious but happy. I'd finally met her, and, no, Fred Bagley had not said, as rumored, "Come home but leave the brat behind."

Six months after meeting Leona, she fell and broke her hip. From her hospital bed, delirious with pain and in a morphine haze, she kept asking for me."Don't let them take the baby!" she cried when she saw me.  "Brenda! Don't let them take the baby!" and she wept in grief so terrible it sent spasms rippling through my heart.

I gave her the teddy bear. "Here she is," I said, trying to comfort her. Baby wouldn't do. My missing grandmother wanted the real baby, she wanted my mother, and she kept crying and pleading, begging me. "They've taken the baby! They've taken her! PLEASE GET MY BABY!" She was 92 years old. All this had happened 64 years ago. Decades of suppressed pain exploded loose, tearing her apart, tearing me apart. And in that first hour, morphine weakening her guard, more of the story spilled out.

Leona never did understand why Phil was living with her and Les; or why he remained in the house after Les moved out. She had to feed him, do his laundry, fix his meals. She'd been beaten, she didn't know why. Her father had brought my mother a wicker baby buggy from Banff for her to sleep in. And for some bizarre reason, Isabella kept yanking Leona's wedding ring off (a ring she'd purchased for herself). One night, after Isabella had again tossed the ring into the trash, Leona snuck into the kitchen, retrieved the ring, and tucked it into the woven wicker of my mother's baby buggy.

"Why did you tuck your wedding ring into the baby buggy?" I asked when her sanity returned.

"I said that?" Leona asked in shock.

"Yes." When I pushed for a reason, she shrugged, bewildered.

"I don't know. I guess I just wanted it to be near the baby."

"Who beat you?"

"I told you this?" More shock.

"Yes. Who hurt you? Did my grandfather beat you?"

She wouldn't say. It wasn't nice to speak ill of the dead.

She died within a couple of months, and her painful secrets went with her. I'll never know what really happened. Except this. A terrible wrong was done.

Yet...  Yet Leona's astonishing ability to endure and live with secret pain filled the enormous hole I once had. Informing me more fully of who I am. From her comes my own courage and fortitude and ability to endure and live beyond pain. Not as great as hers, not by a long shot, but nonetheless hard at times to bear. And here is my hope. Maybe, just maybe, maybe someday I'll find that I too am made of the stuff that can say, "So and so did their best, and in the end that's all any us can do."

By searching for Leona, I found Fred. And in searching for Fred, I found her. And in her, I found a measure of myself.

And somewhere in Vancouver BC Canada is a wicker baby buggy, forgotten in an old attic and or on sale in an antique shop, with a wedding ring hidden in the weft. If you find it, it belongs to my grandmother and tells a story that whispers and nags despite the secrets taken to the grave.

wicker 1910 baby carriage

October 21, 2018

Finding Fred 1 of 5: I Have A Great-Grandfather

We old ‘originals’ are prone sometimes to believe that we are neglected or ignored by a generation that ‘knew not Joseph’ and his works. —Frederick Augustus Bagley

Maj. Frederick Augustus Bagley
Frederick Augustus Bagley
Battleford, Saskatchwan, 1875
THE FAMILY MYTHOLOGY surrounding my great-grandfather Frederick Augustus Bagley was limited and unpleasant when I was growing up.

His daughter was a missing grandmother in my life—a woman who, it was said, abandoned my mother when she was six weeks old. Where Leona had gone or where she was, no one knew and none seemed to care. And while the judgment against her wasn’t particularly harsh (her actions explained away as depression and, after all, Granny Goodfellow, had been quick to step in and raise baby Betty), Leona’s father, my great-grandfather, came under a much harsher light. When Leona asked if she could leave her husband and come home, Frederick Augustus Bagley had apparently said, “Yes, but leave the brat behind.”

And so while I loved and missed my missing grandmother, and grew up yearning to find her, I secretly resented my great grandfather. After all, had he been a bit more understanding of whatever the plight may have been in 1928 my mother would have never been an orphan of sorts and my missing grandmother would not have gotten lost. Who was this man who thought my mother a brat? I didn’t care. I just wanted my grandmother.

Banff, Main StreetI was fourteen when my family drove into Banff, AB, for the first time. I was sitting in the back seat, between my two sisters. I had a straight-on view as we came in—the Rockies climbing up the sky all around me, just ahead the stone bridge and stately old hospital. I scooted forward with an exuberance new to me. In my fourteen years we’d moved a lot; any sense of home had dissipated, leaving me with a feeling of transience. But driving into Banff I recognized home. Here, I belonged. Here were roots. Here was my energy source.

Why? I didn’t know.

Fred Bagley's Banff post 1888
First Mountie Detachment: 1896
At the time we were living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and were on our way back after spending the summer, as we usually did, at my paternal grandfather’s beach house outside Vancouver.

It was with great reluctance that I said goodbye to Banff, yet…in grade four, Miss Bilby had told us stories about growing up on a farm outside Regina, SK, and it took my breath to see the prairie unfold as we dropped down out of the Rockies to meet the plains. Was it her stories that made my spirits soar? That gave me that sense of recognition and delight? Perhaps. Yet I’d heard many stories of wondrous places that didn’t, when experiencing them for myself, evoke such a keen sense of connection. We passed Dead Man’s Flat and drove right into the lapping waves of an ocean of grass that in actuality was my great-grandfather’s country. I didn’t know he’d spent his life here, that he’d policed the thousands upon thousands of square miles of earth and sky so flat and far-reaching it boggled my mind. I didn’t know…yet I must have known. I was recognizing land I loved and didn’t know I missed. Perhaps this is why Miss Bilby’s stories had meant so much to me.

Ft. Macleod, Fort Macleod AB
Ft. Macleod AB
We pulled into Fort MacLeod in Southern Alberta. My sisters and I—thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen, me in the middle—were looking at the doo-dads displayed in the gift shop, trying to keep an eye on our five-year-old brother, when all of a sudden our mother, peering intently at every photograph on the wall, started to shriek: “Roy! Roy! Come quick!” She was hyperventilating, I think—but then the whole scene is probably dramatized in my mind for we were teenagers.

Dad went over, I hid behind a bookcase; she was not my mother.

“Look! Here’s my grandfather! It has to be him. ‘Frederick Bagley, Crack-shot of the RCMP,’” she quoted and I came out from behind the bookcase.

“Your grandfather was a Mountie?” I asked, meeting his eyes and thinking he looked like a decent sort. Not the kind of guy who called his granddaughter a brat.

Mum headed for the cash register. I tore my eyes away from this man whose bloodline I carried and quickly trundled along behind , ears on high alert and wondering why I’d never been told this bit of information. A Mountie? I pictured of the red-tuniced men parading around on frisky horses in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

The long and short of the ensuing conversation at the cash register was that the curator was just then reading Fred Bagley’s diary, written when he’d crossed the prairies in 1874 as a fifteen-year-old kid. One year older than myself! His diary, however, was open only to family. So why give it to the museum? Mum patiently explained she was family. Didn’t matter. She still had to get permission from one of his three daughters, Kate, Leona, and Marian. [today you can read the diary for yourself by clicking on this link:]

Diary page, Fred Bagley
Diary Page, Fred Bagleyto access, click on
I had to sit down. How did Mum feel about this? My own heart was hammering, high on unexpected hope in the air.

Mum got the address of her Aunt Marian, Leona's sister. We drove out to my great-great-aunt's roadside farm and Dad pulled over onto the highway shoulder, and we sat for what seemed like an eternity while Mum mulled things over, hope humming all around me like bees in the sunflowers. “Let’s go on, Roy,” she finally said and the bees fell silent.

That was that. We drove away, not knowing Leona lived only a few miles away, only that she’d remarried and that his name, too, was Roy. Roy Bent.

Three years later we were living in Iowa. My parents put my older sister and me on the train in Fargo, North Dakota. Linda and I were headed for Winnipeg, where an uncle would meet us and drive us out to Lloydminster, Alberta. There we’d spend a few days with our cousins, then take the train to Vancouver for another summer on the West Coast. I didn’t know, ticket in hand that hot, sultry June day in 1969 that my departure point was, in June 1874, our great grandfather’s train terminus, end of the rails.

Mounties sort gear in Fargo, ND
Mounties sort gear in Fargo, ND
I didn’t know that the newly formulated RCMP (in civilian dress, for they’d skirted the Great Lakes by special arrangement of the American government) had disembarked here and “dumped” their baggage onto the “bald-headed prairie.” In 1969 I saw wheat and corn stretching as far as the eye could see. In 1874 our great grandfather saw acres of “ uniforms, arms, ammunition, provisions, bedding, saddles, harness, wagons, hay-rakes, ploughs and harrows.” I didn’t know that he, by special dispensation from his father and Colonel French, had been allowed to join as the force as its youngest member and bugle boy. I didn’t know that he’d rubbed the sleep out of his eyes the very next day and sounded Reveille at 4:00 a.m.; I didn’t know that he and 200 other men and sixteen officers put together 200 hundred sets of harnesses, 300 saddles, and 75 heavy wagons; I didn’t know that his “D” Troop pulled out with twenty-nine fully loaded wagons at 5:00 p.m., headed for Winnipeg; that “E” Troop followed at 7:00 p.m.; and that “F” Troop, left behind to clean up, got under way the next day—without benefit of my great-grandfather’s bugle to wake them. I didn’t now any of this. I was already in Winnipeg and it was exactly ninety-five years later.

In Lloydminster, my aunt took Linda and I to an RCMP band concert, front row seats, with our five cousins. We were all musicians. Linda was a flutist, I was a clarinetist, and my single most joy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had been our middle school band and symphony where we were the recipients of exceptional directing and private study—an unstated requirement if we were to participate. Consequently, Slauson Junior High won numerous awards and today, when I listen to our recordings, I am astonished. I was in “high fiddle” to attend the RCMP band concert.

Two erect Mounties in dashing red jackets and gold braiding stepped out, curtains still drawn, from stage left and stage right, with five-foot long bugles that glimmered in the light. The executed a few fancy steps, faced each other across the space, snapped their horns into position and, without warning, shot the clear tenor tones of “Oh Canada” into the air with such pomp and circumstance that the short hairs along the back of my neck stood up and I was on my feet without knowing quite how it happened. The crowd was not far behind and I bit back tears. I may have lived in the States for four years, but my loyalty was Canadian and I thought at the time it was the sheer excellence of the music and being “home” that had triggered my nationalistic pride and an ecstasy that never, in fifty-five years, has ever been repeated.

Military Trumpet 1880s
Trumpet similar to Fred's
What I didn’t know was that my great grandfather, asleep in my DNA, recognized his work and awoke, and that it was he who propelled me to my feet in a shock of joy that can only come after a century of sleep. Frederick Augustus Bagley, bugle boy, had made the RCMP his career and it was he who’d started so many of these bands. Together, unknown to each other but one and the same that night, we listened, our hearts caught in a surreal space where time and distance blended for one magical evening in the harmony of familiar sound.

I was thirty and back living on the West Coast when I began my summer treks to Banff and the prairies. In the silence of my missing grandmother, I’d taken to finding what I could of her dad. The Whyte Museum is where I learned of his short stint in Banff, that he’d returned and retired there, and was buried. I also learned that he’d started the Banff Springs Hotel band. Now that was interesting—and some of the pieces began coming together for me. My musical interest for one, but certainly my passion for Banff.

My first trip to Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, however, gave me a start—and then made me mad. I came across a slip of paper in my missing grandmother’s handwriting. Leona had been asked by a Calgary school classroom to submit a list of Major Fred Bagley’s descendents for a 1974 mountie centennial project they were working on. She listed herself, a son and three granddaughters—Leslie, Maia, and Elizabeth. After the shock of seeing her handwriting—she was real!—I allowed the information to sink in. The first thing I noticed was that there was no mention of her first husband Leslie, my Grandpa Les. No mention of her daughter, my mother Shirley Elizabeth, whom everyone called Betty. Certainly there was no mention of us, of me. And then it hit me. The names.

Leona, for whatever reason, had separated from Leslie—yet her eldest granddaughter bore the same name. She’d supposedly abandoned her infant, Shirley Elizabeth—yet her youngest granddaughter carried the baby’s name. And, like her daughter “Betty,” Leona had married a man named Roy. Coincidence? I was beginning to suspect that our unacknowledged and unknown past struggles for recognition; that we have less choice than we think. We are compelled, and the people around us are compelled, to name the past.

Bankhead AB foundations
Bankhead foundations
to learn more, click here
This was the summer I discovered Bankhead—and, happily, Louis Trono. Intrigued by the Bankhead history ParksCanada listed in their brochure and on the various site signs posted about the old ghost town north of Banff, I asked in town if they had any further information. They let me see a short documentary and in the flickering darkness I wrote down the names of the elderly men and women being interviewed. They’d grown up as children in Bankhead, their fathers the coal miners brought in by the CPR from all over Europe.

“You want to know more about Bankhead?” Louis Trono asked when I knocked on his front door later that day, one block off Banff’s main drag. Graciously he invited me in, called for his wife, Joy, to bring us some iced tea for the day was hot. “Tomorrow might be a better day,” he said as we settled in, a lively Italian, eighty-four years old, with slicked back hair and coiled energy. “I have to leave in an hour to rehearse at the Banff Springs Hotel. We play every night.”

“Really?” I said, perking up. “My great-grandfather started that band.”

Mr. Trono plunged forward in his stuffed chair. Iced tea slurped up over the glass brim, down his fingers. He didn’t notice. His eyes were on me. “You’re the Major’s granddaughter?”

I started to ramble about my lost lineage, my search of my grandmother, how I had to content myself with Fred Bagley. Mr. Trono interrupted, smile so big, leaning across the room to shake my hand again. “This is fine! This is a pleasure! Joy!” he hollered. “We have the Major’s granddaughter here!” She came running, a woman twenty or thirty years his junior. More handshakes.

“You knew my great grandfather?” I asked, the bees back in my ears and humming. “You knew him?”

“Knew him? He came out to Bankhead and started the Bankhead band. He taught me how to play the trombone. I was only in knickers. At first he said no, I couldn’t join. I was just a kid. I kept badgering him. He finally thought to shut me up by giving me his old trumpet. But I blew my lungs inside out for a week until I finally got the hang of it, showed up at the next rehearsal, and he had to let me have a shot. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He turned to the big guys and said, ‘This lad is a musician, boys. If the rest of you ever learn to play half as good as—what’s your name, Sonny?—Louis here, I should be so proud.’ But your granddad needed a trombone player—so I’ve played trombone all my life, all over the world.

Mounties at Queen Victoria's Jubilee
Fred Bagley
2nd from left
"Did you know your granddad played at Queen Victoria’s Jubilee? He taught me well. I played for Queen Elizabeth. And I’ve been more places playing music than even your granddad, he was famous for his music, you know. I owe him life, my livelihood, every wonderful thing I’ve ever known in life. Everything. He gave me direction in that old ghost town, I am indebted to him. And here you are…”

It was too much for the old man. He flopped back in his chair. Joy fussed. I started to make excuses, asked when I could come back. I, too, needed some time to process the surprise.

“Your grandmother?” he said, pulling out of the shock. “What was her name?”

“Leona.” Bees swarmed through the room, honey in their wings.

“Joy, was it Leona?” he asked, “who taught Marco in grade two?”

Joy pulled out some old school pictures. “Yes, she taught at the little elementary school a few blocks away.” Linda, I thought, thinking of my older sister and seeing my grandmother for the very first time, would be interested in this. Linda was an elementary school teacher, and loved the second grade.

“Are you in a hurry?” Mr. Trono asked, glancing at his watch.

“No, I was going to go over and see if the Craigs would talk to me about Bankhead.”

“Do that tomorrow. I’m taking you to rehearsal, to introduce you to the boys. They’re younger than me, they didn’t know your granddad, but they know of him. Hey, I’ll buy you supper at the hotel. We can visit, and you can stay and listen to us play for the evening.”

Over grilled trout at the Banff Springs Hotel, "Louis" told me that when Bankhead closed  in 1919 all the houses were taken into Banff or Canmore, a little town five or six miles east. “I was twelve. My family moved next door to the Major on Beaver Street and summer afternoons he had us boys over to play with his swords. He taught us how to parade. I of course continued my music lessons.”

Bankhead AB 1904
Bankhead AB 1904
The next day found Louis and I in Bankhead, laying out the huge maps I’d gleaned from the museum, Louis putting stones on their corners to keep the wind at bay, everything spread over what was once, he said, the curling green. He filled me in on who lived where and what they were like—and fed me details of my grandmother and great grandfather as they came to mind. He regretted not having made it his business to learn everything he could. “I was a kid,” he told me, taking me over to the old Catholic church, now a basement and stone steps rising to meet heaven. “We didn’t care about that kind of stuff, but once he passed on? I regretted knowing so little.”

Yet what Louis told me that summer and over the next several years confirmed my growing suspicion that Major Frederick Bagley, despite all reports of his grand, military bearing, could never have called my mother a brat. And if this much of the story wasn’t true?

I started to feel a sense of desperation to find my grandmother. What history begged to be told?

Unbeknownst to me, when the bees fell silent outside my great Aunt Marian’s house, my mother still heard them, and had written her aunts and mother three times for permission to have a copy of her grandfather’s diary. Three times she’d been ignored and I think it was this rejection that stung. Or perhaps these were my own feelings, and I visited them upon Mum in my growing reversal of feelings—love and admiration for Fred, less for Leona. But was this fair?

Betty Goodfellow Wilbee and brother Dale Bent
Betty Goodfellow Wilbee & Dale Bent
I had children of my own when Mum got a phone call. She and Dad were living in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the time. “You don’t know me,” the man on the other end of the line said, “but my name is Dale Bent.”

Mum reports that her knees weakened, and she sat down. “You are my brother,” she said.

“Yes. And I have something I think you’d like.”

And so a brother walked into Mum’s life, an uncle into mine, bearing the diary Mum had wanted so badly that she’d risked, three times, her mother’s very pointed rejection.

In the end, it was a death bed sort of confession that brought us Fred Bagley’s diary. Aunt Kate was dying. She called in her nephew, told him there were three letters, that his mother had been married before, that he had a sister, that she wanted their grandfather’s diary. Could he deliver it to her?

He could, and did. That was the good news. The bad news was that his mother—Leona—didn’t want to know about us.  This grandmother I yearned for not even interested to know if I existed? Stung, I nevertheless resolved to look at it from her point of view. What was an old woman supposed to do when past became present?

Buck pony
Buckwheat "Buck", Fred's Famous Pony
My third trip to Glenbow was with Mum. She wrote to see what artifacts they might have of her grandfather. I’d never thought to do that, and so was delighted when we were taken into the archives to see and handle a collection of his uniforms, accouterments, manuscripts, even a horse’s hoof. A Mountie’s regiment number, we learned, was always carved into his horse’s right front hoof so that if his horse ever returned to the fort unmounted the others would know who to look for. “He’s actually quite a famous horse in Mountie history,” the curator explained, telling us the story of how Fred Bagley had “stolen” the bay out from under the nose of a fellow Mountie. “Unlike other Mounties, whose horses were periodically assigned and reassigned, your grandfather managed to hang onto his, and when he was too old serve, rather than being consigned to the glue factory as was the policy, this horse,” she said, handing me the hoof, “was put out to pasture. Old Buck lived to the ripe old age of 32."

"Buck, as in Buckwheat?" one or the other of us asked.

Once-upon-a-time my younger sister had snuck a cock-a-poo puppy from Bellingham, Washington, onto the plane and taken him as gift to St. Paul, Minnesota, for our mother. Mum had called him Buckwheat—Bucky for short. I thought of the other names we shared—Leslie, Elizabeth, Roy…and now Buckwheat for our pets. How is it possible for a man in 1874 to call his horse with the same name that his never-to be-known granddaughter would give her  pet a hundred years later? In the name of all that is rational, how is this possible? I handed Buckwheat’s hoof to Mum, K 1 carved into it, grateful for this curious knowledge.

Banff Train Depot 1930s
Banff Train Depot
Was this this same summer Mum and I went up to Banff, where we walked past the old train station one evening?

“Granny and Granddad had a summer cabin here,” she told me. “Granny often brought me up here from Calgary on the train. Back in those days, the Banff Springs Hotel band came out to greet the trains and to play, always conducted by a kindly old man with white hair with the most regal bearing. I was fascinated by him. I’d dawdle along, staring at him over my shoulder, Granny hurrying me along with a stern ‘come along, Betty.’”

Betty Goodfellow, Age 8
Betty Goodfellow, 8
“According to Louis Trono, Mum, that would be your grandfather,” I said.

“I thought of that when you first told me about Louis.”

Did Fred Bagley ever sense his granddaughter’s eyes on him as he directed a rousing “God Save the Queen?” Did he ever catch sight of Granny Goodfellow hastening by, anxious to keep them apart? Did he even know they had a cabin a few blocks from his own?

I took my sons to Glenbow when they were twelve and fourteen to help me go through all the photographs. I was getting desperate to meet my grandmother and wanted to get my hands on a picture that could tell me more about her. We found only one of a child—which daughter was this? Conflicting reports of how many girls Fred Bagley had—anywhere from seven to the three I knew about—provided no clue. I asked for a generated photograph of this unknown child looking over her dad’s shoulder. I’d pretend it was Leona.

It was Phil—the same age I was when I first heard my great-grandfather's call—who asked the curator where his great great grandfather’s badges might be located. We’d gleaned enough information over the years to learn there were many. “Probably in someone’s musty attic or moldy basement,” the librarian offered with a grimace. “If you ever find them, let us know.”

Pincher Creek was a name that kept popping up now and then in my research. It was new country for me and I was curious. I was in talking to the curator at the little museum there when the boys came flying into the office, out of breath, exuberant. “We found them! We found them!”

“Found what?”

“His badges!”

Sure enough, there they were, high on the wall, pinned to velvet and encased in glass. To say he had a lot was putting it mildly. A plaque read “ON LOAN FROM THE CONNELLY FAMILY.”

“Who are they?” I asked the librarian.

“A local family.”

“Any relation to the Bagleys?”

“Cousins of some kind, I think.”

I rather liked the idea of having cousins of a sort in Pincher Creek. But it my grandmother I wanted to meet.

Leona Bagley
Leona Bagley
15 years old
Somewhere along the line, my mother's brother gave me a picture of their mother when Leona was 15 or 16, an early Flapper Girl!

The spring I turned forty my desperation reached a point of near panic. I wasn’t getting any younger, neither was Leona. I called my uncle; he came up with a plan. I’d fly out to London, Ontario, where they now all lived. He’d introduce me as a family friend; in this way I could at least see her and get to know her. I had my ticket in hand when Phil, now a shocking six feet, four inches tall and skinny as a rail (shocking because no one on either side of his family for as far back as we could trace had ever stood over six feet tall), said, “Mum, if you go meet her as a friend of the family, you’ll never get to meet her as family. And isn’t that what you really want?”

Fred Bagley had been fifteen when he left home. Phil was fifteen. I stared at my son—and tore up my ticket.

I raised my children as a writer and at some point Uncle Dale took to setting out autographed copies of my Sweetbriar series, books on Seattle’s pioneer families, for his mother to find, and to read. Sometimes she asked if he knew if I’d be writing any more. “She’s your granddaughter,” he finally told her at some point, “you can ask her for yourself.” She clammed up. The fifth in the series was released in 1997. I was 45, Leona was 93. It was then that she finally said the words I longed to hear, “I think I’m ready to meet Brenda now.”

It was our common interest in history that slowly built the bridge we needed in order to cross over into each others’ lives. I stepped into a beehive of hurt.

But by grandmother was reluctant to reveal the worst. It wasn’t “nice to speak ill of the dead.” She told me instead of her father—the man we both admired. Fred Bagley, she said, stood six feet, four inches tall; and I found it ironic that it was his six-foot, four-inch great great grandson who enabled me to find her, to be speaking with her.

He was a kindly man, she said. He had a sense of humor and loved a good joke. He had many friends. He treated everyone with dignity and respect, even the prisoners he was assigned to guard. He adored his six daughters, only three of whom survived childhood and hence the confusion. They adored him. “Oh, the good times we used to have,” she said with silver in her laugh and eyes seeing back in time to where I couldn’t go. He abhorred violence, she said. He suffered none to strike them and when a nun made the mistake of taking a whip to Leona’s shins one day in school Lucy May, his wife, promptly withdrew all the girls and settled them elsewhere. The nuns begged that she and Fred reconsider. They did not.

Most certainly, he did not call my mother a brat.

In fact, when she was born, he took the train from Calgary to Vancouver see her—wheeling a wicker pram. Here Mum slept for lack of cradle or crib, and when she was taken from Leona at eighteen months old (not six weeks), he did everything in his power to get her back. The Goodfellows, however, were a formidable foe. My mother it seems was the only battle Major Frederick Augustus Bagley ever fought and lost.

Iamasees Chief Big Bear's son
Iamisees / Murderer
Big Bear's Son 
All this very nearly didn’t happen. Trouble was brewing in 1884 on the Northern Saskatchewan. First there was the “Poundmaker Racket” earlier that summer and soon there’d be Louis Riel’s Second Resistance. Grandfather and his men were caught up in the tension and under orders to keep an eye on Big Bear of the Plains Cree and his young war chief, Wandering Spirit. So when Big Bear and his band suddenly pulled out of Fort Battleford in the fall of 1884 and started back to Fort Pitt where they normally wintered, Grandfather and his party were ordered to go along as an escort. A hundred years later I was there, researching Big Bear’s subsequent flight from the authorities during the ensuing Resistance. I came across a hair-raising note penned by my great grandfather and my growing dislike for Big Bear’s son Iamisees (The Evil One) crawled out of my belly to leave the taste of bile in my mouth--and a very real sense of fear. Grandfather wrote:

View of Fort Pitt, Saskatchewan…I had to accommodate my rate of travel to that of the Indians, who traveled very slowly; consequently this trip of 95 miles with Big Bear’s band took 11 days to complete, while I, on my return trip to Battleford with my men, took only 1½ days to cover the same distance. When I, with the Indians and escort, arrived at a point about half a mile distant from Fort Pitt, but on the South side of the North Saskatchewan River, I received dispatch from the officer commanding Fort Battleford ordering me to return at once to Battleford. After wheeling my men, horses, and wagons about, and starting them on the return trip, I met Ayimeesees (The Wicked One), Big Bear’s son, and stopped on the trail to talk to him. He seemed to be in a very excited state, and doubted my word that there was no serious news from the South, and that Louis Riel had not yet started the expected “Rebellion.” In fact, he went so far as to tell me he thought I spoke with a “forked tongue.” In plainer language that I was blank, blank liar. Following his accusation he seized my horse’s reins, and made a dash at me with a big hunting knife. As my men were by that time at least a mile away on the back track, and, as per my orders, traveling very fast, and, as I was, very foolishly, unarmed at the time, I took the only way out and knocked him down by driving my horse at him and so got away after my men. I am convinced that if he had had a firearm he would have shot me.

Big Bear, Poundmaker, Little Pine, Wandering Spirit…these were men I understood, admired even. But Iamisees? He was a bully and coward. He was selfish, unruly. He sought constantly to undermine his dad. At times I felt sorry for Big Bear, shackled as he was in his old age by such an unworthy son. And to learn that Iamisees had tried to murder my own grandfather? And thus me? I went down to the riverbank and stood looking at the ridge where I’d nearly died before I was ever conceived.

But no one died that nearly terrible day. Frederick Augustus Bagley went on to father Leona, then Mum, then me, then my own daughter and sons, and now my grandsons and granddaughter. He went on to bring the prairies music, and today one can hardly pick up a book on the settling of Canada West or the making of the Mounties without reading of him. Or thumb through an old Scarlet and Gold or R.C.M.P. Quarterly without finding his byline. Or see the Musical Ride without hearing his music. His contribution to Canadian heritage is significant...
Fred Bagley Blowing Taps, Glenbow Museum
Blowing Taps
Glenbow Museum
...and in May 2007 Glenbow Museum of Calgary AB built a new permanent display naming Major Frederick Augustus Bagley one of twenty-four Canadian Mavericks. Yet there is no one definitive work on him. I would like to see this rectified.

It's been said in many places that to tell the story of Fred Bagley is to tell the story of Canadian history. Confederated in 1867, the country was but six years old when he rode out as a fifteen-year-old kid to help establish law and order in an area the size of Europe. The Mounties were assigned the task of protecting the Natives north of the 49th parallel from American whiskey traders; and indirectly to warn off the covetous Americans. Fred's story is indeed Canada's--her past and present, for we are Canadian, not American. For me, though, to tell his story is a far more personal overlay of past and present. Grandfather left me the bread crumbs so I could find Leona. And by finding her, I found him.

He once wrote:
 "We old ‘originals’ are prone sometimes to believe that we are neglected or ignored by a generation that ‘knew not Joseph' and his works."
Yet history does indeed struggle to be told; it struggles because who we were and are is our birthright.

Finding Fred 2of 5: His Early Life

Frederick Augustus Bagley, colorized by Brenda Wilbee, great-granddaughter
Fred Bagley
begins not on the Canadian prairie where he made history but in Nanaimo, BC, at the the home of my aunt and uncle, Penny and Dale Bent. My mother and I had been researching Fred as a Mountie. Penny, however, researched Fred's parents, grandfather, and his early life. She'd gone all the way back five generations to Col. James Bland, a Scotsman born about 1793, who, while in the British army, was stationed long enough in Barbados to father Catherine Ann, Fred's mother. And so I drove up through Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay and boarded the ferry for a two-hour crossing to Departure Bay of Vancouver Island to see what information she might have.
Bad eggs and sausage on the ferry
Below deck and parked, I got a binder of my research from the jeep, hoofed it up three flights of stairs, and hunted down the cafeteria where I began reacquainting myself with what material I had while eating some very bad scrambled eggs and not very good sausage.

My aunt and uncle had retired to Nanaimo, and I found their new abode on a hillside overlooking Departure Bay. Ferries go in and out all day; on clear days you can see Vancouver across the water. It's just about the nicest place to live. But the view paled in my excitement to see what Penny had unearthed.

My great-great-great-grandfather Colonel James Bland had been an officer in the Royal Army, stationed in the British West Indies (now the Bahamas) between 1829 and 1832--leaving behind a toddler and presumably a mistress. Piecing what data we have, a possible scenario emerges. From a birth certificate of one Catherine Ann born in 1830 to a Rebecca Harker, a mulatto, we might well think my great-great-great-grandfather had had a dalliance with a woman of mixed blood. Presumably African. But my DNA says no. I'm about as white as you can get.

There's another scenario.

When Fred and his siblings were all grown up, they inherited their mysterious mother's aunts' "plantation" in Jamaica. These two aunts were Gordons, and the Gordon family were multi-generational British military--which explains why a family of that name lived in the West Indies when James Bland was there. He may well have married a Gordon daughter, which is far more likely than bedding a mistress whose DNA isn't mine. But this begs the question as to why he didn't take his Gordon wife and toddler with him when he retired back to Scotland in 1832. Why, indeed?

Catherine Ann Bland Bagley
Catherine Ann Bland Bagley
The wife could have died in childbirth, a lot of women did. Or she could have died from any number of the beastly diseases rampant in the military environment and so common to the West Indies. As widower, he wouldn't have been expected to raise his own child. At that time, widowers either remarried or left their offspring with a friend or relative. Perhaps Catherine Ann's mother didn't die. Perhaps she just didn't want to go to Scotland with a forty-two-year-old man. What we know for sure is that Captain James Bland retired on half pay back to Scotland, where he joined the Royal Aberdeen Highlanders Militia as their Paymaster and Adjutant. We also know he kept in touch with his daughter because many years later, when Fred was two years old, his family visited the old man--then retired to Jersey Island in the English Channel. Fred wrote to his daughter Marian that he remembered the visit because they'd landed in storm, with waves crashing over the boardwalk.

Whoever Catherine Ann's mother was--a mulatto whose DNA isn't mine, or a Gordon, or even some other nameless woman, the Gordons were nonetheless critical to Catherine Ann's upbringing: Her two aunts (whether by blood or close friendship) deeded what was left of their plantation to her children--worth all of $300.

Richard "Dick" Bagley
Whoever her mother was, Catherine Ann married Dick Bagley, a lowly Gunner in the British army.

One has to ask why, if she indeed was a Gordon. At the very least protected by the Gordons? This was the Victorian era. Crossing rigid class lines wasn't to be tolerated. The army too had its rigid class structure. An officer's daughter would never stoop to marry a low life in Britain's Royal Army!

Victorian custom aside, why would she give up her luxurious life for the impoverishment of army life in disease-ridden forts? And why did the navy even let Richard marry her? Non-officers were routinely denied wives. Their pay couldn't support it, the work was unforgiving, and living conditions harsh.

The how or why of Catherine Ann and Dick's marriage remains a mystery. Love overcoming all barriers, one might like to think. But as my aunt says, "These weren't romantic people." And if it was love, I think Catherine Ann lived to regret it.

Their first daughter, Evangeline or "Eva," was borne in Belize, Honduras; Fred came next, in Jamaica. The three of his six surviving daughters disputed this for years, one sister saying Barbados, another Jamaica, my grandmother Leona, St. Lucia. She even went to St. Lucia to prove herself right. However, the pertinent documentation had been burned by a fire. I have, however, Fred's baptismal record of Sunday, November 14, 1858, showing that he was baptized at Fort Charlotte, Lucea, Jamaica. An understandable error on my grandmother Leona's part: St. Lucia or Lucea. And so unless Dick was transferred sometime between his son's birth on September 28 his baptismal six weeks later, my great-grandfather Frederick Augustus Bagley was born in Fort Charlotte of Lucea, Hanover County, Jamaica.

Interestingly, Dick Bagley was promoted to Bombardier the day after Fred's baptismal. Had he been serving elsewhere, then, when Fred was born?

Baptismal record of Frederick Augustus Bagley 1868
Wherever he was born--Fred himself claiming it was Jamaica--his earliest memories were of crying and being shushed with a sugar cane, given him by a black nanny. This suggests his family may not have lived in the barracks but on the plantation where his mother may have grown up. Perhaps, though, the black nanny was as a hired barrack army servant. Whatever the case, Fred wrote that the sugar cane turned him off sugar for life.

The black nanny disturbs me. England had abolished slavery in 1808, but it wasn't until 1838 that Jamaican slaves became fully emancipated—just twenty years before Fred was born. This black nanny would have had little choices for herself back then and, if over twenty-five, could have been deeply traumatized by her own slavery. Attitudes take a long time to change and she was part of a race that had been over-the-top brutalized in Jamaica. I wonder what her history was.

When Fred was two, his father was transferred to Kent, back in England. This is probably when Fred visited his grandfather on the Island of Jersey--a short boat ride away.

For the next eight years—1860 to 1868—Fred's family bounced pillar to post, his mother having babies every two years in a different parts of the country: Frank, 1860; Albert, 1863; Amelia Ellen "Nelly," 1865; Alex, 1867. A year later, in 1868, his dad retired after 21 years in service. Chelsea Hospital housed the retired wounded, the able-bodied were given Chelsea pensions. He became a "Chelsea Pensioner" at half pay, nothing a family of seven could live on, and was described as "39 and 9/12 years old, six foot one inch, fair complexion, dark brown hair and blue eyes" and, remarkably, no marks or scars. My Aunt Penny points out that this means he was never flogged or injured in battle. An amazing accomplishment, given the time. The family moved into 14 Equity Buildings, St. Pancras, Marylebone--one of the poorest slums in London. Charles Booth in 1898 described the Equity Buildings as "a queer little paved cul-de-sac; low one-story two-roomed cottages, with a little wash-house and yard behind...; rents from 6/6 to 7."

Growing up in the army, Fred and his siblings would have enjoyed school. All this stopped when his father retired. Whatever the failings of the British army, it wasn't in the education of their children. Fred and his brothers would have been immersed in horsemanship, music, and the three R's; his sisters in the three Rs plus sewing and household tasks. Now no longer in the army, they would have attended public school...perhaps.

When Dick retired in 1868, family lore says he bought a tavern with some mysterious money of his wife' and burned through it all while Fred and his siblings worked alongside him in the pub. My aunt doubts this; they were too young. However, I've read enough Dickens to know that England's children during this time suffered terribly, especially poor children. They were put to work for long hours, no pay, school a luxury. All the hard work was for nothing. By 1870 Dick was penniless.

Fort Henry, Toronto, Canada 1869
Fort Henry
Across the Atlantic, four Canadian provinces had confederated into the Dominion of Canada. England expected her to take care of herself, and was bringing back all her troops. But Chelsea Pensioners were being sought to train the new Canadian Militia. Dick seems to have jumped at the chance. Free passage his, he left his family behind in the slums to fend for themselves. Canadian census reports put him at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, where he served as part of the British military presence in the brand new country—a very necessary deterrent to the aggressive ambitions of a post civil war America.

Pancras Work House, London
Pancras Work House, London
The English census lists his wife with another baby. Other records show her living in abject poverty, eeking out a living in the very worst of London's slums as a dressmaker before finally, at long last, succumbing to the Pancras Poor House.

Fred seems to have refused the humiliation and as a 12- and 13-year-old kid he ran free on London's streets—right up to the day when he was brought into the work house prepatory to their departure for Canada.

Who paid for their tickets?Aid societies abounded, trying to deal with the overwhelming poor in England's economic decline. But why would Catherine Ann even want to join a husband who'd left her destitute? She might well have loved him once, but now? 

Sarmation Passenger Ship
Yet what other choice did she have? Poor Eva was back and forth between the hospital and service, cleaning for a wealthy family; the other children were housed in a different section of the work house, away from the women's ward; thirteen-year-old Fred was on the streets. In May, she somehow got them all aboard the  Sarmartian and set sail from Liverpool for Canada on May 26, 1871. We'll never know her feelings.

In Kingston, Ontario, Canada, the children once again enjoyed a good education--though at fourteen years old it ended. Fred joined Kingston's Battery "A" as a bugler and enrolled in the gunnery school. When recruitment notices for a newly formed Mounted Police Force to police the Canada West went up, his life changed--and he became the Mountie who helped shape Canadian history.

Not that easy, though. He was only fifteen; you had to be eighteen. He hightailed it down to the recruitment office, and lied. Good plan, but he ran into the commandant of his school—Col. French. Worse, French went round to his house to report him to his father and, according to some reports, there was quite the row.
Last of the Mohecans
A self-confessed student of James Fenimore Cooper, Fred yearned to save the Indians out west from the dastardly American whiskey traders and envisioned himself "hobnobbing about with dusky Indian princesses."

In part, he was running away from home. Dick was a harsh man. To punish his boys, he took them out to the gym and boxed them into defeat, then beat them with a belt. Around the girls he managed to keep his fists to himself; nonetheless, they feared the lash of his tongue. So this must have been a hard fight. Finally Dick acquiesced. "Go ahead and take the lad! He'll get over his fascination for buffalo and redskins in short order, I reckon. If nothing else, it'll make a man out of him. But on one condition," he added. "He can only enlist for six months."

The Force pulled out of Kingston in June, 1874. Catherine Ann bid her oldest boy, not yet sixteen, adieu amidst all the fanfare, reminding him to say his prayers each night. She gave him a gold watch and chain and a diary that helped me find him a hundred years later.
Bagley siblings in Toronto 1888
Poor Catherine didn't see him for another fourteen years. The occasion called for this remarkable photo with Fred with his siblings. He didn't stay long and was soon back on the Prairie.

My quest isn't over. Looking for my missing grandmother Leona, I found Fred Bagley. I also found his parents and much mystery in Jamaica. But what about the children of Fred's other daughters? Leona's sisters? My cousins?