Friday, 1 April 2016

It All Started with a Haunting Photograph

I can picture the photograph:  her clothes were tattered, her hair was tangled, her look was forlorn. She tugged at my heart strings.  I needed to find out more about this little girl.

It was about seven years ago that my mom gave me a family history scrapbook for Christmas.  She had spent a full year carefully sifting through old photographs, copying them, lovingly pasting them into a scrapbook, then neatly writing captions underneath.  She left nothing to chance, not even the background paper.

Nor was it chance that I fixated on the photograph of the little girl, my great-grandma, Daisy Blay.  She was a British Home Child, one of 100,000 to immigrate to Canada from 1870 to 1939 at a time when Britain's large cities were overflowing with street children and Canada's farms were in need of cheap labour (see  Here is the story of a girl, abandoned and forced into child labour, who survived despite the odds.

I am drawn to survival stories.  Maybe it has something to do with my own battle with infertility in the early years of my marriage.  I am drawn to Daisy's story.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I myself was a "home girl", a nickname my brother gave me because I liked to stay at home, rather than go out.  The youngest of three girls, I was always my mom's shadow, following her everywhere she went.  I still remember how distressed I was when I couldn't see my mom for two weeks when she was in the hospital with complications after the birth of my younger brother (those were the days when children under 12 weren't allowed to visit).  I couldn't imagine life without my mom.

Yet that was exactly what Daisy faced at the tender age of eight, left on the steps of the Barnardo Home in fog-filled London.  Inside, as the photographer snapped her photograph, Daisy's face told the story.  The word that I use to describe Daisy's look is forlorn:  "pitifully sad and abandoned or lonely".  Her father had "abandoned" her at 3, when he had died of cancer.  Now her mother was abandoning her, too.

That feeling of abandonment must have stayed with Daisy for years.  Life meant constant change as Daisy moved from home to home.  She only stayed at the Stepney House a week before she was sent to the Barnardo Home for Girls in Essex just outside of London.  After only a few months, she was shipped to Canada where she lodged with a family from Myrtle Ontario, the first of five different Canadian sponsors.

Rather than offering her a clean bed, the sponsor families offered her baskets full of soiled laundry. Rather than offering her playmates, the sponsors offered her unruly children to babysit.  Rather than offering her a home cooked meal, they offered her potatoes to peel and stacks of dirty dishes to wash.  Not one of them offered Daisy the affection she could have received from her mom.  Even though she lived with a family, she felt all alone.

The haunting photograph still sits in my scrapbook.  The passion for Daisy's story still burns in my mind.  I will not rest until her story is told.

The haunting photograph of Daisy Blay, circa January 22, 1903 courtesy

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