People’s Archive of Rural Nova Scotia

Stories of Everyday Life, Everyday People

RK MacDonald – The Transformative Power of Stories

Nov 27, 2017 | People & Culture

Stories feed, clothe and shelter us—without them we would not be fully and deeply human. From the time we are young, we are told stories about our mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandfathers, and grandmothers. Without stories, we would not have a sense of ourselves.

In “Shared Stories,” our elders feed, clothe, and shelter us with their words. When Arthur talks about his first guitar, or Mary tells about the unexpected gift of a doll she received for Christmas, we could be sitting around the kitchen table listening to them. Margaret remembers driving her father’s Model T, and we see her driving through the field where no one could see her. Mabel talks about making cinnamon rolls, bread, muffins and pies, and the smell of fresh baking seems to fill the room. Viola remembers a one-room schoolhouse, both Cathy and Mary recall dancing, and Connie talks about playing cards and how much it was a part of her life. Girlie and Colin go back and forth, telling tales that are woven together. Joyce speaks of how she missed swimming in salt water. Mary Ellen remembers life on the farm. And Mary, an artist and teacher, gives her beautifully detailed paintings, like “The Road to Arisaig,” so that we imagine being there.

While many of these stories are family tales, some of them give us insights into our community, and others take us further afield. When she talks about “aiming for the moon,” Joan’s story of the X-Project comes to life. Beginning by teaching pottery in a Mi’kmaq community, Joan soon found herself working as an educator in other places. For years, she connected St. Francis Xavier University students with people in such communities as Pictou Landing, Paq’ntek, Upper Big Tracadie, and Lincolnville. And Marcella talks about attending the School for the Blind in Halifax as a young girl. Finally, Leafa gives a vivid account of living near the Dionne quintuplets in northern Ontario. In a spirited, humorous, and poignant way, each of the offerings in “Shared Stories” gives us a sense of history as well as a sense of place, piecing moments together like patches in a quilt.

“Shared Stories” reminds me of the poems and tales written by residents of Sherbrooke Community Centre, a long-term care facility in Saskatoon. Sherbrooke is founded on the principles of the “Eden Alternative,” which strives to improve the quality of life of individuals living in long-term care, making vibrant human habitats where residents can live more abundantly. I saw this first-hand when I worked as a Writer-in-Residence at the Saskatoon Public Library in 2009-2010. I lived across the park from Sherbrooke. When I walked to the library where I worked – an hour-long walk from the suburbs to downtown Saskatoon – my path led through the garden at Sherbrooke. One day, a writer with whom I was working at the library told me about the NFB film documentary—A Year at Sherbrooke. I hadn’t watched it and he suggested that I should see it.

Not only did I watch the film, I found it transformative. It tells the story of an art program started by Thelma Pepper, a well-known Saskatchewan photographer, whose husband had become a resident at Sherbrooke. Pepper’s involvement with Sherbrooke led to a full-time art program being established there in 2006. The young artist-in-residence, Jeff Nachtigall, began with a small studio space and invited residents to join him. After he had been in residence there for about a year, he organized an exhibit – “The Insiders” – at the Mendell Art Gallery in Saskatoon. And, at the end of A Year at Sherbrooke, we see some of the residents of Sherbrooke, wearing formal attire, set to enter the gallery for the opening of the exhibit in 2007. They are beaming.

And they inspired me to act. When I walked in the door of Sherbrooke for the first time, I didn’t know much about it except for the film I’d seen, and the fact that it was a long-term care facility, though not so much a facility as a community, one that treated each individual as a unique participant. I was warmly welcomed. Patricia Roe, one of the administrators, simply asked me when I’d like to start writing with people. Within two months, we had established a writing program at Sherbrooke.

I had the help of an intern, a fourth-year English student at the University of Saskatchewan, and I also had the help of two local writers who had come to work with me at the library. And so we began. What we did was to sit by people’s wheelchairs as they told us their stories. We wrote them down. It really was as simple as that. In so doing, Elise got to know Donald, Wes got to know Kelly, Ashley and I got to know Kathleen, I got to know Dennis, and so on. There were more people we worked with, but the main thing was that they had stories to tell us about their lives, about their worlds. After a month or two, we had a celebration, during which residents read their stories and poems. Above them were coloured pieces of paper with more stories and poems printed on them; these were pegged to a clothesline. So this program got its start, took off, and flourished.

While I was at Sherbrooke, I heard that people from Antigonish were attending some sessions there to learn about the Eden Alternative. I was amazed to think that Dr. Brian Steeves and others had made their way west to learn more so that this alternative could be implemented in long-term care facilities across northeastern Nova Scotia. And yet that was exactly what was happening. It seemed serendipitous.

When I returned to Antigonish, I got involved, as a sporadic volunteer, at the R. K. MacDonald Nursing Home. I worked with Joan Dillon, but my work soon took me away from Antigonish. In the meantime, Kim Ells started an initiative with the assistance of Kim MacDonald, through which residents of the R. K. MacDonald began to share stories and songs. Thanks to the support of Lise de Villiers at ACALA (Antigonish County Adult Learning Association), a joint project was born between

two organizations. Volunteers from ACALA were soon paired up with residents at the R. K. MacDonald Nursing Home. As with the writing program at Sherbrooke, community volunteers got to know residents. In this case, Kathryn got to know Arthur, John got to know Joan, Jyotsna got to know Girlie and Colin, Yiling got to know Mary, and so on.

Again, it all seemed serendipitous. The sharing of stories seemed to be something that was meant to happen. It had happened in Saskatoon, and it had happened in Antigonish. It was as if bright sparks were blowing across the country.

When I read the tales in “Shared Stories,” I become excited about the way in which story, song, and art can transform and deepen us as human beings. Here, once more, our elders lead the way for the rest of us to follow.

Anne Simpson

Our collection includes the following stories:


Stories come to us through time. They have always been there: as a means of passing on the local news, a form of preserving social and family history, education, as well as entertainment and a pleasant way to share an evening.

Many of our generation have learned to take stories for granted. For us, there have always been books, movies, and now what seems a limitless access to stories and information on our computers. But in generations not so long gone by, there were no electronics, and books were not necessarily that easy to come by. And even if you had a book, you also needed to be fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to learn to read.

Often, within rural Nova Scotia, in the early years of the 20th century, there would have been one or two houses in the community where people would go to hear the stories and gather the news. Many an hour was spent in these homes passing the long dark evenings of winter with family and neighbours. The stories, the songs and the card play were all common entertainments of the day. With this shared time came a sense of community and life outside one’s own daily routine.

When we stop to appreciate someone else’s story, it helps to broaden our own base of experience. It takes the focus off of life at the moment and can allow us to put our own lives into a larger perspective. The value of “sense of self” and “knowledge” that come with age is immeasurable. Taking the time to appreciate life as someone with more years than ourselves has experienced it, in balance with their memories and “sense of self”, is a gift.

We have come to think of stories as words printed in a book, when indeed, the printed word is just an extension of story. Stories through time have come to us as oral compositions which have been transformed to suit the printed page. And as with any transformation, things are lost and things are gained. The loss? The warmth, the depth, the energy, the familiarity of associated memories, all of which enrich the words of the storyteller. The gain? The preservation of the memories and stories of a life lived, which can only add a richness to our own.

“Were we to train our ears to catch the echoes of the stories, we would open ourselves to their riches.”( Lord, Albert B. (1960). The Singer of Tales. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Ma.)

 This collection of “Shared Stories” has grown out of the project Learning Through the Ages, a collaboration between the R.K. MacDonald Nursing Home and the Antigonish County Adult Learning Association.

The project was initiated to provide the opportunity for community volunteers to visit with elders at the R.K. and to write a story or memories with the elder to share within the group. The stories that have come from this shared time are full of warmth, thoughtful reminiscence and history.


Kim Ells

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