Mary Janet MacDonald

Mary Janet MacDonald

Mary Janet MacDonald is a warm and welcoming human being. She’s genuine and wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s a champion of her many family members and friends, and their dreams. She has friends all around the world but she has that quality that makes the person she’s talking to in the moment feel important.

Though you don’t hear about it from her­—at least not in casual conversation—she must also be extremely hard-working and disciplined. She’s a wife, a mother of seven and a grandmother of 10. She’s also spent most of her life since graduating from high school in 1969 working outside the home, including more than 30 years with the school board in Port Hood “between maternity leaves” and about eight years travelling back and forth between her western Cape Breton home and the Alberta oilsands. She’s “retired” more than once and, at the age of 66, now travels to Halifax to work in homecare.

Mary Janet is also the consummate volunteer and organizer. For instance, during a stint managing the Strathspey Place performing arts centre in Mabou, she also volunteered to manage the high school musical ensemble Celtic Crew, made up of students attending Dalbrae Academy, which shares a space with Strathspey Place. Today, she co-chairs the charitable group 100 Women Who Care Rural Cape Breton.

She has a lovely singing voice. And she and her husband Cecil have passed on their musical abilities, with their children being involved in bands from Kilt to Company Road. Their youngest child Mitch created a bit of a stir in Inverness County and beyond in 2008 when he competed in the reality series Canadian Idol, eventually becoming the runner-up.

However, Mary Janet herself is best known in Nova Scotia and around the world as one of the top practitioners and teachers of the highly engaging style of step dancing that the Scottish Gaels brought to northeastern Nova Scotia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and fostered in the New World. Some researchers question whether the dance style that Mary Janet performs is of Scottish Gaelic origin, although others—such as Scottish musician, bagpipe maker and researcher Hamish Moore—vigorously defend the connection.

Mary Janet has appeared countless times on stage over more than 60 years and many times on television. She also produced two step dancing instructional videos.

There’s a direct line from the dancing of Mary Janet’s great-grandfather Big Dan Cameron—born almost 170 years ago—to her own dancing. The link in that chain was her grandaunt Margaret Ann (Cameron) Beaton, the woman who raised Mary Janet after her mother Margie died and the woman she called Mama. Margaret Ann’s daughter Minnie—who is Natalie MacMaster’s mother—was also instrumental in Mary Janet becoming a dancer. The two consider themselves sisters.

Mary Janet knew a lot of loss at a young age. She also received a lot of love. You’ll notice in her story that she doesn’t use euphemisms for death such as “passed away.” One gets the impression that she lives each day to the fullest because she knows tomorrow is never guaranteed. And, reassuringly, living life to the fullest means she’s still dancing …

Mary Janet MacDonald: I was born February 17th, 1952 to Margie and Donald MacDonald. Margie was a MacDonell from Glengarry near Mabou. She was one of the older ones of a family of 17. And my father was one of four children and he grew up in Mabou. Actually, the tract of land that my parents lived on at that time dates back to 1835 when it was originally purchased by my (ancestor) MacDonald that came from the Highlands of Scotland. On both sides, my family are all the way back to the Highlands. The Lochaber area of Scotland.

The MacDonald side—my paternal side—is actually from the Spean Bridge area. Very small little place. And they kind of coloured our MacDonalds as the Cross MacDonalds. Not meaning angered. (Mary Janet chuckles). But according to the Mabou Pioneers (genealogical book by A.D. MacDonald), they came from a place where there was a crossing or a bridge and that’s how they were defined.

(And they carried that name through?) All through. That’s how they were identified. If somebody asks me, ‘Who are you?,’ I’m Mary Janet Donald Alex Donald Cross. Donald, that’s my father; Alex, my grandfather; Donald, my great-grandfather.

Mary Janet’s parents Donald and Margie (MacDonell) MacDonald on their wedding day with Margie’s parents.

(And whereabouts in Mabou were you?) Well, do you know where the church is? That picturesque scene of the church? Well, right down to the water and up over the hill behind it, that was our tract of land. I think there was 250 acres. A lot of the land on the lower end (was) parcelled out (for) the church and the convent. The convent that just recently sold, my grandmother sold or gave that (land) to the Sisters of Notre Dame to build a convent up there. (Your father’s mother?) Yes. I still have 25 acres up there in a clearing up on the hill. There’s a cleared part with a little cabin. It’s beautiful up there.

I was born in Inverness Hospital in 1952. And I lived in that home up behind the church in Mabou pretty much until my mother died. She had cervical carcinoma. I was born in ’52. In early ’53, she was pregnant again. And she had to give birth early in May of ’53 to my baby brother. They took him early. (Because she had cancer?) Because they found that she had cervical cancer. They treated her with radiation while pregnant and then took the baby. So that was in May of ’53 that he was born. And from ’53 to ’55 she dealt with the cancer and was hospitalized with TB.

(She had TB as well?) Yes. So from the time I was one up until she died when I was three and a half, I would go back and forth to the Beaton home where I was raised. They were just in Southwest Mabou. And so they would keep me. One day, (my mother) drove over with the horse and wagon and she told Mama, ‘I am going to die’—you’re going to make me cry—‘Will you keep her? For Donald, because he can’t look after them right now, the little ones.’

My little baby brother … there was an aunt that took him for a while. And then he ended up with a sister of the grandaunt that took me, who was living at Mabou Harbour. There was two grandaunts married to two brothers. So we were very lucky that we were all still in a big circle there of being very close. And I would go home to my father’s at different times. That was my birth and early caring.

(How many were there altogether?) Well, there were six in total. There was Alex Roderick, the oldest, and then my sister Bernice. And then there was my brother John Donald. He died at 28 in 1977. And then there was an infant child that lived a month. His name was Francis Lawrence. He had a blockage in his esophagus—which is a minor surgery today—but basically, he pretty much starved to death, I suppose, without that. Then I was born, and then my brother Bernie.

The MacDonald siblings the day after their mother’s funeral in 1955. From left, Bernie, Mary Janet, John Donald, Bernice and Alex Roddie.

I remember my mother—at least three distinct memories. They were probably of the time when I was three. I don’t remember her face … ever. My earliest memory—she was sick in a bed—her hand is reaching out to me and there’s two yellow candy in the palm of her hand, and she’s passing that to me. I’ve always remembered that. There was white sheets—I remember that. I don’t think you were allowed to go into the hospital in those days, so it must have been at home, but I can’t say that for sure.

The second memory, I guess at the height that I would have been, I would have been two or three. That was my line of vision. I remember—it must have been Mama and Papa behind me—opening the door to my home—my parents’ home—and (my mother) must have probably gotten home from the hospital. So they were returning me to be back home with the family. And I can see my mother standing at the stove. But I’m seeing her from the knees down. And she’s got red fluffy slippers on … they’re tramped down. And she’s just standing there and I think she has a housecoat on. And there are people there. But I remember her there.

But my favourite memory is at the Beatons’—at Margaret Ann’s house. I am sitting on my real mother’s lap, just sitting in front of the window, and she’s got a navy blue coat on, and every button is (covered) with the same fabric (as) the coat. Big round buttons and they’re right close together. Over across the room, Mama—Margaret Ann, who raised me—is in the pantry. I don’t know if she’s washing dishes or kneading bread. And I’m going back and forth between the two of them. But when I’m sitting on my mother’s lap—again, I can’t see her face—I remember saying, ‘One, two, three,’ and counting the buttons. So I remember that.

And I remember being up in Mama’s arms … that’s the only part of the wake I remember. The wake was in the house. Mama was standing at the bottom of the stairs in my real parents’ house and I’m up in her arms. And I can see my hand wiping her tears away, underneath her glasses, and I’m asking her, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I guess then I walk over with her to the casket. I can’t see my mother. I still don’t see my mother’s face. But I can remember … I can see my hand reaching down to a very light-coloured fabric that she had on—it was silky smooth—and I was feeling that. That was the casket in the living room. But again, don’t remember much else. I was three and a half.

Mary Janet’s mother Margie as a young woman.

(You had been going over to Maggie Ann’s. Moving there permanently, did that make it easier? Was it just a comfortable thing?) Very. Just natural.

I remember I had a little brown suitcase. I can remember packing it one time. The railroad tracks were kind of below the Beaton house. And I remember saying, ‘I’m going to walk down to the woods, get on the track and walk home.’ So I must have been not allowed to do something or whatever. God knows what. I was putting a few things in the suitcase. And I remember Minnie saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re leaving, are you?’ I don’t know how old I was. I must have been like five or six. Very young.

(What children were in the Beaton home?) Mama and Papa would have been in their 50s. I moved there then. They already had their own six children, right? There was A.J., Jeanette, Mamie, Alexander, Minnie, Donald Alex.

Donald Alex, the youngest, he still lives in the home in Mabou where I was raised. His two daughters are Dawn and Margie Beaton, the redheaded fiddle players. I call them my nieces and I’m so close to them. And Minnie is Natalie MacMaster’s mum. So the music continues. Minnie is 10 years older than me. We’re really close. Her memory is just of having this little doll, you know, kind of having this little sister. That’s how they share that memory with me. Minnie, of course, was already step dancing in little concerts and stuff around. When I was four—she would have been a teenager—that was my first concert. Dancing on the stage in the Mabou Hall at four years old with her holding my hand. Between Mama and her, that’s where I learned everything.

A cherished photo of Mary Janet at the age of five with Maggie Ann (Mama) and Red John (Papa) Beaton in 1957.

(If your mother hadn’t been sick, would there have been dancing in your own house?) My mother was a very talented woman. They say she was a lovely dancer and she was a beautiful Gaelic singer. And loved singing English songs as well. I don’t know if it would’ve … been stage material. I don’t know. It’s amazing the path that it’s taken.

(And how did it work in the Beaton house? Maggie Ann, did she dance?) Yes. Well, let me tell you about Maggie Ann. So Maggie Ann was a Cameron. On the land where our house was, across the road was also part of the original tract, and that’s where she was raised. Her parents lived up there. Donald Cameron was her father and Mary was her mother. Donald was—the Gaelic term—was Dòmhnall Mór. In English, that translated into Big Donald. But most people would call him Big Dan Cameron. And he was born … I believe it was 1850.

But Big Dan Cameron was a noted step dancer. One of my favourite images that I conjure up in my head is based on a story that another grandaunt—another daughter of Big Dan—was telling me. She’s the one that raised my brother. Sarah Ann was her name.

Mary Janet’s great-grandfather Big Dan Cameron was a noted step dancer.

(Mary Janet points to a photograph of Margaret Ann as a young woman using a knitting machine.) That’s a knitting machine and Mama would turn the handle. There were little needles that would come up and they would knit the tube of the sock.

(Dan Cameron) was a big man. He was about 250 pounds, I’d say, but a tall man. And he was a really good dancer. And so Mama was sitting in the kitchen (using the knitting machine). She never had a fiddle. She was a woman. I don’t know if there was just that kind of thing … the men maybe got the fiddles. But it’s been said that she knew the tunes even better than some of the fiddlers, and all the twists and turns. And once she would get into the rhythm, she would turn the wheel to the rhythm of how she sang the tune, which she called jigging the tunes.

So she’s in the middle of doing that. I guess she must have been in a reel or something like that. And Sarah Ann said that her father had worked all day long and had gone out to use the outdoor toilet before he went to bed. He came back in. A farmer—big man—workboots on. And she said he had bib overalls on and one of (the straps was) undone. So I’m seeing this big man … coming in a door at the old farmhouse. He comes in and he’s tired after work, after the long day. He puts his head back and he’s listening. And Sarah Ann said, ‘He just came back on ’er!’ (started step dancing vigorously). Came back on ’er! Isn’t that a great image? She just kept on going. He was listening to her and he loved the tune that she was singing.

(She might have had some percussion from the machine.) She no doubt did because I remember it. It clicked, like ‘tick-tick-tick-tick-tick.’ Little stainless steel needles clicking like a really nice little percussive beat, no doubt about it.

A young Maggie Ann (Cameron) Beaton with the knitting machine she was using when her father Big Dan Cameron step danced as she jigged the tunes.

(Would you actually see her dance?) Mama? Oh my God, yes. You know, when she chose to dance, she would hold the back of the chair and she would dance. (Was that because she was older?) Older and heavier. She’d jig the tune. She’d say, ‘Do it this way.’

(Was that usually how it was done or was there a fiddler in the family?) There was no fiddler in the family. At the Beaton home—my home—regularly there would be ceilidhs. We didn’t call them ceilidhs. People adopted that name. In my youth, I don’t remember that word being used. It was like a party … and we’re going to have a few friends in. A lot of Gaelic singing, right? I’m going to add another family member. One of these siblings (of Maggie Ann) was Finlay. The house that I grew up in as a child originally was Finlay’s house. And Mama and Papa—that’s Margaret Ann and John Beaton—bought (it) for very little. Because Finlay was working with the CNR and he got moved to Boisdale. So Finlay and Sadie, his wife, moved to Boisdale. And there you might know of Father Francis Cameron (Finlay’s son). He played fiddle, Father Francis did, and Janet, his sister, played piano. They still live on the old home over in Boisdale. So that’s another connection.

Anyway, when Mama wanted to have a gathering at the house, besides her neighbours and friends that sang together, often it was centred around Finlay coming back home for a visit. He was an amazing storyteller and Gaelic singer. I can remember being sent to bed where I was raised. I’d be upstairs and I’d be looking through the grate—there was a grate on the floor—and he’d be telling a story. They referred to it as sgeulachd. And I knew when the funny line would be coming, you know? I’m saying, ‘OK, they’re going to laugh soon.’ I’ve heard it a million times. It was always the same story. I think it was about a pig.

We always had visitors at the house, singers at the house, fiddle players would come. There was always music. And I think we were one of the first homes in the area that got a reel-to-reel (recorder). And that was amazing. Donald Alex—Dawn and Margie Beaton’s father who still lives in the home—he was so good. He would record everything that happened (including Finlay singing). On one of Natalie’s earlier CDs, Mama’s talking on it. And she’s saying something like—she called it a violin, not a fiddle—‘If I had a violin, boy oh boy, I would have been a violin player.’ And then Natalie goes into a swing of tunes. So she lives on. Her voice and Finlay’s voice are there.

(Do you know much about her early life?) Mama didn’t get married till she was 32. She only got Grade 3. She could barely write. I do have a couple of cards … she tried hard to write. She worked at home and on the farm with her parents until—I don’t know how old she was—she went to Boston. She worked for a family there and she made the desserts for the family. Oh, she would tell us funny stories. She said, ‘I remember there was all these little clear bowls with just water in it at every place setting.’ She remembered taking a drink of it, but it was for them to wash their hands in or whatever. They lived in the attic and she had to learn a lot.

When she came home, I think she might have had one or two dates with Papa, and they decided to marry. And her younger sister Sarah Ann married the brother.

(What did Red John do?) Red John was a lobster fisherman. In my memory, he fished lobster, he had an oyster bed, he fished smelts. And he had odd jobs. He would cut Christmas trees, you know. Very quiet man. Probably in my lifetime, I would never meet another man who was so kind. Oh my God, what a gentleman. Just a true gentleman. She was the boss! (Mary Janet hits the table and laughs).

Red John Beaton of Southwest Mabou.

(He would have been fishing when you were there?) Oh yes. Well, I’ll tell you a story—1963, June 21st. We were headfirst into the lobster season then. There was a thunderstorm that broke out that night. Mama was terrified of thunder and lightning. The farm had been hit a couple of times by lightning prior to this. I was 11. So anyway, very Catholic. I was raised Catholic with (the Beatons) and my parents were very devout Catholics as well.

When you came upstairs in the old home, you came to quite a large landing. And at the landing, there was a window facing the road. Well, this is what Mama did when there was a lightning storm. She put the Lady of Olives statue in the window. She had St. Anne’s beads—rosary beads. She would put (them) around her neck and they would hang down to her ankles. And she had the bottle of holy water. So she would go around into every room, sprinkle the holy water—we wouldn’t be waking up—and she’d put the sign of the cross. (But) she was surprised because I had the woollen blanket over my head. She knows that I’m claustrophobic and she was so surprised that I had to pull the blanket over my head.

And she went into the boys’ room to sprinkle the holy water and walked back along the landing into the archway almost into her own room when the crash came. She turned around and she looked and the (attic) hatch came down, bricks came down and a big ball of lightning hit the floor and it shot into my room. And it went under the bed and it ‘ding-ding-ding-ding’ on the steel things. And the lightning went through the blanket that was covering my head. It didn’t miss me by much. So anyway, it set the bed on fire and the attic was on fire.

(Then) it went through the wall. On the outside of the house, the telephone box was right behind my head. The lightning went out onto that thing and came back in downstairs. You know the stoves where you would put the cover in the chimney when you weren’t using the pipe and you take it down for the summer? That little circle thing was in the chimney in the living room, and (from) the lightning, that was fired out right across the room. There was a circle on the other side of the room. And (the lightning) then went through the sink, bent the tap in the sink in the downstairs, and I don’t know where it exited from down there.

But anyway, Papa, of course, when he was (working) as a fisherman, he lived down in Mabou Coal Mines in the shanty for fishing season. He’d stay there, come home Saturday nights and for church, and go back Sunday night to be up early on Monday.

So Mama was all by herself. The boys got up and they couldn’t get the water running, I guess, (so they) went to the well and (were) kind of running back in with water. All the lightbulbs burst in the house, so some of the bottoms of their feet got cut and stuff with that. And then they remembered, ‘Papa has a fire extinguisher in the porch.’ They got it and so they were able to stop the flames. Whatever the Bible was doing in the attic, that’s where it was—it had records of births and stuff—but that was just singed along the edges.

So anyway, I woke at some point and then they put my mattress out the window because my mattress was on fire. Somehow, I escaped all that.

I have to tell you this, whether you believe in visions or not, why I had the blanket over my head. One week before that, I woke up in the middle of the night and I was screaming. I felt I had to turn around. There was this big white shape on the wall. I leaned over the bed—and I was screaming for Mama—and opened my eyes and there was white flashes underneath the bed going back and forth. Mama came over and she took me over into her bed—because Papa was down at the shore—so I could sleep with her. And I wouldn’t say anything to her.

When we woke up in the morning, she wanted to know what happened and what did I see. I explained everything to her. So, of course, her being the devout Catholic, said, ‘You saw something and it’s got to be something wrong here.’ So she took me to the priest. I could tell he didn’t believe me, but he said, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a special blessing anyway and everything will be OK.’ And I wouldn’t go back into that room for that whole week. So that was my first night back in the room. When she went in—and I’m claustrophobic to this day, I can’t stand not being able to breathe—she was surprised that I was able to sleep with the blanket over my head, because I hated that.

(But you were that scared.) I was that scared that I did it. And it saved me. So she thinks I saw a forerunner. And maybe I did!

Mary Janet holding the woolen blanket that she had over her head on the night the Beaton house was struck by lightning.

(The dancing, would you kind of absorb that or were you taught?) You know, I believe that it’s in you in many ways because you’re surrounded by it. You’re hearing, you’re feeling the rhythm. You’re familiar with the timing and the tunes, and they’re in your head.

It’s proven that you can learn anything like that—you have to have timing of course—but for me, Minnie would teach me as a young child, and she said I was feeling the rhythm when she would hold my hand. I was feeling the rhythms and the body movement through her hand. She said that’s how she felt that it was transferring into me. I wasn’t really ever formally taught. It was just, you had timing and you loved the music and it was very much a part of your upbringing.

(But at the same time, Margaret Ann, she’d hold the back of the chair, they would still show you individual steps.) Oh my God, yes. And take you to concerts. What I would do is stand at the bottom of the stage, watch Willie Fraser, Harvey MacKinnon, Thomas MacDonnell, then there was a priest, Father Angus Alex MacDonnell. Amazing. All of those men, it seemed I really took to their style. More than anything, I loved watching them and I would commit a step I liked to memory. I would remember it when I got home and just practise that. And you’d get together in the music rooms before you’d go on stage—backstage—you’d go back and forth with the steps there.

(So you’d have jig steps and strathspey and reel?) Not so much the jig steps. The jig steps were for square dancing. In Inverness County, for example, when you’re going to dance a square set, there are three (figures). The first and the second figure are done to jigs, and there’s two or three main steps that you would see there. They were really never taught. You’d just do them. The third figure was a reel and that’s where you would step dance. But if you are going to solo dance, you would dance a strathspey and a reel, which really identifies our style of dancing in eastern Nova Scotia. The strathspey and the reel, since years and years and years, that’s the tunes that you would dance to.

(Any idea how many individual steps you would have for the strathspey or for the reel?) Oh my goodness, I named all of my steps in order to teach them. I would say maybe 40 strathspey steps and maybe 50 reel steps. I separated them out into beginner, intermediate and advanced. I learned a few new steps as I was teaching, but I kind of stuck with a lot of the plain old ones which might not be as exciting as some of the newer ones.

(Would you have made up any yourself?) Yeah, a few I made up myself. And then especially when the children started dancing, they were just eager to, ‘Oh, let’s do it this way and add that to it.’ Just little things like that. They all have the same basic principle, but you’re just adding a heel and a toe or tap here or there.

(But the meat and potatoes is the steps …) That were passed down originally. Definitely. And they were ones that Mama knew that I was teaching. That was very important to her. And she said, ‘Now make sure that you teach that one. That’s a good old one that my father used to do.’ So you took care and caution.

Mary Janet and Maggie Ann with a wonderful snowman in 1960.

Sometimes, when you’re younger, you don’t realize how important it is. As we grew up through the music, in our early years, you didn’t have a lot of external influences. We were pretty intact where we grew up in the music and all that. So it pretty much stayed pure, I would say, from Big Dan’s generation. And then you got into the ’60s, and the Don Messer show and televisions came into the homes. It opened you up to different styles. Tap shoes came in. I wanted a pair, Minnie wanted a pair, you know, so you had that. You were dancing with that, dancing concerts. People could hear the actual beats. And then you were asked to teach after The Vanishing Cape Breton Fiddler (documentary) got everybody’s back up—‘We can prove them wrong.’ It brought a need for lessons. So Joey Beaton asked me to teach a class in Mabou. Never taught in my life.

(That would have been in the ’70s some time?) Yeah, it was in the ’70s. Oh my God, I went to the Mabou Hall, was like 30 kids there. A bunch of the Rankins from Back Street—like the Rankin Family kids—were in that class. And I had to learn how to teach.

I found that I changed how I danced after that. I was more careful of what I did, where before that it was spontaneity—you just got up and you danced. I was more comfortable dancing in a house setting. You did the concert thing. But I had that feeling—of course, people were supportive and loved it and all of that—you were being analyzed or something? I don’t know. There was something that I felt. That was just me. My comfort zone was just, OK, feel the tune, and let’s jump up and do a few steps.

When I had to perform on stage after that, maybe students were watching. So I was very careful. I always started the first beat with my left foot to start you off on your right foot. And I would make sure I was doing equal amounts of each step, so that it worked with the phrase, and that sort of thing. And when I starting teaching away, people who were musicians and who broke down music—in California or whatever—they would take it apart, you know, ask me these things. I just step dance. I don’t know that I’m doing this and that, you know.

But I would like to say, before I went on my first journey, I was teaching around all over Inverness County on this side of the island. And the others were busy on the other side, like Father Eugene Morris, Betty Matheson, Kaye Handrahan, Margaret Gillis. They were all over on that side of the island, wonderful dancers starting it. I was starting over here, and there were some others. Minnie was teaching a little bit, and Geraldine MacIsaac, and oh, I’m forgetting people. Some of the Frasers were teaching. But anyway, I was teaching wearing taps at that time. What happens? Those students want taps too. Parents are buying those shoes. What am I doing? I’m changing the tradition.

Father John Angus Rankin, he knew that I was going to go to Barra Festival in 1983. And he said, ‘If you are going to bring this back to the homeland, you better do it right.’ And I cried. I cried because at that moment it all made sense to me. You’re not thinking about, ‘Oh, I’m passing on tradition from Mama.’ And it all came piling down on me, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ kind of thing. That was my worry. I went to the shoe shop and got them to take the taps off my shoes. And I went to Barra and it was the first time that I truly danced like I danced up into the ’60s, with a hard-sole leather shoe. And I can’t explain to you what it meant to me at that time—that this is what’s so right. Then, in my classes going forward, I advocated for that: ‘If you’re wearing your taps, that’s fine, but I’m just saying what I want to share with you is what was passed down to me.’ People have to wear them sometimes just for sound and whatever on stage. But I thank Father John Angus for that to this day, you know, that he thought so much about it. That it was important.

Allister MacGillivray took this photo of Mary Janet prior to her first trip to Scotland in 1983.

Traditions change. And step dancing changes a bit, you know. There’s flashier steps. Flashier steps get the bigger audience applause, right? So anybody coming up, oh well, ‘I need to learn that step because that’s going to wow them and they’re going to like me more.’ So I’d probably be considered a plain dancer more than anything.

I have actually found a couple of my routines, which is something else that has changed the tradition of dancing. Instead of being spontaneous, when you add another dancer, we make it a performance. You and that dancer want to be doing the same thing synchronized, which changes the tradition again, right? It’s not spontaneous like it was probably meant to be in the old days.

(You have to work together.) Exactly. And of course, one of the things I want to do is teach my own children. So the first one was the oldest, Tammy, and when we would dance together, that started the routines. Then as the children went along, we had to keep it really simple for the youngest one to keep up. Then again, with all of these classes that were happening, you’d have like a recital at the end. They’d want to dance together, so they would do things together.

The first time all seven MacDonald children danced with their mother publicly in 1999.

(Would you change steps as the tune changes?) Sometimes. If you knew what turn was coming … you’d try to be percussive to that little turn. Yes, I would do that.

(Someone in the audience, say at a concert at Broad Cove, you don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes. But would you actually talk about the individual tunes that would be played?) Not I. Unless I was requesting something specifically. When I was dancing individually, I would just let the fiddler start playing and I would get into the strathspey … and dance until I wanted to finish. When I was dancing with my family, I’d say to the fiddler, ‘Play an intro into the strathspey so that we can all start together.’ So he would start (Mary Janet jigs a snippet of a tune). We would have started at that little eight-count intro into the strathspey so that we could all be together and synchronized at that same time. And I would always ask for the strathspey to be played through twice. Nowadays, probably once.

(And were there certain fiddlers that you really enjoyed dancing for?) In my youth, it was between Donald Angus Beaton and Buddy MacMaster. Buddy used to pick me up to go to concerts here and there. I don’t even know how those things were arranged, but they were. I danced my very first square set with Buddy MacMaster.

(You mean he danced?) Yeah, I danced with him. I think I was 12. There was a concert at the legion in Whycocomagh and Buddy picked me up. Raymond Ellis was playing for the dance after the concert. We were to keep right on home (after the concert) because I was young. Buddy wanted to make sure I got home. (But) there wasn’t a lot right around at the beginning and they were having trouble getting the set started. They asked Buddy if he’d come in the set, and he turned to me and he says, ‘Will you dance? Will you dance a set?’ And I said, ‘I’ve never danced a set. I watched them lots, but I never danced a set.’ So I danced my very first square set with Buddy MacMaster. And my corner partner was somebody that everybody was so familiar with over here. His name is Ginger Campbell. He was from going up the Glencoe Station Road. And every time when he was in a square set and he’d meet someone, he’d go ‘Baaaaa!’ (Laughter). I really didn’t know him then, but this man was saying ‘Baaaaa!’ and he was my corner partner. It was just hilarious because he was in every square set. He was a gem of a person, but that was his thing. He was one of those people I call characters. And he’s long since dead.

Donald Angus Beaton, I would dance for him. He actually drove taxi as well, and it’s he who drove the car the night my mother went into labour. He took my mother and father to the hospital in Inverness the night I was born. My (MacDonald) siblings—they can’t really dance or they don’t sing or whatever—and they blame it on that taxi driver, that I got the music because Donald Angus Beaton drove taxi that night. (Mary Janet chuckles). He was my fiddle player at my wedding reception as well, and Joey (his son) on piano. And as years went by in my dancing, I grew to gravitate to Kinnon (another son), his impeccable timing as a fiddle player. If we’re square dancing and step dancing, I loved his timing. Certainly, I have danced lots to Natalie and to Dawn and Margie, my pets. Love them all. And now we’ve got Joe MacMaster. (He’d be Natalie’s nephew?) Yes. Minnie’s grandson.

(You mentioned going to Barra in ’83. Was that your first trip to Scotland?) That was my first trip to Scotland. Many, many trips since then. I’ve toured a few times at the Ceòlas festival in South Uist and as well I taught at the first North Atlantic Fiddle conference in Aberdeen. Taught in Denmark with Kinnon and Betty (Beaton). We went over and did a workshop there.

Probably several times teaching at VOM in California—Valley of the Moon. The fiddle player was Alasdair Fraser. Started going there in 1989, I think it was, and then ’91, ’92, ’93. Besides doing that, actually flew for weekend workshops in San Francisco with the dancing groups there. So I’d get there on Friday, and I’d teach Saturday, Sunday, and fly home Monday kind of thing. Taught at the Seattle Fèis in Seattle, Washington. Taught in Chicago.

Actually, Buddy and I went to Utah to Robert Redford’s Sundance camp. Not at the time that they were at the film festival there. There’s a family in Utah that are musical that we met at VOM, and they then had fiddle and dance in this environment, and they were personal friends with Robert Redford. They would go and entertain at his home, this family—the Bigneys—with roots in New Glasgow actually. And so he gave them that space to utilize for some workshops. I still keep in touch with them from time to time. And then various things, you know. We went to Whitehorse. Brian Doyle and I, Janine Randall, Buddy MacMaster. Taught the lessons there.

Buddy MacMaster and Mary Janet rapping at the Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School in northern California.

And taught in Alberta. The family that I went to teach for out there, they started coming then to Cape Breton. And then they’ve moved here permanently. They’ve been here for about 10 years now. David and Michelle Greenwell. She had a dance school out there, and a child that had been visiting Cape Breton saw the dancing. (Michelle) brought me out there a couple of times. (Then) three van loads (of students and parents) came from Alberta to tour the island. And (the Greenwells) moved here. They’re living on the Brook Village road, down near Hillsborough, and have been great. It’s just wonderful what dance and music does to people, you know?

(You say ’71 you were married?) Yes, married in ’71. When we first got married, we rented—for $25 a month—a large home down in Port Hood. And then we moved two or three times until 1980. I think we were in three different places from ’71 to ’80. Then there was an old house on this property and that’s where we lived. But it was just not worth fixing up. We started and then we gave up, and in the late ’80s, we built this house.

Mary Janet and Cecil MacDonald on their wedding day in 1971.

(You had seven in your family?) Seven children. Four girls and three boys. The oldest is Tammy. She lives in Fort McMurray. And then Brennan. He lives in Halifax. Then Margie. She lives in Fort McMurray. Her and my daughter Tammy are both at the same school. Margie is a high school math teacher there and Tammy is the librarian. And then Gordie. He works January to May and September to December on the Suncor site (in northern Alberta) in quality control. He’s a welding inspector. And then my twins, Kelly and Krista, they live in Halifax. And then Mitchell. He’s the only one on the island … and Gordie lives with us when he’s not working in the West. (And did Cecil work close to home?) Yeah, he’s retired since about 10 years now. He was a school teacher.

When I graduated from high school in 1969, I came to work for the school board here in Port Hood. When my children were little, I stayed home, from ’72 to ’77. And I went back to work in ’77. Cecil was working at the pulp mill at the time but he had his bachelor of arts degree. And he went back to university in ’77 and got his education degree, and then started working. Between maternity leaves, I still worked at the school board, and then after I finished with the school board I stayed home for a couple of years. I felt I worked all my life to that point, but I was in my early 50s I suppose by then.

So, 2002, I think I finished with the school board. Then I stayed home for a couple of years. And then I did a little bit of work around here with the museum. I worked for a summer at the museum—the Chestico Museum—and then with the community cable channel. I worked with that for a bit. And then got a call this day from Francis Moloney. He was a lawyer that practised out of his own home down in Port Hood. It was at the time when the land registration system was coming in for Nova Scotia. He needed somebody who would search titles so that they could be registered and lands could be migrated. So I worked for him for maybe two years or something. He ended up dying from pancreatic cancer. Then I went to work for another law firm in Port Hawkesbury—Evans MacIsaac MacMillan. I worked for them maybe for a couple of years until my daughter called from out West. She was working on the oilsands site. That was in 2009.

(Which daughter?) Kelly. She had gone and gotten work out there as an admin on site out there. They were short. Two people, I think, had quit. She called and said, ‘Mum, you could do this, you know. You just need to know Excel inside out and book the flights and make sure they’re paid and whatever.’ I handed the phone to Cecil, and she talked to Cecil, and he said, ‘I think you should do that.’ So I went to work the next day, put my notice in. I was out there a week later working, and so began that journey until June of 2017.

I worked steady with a few weeks off in between each project. I did admin work but then I moved into document control. You’re working with the plans, you know, all of the drawings that are done by the engineers for a specific project or expansion or whatever. And you work with the turnover books and stuff like that for the life of the project. (In 2017), I turned 65 in February. And I started in March, that last project. And they were stopping paying flights when the oil downturn came in. I just said, ‘You know what, I’m done.’

The MacDonald clan of East Street in Port Hood.

(You mentioned your great-grandfather, Big Dan. He would go back to the early 1850s. There’s talk about whether the step dancing has changed. Is your feeling that it was pretty close to how it came from Scotland?) I have nothing to base that on entirely. He was born in 1850. He was dancing from the time he was a young man. It filtered through his family somehow. Mama was born in 1902. Within that span of time, the only thing we know for sure is that Big Dan would have danced lots of times within the family and in the community, and that he did go to a couple of dance schools. Travelling dance masters came around. I know one of them was in Judique for sure. And so did it change? How do we know for sure?

There’s differences of opinion even in Scotland. When I went there in 1983, I did not go prepared to argue that it was from there. And there were people that were questioning me about the authenticity of it being something that came from Scotland. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what to tell you. I just know that this was passed on to me by somebody was born in 1902 who learned from her father who was born in 1850.’ People came here in the 1830s, so I think it’s pretty pure.

But I understand, too, that there are other influences that can come—cross-cultural. Some of these people were saying that it was Irish. And there are definitely similarities with a dance in Ireland that you don’t so much see. I’m not talking about Riverdance. No, no, no, no. They identified the dance as sean-nós (old style) dancing. And you know, when I see that, I can understand how the people from Scotland at that time would think that it was Irish because it’s so close to this style of dancing. More percussiveness and not high stepping or anything like that. So many similarities I find through our dancing, you know?

But people came from Ireland and settled in Scotland. Maybe where they settled, the dancing started there. Who knows? But Hamish (Moore) really believes with all of his heart that our dancing comes from there, from Scotland, you know. And he lectures on that. He’s investigated it and done interviews.

Mary Janet step dancing to the singing of Angus Cu MacDonald.

(Would you call it Cape Breton step dancing or Scottish step dancing or does it matter?) I guess I’ve been calling it Cape Breton step dancing. Many times I refer to us as a people as Scottish. But I was corrected recently on that—not me personally. But Frances MacEachen—who I know really well, I taught her step dancing when she was little—she’s got some connection with (the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia). She’s from here in Port Hood. But she said, ‘Many people refer to ourselves as Scottish, you know, of Scottish descent. But we are Gaels.’ Not that that should be the handle for step dancing either.

It’s almost like saying, you know, how the Protestants used to feel in school when they were referred to as the non-Catholics. How awful we were—it’s Catholics and everyone else is a non-Catholic. I hate to marginalize or whatever you want to call it. So when I refer to it as step dancing, I want to refer to it just as step dancing because we have people who are step dancers from Antigonish that are incredible, and to almost leave them out of that, it’s not true. Because where did the ships come and drop the people (immigrant Gaels) off? Pictou. So they settled all along there.

(If somebody was playing and it wasn’t an organized thing—you just felt like getting up and dancing—can you explain what you’re feeling there?) That’s my absolutely favourite thing to do. And that’s where I am most comfortable. So, you’re sitting there and tunes can be playing. But you hear a tune that you absolutely connect with as a dancer. A strathspey—that is the call to a dancer. That’s the call. You turn on. It’s like, ‘OK, who’s going to get up first?’ Because it’s such a short period of time before they break out into the reels. You have to get in there if you want to dance. Now I have to wait my time and maybe get up and do a 20-second bit or whatever. It’s that house atmosphere comfort of just being spontaneous. I just can’t explain it more than that. But in that environment, that’s where the love affair is, absolutely, without a doubt.

(Is there a certain strathspey?) Not particularly, no. Just the timing. No, just the strathspey. (You don’t have favourite tunes?) No, I never really did. But the old ones, you know, like King George, well that’s the king. I’m not good at naming tunes. I know them when they’re played. But that of course, King George, and I love the King’s Reel, you know.

(What would you say the health of step dancing is right now?) Oh my God, I think it’s great. There are so many wonderful people that are involved and teaching it. And wholesomely teaching in group environments and in homes. Cheryl MacQuarrie, she started like jam sessions for the kids. She’s already teaching them dancing in square sets, but creating the environment where the young musicians come and they’re playing for the young ones to dance. Melody Cameron, she’s married to my cousin, and she lives in West Mabou. They run a farm there. She’s taking the teaching to a whole new level.

(Are there things you think you should do when you’re dancing?) I guess the style was just feet close together, neat, close to the floor. But that comes naturally. And our arms are just loose and down by our sides. I don’t lift my arms. Some may. But that’s just that kind of style that was in our family and are in a lot of the dancers, too, to this day.

The hardest thing that I’ve ever done is smile up there on the stage. I look back at maybe something that I’ve seen of my own self and I’m not smiling. I’m only thinking of my feet and I’m thinking that everybody else is looking at my feet. But when you look at other dance styles or whatever, it’s a performance. And you have to project that you’re loving what you’re doing. You’re loving what you’re doing but you’re not smiling. But I try to do that to make it pleasant looking. You don’t want to have a frown.

Mary Janet and Father Eugene Morris step dancing together at a concert.

(If you’re looking at the younger generation, if somebody’s doing something a little different, do you have to kind of grin and bear it?) Yes. As you know, you open yourself up. People coming to visit Cape Breton—there’s more exposure. There’s television and there’s other styles. It changes.

The ankle bends or kicks or whatever might wow an audience, but it’s probably not traditional. But it gets the biggest wow. So that goes out to other younger dancers and they all want to do that one. Those little influences come in and they do change things for some dancers. It’s not that I cringe, you know? They’re very talented, what they can do. I guess we have to be open to change.

Mac Morin (pianist, step dancer and step dance teacher), he’ll come now and again, and we’ll have a visit. We have some really in-depth chats about that. That’s one of his big things. He wants to keep it as traditional as possible.

A tune composed for Mary Janet by her niece Dawn Beaton during her time managing Strathspey Place in Mabou. A number of composers, from Dan R. MacDonald to Kinnon Beaton, have made tunes in honour of Mary Janet and her family.

(Was there a high school group, Celtic Crew?) Yes, yes. (Can you tell me a little bit about that?) Oh my gosh, when I went to Strathspey Place in Mabou, you’re in the middle of Dalbrae Academy and kids are there. And I wondered if we couldn’t work with some of the kids. Some were playing fiddle, some could sing, some played the piano and all that. I started gathering them together until I had a group of 10.

I had little Rankin MacInnis from the time he was in Grade 8. He was part of the group, and now he’s in music pretty much full-time. He’s a piper, anyway, but sings as well. Tara Rankin from Mabou, she lives in Scotland full-time now. She came on a trip to Scotland with me. I had the group over there—we performed—and she fell in love with Scotland. She said, ‘I’m definitely coming back here.’ And so she went back there to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (a college where instruction is in Scottish Gaelic) in Skye, and she took the program over there, Gaelic studies I think. Beautiful Gaelic singer, lovely piano player and she can step dance as well. She’s still there.

Mitch was in that group. He would sing like Celtic songs. We adapted it so that he could sing some Jimmy Rankin songs. Then Margie Beaton was a big part of that group, my niece. And Kenneth MacKenzie. His brother Calum was a big part of that group. He stayed with it more than Kenneth, who was only in it for one year before he graduated, I guess. Calum was piano and fiddle. Kimberly Gillis—she lives out West now—beautiful fiddle player. Many were transitioning through there. Kerri-Jeanne MacLellan from Judique. She is now the keyboard (player) and backup vocalist for Alvvays. Molly (Rankin) was also in Celtic Crew for a very short time. Molly being John Morris’s daughter and the singer behind Alvvays. Stephanie MacDonald, from Whycocomagh, and she’s now a teacher at Dalbrae. The members came and went as they left school, but I only had them for three years I guess.

Members of Celtic Crew. In front, from left, Tara Rankin, Margie Beaton, Kimberly Gillis, Shoneth MacInnis and Stephanie MacDonald. In back, from left, Rankin MacInnis, Kerri-Jeanne MacLellan, Mitch MacDonald, Calum MacKenzie and Peter MacInnis. Other members of the group included Tiffany Beks, Sheena Boucher, Carolyn MacArthur, Blair MacDonald, Keith MacDonald, Kyle MacDonald, Kolten MacDonell, Kenneth MacKenzie, John Clayton Rankin, Molly Rankin, Sara Rankin and Rachael Ryan.

My role was, say, the manager. Every week, we would gather and practise. I applied for some funding. So I got them some additional instruments like flutes, and recording devices so that they could record and practice. Just kind of got them together and got them thinking about how we could do a concert, and make everybody strong in getting up in front of a mic and being self-sufficient.

They would all be MCs. And some of them were so shy. It was amazing what they did. (Did you insist on that?) Yes.

After polishing up their performances and their singing, I would get some mentors in to say, ‘Here’s a group of tunes that you guys can learn.’ And then they would put it together and they would practise and practise that. Then they would step dance to one of the others playing for them. And they would change seats on the piano. It was usually Calum MacKenzie on the piano or Tara Rankin or her brother John Clayton. He was in it for a little bit.

They got asked to be an opening act for Natalie MacMaster’s show for Celtic Colours over in Whycocomagh at the new school. So we had a half-hour performance ready. Those kids were so nervous. This was a sold-out show. I don’t know how many people they could fit in there. I’m thinking it was around 600 or 700. Once they got on stage, they were on their own. I was at the back and we had the whole show scheduled. They each were taking turns speaking.

And Calum MacKenzie, he played a solo piano piece, right from a march, through strathspey, through the reel. And whole time just sombre, head down. That was Calum, because he was really shy. And he played it perfectly. Perfectly. And got a standing ovation from that audience. Oh my God, that makes me tear up just remembering that moment. And Margie Beaton was the one to introduce the next number. I can still see her standing there. She’s looking and Calum looks up. And Margie says, ‘Well now, Calum,’—just like having that spontaneity—‘I think they would like to hear another one.’ Which was not in the program! And people sat down. Calum played another number and the audience clapped. Then they went to the next number and it was a song. And then there was the pipes. We had a nice mix.

And then somebody came over to me—I think it was Burton MacIntyre—and says, ‘OK, we just got word, Natalie’s plane was delayed. She’s not going to be here for another half an hour.’

So I go up and around and I ended up talking to Margie, my niece, and said, ‘Margie, you guys are going to have to wing it from here. Don’t do the finale. Just work on stuff that we’ve done before that you have in your head.’ Ian McNeil, I think, was the MC. So he came up. And our kids are furiously chatting amongst themselves. They’ll figure it out. I knew that they would but they were nervous too. And Ian said, ‘How would you like to listen to these folks for another 20 minutes or so?’

Brad Davidge was Natalie’s guitar player. Natalie’s clothes didn’t come and neither did Brad’s guitar. So Burton MacIntyre gave his black socks to Natalie to put on and Mitchell had to give his guitar to Brad Davidge to play for the show—the whole show—because the equipment didn’t come. They managed to put on an amazing show regardless. Natalie borrowed somebody else’s clothes or whatever.

But anyway, that Celtic Crew, they wowed the audience that night. And they got a standing ovation at the end for entertaining for that period of time. Mitchell had to end up singing some extra songs too. He was on for two songs and I think he ended up singing four that he could take from different things we’d done before. It was really enriching for them. I think they were a pretty tight little group by the time we finished. I didn’t have the musical ability, but I could manage them and say, ‘You know, this would be a nice mix. OK, you guys figure out what you want to play and hear.’ Just give them confidence.

(And would you have tips for them?) Yeah, suggestions on how to perform. They had a little tribute for me a couple of years ago down here during Chestico Days (Port Hood’s summer festival). And they wanted to know … anybody I wanted. I said, ‘I would love to see some of the Celtic Crew.’

Anyway, they came and they roasted me. You don’t even know what you’re saying or doing. One of the things that they would do, some of them would wear white socks and they had black pants on. And I would say, ‘For God’s sakes, will you wear black socks?’ And then a couple of times they would chew on gum, and I ate the head off them. You don’t do that! (Laughter). But you know, just smile, don’t chew gum, don’t wear white socks. All I did was picked up on a few things like that. Just managing a performance group, I guess, and what I’d be looking at as an audience member. And if we got paid for anything, the money went to every one of them. And they performed a few little places.

It’s great memories for them. And we kept it up a little bit after I left (Strathspey Place). But it just kind of dwindled out because the majority of them that were so talented had graduated by that point, and there wasn’t a new crop coming up.

Mary Janet’s son Mitch, right, during his time performing on Canadian Idol in 2008. He was runner-up. He’s pictured with Mariah Carey and the show’s winner, Theo Tams.

(When Natalie started to get kind of big, what did that mean to the family?) Oh my God, just a feeling of such pride. And a lot of the time it was pride for Mama. We were so proud that Mama could see that this was continuing into the next generation. Dawn and Margie weren’t there yet, but Natalie had just accelerated quickly to the world stage, really. Mama was so proud of that.

(What was it about her?) She was such a dancer from such a young age. And it wasn’t step dancing, it was Highland dancing. She was a Highland dancer. That was her thing and she just excelled at that. Medals galore. Minnie would teach her a little bit of step dancing at the time. So she had that Highland dance-like flavour in her step dancing. Maybe a little bit of higher stepping and stuff like that. And then she picked up the fiddle. It was her father, really, who started her off on that. A fiddle came into her possession from an uncle. I think it was Charlie MacMaster. And of course, Alex, he’s a closet fiddler—Minnie’s husband and Buddy’s brother. He started her on a few little tunes and she just got it. And the rest is absolute history.

(Is there any explanation for that?) It’s natural ability. I would say it’s just completely ingrained in her. She would get that from both sides of the family. But the thing is, it’s an incubator, you’re surrounded by it. You play the music in the house, and you may not think that you’re taking in those tunes, but she obviously was. Minnie, she’s got fiddle music on all the time. All the time. And Uncle Buddy bringing the fiddle into the house. The tunes, she didn’t have to learn that. She knew them by ear. And then she started (lessons) with Stan Chapman in Antigonish. That’s it.

(But there had to be some real work ethic?) Oh totally. Practising, practising all the time. And didn’t have to be pushed to it. She just absolutely loved it. Minnie would tell you that herself. Didn’t have to push her to do anything. And she didn’t want to make mistakes. I think that that’s why she practised and just got the sound. She had such a good ear.

I think she was 10 and that was at Mabou Ceilidh concert. I think that was her first public performance. Minnie was nervous about it. God, nobody could believe that this 10-year-old was that good.

Two sisters dancing with their daughters. From left, Tammy and Mary Janet MacDonald and Natalie and Minnie MacMaster.

Again, you wonder if there’s such things as forerunners. I went to Sunday mass this one day in November of ’95 and I saw a lady in church that takes pictures. Janet van Zutphen. And I said, ‘Now that would be a nice thing to do for my kids for Christmas … is have a nice picture of both of their grandmothers.’ Because the grandfathers were gone. So after church I came home and called Janet van Zutphen and said, ‘Janet, would you make a house call?’ I told her what for. I said, ‘I’ll take Cecil’s mother down and Mama—if Mama will do this—but I’m going to ask you first.’ She said absolutely.

So we made a date for Thursday afternoon. Mama agreed. And Marie, Cecil’s mother, I knew she would anyway, but Mama didn’t like people taking her picture. Anyway, we got there on that Thursday afternoon and Mama had a top which isn’t on her there. She couldn’t close the buttons that day. The tips of her fingers were bothering her and she couldn’t close them. So she changed and we got the picture taken. And, oh my God, all the laughing we did, oh my dear God. Because Janet had the umbrellas and the lights and everything to make it perfect.

That was Thursday. And on the following Monday, I had to take Mama down to outpatients because this was worse on her fingers. I took her down and they said it was gout and gave her medication. And I stayed with her that day and then she didn’t get better. The following Monday, she was admitted to the hospital, and that night she went into a coma. Dawn and Margie came with their fiddles. They sat at the end of the bed, and we were all there, and they were playing the tunes. And like her feet—her toes—were keeping time to the music. And her in a coma.

Then she died on the 25th, the following Saturday. And the day before she died, I came home to shower and to get changed because we were in the hospital the whole time with her. And the pictures were on the table from Janet. I’m so thankful when I look at that picture that we had it done. She was 93 in that picture. Born in 1902 and died in 1995. So that’s a favourite picture.

A treasured photo of Maggie Ann Beaton at the age of 93 taken by Janet van Zutphen.

(Your father, you never went back with him?) I never went back. And I only found out as an adult that—once we were to start school—he wanted us back, and Mama or Sarah Ann couldn’t part with us. And he just said, you know, ‘That’s OK.’ I would go back for two to three weeks every summer, Christmas, my birthday and that sort of thing. And I absolutely adored him. He was so sweet. And when we went into the new school, Mabou Consolidated, in the early ’60s, he became the new janitor there. I saw him every day. And then in 1968—he was 54—he died in his sleep. I was in Grade 11.

(Did he take a heart attack?) It was a heart attack. And it was horrid. It was really sad. It was very, very, very sad. Of course, all the women were saying he died of a broken heart, you know, he just pined away for her for many years. And we all thought he was a healthy man. But my brother was still at home at that time. He had finished school, John Donald, the fellow that got killed (in an industrial accident) when he was 28. But he got up—he was working in Port Hood—and he noticed that Daddy’s truck was still home. He went downstairs and Daddy hadn’t made the porridge that morning and the stove was out. He thought that was really strange. He went back upstairs to see if Daddy was home and he walked in the bedroom. He was dead in the bed.

(How did it work out with the other siblings?) My father kept the three oldest because they were in school, and he could work and not have to get a babysitter. And his sister lived there too. She was single. She didn’t get married until she was like 38 or 39. He would go away to work in Elliot Lake (in Ontario). (Was he a miner?) Yeah, he worked in the mines. He moved home because she was getting married, and found work at home. That’s when he was janitor.

The MacDonald siblings with their father Donald in 1958.

(You mentioned you were four when you danced with Minnie. Did you ever suffer from stage fright?) That concert when she had me up on the stage when I was four. I remember it. I went up on the stage holding her hand and we danced together. I had my finger in my mouth and I danced.

I’m thinking my mother would have died just probably six months before that. Everybody in that audience was from Mabou. They’re looking at this little girl whose mother had died. So there’s that kind of empathy that’s going on there. And they went crazy clapping when I was done. Mama was in the front row. And when I got off the stage, I just ran and I bawled my eyes out in Mama’s lap because it just frightened me—this reaction—and didn’t understand that.

But looking back at it now, I think that feeling must have been there from the audience that, ‘Oh my God, wouldn’t Margie—my mother—be so proud.’

Mary Janet’s daughter Margie took this photo of her mother looking over the water in her childhood community of Mabou in the summer of 2018.