Donelda MacDonnell wearing one of her signature tartan heart aprons.
November 24, 2021
-by April MacDonald
Donelda MacDonnell learned to sew by watching her mother, Annie Margaret Beaton.
“The first thing I ever made was a dress for my sister’s doll. My sister is Anita and her doll’s name was Gloria, and I can remember it like it was yesterday,” explained MacDonnell.
Her talent for sewing and quilting is well known across Inverness County; however, she very recently turned her hand to weaving together stories from the past.
The Weaving of my Tartan Heart offers a peek through the window of the MacDonnell’s thoughts. Vivid images of a time long past make the reader feel as though they are present in each scene. Stories of when life was simpler, and respect for elders and tradition evokes a warmth you can feel deep in your soul – like a cozy woolen blanket.
Speaking with MacDonnell on Monday she said that the book is a collection of stories, snippets, dates, poems, and notes that she had written, collected, and had kept tucked away over the decades.
COVID put pressure on a great many of us to occupy our time – to do, to learn, to create, to bake, to write – to fill our days with something meaningful while we were all under lockdown.
She said that she is a woman of simple tastes, “I’m not big on casseroles, I’m a meat and potatoes kinda gal, I like roasts and stews.”
“I ain’t no Mary Janet, “ she laughed, noting that Mary Janet is her first cousin, both born on the same day, in the same hospital, and now both have published a book (in the same week) on the things they do best.
MacDonnell was born in Mabou but now calls Port Hood her home.
She developed a talent for listening at an early age. With a keen ear and an inquisitive mind she would often record the dates and times, significant events, or would make notes when those older than she would be telling their story.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” said MacDonnell.
She is a very creative type and is skilled at everything from drawing, sewing, quilting, and macramé.
“My creativity has been a friend to me through many hard times,” said MacDonnell.
“I am generous with it and give it away freely as it has been given to me,” she added.
Joan Ferguson is one of her biggest supporters who was relentless in telling her to put the collection of stories together.
“I had an old computer and a box in an old trunk, upstairs, in a closet in a bedroom and she kept calling me and asking me to please go up and to go through it. She kept on calling and saying, ‘please, go look for me,’” explained MacDonnell.
Eventually she broke down and caved to her friend’s unending requests and unearthed a treasure trove of stories, and tales, and history.
“She really pushed me…for months…and I finally gave in and starting looking into putting it together and getting it published,” said MacDonnell.
“Once I dipped my toe into that world I couldn’t get it back out again,” she added.
She said that once she starting talking about it online and on social media the ads from publishing companies was a constant.
Not as technically savvy as she would like to be, she said she felt so overwhelmed with the constant back and forth emails, editing, reworking, and ticking off of boxes that she had to enlist a cousin, Mariey MacDonnelle, who lives in British Columbia and who is knowledgeable in the fine art of publishing.
“I remember saying to Mary Janet one day that if anyone finds my body it was Mariey,” she laughed, saying that she was at her wits end with the amount of yellow sticky notes that were thrust at her.
All in all she said the experience was funny, frustrating, and expensive.
“And then they tell me that I have to design my own cover…so I walked over to a wool blanket and cut the cover off and used the Cape Breton Tartan with my tartan heart and that was it,” said MacDonnell.
On a more serious note she said that whoever reads her book, she wants them to ask themselves, “what are the strands of your tartan heart?”
MacDonnell asked if this reporter was a Cape Bretoner, and said if I was than I would know that this place is our homing device.
“The causeway, the tea, the people…we don’t care what we do when we are here, we just care that we are home,” she explained.
“Here is where we love and we love what we do and we tell people who we came from,” she added.
She said that going through that trunk filled with moments in time she realized that she also had to honour the women who came before her, the mothers and the grandmothers.
“My mother, Annie Margaret, Mary Janet’s mother, Margie, and our grandmother, Mary Jessie, and all the women before us,” said MacDonnell.
It took her a long time to get to where she is today; with much sacrifice, strength, and courage. She defied hardship, got her GED, went to university, earned a degree in social work, and was able to buy her own home in Port Hood.
“I am pleased with the responses I am getting from people, especially those who live away, saying how my book has awakened a lot of memories for them,” closed MacDonnell.
She wanted to take the time to thank everyone who supported her or who stopped by to buy one. Books can be purchased online by searching the book title or by simply stopping by her house for an autographed copy! Or, search for her on Facebook.
They have been shipped all across Canada and make a lovely Christmas present.
“To answer the most frequently asked questions:
– Yes, I cut a corner of a wool blanket to design the cover
– No I did not get any financial help to publish. I paid for every cent of it myself. It costs thousands to self publish.
– Yes I really did line a casket. A local carpenter made the box. But he did not want to be named so he became Joseph, the carpenter.
– No I have no intention of making another book.
– Yes I still have a few books. And aprons.
Thank you everyone who took an interest in this project. Joan Ferguson is still saying ‘I told you so!’”
Carole Chisholm, a retired English teacher from Mabou Consolidated School said, The Weaving of My Tartan Heart is, “A book of nostalgic short stories, nostalgic for how life was…and perhaps could still be…in Cape Breton. It’s a delightful read by an artistically gifted person. She is a known visual artist, a seamstress, a doll-maker, and a weaver, whose skills are highly valued by her community. This collection appears to be the next page in the current chapter of her life, where we find her writing with the same skill she applied to earlier arts and crafts. She is very close to the hearts of her characters in these well-told tales. Write on Donelda!”
“Donelda has always been a very, very creative person, a wonderful cook, and a great story teller, and this book reminds me just how good she is,” said Beth Ryan.
Little Collie MacDonell said of the book, “Anybody could do it, but only a Weaver did!”
About the author
Donelda MacDonnell is an as-yet undiscovered author who graduated from both St. Francis Xavier and Dalhousie universities. She is retired in Port Hood, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Her artistic side is evidenced by hand-drawn images and quilted pictures, stitched together in harmony with her writing.
Donelda is a well-respected person and seamstress, quick witted and generous to a fault. She is special to her many friends, all of whom can boast of beautiful hand-made items gifted to them. This is her first book of short stories, but probably not her last.
This has been a long time in the making and you can bet the reader will be immersed in that time long ago – in a traditional Cape Breton kitchen.
Each story is different and special and leaves the reader wanting more. I cannot wait for this to be released. Well done Donelda – just another of your many talents.
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