Log Cabin Chronicles

Irene Blandford

Goodnight, Irene

[EDITOR'S NOTE: I wrote this column in 1992 for the Stanstead Journal as Irene was stepping down from her leadership role in the Stanstead Historical Society. Irene died on May 1. She had celebrated her 82nd birthday with friends on April 28. Betty Brock, the archivist at theSociety, summed up the way folks felt about her this way: "Everyone who knew Irene loved her."]

There will be a changing of the guard on Saturday, May 30, at the annual meeting of the Stanstead Historical Society -- after eight years as president, "Mrs. Honeybunch" is stepping aside.

An immigrant from France, Irene Blandford will be succeeded as chief executive officer of this institution that celebrates our anglo-steeped history by Harry Isbrucker, an immigrant from Holland. (As is appropriate in this nation of newcomers, this report comes to you from an immigrant from the United States, some of whose ancestors emigrated to Quebec from Ireland and France and Vermont; others -- the native Abenakis -- were already here to greet them.)

Now, about this Mrs. Honeybunch business...

Irene's married name is Blandford. But she comes from an old, aristocratic Alsatian family the name of which is hard to spell and harder to pronounce but which, according to a close friend of hers, sounds something like "honeybunch" -- despite the literal translation of "bigfoot." I prefer honeybunch.

So there's the story. Or at least part of it. The rest follows . . .

Back in 1972, while still teaching at St. George's School in Montreal, Irene drove out to Georgeville to visit friends. She fell in love with the countryside and found a "chicken coop with some land" near Fitch Bay. Their eyebrows seeking their hairlines, her friends said, "Irene, one doesn't settle in Fitch Bay. Can't you find something in Georgeville?" But Irene, being a determined person used to bucking convention, liked the place and promptly bought it.

Two years later she moved here and began teaching at Sunnyside School; in 1976 she was named principal, a position she held until she took early retirement in 1981 to care for her mother.

Irene didn't start out to be an educator. The daughter of a doctor, she was studying medicine in 1938 when she met Captain Geoffrey Blandford, a British officer in the Royal Marines. Some of her extended family disapproved of her marrying "out of her class" -- not only was he English but he wasn't titled -- but, love prevailed.

World War II was just around the corner. When it came, Blandford was with a commando unit at Dunkirk, but lived through it. He also survived the sinking of his ship and getting shot. While German bombs dropped on England and Irene waited for the lights to go on again all over the world, she "did some work for the BBC." Their son, Marc -- now an independent film writer/producer/director in Montreal -- was born in 1942, during the London blitz.

After the war ended, Blandford remained in the military and the family was eventually posted to the outskirts of the fading British Empire, to Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka.

In 1947, when Marc was five and Irene was but 30 and just two years after he survived the bloodiest war ever fought in history, Blandford, now a colonel, was killed by insurgents. She made the long, sad trip back to Europe with her son.

How does that all seem to you now, I ask as we share coffee in her pleasant, book-lined sitting room. "I think -- was that me? Was that really my life?"

Newly widowed and with a young son to support, Irene had to make a new life for herself. It was too late for medical school. She studied in Geneva, Switzerland, first mathematics, then with Jean Piaget, the world-renowned psychologist who led the world in the study of human development.

The drums of war were beating again in 1956 when France joined Britain in attacking Egypt during the Suez Crisis. "I decided my country was becoming too warlike," Irene says. "I had had enough of war. My grandfather, my father, and my husband were killed in war. I had had enough..."

By 1959 she and Marc, now 17 and ready for university, moved to the "end of the world" -- Vancouver. "Vancouver was a small town back then . . . I thought it was the end of the world . . . but very beautiful," says this lady who grew up on an old family estate in Europe, traveled extensively, was educated in good private schools, and who learned to speak four languages while a child. Now a widowed immigrant, she threw her lot in with the Canadians and went back to school to learn, and to teach.

"In those days, in Vancouver, they had never heard of Piaget, so I had to do many of my studies over," she says. "But, that was O.K. because I wanted to learn about Canada." Also in those days they didn't have any public preschool education in Vancouver, and Irene became one of those dedicated educators who helped create it. Meanwhile, she also earned a Master of Education degree at UBC.

Jump to 1969 -- Irene moves to Montreal, where Marc lives. In 1972 -- the year she discovers Fitch Bay -- she becomes a grandmother, to Lawrence.

Now, after years of teaching, of giving to the community, of helping to lead the Stanstead Historical Society from its damp, difficult quarters in Beebe with one antiquated typewriter to the decent-if-dull RCMP building in Stanstead (plus adding a computer and a copy machine), and finally negotiating the big move up the street to Carrollcroft, the wonderful old Colby house, Irene is stepping aside.

Not down, not out, just aside. "If they need me for anything, they can call," she says with a lovely smile.

What about France? "Home is here, not there. I've been a couple of times. Maybe I'll go again. But this is home." Or winters in Florida? She laughs. "I didn't come to Canada to spend the winter in Florida." She waves her hand at the shelves of books. "When it snows I have my books, I can light a warm fire..."

[Afterword: That's where Irene died the evening of May 1, alone in her small snug house, surrounded by her books and the things of her past. Thank you, Irene, for a life well lived and the time you were with us here on the border.]

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Copyright © 1992 Chris & John Mahoney/Log Cabin Chronicles/5.99