Butterbox babies: what we didn’t know

The things we don’t know about the places we live in.  The things we don’t know about each other.  My wife and I have recently been reading the long-hidden story of the now internationally infamous Ideal Maternity Home of East Chester, Nova Scotia.  It is a bittersweet story with personal connections for us.

In 1990 we moved from Ontario to Squid Cove, just a short distance down the road from the Ideal Maternity Home, the main building of which was still standing.  For thirty years it had been the location to which frightened young unwed mothers and shamed families turned for secret births followed by the loss of babies, either from questionable adoptions and illegal sales of infants, or from frequent infant deaths (some of which may have been deliberate for those children who were “not very adoptable”).  In 1990 the scandal had just been breaking out into the open.

Malcolm Phillips we knew as a very kindly senior living by himself, a grandfather figure to our two little children.  Not until we read the book did we know that he was one of the key journalists who put the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation onto the story of the butterbox babies.  Moreover, I had exchanged my old K-car for a newer used car at a small dealer in nearby Fox Point, not realizing that I stood very close there to a cemetery of unmarked little graves where a hundred or so babies from the Ideal Maternity Home lay buried in creamery boxes, secretly disposed of, all but forgotten.

My wife and I found it strange that the local church we had begun to attend in Chester did not show the least interest in us.  The pastor promised to visit but never did.  The congregation would leave me completely alone after the service to get my wife into her wheelchair and our two tiny toddlers out of the emptied church and onto the freshly-deserted parking lot.  We were newcomers and it seemed there were things we were not supposed to know.

When my mother and sister came to visit us, they stayed at the Casa Blanca Inn, a gracious old bed-and-breakfast run by an equally gracious and old Isabel Marshall, of whom mother spoke very highly.  None of us knew that the Casa Blanca’s guest book contained the names of scores of American couples who had come here to adopt children, paying well for the privilege, and being escorted to the Home by the well-intentioned innkeeper.

The baby business had brought much needed cash into this remote community, beginning in the Great Depression of the 1930s and continuing into the war years. Even when a reluctant Nova Scotia government finally closed down the Home after many years of investigations, reports and court cases,  the baby business carried on quietly.   I asked my wife, not long after our arrival in the area, why she had for so long raved about Nova Scotia’s “down-home hospitality” when we only experienced furtive glances and secrecy.  She concluded that the area was an odd exception to the well-known Maritime friendliness.  The book about the Butterbox Babies now gave us one possible reason for that difference, back a few decades ago.

But things did change.  Surviving children of the Ideal Maternity Home began to investigate their origins.  Dozens of people, especially Americans, began travelling to the Chester area, hoping to find some clues to their own birth names and true identities.  Sometimes this brought about tearfully happy reunions with now-elderly natural mothers, and other times it led to disappointment and closed doors.

We moved away from the area in October of 1992 in order to settle near Canning in the Annapolis Valley, and so we knew nothing of the emotional first gathering of survivors in a Chester church in November of the same year, an event that began to put many puzzle pieces together and shine a ray of healing light on lives that had known the darkness of earlier days.  Not aware of that reunion, we also did not realize later on that a new pastor who came to our church in Canning, Andy Crowell, was one of two ministers leading that first gathering of healing and hope.

So often, life’s earlier pain eventually leads to a deeper appreciation of life’s most important things.  Those who turn away from the journey of discovery because of the suffering often lose hope and miss out on the freer life that awaits.  But what a confusing and tiresome journey it can be, and how much we might have learned better if only we had known then what we know now.


2 thoughts on “Butterbox babies: what we didn’t know”

  1. Hi, I just stumbled across your blog post about the Butterbox Babies, I don’t know if you’re even still in NS anymore, and if you are, if you will even see this in time, or if you’ll even be interested, but I feel compelled to tell you about an art exhibit next Saturday on the Halifax waterfront. My friend and artist. Eva Romita, has been chosen as a participant, and has been working on an art installation about the Butterbox Babies – I’ve been helping her a little, it’s such a gargantuan project, and considering the number of babies lost, rightfully so. If you are interested, check out Nocturne Halifax’s Facebook page for all the necessary information. I’d link you, but that’s not typically allowed on these blog pages.


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