This story is reprinted from the February 2007 print edition
of Bread ‘n Molasses magazine. Subscribe to the print edition today and receive even more Bread ‘n Molasses! Click here for details.
|The Barrieau Family
After All This
Ronnie and Julie, Sweethearts
This is the kind of story you find in great literature. The
kind that gets adapted into award-winning films. It’s a story so wise bookshelves in libraries spill over with volumes
on these same life lessons. It’s a story full of strength, courage, hope, faith, optimism and old-fashioned family values.
But above all else, this is a story of love.
When Ronnie and Julie Barrieau first laid eyes on one another
back in the early 1960’s they could not have possibly understood how many obstacles and challenges they would face together
over the next forty-something years. As two hardworking teenagers helping to support their respective families, they would
never have imagined Christmas lay-offs, having to move across country with small children in tow, and the long and twisted
journey that would test their faith and transform Julie into “The Miracle Lady.”
No, at the age of 17 when Julie worked as the first bilingual
telephone operator in Miramichi and Ronnie as a produce manager for the Save-Easy, they met, fell in love, and knew only that
they wanted to face the future together. And so it was that in 1964, they got married when they were both 19 years old, despite
some misgiving from their parents.
“They didn’t want us to get married at first,”
Julie recalls. “They thought we were too young.”
“My grandparents disapproved,” confirms daughter,
Tammy MacTavish. “But they went ahead and did it anyway.”
Interestingly, Julie thinks people wait too long to get married
these days. “They’re too old, they’ve got too much baggage from past relationships,” she says.
Ronnie thinks young people today are not as mature at age
25 as his generation were at age 18. “Marriage is work,” he says. “Young people today don’t seem to
want to work on it.” Although he knows the world has changed a lot with most families having two parents in the workforce,
and living at a faster pace.
It’s been over forty years since the Barrieau’s
first said “I do,” and Ronnie says he and Julie are as happy today as they were back then. Sitting at their kitchen
table in Douglasfield, looking at family photos and listening to the couple laugh and reminisce about weeks spent fishing
at the camp, escape weekends to the Howard Johnson’s, and picnics on the dune buggy, you understand it’s true.
This is a husband and wife who still adore one another after decades spent together. In this age of the “starter”
marriage and the “quickie” divorce, strong marital bonds like the Barrieau’s seem almost like a mythical
creature—you mightn’t believe it, if you didn’t see it with your own eyes.
Early in the marriage like so many young Miramichiers, the
Barrieau’s moved to Ontario where Ronnie worked as a milkman. Julie was 22 years old, when she packed herself
and two kids and left for Ontario. She chuckles as she remembers
how people in Ontario weren’t used to winter driving
but snowstorms didn’t keep Ronnie from his route. “Snow didn’t stop Ronnie,” she says. “He’d
come back and be all done before any of the other drivers even started their routes.”
excursion only lasted nine months before Ronnie became so homesick he moved his family back to Miramichi.
“It didn’t matter to me where we were, as long
as we were together,” Julie says. “But we were stronger for it, in the end.”
|Julie and Ronnie
Snuggled in the Barrieau’s warm home on a cold winter
night, watching photos slip by on a computer screen as they display a slide presentation their daughter made for them for
their anniversary, you’re struck by their strong sense of family. This is a close-knit clan. These are proud parents
who so obviously love their children and grandchildren.
“I have great memories of being a kid,” daughter
Tammy recalls. “Growing up in my house was awesome. Mom was always a stay-at-home mom and Dad worked shift work.”
She says growing up they never realized the family didn’t have a big income. Their parents spent a lot of time with
them and they did a lot of things together.
“We’d go back in the woods on the snowmobile and
stop to boil the kettle and have tea and toast with jam,” she says. “We always had a big garden. There was always
a lot of homemade stuff. We never wanted for anything.”
Ronnie smiles as he sees a photograph of the dune buggy that’s
been in his family for over 30 years. He says you’d be hard pressed to find a kid in the neighbourhood who doesn’t
have fond memories of going for rides. When the kids were growing up, they’d pack a picnic lunch of sandwiches and a
thermos of Kool-Aid and head back the field for the day on the dune buggy, he recalls.
“I guess our house was always kind of a gathering spot,”
Ronnie says. “The most important thing you can do for your kids is give them your time, spend time with them.”
Tammy says it was the simple things that she and her two siblings
remember best. The family would often go to a camp in Sevogle for a week where they’d fish, play games and just spend
time together. With no electricity and no television they’d find creative ways to have fun and make adventures out of
the simplest things like washing their hair in the river.
One family tradition was to go away in the springtime on Escape
Weekends to the Howard Johnson.
“We did that every year for at least 10 years,”
Now grown and with children of her own, Tammy marvels at how
her parents could afford everything. Money was never a concern when she was a child, they always had everything they needed,
and would always get the one big thing they really wanted at Christmas time. As an adult, she understands that the Escape
Weekends coincided with income tax refund time.
Julie and Ronnie did everything they could to create a safe
loving environment for their children. Julie says you could count the number of fights she and her husband have had over the
years on one hand, and they never argued in front of the kids.
“Once in awhile you just bite your tongue and get on
with it,” Julie says.
“We knew what was expected,” Tammy adds. “The
stuff that you read about today in books, they just did it.” Like family supper everyday, where the television was turned
off and everyone sat around the table at the same time and talked about their days.
“They respected each other. They always backed each
other up,” Tammy says. “I hope I do half the job they did.”
Julie agrees that she and Ronnie were always together on disciplining
the kids; they always backed each other up, even if they didn’t always agree. They always presented a united front to
their children. And they never went to bed without resolving any disagreements they might have had.
“We never went to bed angry at one another. Some nights
it was late,” Julie laughs.
She thinks one of
the worse things you can do to your marriage is to use the silent treatment or stop communicating with your partner. You need
to work on it and work it out and keep your children out of your marital relationship, let them be kids, you be the parent.
|Ronnie and the famous dune buggy
“If the adult won’t
be the boss, a kid will,” Ronnie adds. “You’ve got to be a parent first.”
Talking with the children
was always a big priority for the Barrieau’s.
“We let them make
all their own decisions . . . as long as they were the right ones!” Ronnie chuckles.
And Tammy agrees. She
says she never felt forced to do anything, she was given the opportunity to make mistakes and the tools to make the right
in a different world now,” Ronnie says. “Parents buy their kids everything.” He thinks this is because nearly
everyone needs to work nowadays in order to make ends meet so there’s guilt over not being there, and parents try to
make up for it by buying the kids everything. “The biggest thing you can do for your kids is spend time with them,”
he stresses again. You mightn’t be able to be there all the time, but make the time that you do have count.
Ronnie says he doesn’t
understand many of today’s young people, what seems like common courtesy to him is a big deal for them. An example he
uses is when people get all hung up on calling to tell their significant others where they are and what they’re doing,
so they don’t worry. “It’s just common respect,” he shrugs. “Do unto others . . .”
Tammy says her parents
instilled very strong family values in their children and taught them to be respectful of others.
“Arguing and fighting
was not accepted, you had to work it out,” she says. But like all siblings, there would be fights. The favourite punishment
for these occasions was to make the guilty siblings sit on the couch with their arms around each other, locked in a hug.
“Before the end
of the punishment you’d always be laughing because you couldn’t help yourself,” Tammy laughs. “I’m
lucky. I was very lucky.” She says she and her siblings are still very close. Unlike many people she knows, the Barrieau
children often go places together and always have a great time. “That’s because of Mom and Dad,” she says.
And again she adds that
it was the simple things growing up that had the biggest impact. She remembers many hours playing board games with the whole
family and Sunday mornings after church when her father would teach them how to dance.
one thing they did right, they gave us their time,” Tammy says. “We never lacked for anything.”
And the Barrieau’s
could not be any more proud of their children.
“They are all very
smart people,” Julie smiles. “They’ve all done very well.”
If nobody told you, you’d
never know. Spending time with this loving couple, learning about their family traditions, sharing fond memories, you’d
never guess. Listening to Julie, you’d never know she’s in pain. You’d never know she’s tired. You’d
never know she’s sick.
Julie has been fighting
cancer since she was 38 years old; she’s now 60. She remembers being in hospital in Saint John
and not being able to walk. She would get herself up out of bed when she was alone in the room and probably shouldn’t
have and she would drag herself around the bed trying to learn how to walk again.
“Mind over matter,”
she says. “I’d heard that before, but you take it for granted.”
in that one moment they said, ‘You have cancer,’” Ronnie recalls. “All your values, everything material,
went to the bottom and living day-to-day went to the top.”
Ronnie says that was the
changing moment for his family.
“We learned to live
with cancer,” he says. “We’ve never given a thought that it was going to beat us. We never thought of it
as a death sentence.”
|Just Married, Ronnie and Julie
He credits their faith,
positive attitude, healthy eating, and keeping as little stress in their life as possible. “We never made the cancer
number one in our life,” he says.
“It was so hard
for awhile,” Julie adds. “He’s put up with an awful lot more from me, because I’ve been sick.”
Over the years the cancer
has come and gone and come again. Eight years ago doctors said Julie would only had six to 18 months left to live. In January
2000 the doctors started calling her “The Miracle Lady.” Several articles have been written about Julie’s
struggle and she’s an inspiration to anyone who knows her or reads of her battle. But her family remains her number
just me, it’s my whole family,” Julie says. “I sometimes feel like my husband’s in the background
too much. He’s been so good to me.”
She remembers the many
hospital visits. “It means so much to have him there,” she says. “As long as he’s there, I’m
“Dad was always
a good husband and father,” Tammy says. “But he really stepped up. He started doing everything she did.”
She laughs as she remembers lessons in the kitchen as her father learned from her mother’s instructions how to make
It’s been a lot
of work, a lot of care, with a lot of ups and downs, Ronnie says but adds, “I only did for her what she’d do for
In 1998, Ronnie and Julie
made 23 trips to Saint John. “It’s amazing what you’ll get used to,” he says. About
two years ago, Julie couldn’t do anything at all. She slept in the La-Z-y Boy chair in the living room for 9 months
because she can’t lie down flat to sleep. They’ve since got an adjustable bed so she can sleep upright in the
“She never complained,”
Ronnie says. And Julie says in the beginning she would ask, “Why me?” but then she came to understand that cancer
doesn’t discriminate “so why not me?”
Julie says you’ve
got to have a sense of humour about it and not get stuck in a “poor me” syndrome.
are not a priority anymore,” Ronnie adds. “If we get it done, we do, if we don’t, we don’t. There
are so many things you can complain about if you want to, but why?”
The Barrieau’s have
a positive outlook; not just with regard to Julie’s terminal illness but in all aspects of their life. And their positive
attitudes are contagious.
“Mills have a real
bad habit of laying you off at Christmas,” Ronnie says. And he should know because throughout the years it’s happened
to him, many times. He remembers one time when ATV news came and interviewed a bunch of recently laid off mill workers just
before Christmas. The reporter and crew couldn’t believe his attitude.
“I said, ‘It’s
not ruining my Christmas,’” he remembers. “We had lots of food, some meat pies in the freezer, a tree, family,
a few presents—what more would you need? Why would I let it ruin my Christmas?” When the piece aired, Ronnie was
swamped by phone calls from people who said he had changed their lives. His positive outlook inspired so many others.
Julie has also always
inspired people. For 11 years she taught clogging. Out of all the changes cancer has brought to her life, this is the thing
that still bothers her most, that she couldn’t continue to teach clogging. She misses the activity, the freeness of
the dance, and even more than that she misses helping people. People’s lives were changed through clogging. “She
never gave up on anybody,” Ronnie says. Even the most shy and awkward person could be coaxed out of his or her shell
under Julie’s guiding wing.
And losing that outlet
was a big change. About four years ago Julie started going to prayer groups. “They have helped me so much, it’s
just unreal,” she says.
Tammy says her family
always enjoyed being together and celebrating life but they appreciate everything even more now. “Life just passes you
by,” she says. “And you never know when things can change.” Eight years ago they were planning their mother’s
funeral on Christmas Eve. But to everyone’s surprise, Julie slowly got her strength back. “The turning point for
her I think was getting the pain under control,” Tammy says. “She is still in pain everyday. The amount of medication
she takes is astronomical, but when she got to a good place, she stayed there. You can survive. With love and support of family
and friends you can survive.”
Ronnie and Julie now have
six grandsons. A few years ago, on their 25th anniversary, they renewed their vows with all their family’s blessing
and with everyone in attendance. They may have been young initially, but they’ve been wise throughout and proven themselves
to be good examples for not just their children but their whole community.
“If cancer teaches
you anything, it’s that life is very precious,” Tammy says. “I don’t get caught up in nitpicky stuff.
I have good people in my life. It’s not worth it. Cherish everyday.”
Perhaps that’s the
ultimate secret to life and happiness—cherish it.
Kellie Underhill is the Editor of Bread 'n Molasses magazine online and in print. A former Director of
the Writers' Federation of New Brunswick, Kellie currently sits on the Editorial Board of Fredericton's Broken Jaw Press.