By Kellie Underhill
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.”
The Ontario 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.”
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,” Ronnie says.
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.
“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 decisions.
“We’re living 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.
“If there’s 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.”
“Everything changed 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.”
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 one priority.
“It’s not 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 okay.”
“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 bread.
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 me.”
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 bedroom.
“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.
“Material things 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.