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Weathered notebook reminds Barrie native to chase her dreams

One of Cathy McDowell’s most prized possession is a leather notebook that belonged to her father, and inside it listed some of his own ambitions

One of Cathy McDowell’s most prized possessions is a small, brown leather notebook. Its cover is worn and the spine where its fading pages meet is beginning to tear.

Still, McDowell carefully opens it on the dining room table of her one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa and looks at it like it’s shiny and new.

Before she found it in 2018, she had no idea the important role it would play in her life. Today, she says what is written inside her helped her reach her dream of acting in theater – a dream she once thought she had given up on forever.

Growing up in Barrie, she was close to her father, Roy. He was an auto-body repairman who, McDowell recalls, hated his job and loved his family. He never talked about her dreams of her but when McDowell doubted her future, he always spoke up.

As a tween, McDowell recalls sitting in her childhood living room and watching a commercial on the only channel the family’s black and white television carried. The public service commercial said only one in three children in Canada would pursue higher education after high school.

McDowell, the middle child of three siblings, saw herself in the statistic. She decided her brother her brother Chris, being the only boy, would likely be the one to go to university. For days, she wondered what her future would make of her, coming to terms with the fact that it might already be decided.

On a shopping trip to Loblaws with her father a few days later, she told him about the commercial. McDowell recalls, “My dad stopped the shopping cart, looked me straight in the eye and he said, ‘You can do, be and have whatever you want. The only one that’s standing in your way is you. The sky’s the limit. Dream big little one.’”

In elementary school, McDowell was part of her school’s Christmas pageant each year – usually as a shepherd or a cow in the manger scene. In the third grade, her teacher de ella put on a new play about orphans waiting for Santa Claus. McDowell finally had lines. She remembers that line to this day. “But orphans haven’t any home where Santa Claus might call,” she recites as if in character.

“Last year, although we hoped for him, he didn’t come at all.”

From there, she knew she belonged on stage. In high school, McDowell shared the idea of ​​pursuing theater with her boyfriend at the time. He wanted to pursue engineering, like one of McDowell’s uncles had become.

During a visit with her uncle, McDowell’s boyfriend brought up the idea and discouraged it, asking her uncle to do the same. Her uncle de ella told her she would never make it as an actress and that she ought to pursue something he thought of as a real job – something other than the arts.

Discouraged by influential men in her life, McDowell let the dream fade from her eyes. At home, her father had no choice but to do the same with his dream of him in the arts.

McDowell’s father had a deep interest in photography. He was the family photographer, capturing moments and developing them professionally – never at a pharmacy, McDowell recalls. He was into slide photography because they took a better-quality photo.

He wanted his own dark room and even signed up for a dark room techniques class. Somewhere along the way, the class got canceled and, for bigger reasons, he let his dream of him get away from him.

At 13, McDowell lost her mother, Beth, to multiple sclerosis. When her father de ella had to take on a greater role for the family, a dream in the arts seemed even further out of reach.

“So, of course, with three kids, and very, very limited income, pounding metal every day, he never did get the dream. That was it,” McDowell explains.

In the mid-1990s, McDowell was living in Victoria, BC, where she worked for a non-profit organization.

Though she wasn’t working in the arts, she didn’t let go of her passion. When she met her best friend, Marie Longpre, through work, they went to musicals and craft fairs in their spare time.

McDowell found new stages and took acting classes in Victoria. Longpre recalls her also taking singing lessons in a small theater where singers of different ages and genres performed.

“She sang very beautifully,” Longpre explains. “She has a very soft voice but she it’s powerful.”

McDowell’s path changed once more when her father got ill in Barrie. To spend more time with him, she took an early retirement from her job in Victoria and moved back to her hometown in 2015.

Back in the place where her dream had been taken from her decades before, McDowell tossed around the idea of ​​going back to school to get a fine arts degree. Through a quick online search, she landed on York University’s program and, before long, she was in Toronto for a tour of the campus.

She was impressed by the state-of-the-art staging and sound equipment and the renowned professors they hired – one of which McDowell still sends a Christmas card to every year. When she heard she tuition would be paid for because she was over 60 years old, she decided to apply.

She laughs as she remembers the moment she told her father about the news. “Dad had said to me, ‘Why can’t you just retire like normal people?’ and I said, ‘I’m your daughter.’”

McDowell’s father passed away on May 7, 2018. He would not know his daughter was later accepted into York University; one step closer to her dream of her.

A few days after her he died, McDowell’s family began sorting through her father’s things.

When they found his collection of notebooks in a shelf next to his usual chair in the living room, McDowell chose to keep one that she recognized from her childhood. It was the little, brown leather notebook.

Inside the book, she found a side to her father she had never truly known. He had listed classes he was going to take, books he was going to read and equipment he was going to buy to become a professional photographer. In her hands de ella, she held a snapshot of how a person’s dream can take a backseat to life.

“I don’t want to go with my song unsung,” she explains. “Dad died with his song unsung, and I don’t want to do that.”

Back when she applied to York University, she also had to audition. There, she got a glimpse of what the next four years would look like. “Imagine being the only person over 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 auditioning,” McDowell recalls. “Yeah, it was surreal.”

She was also faced with her first looks of doubt that day.

On stage, the panel of professors judging the auditions looked her up and down. One of them asked what she was doing there. She told him about being discouraged to follow her dream of her as a young woman and she remembers his response to her.

“The one beside him says, ‘What happens if we take the dream away from you again?’”

She answered, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to reclaim it again.”

She provided herself to her professors. She became a leader in her classmates’ eyes, and they came to her for guidance. They called their ‘queen’.

Today, in her one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa, she keeps her father’s little, brown leather notebook in her bedroom in a cigar box he had.

On the wall next to her bedroom door, her fine arts degree hangs on the wall, framed.

Under her name, it reads: summa cum laude.

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