|One Child Born In This World To Carry On*
By Rhea Côté Robbins, July 16, 1993
I sit on my porch rocking, thinking.
Happy Birthday, dad. You'd be
77 today. My Chantel was his exchange child. He died on her
birthday. "One child born in this world to carry on, to carry on*"
I sing. I sing Blood, Sweat and Tears and I think of dad. One
is born to carry on.
I may be aunt Connie's exchange child
since I'm named after her. I send her what I write and she loves
it. I am a hero to my bunch. They are so grateful. She
tries to understand what it is I do with the writing.
I need the big, warm blanket of my family
tucked up underneath my chin in order for me to feel on center. I'm
so used to the bump and jostle jiggling at my elbow, the interruptions,
that I don't know how else to communicate without it. I visited upstate
New York for the first time and Edna Paquette, also. I took a 622
mile ride, round-trip and stayed less than twenty-four hours. She
told me the week-end with her would be devoted to me. Her writing
is becoming more and more famous everyday. I wonder at myself and
what I'm doing driving around on Rt. 2 going toward a famous author's house.
Invited or not--who the hell do I think I am?
She was nothing but gracious and I am
grateful for what she did for me. I cannot explain it, but I needed
to be home. I almost cried at the borderline. I'm obviously
searching for something.
For me, I am aware of my stain of working
class. Working class happenings, family concerns, outlook on life,
expressions of who we are, home-spun philosophies, tendencies, floors so
clean you can eat off them or dirt-in-the-barn, not the house farmer's
wife, farmer--herself, mill-workers, unsophisticated, unapologetic.
Working class, ethnic, in and about yankee-shit-don't-smell, sideboard
Wandering around in a foreign environment--I'm
in the country, I'm riding around in the woods in a pick-up truck on dirt
roads with a famous woman author in jeans and a silk shirt, baseball cap
and sunglasses. "Tough as me" this one could be called. It
is a study in back-to-the-land hard living. She does it in order
not to be swallowed by the resin-coated book jacket of a writer's life.
To keep from being smothered. Or snuffed?
The museum and tomb quality of preserving
life on paper is like putting a firefly in a jar. I observe it as
a life which can crush the juice right out of you. Instead of a pick-up
truck on a dirt road, me, I need my blankie of turmoil. I need to
feel connected to my people.
My critique of Edna upon the return
of my short stay--her difference from me is her developed sense of aesthetics.
The artists I have met live as she. Or rather, the expression of
who they are in their homes are of the artist. The artist at home.
In my imitation of it, I make a poor attempt at it all.
She says she likes to fish. As
a woman alone, accompanied by Larry, she goes up-country to fish.
Visiting up-country is something else besides living there. Living
there requires you dig your toes in, hardiness, hale in the blood.
I know, I lived there for seven years at seventy below sometimes.
Because I lived up north and tended fires, I realize I can be a firemaker
as my maman was before me. "Pyro," we'd call her. She'd burn
the dead leaves all day long at camp. She'd get there and say, "I'll
just start a little fire to get rid of some of these leaves and twigs
and shit." Then she'd tend fire all day. Red-faced, hot and
sweaty. In between the meals. The coals would smolder all night
and she'd start all over on Sunday. "Just a little fire," she'd say
to no one in particular.
I need hard living to let me know I
am alive. Just like Edna. I am uncomfortable when I stray from
the working class decor. The world may very well spin on its axis,
but we know which class of people that is responsible for firing the machinery
which turns the cogs of the axis. God's little folk.
In New York I felt lonely and separated
from my usual run-on life, crush me at odd moments. No one was more
surprised than me to experience the homesickness I felt in New York.
I'm not sophisticated; I am a study in commonness. I am feeling it
more and more. Timothy, my brother, was right and right. How
to resolve the gap between my desire to write and the writer's world of
tea cups and long-stemmed champagne glasses will be a juggling act.
I admire Edna's courage. I must
have run from the challenge of change. I think I got scared by the
rare environment of deafening silence which I alone would be responsible
to fill. Maybe I fool myself and I don't want to write at all because
of the sacrifice of giving up the clutter of living.
To me, the common existence is so full
of microbes I don't want to go anywhere else to write about their germs
or fungus. I like the ones I'm steeped in. I don't want the
sterility of artists' white walls, but I have tasted their coolness and
so I go there as a concession. I used to have bright color on the
wall, but the red-headed, Lake's kid made that obvious to me. She
and her husband rented our Madawaska house. I was downstairs and
she took her family on a tour of the house commenting on my "French" color
choices on the wall. That was the last time I ever chose bright colors
for my walls. By one remark, the wall color scheme, my expression
of beauty, was beat out of me. I'm not sure I could stand color the
way I unconsciously lived or chose to live with color back then.
After art training in college, rubbing elbows with the art bunch, I crave
white walls. Even my kids complain.
The decor of the French heritage woman's
home is eclectic. Mostly utilitarian--or family pictures. Art
from Woolworth's or K-Mart, Home Interiors. Motel room imitating.
Knitted crafts. "Holy Cow Are You Eating Again!" alphabet soup felt
on the refrigerator door. Scissored soda bottles mobiles blowing
in the wind. Affordable elegance. Imitation hummels.
Some cut glass, some silver, some mincing about linen. But not too
mincing. The delicacies are in the crocheting. The dollies,
quilts, rugs of pure wool, la lain, which he tore into strips for her to
braid. And the dresses, dresses, dresses.
Edna is rejecting New York and coming
home to Maine and I'm not sure why. I don't think she may be any
happier in Maine. Being a creator isolates you, anyway. But
she does invite the woodcutter who delivers her firewood in for a beer--an
imported beer. A choice, premium beer. My brother drinks Bud
and she thinks she and he would get along because they both go North to
fish. As long as she didn't talk too much, maybe. But she has
to talk to the folk or les mougis sophisticates would gobble her up.
She has to work at being common. Even though she comes from common.
So, I half-believe her stance of commonness.
I tell my friend Marie that Edna is
fancy. Marie disagrees. I'm more right. I am not a fancy
woman. To some, I would be, but I don't talk about hamburg patties
as burger bundles, either. Fancy women I have come to know probably
have acquired tastes for fancy spices. For me, nutmeg in the tortière
is getting pretty wild. I don't make bread with a modern sensibility;
I make bread as a weekly chore and I do mean chore. It gets to be
I live my maman's and my mémère's
lives. Mes parents m'tienné ma face au terre. My parents
kept my face to the ground on these things as long as they could.
I am an old time cook, canner, seamstress and suck-up. I am afraid
my daughter, Chantel, is in danger of becoming a yup. It's a good
thing we made her pile wood, pick tomatoes and strawberries when she was
a girl. Laid some foundation. She drives a standard, too.
No one is interested in helpless women around here.
In some cases, I consider myself spleeny
because I never picked up a sick chicken in the barn and smash its head
against the cement foundation as my maman did. Mark the sheet with
a line, and if it was the fifth, a slant through the previous four to mark
the chicken's death. Throw them on a pile with the other sick, now
dead, chickens. When I complained she said, "It needs to die.
It will make the others sick. Besides, you know how they will peck
it to death if I don't kill it. I'm putting the poor thing out of
its misery." Selective death. She was god. She chose
who would live or die. Her killing was humane. They made me
pluck chickens. I complained again. I could do a better job
today. I was an embarrassment to them with my squeamishness.
I avoided science because of the chickens. I braved cancer because
of the chickens. I, too, was plucked. My prosthesis sits on
the page opposite. It gets hot wearing that thing in the summer.
Removable body parts. I love it. I'm learning to live with
that silly-putty titty.
I guess I want the poison--disconnectedness
from deeper purpose or meaning--to stay away from my heart. I want
my sickening, to a degree, sentimentality. Nature's smile as opposed
to nature's backhand. The idea without a feeling attached to it nauseates
For some reason my visit to New York
and Edna pencilled me in darker; made my edges more strong. The artists
I've known laid some foundation for that, but she pointed it out without
saying a word. I was taken by her design in her home, but I know
now it is not me or mine. I am too low class or working class.
Her dirt is not dirty like my reeking piles and piles of unholy, unblessed
dirt. In her environment, toilet seats are art forms. Woods,
textures, feathers, cloth, batik, curtains to the right, furniture, paintings,
books--lives are blue and blessed. This eclectic represents a prevailing
wind foreign aesthetics. Acquired tastes. Adopted philosophies
as opposed to imposed philosophies or passed-on philosophies. She'd
be pissed to hear me say that. She calls me a "good, little catholic
girl." That pisses me off.
Where the hell do I begin to find the
thing that I am looking for? I ride to Newport on the highway, and
I get off at Rt. 2 to New Hampshire and other routes on to New York.
I enter New York by crossing on a bridge over a river. At dinner,
certainly not supper, in a restaurant with no sign, Pease Porridge Hot,
$99 worth of eating, just this shy of $100, I remark to the other writer
and his wife who we met up with, "I'm in search for my rivers." He
tells me the on-the-road book, experience--Kerouac style--is common.
Searching for home or a place that's comfy to light down on. The
home or place you choose is a fit, but an irregular fit--a poor fit.
Or, you make a home, home, settle in and then the kids have ownership,
but they sense your unsettledness and so they roam.
Driving down the highway, I look for
actual, physical signs of the French presence on yankee dirt. I find
few brave outward signs. Edna hands me a phone book. She misunderstood.
I meant passing along that ribbon of highway where is the challenge of
visible, out there in your face expression of living French? I saw
one purple house for sale. Probably it all went the way of the color
on my walls--shamed to white. Color, I am going to insist, be in
some different places than only on the canvas dans notre Christe des, Christe
disappearing act. And with that the French women's invisibility along
with a people who do not like to be seen. Or heard. Outside
of their groupings. Which sometimes is as small as their families.
I revolt at the thought or phrase of
regional writer. I don't want to go anywhere else to tell their story.
I haven't yet looked at what fascinates me. Place names. Toponyme.
Toponomy. Things I learn which keep me vital or on my toes, apprised,
informed, made aware of, current, flirted with, sexually aroused in French;
likewise seducing, unaware. Sometimes aware. The attractions,
flirtations will not go away.
I went French folk hunting or fishing.
Didn't see or catch much. Or did I? What could make it all
more obvious? That reminds me of the women, me, waiting on shore
for the fishermen to return. Edna played music for me. All
kinds of music. I still had to go home. I was shy.
She criticized Franco-Americans shut-down body language. In the face
of non-acceptance and ridicule--yes.
Disappearing Act Two. I tell her
I see performed on stage a French play, translated. Words are there,
but the body language is missing. She tells me she is looking for
underground humor. I'm excavating a whole submerged culture--an Atlantis
of Francos. A people apart, drowned in a sea of unfamiliar water.
Some other continent of being has a better toe-hold on the tectonic plates
The signage on the road is missing.
A few are there, but certainly not enough. The road I traveled to
New York was a panorama of common expression. Not studied, self-conscious
living, but unself-conscious flower beds, green, algeaded ponds where cows
cooled off, farms, out-buildings, crumbling sheds--walls melted, roofs
like whipped cream and cherry discarded. Yard sales. Pig roasts,
B-B-Q's, parades anticipated, American flags, front porches. I felt
like Connie Kaurault On The Road.
The author we met for dinner admits
that the great Franco-American novel has not been written yet. The
dinner was strained. The visit was strained. At odd moments
I felt Edna and I connected, but our differences clashed. I think
she rejected my middle classisms and I reject what I feel is high classing
it up. If we could meet at the French place maybe? She feels
far away sometimes in her experiences; I feel narrow compared. Only,
I don't want to negate my life anymore. It is what it is; I am what
I am. I am not socially literate in some areas of prescribed behaviors.
I'm a country woman with a few nicks of society on me. I'm complicated,
but not in a fashionable, marketable way.
So what angle of the firefly-on-the-loose
do I tell of the Franco-American story? The Invisibiles. The
Quiet Presence. Assuming quiet is as it says it is. Or is quiet
a kind of loudness? Arms at your side self-hugging. Color into
white tragedy. Patchwork a reflection of the work of God? And
I've got work to do; I can't sit on this porch and naize all day.
|*Blood, Sweat & Tears
Song written by Lara Nero
You may have been told this already and just not changed it yet but,
the song "And When I Die" *Blood, Sweat & Tears--was actually
written by Lara Nero
If you didn't already know that you might like to visit bio here:
You may be surprised at some of the songs you've heard that she wrote.
[good to learn this. merci.]
AND WHEN I DIE, as sung by Bs&T
I'm not scared of dying,
And I don't really care.
If it's peace you find in dying,
Well then let the time be near.
If it's peace you find in dying,
And if dying time is here,
Just bundle up my coffin
'Cause it's cold way down there.
I hear that its cold way down their.
Yeah, crazy cold way down their.
And when I die, and when I'm gone,
There'll be one child born
In this world to carry on,
to carry on.
Now troubles are many, they're as deep as a well.
I can swear there ain't no heaven but I pray there ain't no hell.
Swear there ain't no heaven and I pray there ain't no hell,
But I'll never know by living, only my dying will tell.
Yes only my dying will tell.
Yeah, only my dying will tell.
Give me my freedom for as long as I be.
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me,
And all I ask of dying is to go naturally.
Oh I want to go naturally.
Here I go,
Here comes the devil,
Look out children,
Here he comes!
Here he comes! Hey...
Don't want to go by the devil.
Don't want to go by demon.
Don't want to go by Satan,
Don't want to die uneasy.
Just let me go naturally.
and when I die,
When I'm dead, dead and gone,
There'll be one child born in our world to carry on,
To carry on.