Dans les plains

By Rhea J. Côté Robbins

 My paternal mémère's (grandmother) name was Annie Giroux Côté and my maternal mémère's name was Victoria Gagnon St. Germain Daigle.  My maman's name was Rita Lucille St. Germain Côté and my name is Rhéa Jeannine Côté Robbins.  I was named after my maman's twin.  I am a part of all these women and they are a part of me.  They are my past propelling me toward my future.  We have been and are all women of Franco-American Québec/Acadian descent.  We are speakers of the French language--at varying degrees and levels, but we are all speakers of the language as a mother tongue with command of the English language in opposite proportion of our command of French.  My mémères, most fluent and my maman the container/carrier of the language to me; I am the least fluent in French and the most agile in English. 
 How much of me as a present day Franco-American woman has to do with how much French or English I speak is a debate for the experts.  At present, I have the luxury to examine my culture from the protection of the work place.  I say protection because it is not always expedient to live a self-conscious life.  I edit and write for Le F.A.R.O.G. Forum which is published out of The Franco-American Center located on the University of Maine campus in Orono.  Le F.A.R.O.G. Forum, with the help of Franco-American volunteer community writers and artists, is a bilingual, socio-cultural journal published eight times per year.  For it, I write out of my experience of being brought up in the typical Franco-American neighborhood in Waterville known as "down the Plains."  "Down the Plains" is a term which both repulses and attracts me.  I have a personal love--hate relationship with the term.  I am fond of the land to which the term belongs, but it has not always been so for me. 
 While I grew up I hardly knew that I lived in a borough, so to speak, where all the elements of survival were present and intact--home, school, church, grocery store, doctor, dentist, entertainment, etc. were within walking distance.  The old neighborhoods where all age groups converged and congregated and life was crustier than the separated and segregated suburban developments which grew on the outskirts of the city.  The neighborhood and its inhabitants played their part in the formation of my present day vision.  I take a drive down the Plains today and I see ghosts.  Ghosts of relatives, friends,  the old drunk--Danse-pour-moi he was called.  As children and young girls we would hide behind fences and shrubs whenever he would walk past us and we would yell out "Danse pour moi!"  He would immediately stop his drunken reverie and dance a beautiful dance, full of grace and rhythm.  As children we enjoyed immensely the control of him he allowed us.  Our own full-grown puppet without strings.  He would take a few steps to leave us with the memory of his "danse" and yet as often as we called out, he would stay and dance for us.  Besides Danse-pour-moi I see other vagrants, children, mothers, fathers, police men walking their beats, firemen, the candy man, strangers with a familiar face, and, in the men and women living there today, I see the face of the children they were yesterday.  Sometimes I even try to see my ghost or the ones of my mother and grandmothers.
 I don't live in the old neighborhood anymore and those are my own dances and reveries.  I did not want to stay in the old neighborhood and I tried to leave it, but it really is in me.  And I carry it with me.  Always.  I'm here now, in the present, a product of those times and places.  My maman and mémères were also products of their own times.  My Mémère Daigle and maman were from Northern Maine and the Gaspé Peninsula and my Mémère Côté was from Waterville and adopted as a baby when her father fell through the ice crossing the river (What river? I don't know) and her mother died of a broken heart.  Her adoptive parents deeded their home to her and she lived there her entire life and now one of my brother's lives in the same house with his family.  My pépère, whom I never met--he died before I was born, gave a piece of my mémère's land to my father and mother and on it they built a home.  They hauled on it an abandoned building--an old school house or vacant store--and hand dug the basement and built around the building their house.  No loans and pay-as-you-go.  Their oldest grandchild lives there now.  So we have the land to explain who we are.  We have the language and the land.
 I do not know how important land or buildings play in attesting to the existence of a culture, but for me the land and buildings play an important role.  The buildings and land prove the spirit or tenacity of our existence, but not just the private buildings, but the sacred and secular public buildings as well.  The ones where people live, work, play and pray--these are the buildings where community exist, where people come to be a collected body.  Family, friends, neighbors are important because they provide reference in a world that is so fast-paced that we are apt to lose track of who and what we are. 
 If the language I speak is not always the French my grandparents spoke, but a kind of language that I have, which is the one that allows me, when I went to Québec this summer, to get medical attention for my son's bee stung foot then that is the French I own for myself and for my children.  Because it has not always been good for me to know this French I have, I have kept it to myself and I did not teach it to my children.  On this continent, I am the tenth generation descent of a French speaking people who came here from France and I have stopped the flow of culture consciously because of the ridicule I received from other children who did not have command of two languages as I had when I was a girl.  I was ashamed of my accent and of my knowledge.  So I let that part of my culture die. 
 What I have done as a Franco-American woman living in the state of Maine is probably nominal at best.  And maybe even negligent.  I am trying to amend that by my willingness to write and speak about my experience as a Franco-American through my work place.  I'm learning my personal history--the one I was not taught in school--the one that was excluded from the city directories on the town founders.  It's not easy, but as I look I find a Master's thesis or a Centennial celebration booklet in which Franco-Americans are mentioned and I keep hoping to find pieces of myself in the books and what I find is something bigger than one woman.  I find whole lives, whole histories, whole stories of a people who paved the way for me to continue to live as a Franco-American.  I am their dream personified.  Their hope of survivance--the survival of the culture. 
 What is that culture?  As it is lived by me and those like me, the culture is more than language, land, and a history.  Culture is a collected body of knowledge passed on through the generations.  Culture is a way of being.  We all possess the cultural genetic makeup which goes beyond knowing a language.  We can learn a language other than our mother tongue, but that does not necessarily make us a part of that cultural group, but the opposite can be true--we may not speak the language, but we certainly act the part.  So which came first the chicken or the egg or in this case is the language the only viable, reliable proof that a culture is present in a person's life.  I don't think so.
 As a Franco-American woman in a present day experience, I live the collective experience or body of knowledge that has been handed down to me through the generations.  I am the sum total of who I am now and all those people who have lived before me.  Beyond language I am Franco-American by my blood line, by my names, by my beliefs, by my ideals, by my celebrations, by my separate pains, by my recipes and by my simply being.  I am the product and embodiment of the Franco-American culture as it exists here in the state. 
 As a citizen of Maine, I have lived in several different parts of the state--Waterville, Detroit, Bangor, Portland, Presque Isle and Brewer--I find wherever I go there is an instant recognition or happening which occurs between myself and other people of the Franco-American culture.  Whether I travel and visit with people in the St. John Valley of Northern Maine (my mother was born and raised in Wallagrass) or have a conversation with a voter registration clerk in Portland--there has been an instant recognition and a meeting-of-minds when two Franco-Americans come together.  Sometimes there is an admittance of French descent and sometimes an exchange of a few French words and phrases, but there is often warmth and sharing in the greeting.  We understand many unspoken things.  An automatic acceptance.  An acceptance of who and what I am--with or without credentials.  Such meetings have provided me with some of the more affirming moments of my life. 
 The holidays, the special foods, the jokes, the secret names, the gatherings of family and friends are all an occasion for celebrating the Franco-American culture.  The culture changes with each generation and each participant.  Some rituals are retained, as the Réveillon on Christmas Eve, some are adjusted or rearranged to fit modern times and some new rituals, such as the summer festivals, are incorporated to recognize the approach of time, but no matter how we celebrate the culture, we are reminding ourselves of each other and who we are. 
2/6/90, First published in the Portland Magazine.

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To see photos of the above, go to Bon mondes de Ste-Rose et Wallagrass