Interviews--Franco-American Women's Experiences

By Cindy Burrell

 When I learned of this assignment, I immediately thought of interviewing two women in my community, Dr. Adele Carroll and her secretary, Gloria Levesque.  Dr. Carroll has an ad in the local paper with žIci, nous parlons francais" spread across one corner of it, like a banner.  Though Dr. Carroll is not my regular physician, I paid her a visit one day last spring when I was ill.  During my visit, I mentioned that I was a French teacher, and I asked her about the reference to French in her ad.  I ended up spending a good portion of that visit making connections with Dr. Carroll and her secretary, both Franco-American, and spoke with them a bit about their heritage. 
As a French teacher, I am always trying to make connections for my students, not just in the world at large, but in their own towns and within this close-knit community.  Many students have French last names, and though they may not speak French themselves, their Meme or Pepe does.  I have been hoping to get Dr. Carroll and/or her secretary to visit my classes and speak to my students about their own experiences as Franco-Americans.  This has not happened yet, but I welcomed the opportunity to make further connections with both women with this interview.  I was relatively confident that both women would be interested in being interviewed. 
While on the phone setting up an appointment for an interview, one of the librarians at my school overheard my conversation.  When I got off the phone, she asked me what the project was that I was working on.  When I explained it to her, she said, žI'm a Franco-American woman."  And of course, with a name like Bernadette Monnette, she was right!  Why hadn't I thought of her?  Why did I have my mind so set on Dr. Carroll?
I think the answer to this lies in the fact that both Dr. Carroll and her secretary speak French.  As the only French teacher, I know that there are no French speaking staff members in my school.  When given this assignment, I immediately associated Franco-American with the French language.  I should know better.  Even from our previous readings, especially Calico Bush, I know that not all women with Franco-American heritage speak the language.  I had been quick to make a decision on the interviews without considering all my options.  I then tried to make up for it by interviewing all of the women on staff that I knew of or could think of that were Franco-American.  Here are some of their stories÷

LaVerne is one of the librarians at Sacopee Valley High School.  I have always felt connected to her, as we share some of the same feelings about visiting the city of Quebec.  She has told me about her annual trips to Quebec with her husband, and we enjoy talking about our travels in general.  She is soft spoken, but has a bright smile, and it shows her quiet enthusiasm for a number of topics.  Though her last name was Saucier, I never knew whether that was her maiden name or her husband's name, until Bernie (Bernadette, the other librarian) told me LaVerne was also Franco-American.  She was thrilled to meet with me to discuss her heritage.

LaVerne Saucier

LaVerne was born in Portland, Maine, the daughter of Romanio Saucier and Alberta May Fox.  Her father, Romanio, was from Fort Kent.  Interestingly enough, both he and his twin brother were given Spanish/Italian first names, and no middle name.  No one in her family is really sure why that is, but perhaps it was fashionable at the time.  Growing up in Fort Kent to a French-Catholic family, Romanio and his entire family spoke French.  He was a well-educated man, and learned to speak English.  He came to southern Maine to work, and worked in the Civil Conservation Corp (CCC) camp before the war.  He met Alberta, LaVerne's mother, during this time.  Soon they were married, and moved to the Cornish area.  Alberta had grown up in Kezar Falls, and was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  Romanio was soon kicked out of the Catholic church for marrying outside of his faith. 
 Romanio joined the service, and served in Louisiana before being shipped out to India during the war.  A pregnant Alberta went to Louisiana to visit him, and sadly, suffered a miscarriage while there.  She was well cared for by a German nurse in the hospital, whose name was LaVerne.  Alberta named her next child after this nurse. 
LaVerne, like her father, has no middle name.  The spelling of her first name is so unusual, but she isn't sure why it is spelled that way, only that her father always insisted that it was spelled La, then a space, then a capital "V".  She didn't like it as she was growing up, and most people made mistakes spelling it in this fashion anyway.  However, today she has really embraced the name, and tries to make sure that others spell it correctly.  It does look French.  LaVerne is the only child whose name does not come from within the family, and the only one without a middle name.  Her brother, Louis Everett, is named Louis after her paternal grandfather, and Everett after her maternal grandfather.  Her sister, Carol Anne's middle name comes from her paternal grandmother, Anne Lagasse. 
LaVerne said she was brought up Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and though Romanio had a French accent when he spoke English and sometimes stumbled on his words, her family was never really recognized as "French."  They were the only family in the area that seemed to have this connection to another language or heritage.  Alberta didn't want to learn French and they spoke English at home. 
Their family traditions, stated LaVerne, were very "Americanized."  She doesn't recall celebrating any French traditions in their home.  But, rather untraditionally, Romanio did a lot of the cooking.   All the men in the Saucier family cooked, and often prepared the meals.  How interesting!  Saucier means "sauce maker" in French.  One wonders how deeply the men in this family felt the connection to their surname.  However, even with Romanio in the kitchen, they didn't have a lot of French food.
LaVerne does remember having some typically French dishes, such as blood sausage, fiddleheads, fried salt pork, salt fish and hogs head cheese while visiting her extended family in Fort Kent.  Her grandparents had had a farm in Frenchville.  After the loss of a child, her grandmother insisted the family move to Fort Kent where they had better access to medical care. There, they opened a bakery and a shoe store.  Her father was seven years old when he lost his mother to tuberculosis.  Though LaVerne's grandparents had passed away before she had a chance to know them, there were many other members of the extended family in the Fort Kent area.  LaVerne and her family visited the homes of many relatives.  She attended Catholic mass, and remembers having to wear a hat, or have a swatch of lace on her head when going to church, as a sign of humility.  There was a strong Catholic influence in the homes of all her relatives, with crucifixes on the walls, pictures of the heart of Jesus, and even calendars that had the Catholic holy days marked on them.  It was during these visits that she felt that there was a societal undercurrent that being Catholic somehow set people apart. 
It was in Fort Kent that LaVerne learned more about her French heritage.  LaVerne knows that there are references to the Sauciers in Calais, France, and she has traced the geneology of her family to the Notre Dame of Paris diocese in the 1600s.  They came to the New World  through Nova Scotia in the early 1600s.  Her grandmother had always insisted that the family was pure "arcadian" or Acadian.  The Sauciers escaped the deportation, assumingly hiding out in the woods/wilderness.  It is not quite clear when the Sauciers settled in Northern Maine, but there are many Sauciers still in that area, as well as some that ended up in Louisiana. 
Music was really important to the family, and LaVerne has always liked music and took piano lessons.  Her father played piano by ear, but never had formal lessons himself.  LaVerne recalls being truly inspired by her aunt, who lived in New York, and believed very strongly in educating the children in French traditions.  She had a collection of French music, and LaVerne has fond memories of listening to tunes such as "Frere Jacques" on her Victrolla.  It was often her aunt that took her to mass, and taught her some French words.
  For some reason, LaVerne always felt that the French society had a higher respect for women than other societies.  She is not really sure why this is so, but perhaps it is because prior to Catholicism, the French pagans worshipped the Mother of the Earth and had a high regard for women.  This, in turn may have let to the French beliefs that the traditions of a family are carried through the female relatives, especially mothers.  LaVerne felt respected and honored by her family.  She is very fond of a blanket that she has that was made by her grandmother.  It is a wool blanket, with a stripe at the top and the bottom.  It is considered an heirloom.
 LaVerne never really felt different from those around her in the Cornish/Kezar Falls area, though her family was the only French family around.  Her father said that once, "a lot of French were treated worse than Indians, and blacks were sometimes treated better (than the French)", or were a higher rung on the social class ladder than the French.  LaVerne never felt this degredation herself, but she recalls a situation where her father had to confront this himself.  Someone once said to him, "You foreigners, why don't you go back where you came from?"  Her father, a friendly, easy-going man, replied, "I came from Maine, the state you live in." 
 LaVerne feels an incredible connection to her father.  She is aware of her own restlessness, and need to travel from time to time.  She attributes this to her father and her French heritage.  She also has a love for the outdoors, and senses a connection to the earth and nature in general.  Her father always loved the outdoors, and kept flower and vegetable gardens.  From her travels, LaVerne has noticed that the French always keep lovely gardens, and seem to make their surroundings beautiful.  She also said that she has a need to keep a tan.  She says she "just doesn't feel healthy when my skin is white."  She also feels this attribute comes from her father and from the French.  Certainly, it's not from the Anglo-Saxon in her!
 LaVerne never really felt "Franco-American" as she was growing up, and it is only recently that she has begun to do some research and reading about her heritage.  She was happy to learn of the Franco-American Women's Institute, and hopes to make further connections. 

          Subject: First Interview
          To:  Rhea Cote
          Attachments:  Interviews.doc  35K
          Monday, December 8, 2003 9:16:29 PM

                 Here is the first interview I did.  There are more to follow, and they are being edited right now by the women themselves.  They all agreed to have the interviews published.  I really enjoyed this assignment, but it has just taken me some time to put them together.  I'd be willing to spend some time touching them up for publishing purposes, if need be. 
I'm sending it as an attachment her, but then I will send it again as a email.  I'm not sure how it will work for you (or if you can read attachments). 
Cindy Burrell

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