Maine - French from Head-to-Toe

By Cindy Burrell

When I sat down in Dr. Adele Carroll's office for our Interview, I had no idea what I was about to discover.  I simply knew that I was going to be speaking to her and her secretary about their Franco-American heritage.  Both women were eager to do this, and they arranged for me to interview them on an evening that they held later office hours and had a gap in appointments.
As we started the interviews, both women sat with me in the office.  Though they were generally good about taking turns while they answered my questions, they would sometimes step on each others words, or even talk at once.  Having the two of them together meant that what one said might spark a memory for the other, and she would want to tell me before she forgot.  There seemed to be so much to tell.  It was wonderful and overwhelming all at once.

Gloria Ann Levesque is Dr. Carroll's secretary.  She was born and bred in Madawaska.  She is the daughter of Emilie Levesque and Augustine Cyr.  Emilie was from Keegan, and had completed High School through the Vocational Tech program and became a machinist.  Augustine was from Van Buren, and should have graduated as the Salutorian of her class, but she had been "displaced" because of her social class.  Gloria remembers hearing that another girl from a "more cultured" family became the Salutorian instead.  Gloria was their first child.  She must've heard this story a lot!
  Gloria grew up speaking French and says she never felt different - after all, 99% of the people in her community were French Catholics, just as she was.  As the oldest of four children, she was the first child exposed to the English language.  She first became aware of English and the fact that she was supposed to use it her first day of school.  How shocking for a child to arrive at school and not understand what was going on!  She was a quick learner, however, and managed to get a hold on the language.  She was not allowed to speak French at school, not even at recess.  Gloria remembers that children who heard others speaking French and reported it were rewarded with candy.  She distinctly recalls being caught speaking French at recess by one little girl, who received her "sweet" reward, while Gloria was punished for speaking French, her native language.
Once Gloria entered school, the rest of her family became more and more influenced by English.  Though the family still mostly spoke French at home, Gloria's younger sister Ruth, and her two brothers, Adrien and David, were made aware of and learned some of the English language from her.  When it came time for them to enter school, their transition was much easier.  However, Gloria says, the siblings after her also lost some of their French.  In fact, Gloria's youngest brother never expresses himself in French.  Gloria believes that, being the youngest in the family, most of the family spoke English to him, and he never really needed to speak French. 
       French was not available to her in education until High School, when she was able to study it as a subject.  Gloria knew the language well, of course, but had no background in reading and writing, so she welcomed the opportunity to learn her own language.  The French in school, however, was more proper than what she was used to, but she enjoyed it and studied it all four years.  In college, she took French I, but stopped after that.
       Gloria didn't really feel a stigma about being or speaking French until she left home, and more specifically, when she moved away from the Madawaska area.  There is a connection amongst the people of Madawaska that doesn't exist anywhere else.  She remembers her father saying a few things about being French and backwards, but she couldn't recall anything specific.
       Gloria felt like a "built in slave" at home, doing most of the household chores, in general.  This was her duty as the oldest.  Her father told her she was setting the example for the rest of the children.  Her mother was the enforcer, and would insist that Gloria be obedient.  They often fought. 
       Gloria dated and eventually married a Franco-American, John Gallant.  They moved to Southern Maine, and in Portland, then Fryeburg, South Paris, and finally in Limerick.  John was from Massachusetts, and his grandfather had come from Prince Edward Island.  His grandfather spoke French, but his parents did not.  Though he had exposure to French, he didn't speak it.  As a result, their son JJ, named John after his father and Grandfather, did not speak French some either.  He was a Sesame Street kid, and began to learn some Spanish.  Gloria decided it was time she tried to teach him some French.  She taught him a few words, but his accent was horrible.  She realized that maybe she should have taught him a few things earlier, and she gave up. 

       Adele Yvette L'Heureux Carroll is the daughter of Real Joseph l'Heureux and Therese Andrea Caron of Sanford.  Her family had been there for about a hundred years, immigrating through Canada.  Her Mom had an 8th grade education and worked in the mill.  Her father had a high school education, and worked as a custodian.  Her family was poor, but she says she never knew it.  They didn't talk about finances at all, and all the families around them were in the same boat. 
       Unlike Gloria, Adele not only spoke French at home, but had French all the way through her schooling.  She went to parochial school, and learned to read, write, etc in French and English.  They spent half the day in French and half in English.  Her High School was above the church, and she learned her catechism in French.  Adele continued with French through college, and took French conversation classes.  Her pronunciation was different, but she got along just fine.
       One unusual thing she told me about her education was that she participated in and won the 7th and 8th Grade state French spelling contest, held in Lewiston!  She even remembers the word she had to spell - travail.  One wonders if this was a parochial or a public school event, and when this annual contest ceased to exist.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if there were such an event held statewide today?
       Similar to Gloria's family, Adele, as the oldest, is the one who really maintained the French language.  Her siblings, brother George, named after her grandfather, sister Denise, brother Marc and sister Michelle were exposed to more English at an early age, and do not use French as much.  There was less immersion in French with each child.
       Adele, unlike Gloria, remembers being made fun of for who and what she was - French and a Catholic.  These things went hand in hand, one couldn't be one without the other, and both had a certain stigma to them.  Both the French and the Catholics were looked down upon.  Being both was worse.
       As she was growing up, Adele understood that in dating, she "had to marry catholic."  She met her husband, Arthur Carroll, at a wedding - his cousin married her cousin.  He is also Franco-American, but like Gloria's husband, he didn't speak French.  His mother and grandmother were French and he spoke it as a kid, but he is an English speaker.  He lost his French.  Adele and Arthur's children, twins Jason and Jessica, were brought up catholic to confirmation, but weren't really exposed to the French language much, and don't speak it. 

Les Deux Femmes
       Both women lit up when speaking of the holidays.  Adele said that birthday parties were a large family affair.  Adele was the first child in a family of five, and her grandmother had 13 children!  The whole family got together to celebrate birthdays, and they were like family reunions. 
       Gloria said that for the Franco-Americans, Thanksgiving was the beginning of the holiday season, "les fetes."  There were celebrations from Christmas to Epiphany (the 12 days of Christmas).  Both women remember the adults going to midnight mass and enjoying "Le Reveillon," but said the children were usually sent to bed.  Gloria remembers chicken stew and tortiere appearing regularly on the menu. In Adele's family, the Godparents were the ones who bought you presents.  The family was too big for them to all buy for each other. 
       New Year's Day, le Jour de l'An, was a holy day, and adults also went to church that day as well, after le Reveillon.  Families and friends would visit each other at this time, and Gloria recalls kids coming in and out of the house all day.
       The talk of holiday celebrations quickly led to a discussion of foods and recipes.  "Trempettes" was something both women enjoyed and recall with fondness.  Growing up in different areas of the state, however, their recipes were slightly different.  For Adele, "trempette" was white bread with brown sugar and milk.  It was a delightful treat as a child, though Adele now says that she thinks it was really a poor man's meal.  Gloria's recipe for "trempette" uses white sugar instead of brown, and she smiles as this memory reminds her that her brother used to use white sugar on everything, like some of us might have used ketchup on everything.
Adele says that there are many foods that have traditional recipes, but they aren't necessarily something written down and passed on.  They are a memory, and she says she developed her own recipes from those foods that she remembers as a child.  She mentions crepes, served with brown sugar, or maple syrup.
       Gloria thinks of hash, leftovers cut up and put in a pot, served with gravy and ployes.  Adele lights up as this mention of hash brings to mind a fond memory of something her Meme called "chiaou."  I suppose it could be a play on the word "chow," but it was similar to hash.  Adele remembers it fondly, and says she used to love it.  It was like having pot roast, or a New England boiled dinner.  A smile crosses her face as she asks both Gloria and I if we know what "chiaou" means.  Apparently the joke was on the child Adele, for "chiaou" was her Meme's way of saying "shit on a shingle" or hash!  We all laugh a hearty laugh over that.  Gloria then mentions some traditional Franco-American foods that she had and loved - creton, ployes, tourtiere, shallots, and boudin.  She also loved grillades avec sauce blanche - fried pork rinds with white sauce.  Mmm.
       Food transports both women to their childhood.  Like most kids, they played games like kick the can, cowboys and Indians, and jump rope.  Adele remembers Bonhomme - the boogie man who came to get kids that stayed up past curfew.  For Adele, it was le Bonhomme de 9h (9pm curfew).  For Gloria, it was le Bonhomme de 7h (7pm curfew).  "How did you get lucky enough to stay up so late?!" Gloria asks Adele.  She doesn't know.  But she then she recalls the "bilou," another scary story meant to keep children in line.  "Stay out of the woods or the biloux will get you."  "What do they do to you?" Adele would ask.  "Do they kill you?"  "No, worse than that.  They do terrible things to little girls!" was all she was told.  She has now learned that the word "bilou" means a dust ball, or a dust bunny.  Who came up with that image?  A dust bunny waiting in the woods to get you? 
       Who knows, but it is this image of something in the woods that brings Gloria to speak next.  "Do you know where babies come from?"  I shake my head.  Apparently, they came from Le Sauvage, or the savage one (beast?).  When her brothers and sister were being born, Gloria's father told them they needed to go hide because it was time for Le Sauvage to come for a visit.  The kids would clear out of the house, run and hide, and not return home until Dad gave the OK and called to them.  The kids think a mean and nasty neighbor is coming to deliver the baby, and they don't want him to see them.  But perhaps Le Sauvage is the savage beast that is going to be released from their mother with her child birthing screams.  The story got the kids out of the house! 
       The talk of legends/stories turns the conversation to the family.  Adele's Mom died shortly before she got married, and her father eventually remarried.  The family has changed.  With the death of her mother, it was harder to keep in touch with her mother's side of the family, and then her stepmother's family was also added to the mix.  Her brothers and sisters and their families get together now and then, but they are so many of them.  They do have reunions on occasion.  Adele says she has boxes of pictures, and she intends on putting them in albums, but the photos from both sides of the family are all mixed up.  She just doesn't know who the people are, or which side of the family they belong to.

       Gloria's family is scattered, not only across Maine, but across the country.  She has an Aunt in Hawaii.  This Aunt became interested in marathon running, and participated in the Paul Bunyan marathon.  She was hooked.  Gloria says her father's side of the family has reunions, but her mother's does not.  Gloria has lots of family photos of her mother's side of the family, and she remembers being told who the people in them were.  One is of her grandparents.  Her grandfather hauled freight, and rode a horse and buggy.  He never had a car.  What a wonderful photo that would be.

       What do these women have, aside from photos, as family heirlooms, treasures and keepsakes?  Adele has her grandmother's pendant watch that was passed down to her.  One can imagine it as the equivalent of a men's pocket watch, a relatively small, yet valuable piece of jewelry.  Adele also has a cotton duster/robe and an apron of her mother's.  These things are not of monetary value, but they are keepsakes, items that her mother used to wear that will bring her memory to mind. 
Gloria has a sewing bench from her father's mother, as well as some "old-time sewing stuff," and a piece of crystal  She said she also has some baskets that were made by the Indians that came from her relatives in Canada.  From her mother's mother, she has a vase, and two wool shawls, a navy one that her grandmother used to wear everyday, and a white one, trimmed in lavender that was for special occasions.  These, too, are keepsakes, reminding Gloria of her grandmother.  She also has some pieces of jewelry, a brooch, black beads, a bracelet.  All items she treasures.

       An appointment arrived, and Adele had to excuse herself.  Gloria and I ended up talking about religion.  Gloria said that there was a special part of her wedding ceremony that was dedicated to a saint (?) dedicated to single women.  There was a dedication to Mary and her devotion.  A special prayer was said in front of Mary during the wedding ceremony.  Gloria, unfortunately, could not recall the name of this ceremony and prayer.  Interesting.  I had never heard of anything like this before.
Gloria's son, JJ, was not baptized at birth.  Gloria wanted him to make the choice of religion for himself.  She exposed him to the way she was brought up, and eventually, he did express an interest in CCD, and made a commitment to it.  However, he did not regularly attend church.  Gloria's mother thought this was a disgrace.  Her sister had rejected the church, and Gloria says her mother had tremendous guilt over this.  As far as her son goes, Gloria said she believes that the church, that God, is about love and forgiveness, and that her son would find his way. 
She added that there were prayers for vocations, and many, many other things.  Franco-American mothers felt it was their duty to produce a child that would become a priest or a nun.  Not one of Gloria's siblings gave up their lives in this way to the church, and Gloria's mother must've felt that she had not met her responsibility to the church. 
       Gloria and her husband, John, eventually divorced.  There had been no such thing in her mother's generation.  Her family supported her through the divorce, but she wondered what her relatives thought.  Whatever it was, they kept it to themselves. 
       Gloria said that religion was also evident in and around school.  Though the schools she went to were public schools, the elementary school buildings were owned by the catholic church and much of the staff were from the church.  So though she did not go to parochial school, she was exposed on a daily basis to religious figures.  And as Adele had said earlier, being French and catholic went hand in hand.

       When Adele returned, the conversation turned to language.  Though both women speak French, and they communicate in and out of French all day long, they sometimes find that they have to explain their words to each other.  Adele gave an example with the word "poutines."  She asked me what I thought it meant.  I answered fries with gravy or cheese sauce, as in Quebec.  She said that to her, poutiness meant pudding.  Gloria then added that to her, it meant dumplings in stew!  I had heard that the French in Maine was different from the French of Quebec, or of New Brunswick, or even of France, but I had no idea that it would be different from one part of the state to another!  "There are different pockets of French in Maine," Gloria explained, "and the expressions are different."  The two of them began to talk about many other words, and giggle amongst themselves.  I didn't know any of the words they were using, but it was fun to watch their expressions, they were so animated!  Adele showed me an excellent reference, Le Parler de chez nous, by Don Levesque.  Both women just love it, and both keep a copy on their desks.  They enjoy just picking it up and finding a familiar word.  Then, one will ask the other what it means to them, and they will get a good laugh for the day.  Sometimes, it is simply being reminded of the word that will set them to giggling.  There are some choice words in there!

Finally, I asked both women what they felt made them Franco-American, what defined them as such.  Gloria says it is her connection with the people in Madawaska.  There is just something about them.  For Gloria, it is this part of her life, this connection, that is a big part of who she is, a Franco-American.  For Adele, it is her name, the fact that she is fluent in French, and her industriousness, the drive to work hard and succeed.  She describes all these as defining Franco characteristics.

What an incredible journey!  What incredible women!  Though one comes from the north, and one comes from the south, both women beautifully represent the French heritage in our state.  They share the same religion, and understand each other's upbringing.  They speak the same language, with a number of variations, and have the same pride in being able to speak that language.  They are both the oldest in their families, and carry on the language and traditions to the best of their abilities.  They even share a similar family history - Adele's family can be traced to a single relative, Simon Lereau who left from Maine, France, in about 1652 and came to Canada.  Gloria's family can also be traced back to France, immigrating to Canada in the 1650s.  They were Acadian, and were part of the Grand Derangement.  They ended up in the Madawaska region as a result of Acadian migration.  What perhaps makes these women unique is that they grew up in Franco-American communities, surrounded by others like them.  There was a stigma that they both discussed, in being French and catholic, but there is a pride as well.  Both women exhibit this pride, this love for where they came from. 
Though I am a French teacher, and though I have been studying the French culture in Maine for a couple of years now, my eyes have been opened during these interviews.  I knew of three Franco-American pockets in Maine, the St. John Valley, Lewiston-Auburn, and Saco-Biddeford-Old Orchard Beach.  I never knew that Sanford-Springvale had such a large Franco-American population. Or Waterville.  Or Rumford.  Augusta.  Etc.  And what about Westbrook?  There are pockets of French-speaking people everywhere, as I tell my own students, yet here I am, forgetting that myself.  We should all take a look at ourselves, at our surroundings, at our neighbors, and we should try to understand and validate their heritage.  I think that is what these interviews did for all the women my classmates and myself spoke to.  We validated them by letting them tell us their stories.  We gave them a voice.  Let's not forget them, let's listen to their songs.


Subject: work in general for the class
To:  Rhea Cote
Attachments:  Attach0.html  2K
Friday, December 19, 2003 10:26:14 PM

I have done the best I could to do as much as I could of the work that I owe. I wish I could do more. I thoroughly enjoyed this class, and I wish I had had more time to put into it. The depth and breadth have been amazing. I do have to verify a few things in my Final Project Interviews, and I do have two/three other interviews that I did, but just didn't have time to write up. I would like to complete them and submit them to you later, even though they have nothing to do with my grade in the class. I want to use them as a resource myself, and if they may be of use to you in anyway, please use them. All of the women I interviewed stated that their stories could be published. 
Thank you for all the research and work you did putting this class together. Thank you for sharing yourself. Thank you for your patience with me. Thank you in general, for everything.

Happy holidays.
~Cindy Burrell

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