|Interviewing with a Franco-American Woman: Elaine
Marie Dandurand Palladino Pelletier
By Joanne D. Richmond
Arrangements where made to interview my father's sister, Therese Rondeau to focus on her life as the eldest daughter growing up during the depression. Unfortunately, the same weekend that I was to visit ma tante Therese in Suncook, NH, she suffered heart problems and was whizzed to the Concord Memorial Hospital. My sister sent an email to inform me of the situation. Calling her, I said, "gee, your my next candidate, how about it?"
My sister and I grew up in East Manchester, New Hampshire during the fifties and sixties. My mother and most Franco-American women gave birth in Notre Dame Hospital located on the French west side in Manchester. › We all were welcomed into the world by the grey nuns. There was two more additions to the family, our brothers, Paul and Dennis. Our parents, Germaine and Roland Dandurand were 2nd generation Franco-American. French was spoken as the primary language at home, in school and in our social circle. Neither of us spoke English until we were in school. Elaine's comment, "though we have spoken English for most of our lives, there are still certain words that pronunciation gives away that this isn't our primary language". We attended the bilingual, St. Anthony Grade School that was administered by the order of Sister of the Holy Cross. Grammar school nuns didn't have degrees and were often physical, mental and emotional abusive. A child who had poor self-esteem suffered under their care. No one that Elaine and I could recollect graduated without being the subject of a nun's frustrations. Elaine stated, "I remember kneeling in the corner more times than I can count. My crimes were not always hearing the recess bell ringing the end of play time".
Our childhood centered around my mother's nine siblings and their many offspring who have remain close to our hearts to this day. Unless there was a heavy down pour, every Sunday of the summer during the fifties was spent at Bear Brook State Park. Elaine remembered "how we take over a great section of the place. It wasn't just our family but pepere's extended family, which often even included his neighbors. Holidays were special for again there was a gathering of all our relatives in pepere's very large home. "Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, New Year's Day and Easter were the days that remain special in my memories. The fun, the excitement of so many people, young, old didn't matter, we ate, played games, sang song and just enjoyed the excitement of so many people talking all at once. If you had a talent, you would sing or play the harmonica and lead the relatives into songs the way mon oncle Antonio did. Even breaking the assembly line of drying dishes was a game, on who could dry the most plates. It was unfortunate that we didn't know Dad's side of the family as well. Granted they didn't live in Manchester except mon oncle Rene but it did deprive us knowing the other side as well. I know there was a good excuse that until the sixties, our parents didn't own a car. Taking a city bus to the bus depot, then boarding a greyhound bus to Suncook, would have been a problem with little children".
Elaine attended one year of high school at St-Anthony's before transferring to Manchester Memorial, graduating in 1967. She was the second but not the last to defect the family's alma mater. An icon of the early sixties was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The fact that she was a youthful French Catholic First Lady made her a superstar in Manchester. Elaine was among the "Jackie" admirers. I asked my sister if she still held the same opinion of the late›Mrs. Onassis? She replied, "yes, Jackie always remain true to herself never allowing public adoration to derail her own beliefs on how life should be lived, for that I respect her".
Summer jobs were a stint in a shoe and hosiery factory. The departments she worked in had only women laborers with a male supervisor. It was her first exposure to older men's flirtations but in each place she was under the watchful eye of a female relative. "I thought of them as sweat shops, the mills were so unbearably hot. Women would take off their bras and unbuttoning their blouses, it astounded me. I found the work tedious and repetitious and wondered how our parent's generation were able to do this kind of work, year after year. Working as an office aide my senior year at a local business, I found the women office workers snobby an unlike the mill women, they didn't make me feel welcome. I felt very intimidated by them".
In many Franco-American families of that era, girls were treated differently than their male counterparts as far as education. Our father answered Elaine's query about furthering her education "that girls were expected to get married and it wasn't worth paying for their education". There was a lot of emphasis place on finding someone to marry, have children and live happily ever after. "Old maid" was a derogatory term use towards women who had the ill luck of not finding a man. Our mother's maiden sisters were referred en famille as "les tit filles" (the little girls), even though they were the oldest women in the family. Unmarried women never move out of their parents home to live on their own in those days. If their parents died, they went to live with a family member. "It was understood that men were the strong ones and women were to be protected". Elaine told me "I use to pray for you to find a man when I went to Church". It was very important that we didn't have the stigma of being one of those women. Though it was never forbidden that we date non-Catholics, it was encourage that we would date those of the same faith and hopefully from the same background.
During the working years between high school and marriage, a girl was expected to fill up their hope chest with items needed to establish a home. Elaine's first fiancée was her high school sweetheart. A few months before their wedding date, the engagement was broken and she had a breakdown. It was a long year of struggling with issues of self-esteem before reaching a stage of recovery.
By May of 1971, Elaine married, a second generation Italian American, Anthony Palladino. They lived in Derry, NH in the house his father built. His mother, a widow lived with them. "Mrs. Palladino lived downstairs and we lived upstairs. She never interfered in our marriage. Anthony made a deathbed promised to his father that his mother would be taken care of by him all the days of her life". The first two boys arrived within 14 months of each other and then her mother-in-law had a recurrence of breast cancer. "I bundled up the babies taking them along to accompany my mother-in-law for daily radiation treatments". There were five good years before the second batch of boys were born who arrived within 9 1/2 months of each other. Then, the hard times really began when my mother-in-law became paralysis with a tumor on her spine in less than three weeks after my youngest boy's birth. Health care providers came in two days a week tending to the needs of my mother-in-law. There was no question that she would go into a nursing home. Anthony promised that he would take care of his mother and I did. It was hard with an infant, a toddler, the older boys 6 and 7 yrs. old and a bedridden mother-in-law. To relax at night, I began doing crafts, which continued until the day Anthony died then I just stopped. My mother-in-law lasted 18 months, dying in December of 1980. In less than a year, my husband's health seem to be declining. We all thought it was due to the hereditary blood disease that he and our two boys had called Thalassemia (Cooley's anemia)".
"The most horrible days of my life was when the doctor informed me that Anthony's diagnose was Multiple Myeloma" (bone marrow cancer). This disease wasn't curable but treatable with a prognosis of five years. "Anthony was such a strong man, worked during chemotherapy, never letting›anyone know of his terminal illness. He took a leave of absence from his job, always believing that he would be returning to work. I observed his rapid deterioration. Knowing that he would never work again, I still tried to continue keeping hope alive for him. The day before Anthony died, we went to walk around his old neighborhood in the North End (Boston). The next day, he woke up with flu like symptoms and by 4 PM, I took him to the hospital. He died at 9 PM, in February 1986. Anthony promised when we married that he would never leave me and now he did. I know, he didn't want to go but he still was gone, leaving me with four boys to raise alone".
"The person that related so much to my situation was memere (Angelina Daneault) Dandurand". Her husband had died young leaving her with seven children between the ages of 6 mos-16 yrs. "Whenever, I felt sorry for myself, I tried to think of memere's plight when in the mist of a depression, with no insurance, no pension, no savings, with nothing, what it must have been like for her". Elaine and I recalled, how ironic life could be by repeating family history. Our Memere became a widow at the same time her sister, Roseanna was abandoned by her husband. Within a few months of Anthony's death, my husband had filed for divorce. Back then; we decided that we had become the "Daneault sisters". Elaine was the "Merry Widow" and I was the "Gay Divorcee". It was a very miserable time, so much upheaval for our children and us.
Following Anthony's death, Elaine worked as a grade school librarian for a year. She always wanted to be a social worker and began thinking about it again. "Anthony and I had often discussed and had agreed (before his illness) that once the baby was in school, I would go to college". Elaine registered for one course at the local technical college. "My identity had been with my marriage and my self-esteem was at a low point. I didn't believe I could do it". She did and continued taking courses until receiving an Associates Degree.
›Our mother's sister, ma tante Irene was a nun and Assistant Registrar
at Notre Dame College in Manchester and encourages Elaine to continue with
her education. "One of the perks that ma tante Irene had is providing
free education to her kin and all I needed to pay were the books.
A draw back was that being in the Registrar's office she knew my grades
before I did.
In December of 1990, Elaine married Ken Pelletier. Suddenly, they were a family with seven kids, five of them teenagers. A busy, enjoyable and difficult time, raising children, taking courses, having a new husband. Every Sunday, Ken's very large family came over our house for dinner.› It was a circus! In those years, I lived with my schoolbooks, always snatching minutes to read assignments while attending the children's numerous activities. I had many health problem and remembered ma tante Irene urging me to take an incomplete and redo the course when I felt better. No way, I plodded on and during the end of my junior year, learned that I had the highest GPA in the junior class. Wish that it had been possible to go to college when I was younger as I missed out on the campus experience. I was the oldest day student oppose to a nontraditional night student. My classmates talked about the fun they were going to have after classes and of course, I went home to a husband, kids and lots of household chores". Elaine graduated in May of 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and works as a social worker today.
Once the kids had grown up, Ken and Elaine purchased their dream house in a new development in Derry. She soon began quilting again.. She is in the process of making a quilt with the photographs of all the women in the family in their wedding garments. Her quilts are extremely beautiful pieces. "The satisfaction is for me to see the fabric come alive". My next dream is to own a fabric shop when I retire. Hopefully in warmer climes than New England. To me, going into a fabric store is equivalent to going into a candy store, I just love it"
Regarding our rich Franco-American heritage, the joy we knew as kids being part of a large, gregarious family was not passed on to her children either. Elaine states, "I tried years ago to keep Christmas Eve the way we knew it growing up. It didn't work out, to many of the older generation had died, to many of our relatives were scattered all over the map.› My sons never heard the French songs we sang, never participated in-group sing along. Times, they had changed forever, no one lives around the corner". The fact that their father died young and my boys' sort of put Anthony on a pedestal. They embraced everything about him including his Italian-American heritage. None speak our language; actually they don't speak Italian either. › Only my youngest learned a second language and that was German".
With our parents living in Florida, the role of representing the
family in times of crisis has fallen on Elaine's shoulders. Since
both our parents came from large families as did three of our grandparents,
there has been a continuous need for her services. We have a great
emissary in Elaine, be it to smooth out early arrangements or in helping
out the needy relative on our family's behalf. A role that
I have never heard her complain. It's not only the historic and media
heroines whose life should be recognized but also the ordinary woman who
looks at adversity and never says, "I can't". Instead goes
out and conquers her demons. My sister was given a great many obstacles
in life but always manage to learn how to overcome them. I
am very proud of her accomplishments.