Interview Essay With My Mother

By Marybeth Varney

 This is not a story of heroism, although my mother is a heroine to me. This is more a story of loss and how my mother has lost her French heritage, not by choice but by circumstance.
 My mother, Bernadette Cecile M. Soucy Coulombe, was born in Lewiston, Maine on October 14, 1936. Her father, George Soucy, worked in a shoe factory in Lewiston. George was also born in Lewiston but he was orphaned at the age of ten. His father died before he was born. After his mother's death, he was sent to The Healy Asylum. Although there was some family in the area, none were able to take the boy in. There isn't much known about George's ancestors, but what is know is that the family came from Orlean, France. Some settled in Prince Edward Island, some in Van Buren, Maine. George's parents are buried in Fredericton, New Brunswick. At a family reunion held a number of years ago, the subject of the žFilles de RoiÓ came up and it is believed that some of these girls were relatives. They are said to have settled in Lac Baker in Canada.
 My mother's mother, Louise Tardif, was born in Durham, Maine. Her father was an Indian from Au Sable, Michigan and her mother was from Dorsett Province, Quebec. As a young girl, my grandmother was sent to Canada for three years. The reason was never discussed, but my great-grandfather was an abusive alcoholic.
 My grandfather, George, ran away from the Healy Asylum when he was fifteen years old and joined the army at the age of seventeen. He was introduced to my grandmother and they were married in 1931.
 French was the primary language in their home. They could get by in English outside of the home, but chose to speak French only with their friends and family.
 My mother's sister Theresa was born in Lewiston in 1933.
 In 1939, when my mother was three years old, the family moved to a farm in East Poland, Maine. The farm was isolated and they didn't have much contact with their neighbors. There were many family gatherings and they attended church regularly although it was some distance away. French was still the primary language spoken. My mother knew a bit of English, but was more comfortable with French.
 When my mother started school, she became aware of the differences between her family and of the others in the area. The Soucys were the only French family and one of only two Catholic families. She said that at the time that family, the Majors were their only friends.
 At school my mother and her sister were called "Frogs" and were made fun of by the other children. Her English was not very good and she has a hard time being understood.
 Until that time, my mother was unaware of any differences between her and the other children and had never felt the need or desire to assimilate. It is at this point in her life that my mother starts to leave her French background behind, it is an unconscious decision. She still speaks French at home, but now spoke more English with her friends at school.
 In 1947, when my mother was twelve, the family moved back to Lewiston. My grandfather was again employed at a shoe factory. They attended St. Joseph's Church, English speaking and St. Peter's Church, French speaking. The schools that my mother attended were English, Jordan Grammar School and Lewiston High School.
 Although French was still spoken at home, as the girls got older English was spoken more and more. My mother didn't speak French outside her home. Most of my mother's friends were English speaking only.
 My mother said that she never gave much thought to being French. She was neither proud nor ashamed.
 After graduating from high school she worked for a short time at Bates College as a secretary. She met Eleanor Roosevelt.
 In 1955 my mother met my father, Alfred Gerard Coulombe. My father was born in the Bronx, New York in 1933. His mother, Julia Spruce (Pinette, her name was Anglicized), was born and raised in Wytopitlock, Maine and his father, Alfred Joseph Coulombe was born in Brunswick, Maine. Growing up, my grandfather spent many years traveling around parts of Canada. French was also the primary language in their household but it was spoken less and less as they lived in New York. 
 My parents were married in 1956. My mother has said that my father's background made no difference in her decision to marry him. She would have married him whether he was French or not. His being a Catholic was important though. At that time it was considered wrong to marry outside of your faith.
 During their courtship and early years of their marriage, my parents spoke both French and English in their home. The biggest change occurred when they moved to Orono, Maine, so that my father could finish college. Most of their friends were English speaking only. They attended English speaking churches as well. My father graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1957.
 I was born in Bangor on January 5, 1958 and my brother Mark was also born in 1958, on December 23. 
 In 1960 my family moved to Saco, Maine where my father got a job as a surveyor. In 1960 my brother Michael was born, followed by my sisters Annette in 1962, Angela in 1964 and Patricia in 1966.
 My parents decided that my mother would stay home to raise the children although times were tough. We attended Notre Dame de Lourdes Church (English masses only) and were enrolled at Notre Dame de Lourdes School. My mother told me that they chose that school because we would be educated in Religion and French. Although French was only being spoken occasionally by my parents, mostly when they didn't want us to know what they were talking about, they thought that it was important for us not to lose touch with our roots. This is ironic because at the same time French was becoming less and less a part of our lives. We lived far from my mother's family and didn't spend a lot of time with them. Only during family gatherings did we hear French being spoken. 
 As time went on French was spoken even less in our home. My grandparents passed away so the opportunities to converse slowly disappeared. Saco is not a French community and most of our neighbors and friends were not French. The glue that held us all together was Catholicism.
 My father had more opportunities to use the French language than my mother. He eventually bought the company that he worked for and did a lot of work for many people in Biddeford, a huge French community. 
 In the early 1970's my parents changed parishes and attended Most Holy Trinity Church in Saco. This decision was a result of a disagreement with one of the sisters at Notre Dame School. My parents now attend St. Margaret's Church in Old Orchard Beach. Both of these parishes are English speaking only.
 Today, my mother doesn't speak French. She says that she really has to think about the words before she can have a conversation. She can still read it and understand what is written, but she has lost the art of conversation. She did mention, however, that every once in awhile she will catch herself thinking in French. She says she is just getting old. My father's father died after a lengthy illness and at the end he reverted back to French. She says it's something like that.
 She regrets not having spoken French with her children; we had the education, but never the practice. I am a bit like her, I can read some of the language, but I cannot speak French.
 There is a positive end to this story. I speak with my mother quite often and we discuss this class and its content. The conversations we have shared have awakened in her a desire to go back and claim her roots. She is interested in finding out more about her ancestors, especially the "Filles de Roi". She also would like to take some courses in conversational French and would like to be able to communicate with other French speaking women. She would like her daughters and granddaughters to join her in this process as well. I guess that does make her heroic, doesn't it?
 

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