Franco-American:  To Be or Not To Be

By Miranda M. Coombs

 "Times were changing--"  This seemed to be a big part of life for some Franco-American girls growing up in the 50ís and 60ís.  Manchester, New Hampshire, home for Joanne Richmond, known as Joanne Dandurand as a young girl, and now, in the 21st century, Manchester holds many different memories for that Franco-American woman.  French, it is amazing what one culture feels for another.
 In a meeting with Joanne, it is easy to find that no matter what culture one is born into, society definitely can take a cold clammy hand in the future.  Joanne Richmond found this out growing up Franco-American on the East Side of Manchester, New Hampshire; society definitely had its plan, which side of society to listen to was the challenge.  Joanne mentioned that some of her family was from the West Side, and they spoke French longer as a primary language than did her immediate family, what was the cause of this?  Culture...changing.
 Joanne made it evident that while she was growing up, with her Franco-American culture encircling her, and the English American culture pressuring that, she was severely torn.  When Joanne was young, she said that they were first taught Oh Canada! Long before they learned the Star Spangled Banner.  For the longest time, Joanne said that she believed that Quebec was a part of New Hampshire.  Every aspect of life was French rooted.  Joanneís grandparents came from Quebec; the lifestyle was built around those that live in Quebec.  How easy it was to be mistaken, her family loved their Franco heritage, and they were not going to easily let it die.
 Growing up Franco-American like other minorities certainly has its pressures, especially on youth.  Joanne said "--ignorant kids did make fun of my accent."  All around it was made apparent that English was the dominant language.  Radio programs were primarily English, and then television shows came along, those were primarily English.  As Joanne stated, "Times were changing--"  One had to know English to get by, to survive.
 Getting to know Joanne was amazing experience, she is a spectacular woman.  As a child she was exposed to so much cultural diversity, she explained how she went to a Girls Club with her cousins, there she was exposed to many girls from other ethnic groups, she explained how these girls became her friends, she also stated that after she had established friendships with these different girls, when "a derogatory remark [was] made about another culture, suddenly it had a face."  As a child it is extremely difficult to be accepting and to challenge the ëexpectedí, however, Joanne was a strong character, she had a strong sense of what was truly right.  Though it was stressed in great detail at home that they were to only make friends and allies with those of their own culture, Joanne still went out and became friends with those members of other cultures.
 Another interesting aspect of Joanneís life was her dating experiences.  Of course growing up in a Franco-American family, it was expected for her to date and marry her ëown kindí.  As I spoke with Joanne, she shared with me what she endured as she became a teenager and wished to date.  Joanne explained one experience she had as a young girl, she came home and had been dating two different boys, one Irish, and one French, her family immediately said they liked the French boy, and that he was for her, simply because he was French.  It didnít matter how he treated her, or whether she liked him best or not, he was French, so he was the only one accepted.  From that point on, Joanne decided she would never date another French man, and she did not.  Joanne made a vow; she wanted out of this cultural blanket, in the sixth grade, she made up her mind she would not speak French as her primary language again.  The surrounding culture had tempted her away from her upbringing.
 While visiting with Joanne, I also learned that she has a passion that has grown in her, Mount Dessert Island.  When she was younger, her boyfriendís brother was going for his masters degree at University of Maine, in Orono, so she came here to visit him, her boyfriend at the time was in the military.  While she was in Maine she visited Mount Dessert Island and Acadia National Park, she fell in love with the land here.  When asked whether she loved Acadia for the French heritage or the beauty of the land, she answered without hesitation, the land.  She stated that it was not due to the French heritage, but the extreme beauty she saw here.  And to this day, Joanne is a tour guide at the National Park; she has gained an amazing wealth of knowledge from the time spent there.
 While Joanneís boyfriend was in the military, she met the man that became her husband and the father of her two sons.  She sent one of the infamous "dear john letters" which to this day she still expresses sadness in doing so.  In marrying her husband, who was not French, Joanne was leaving her French heritage behind her.  She did honor her motherís wishes to be married in a Catholic Church and had the large Catholic wedding, however when they met with the Priest and were asked to sign a petition stating that she would raise any children she bore to be Catholic, her husband refused, however she signed it to keep everyone in her family happy.  After that her family wanted nothing to do with her family.  So she moved to main and began her life away from her French roots.
 As Joanne and her husband began their lives together, she came to Maine and moved into "The Black House" in Ellsworth, this was a historical landmark that her husband helped to take care of.  The amount of history she learned about this place was amazing.  Joanne did have some of her familiesí beliefs in her, she was brought up to believe that the husband to was to be in charge of everything, that he owned and possessed everything that was the two of theirs.  Her husband took care of the money, all of the bills and accounts were in his name, though she managed them.  So, finally when Joanne had decided that she could no longer live with her husband for various reasons, she divorced him.  She lost everything, except her sons, even her own family pushed her farther away, divorce was not allowed in their culture.
 The rejection must have been expected, for when Joanne was young, her fatherís brother (her uncle) had married a Japanese-American woman, and had a child with her.  The family completely rejected and shunned the two, and later her uncle divorced her ëun-acceptedí aunt, and the aunt took the child and went away, never to be spoken of again.  Though family, though their own blood, simply because her uncleís ex-wife was not French, they let her disappear into the past.  Joanne didnít expect any different for herself.
 Joanne had two children, both boys, the first Grayson Gasper De, and the second, Gardiner Maurice.  Ironically, Graysonís middle name, though French, had no ties to her family background.  Joanne got the name from a book that she had been reading.  Joanne took her two boys and began a life on her own.  She had to scrimp and save, for she had no credit, no allies, and no family.  When she returned home, she realized she had missed so much.  Her children did not get to know their grand parents, their cousins, their aunts and uncles.  At this point, Joanne said she did feel sad that her boys did not get a taste of her rich culture.
 As Joanne described looking back on her life, she said that when she was growing up there were three options for a woman, to become a wife and mother, to become a nun, or to become an old maid; in which the third no one wanted to become.  Joanneís mother at one point told Joanne that she was meant to grow up, work, marry, and have children.  Now, when Joanne looks back on that, she realizes that is exactly what she did. 
 Joanne vowed when she was in the eighth grade that she would never be a nun.  The nun that she had in eighth grade was horrible to her.  At that point she knew she wanted nothing to do with the ways she was brought up with.  She would attend the mandatory Saturday lectures that were held telling the girls how to go about becoming a nun, but she knew that was not what she wanted.  She began to rebel.  Joanne did things of all sorts, such as when she was cheering for the Catholic school, she would wear public school colors.
 Finally, Joanne decided she wanted to go to the public high school.  She constantly fought her mother, trying to make it clear that she would not put up with the Catholic Schools any longer.  Finally, her mother accepted and sent her to the public high school.
 Joanne did explain that all nuns were not difficult and hard to deal with, she told of her aunt who was an educated nun, she said she was much different than the other nuns who joined the order to escape other fates.  Joanne also said that in the 60ís the orders were changing, and adapting to the 20th century, allowed to dress more contemporary, and became less rigid, still however, this did not make the order any more appealing to Joanne.  She had her own plans for her life.
 When asked about any dreams that Joanne had she responded, she would have liked to be a librarian.  She has a love for books, but her mother felt that education was a waste of time and money.  Now, Joanne is an aid in the High School library in Ellsworth, so close to her dream, prior to that she worked in a public library for ten years.  When asked why she did not forgo her full dream, Joanne stated that she felt that she was too old to get her education at this time.  In my eyes, she is still so successful, having to combat all that her culture wanted her to be, to be within reach of her dreams.
 Joanne did not loose sight of her roots, once she was divorced, she tried to make amends, she brought her family back to New Hampshire to meet her birth family, but it was too late.  The children were too old, she explained how when they had gone back for a visit it was a horrifying difference to what she had taught her children about politeness and what her family showed.  When the family was in a conversation, her boys would wait their turn to talk and politely listen out everyone elseís turn, but then their turns never came.  Joanne realized how much they didnít know, in Joanneís parentsí home, it was who ever spoke the loudest that was heard.  Everyone talked together, when Joanne was young there were at least ten children in a family, one had to compete for her attention.  At this point, Joanne knew her boys did not understand the culture.
 Joanne also spoke of traveling that she has done, she went and visited Paris at one point, and she said that Paris reminded her of her childhood, but oh, Quebec, when she visited Quebec, she felt at home.  I was very surprised to hear her say this, as hard as she fought to get out of her French culture, she felt truly at home when she was submerged in it. 
 Joanne has been an amazing survivor and hero in herself; she has had struggles to amazing that I cannot imagine having survived many of her life events.  Being Franco-American was not direct cause to many of the things she experienced, but where she ended up in her life, with little family support because of marrying someone that was not ëher own kindí made life much different.  From breast cancer, through a staff infection, to a horrible car accident ending in frustrating law suits, this woman has lived to tell of her amazing story.  The best part of it all, she is just like me, she spoke to me like I was an important person too.  She is truly a great woman, one that would make any woman proud to be Franco-American.

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