By Bridget T. Robbins
The stories I would like to relate or retell
are matrilineal stories. Stories which can be identified as part
of a Franco-American heritage and tradition; a part of my ethnicity which
still requires a lot of defining and structuring. My mémère
(grandmother) Rita and her twin sister, Rhea (my mother's namesake) were
numbers 15 and 16 out of 17 children. Rita and Rhea St. Germain grew up
in a northern Maine town called Wallagrass, which was a Franco-American
community. My great-grandmother, Victoire ("victory") was a
widow alone with 17 children until she remarried Monsieur Daigle, as the
family calls him. Rhea and Rita are always described as complete
opposites, basically whatever Rhea did Rita didn't. Rhea was a very
dark child, small, petite, rather boisterous, very loud and opinionated.
Rita was blond, large boned, and extremely quiet and shy. This is
how they are described by the family. I didn't see mémère
that way at all. There are many family stories of Rhea as protector
of her quiet, shy sister Rita. For example: my mother tells me that
one day while walking to school a boy from town started teasing and insulting
my grandmother. They were always being made fun and degraded for
what my mother says was poverty. Anyway, Rhea wouldn't have anyone
harass her twin sister, so she grabbed horse manure off of the ground and
smeared it into this boy's face. So goes various other stories of
Rhea the protector and Rita the oppressed.
But my grandmother took care of her twin
sister in more subtle ways. They both responded to each other's needs
for protection. Only Rhea's champion efforts were more publicized
and heroic. My mother told me a story that was passed down to her
by my great aunt Elva, Rhea and Rita's older sister: As a very small child
my grandmother set off down a very steep hill to her neighbor's house in
order to retrieve an apple for herself and her twin sister. My great
aunt Elva watched her little sister troop off on a very strenuous quest,
acquire the apples, and then proceed to eat both of them on the hard climb
back. Realizing what she had done, my grandmother turned around to
fetch another apple for her sister. The climb was agonizing for a
three year old, but very necessary. "If you do for one, you do for
the others." This story is important within my family because it
originates during a time of poverty. There were no selfish endeavors
to be tolerated, idyllically everyone had the same or none had at all.
My mother was raised in this tradition and so was I. Equality stood
for self-sacrifice and concern.
It is amazing, these women, my ancestors,
lived in a time, in a world that might crumble the heartiest of today's
women. Perhaps the "weaker sex" didn't exist during the early 1900's.
Perhaps boys and girls were reared equally, under equally grueling situations:
Poverty, Religion, and Mother Nature. These are the pillars upon
which my mémère's family stories were built. One pictures
oppression, Depression, darkness in long winter months, dirt, starvation,
exhausting manual labor, when one hears the stories of my Franco-American
Yet these stories are told in a matter
of factly way, a calm voice of normality, and with a tonal quality of acceptance.
How many times have I heard, "that is how you lived back then and you didn't
question it." Perhaps no one complained and you did as you were told.
But the rigidity of this lifestyle would irritate and cause rebellion in
the ranks in today's world. Paradoxically, though through certain
stories about my mémère and her twin sister, I find altruistic
love where there was sternness, firm family bonds where there was lack
of compassion, and powerful women where there was lack of money and opportunity.
A lot of my mother's relatives are described
to me as mean and hard-hearted. My great-grandmother's father is
portrayed in this way in particular. According to my grandmother,
when her mother, Victoire, was widowed with 15 children, there were many
times the family bordered on starvation. Apparently this man had
a lot of food stuffs stored in his garage or barn, enough to feed the family,
but he wouldn't let them have any. My mémère always
used to say "he'd rather have let it rot and let the rats eat it than feed
us." He also used to supposedly scold his grandchildren (my grandmother)
if they ate any apples from his apple trees. There is no explanation
for this lack of compassion and coldness. Adults, especially relatives,
were mean, hard, unloving, and unforgivable. This is how my mémère
described family traits to my mother.
As Elizabeth Stone states, " Family stories
reach into even more private realms of experience to warn and instruct,
however subliminally. They tell us about decorum and protocol of
family life, what we owe and to whom, what we can expect and from whom,
in time or money or emotion."
Within the stories passed down to me from
my mother's side of the family, there is always lack of money and especially
emotions. Pressing my mother for family stories that I might not
have heard concerning my grandmother, she continually repeated that mémère
didn't like to talk about her childhood, she hated it all, and only wanted
to escape the strife and coldness that permeated the family. From
these stories about my grandmother and my mothers' own, I insinuate that
childhood was not a time enjoyed but rather endured.
The prejudices that many Franco-Americans
suffered are admitted in my mother's family stories, but not in my grandmothers',
in fact they are denied. How was my mémère treated
as a Franco-American? Are there any stories concerning prejudice
and French, and how does this effect her family tales? These are
questions I used to grope my way through the grapevines of my mother's
family branches. But the teasing, tormenting, and taunting stories
I hear are told to me as a consequence of Poverty. According to my
grandmother, they were not socially ostracized because of their Franco-American
heritage. This could be plausible as they did grow up in a rather
large Franco-American community. On the other hand, poverty could
be a vehicle of denial and displacement which would explain the existence
of so many stories about discrimination towards their family; the reality
of so many stories where someone was being "picked on" or degraded.
Whatever the case may be, one family ground
rule that seeps from many of these narratives, especially aunt Rhea's horse
manure story is that one must protect the family. Whether one individual
family members' pride was at stake or the family's' as a whole. At
the same time as they were protecting each other physically and more often
than not mentally, they were also subconsciously defending their Franco-American
heritage from discrimination. But paradoxically, by pushing the blame
on poverty through family stories and narratives, my mémère's
generation had already started the ball rolling in the assimilation process.
Protecting the Franco-American family bonds helped to structure the family
ground rules, but also the narration of Poverty stories instead of Franco-American
prejudice stories cleared the path for assimilation. Perhaps if the family
stories went in this manner: "...this happened because we were Franco-American
and poor" instead of "...this happened because we were poor," the bonds
of ethnicity might have been strengthened, instead of denied and then dissolved.
Perhaps then I might have something more plausible and malleable in my
hands to describe and mold my ethnicity. But unfortunately, I am
still searching for a way to define myself and searching for a Franco-American
identity of my own.
Throughout our text Black Sheep and Kissing
Cousins, Stone categorizes family stories into Family vs. Family, Family
vs. Society, and Family vs. Individual. The majority of my matrilineal
family narratives are founded in the perspective of Family vs. Society.
This viewpoint upon which the family stories delineate themselves speaks
to me as a Franco-American family vs. Society not the St. German's vs.
Poverty (a societal institution in itself).
As Stone states family lore is "...significant,
as long as it has worked its way into the family canon to be told and retold."
"...to be told and retold," suggests the stories or a tradition has enough
involuntary power to synthesize it's way through generation to generation.
I possess three generations of particular family lore which I deem incredibly
important to me a woman and which give me special insight as to questions
of what it is to be a Franco-American woman. The three stories I
have, one for each generation, define the importance, validity, and valuableness
that women hold in our Franco-American family tree. The three stories
concern the blessing of a birth of a female into the family. My great
grandmother Victoire gave birth to "a long string of boys," seven or eight
perhaps. Where upon she "finally" gave birth to my great aunt Blanche.
My great grandfather was so happy to have a girl that he nicknamed her
his little Queenie; to this day everyone calls her aunt Queen, never Blanche.
Aunt Queen was the only girl chosen to go away to school, in fact all her
brothers and sisters contributed to the cost of her education. My
mémère gave birth to three boys, each time she became pregnant
they were "trying and trying" to have a girl. My grandmother finally
had a girl, my mother, in the autumn of her child bearing years, at the
age or 34 or 35. This was also considered a "blessing" to the family.
When I was born, my mother tells me the story that my grandmother was returning
home from grocery shopping when my grandfather bounded out of the house
yelling, "Rhea had her girl." As my mother was later told pépère
(my grandfather) went "nuts," "this was a man who never got out of his
rocking chair for anything." My grandfather said to my mother "Well,
you finally had your girl." After he is quoted as saying this, my
mother usually tells me that I was his favorite--long awaited daughter
of the long awaited daughter, and that he died on my 11th birthday for
a reason or "on purpose."
How do these stories contribute to the
family definition, what do they mean within the Franco-American oral heritage.
It says to me that women were and are valuable, special. Women were
just as valuable as men, within the family. My grandmother and her
sister went to work in the lumber camps right along side their stepfather,
brothers, and mother. The women in my grandmothers' generation were
also depended upon to contribute financially to the family even after they
had moved away. Within family stories such as these, family definitions
and ground rules concerning equality in actions and consequences were laid
down. Participation in the family, as a family continues while even
in the absence of familial proximity. You were an active family member
even if you couldn't wait to get away from it. The proximity rules
of our family parallel equality rules. Everyone participates in the
family, male or female, to the same extent, whether you were bodily present
or not. I've always felt very valuable and "special" as a Franco-American
female within my family and it's extended generations. Not because
of a woman's anticipation of a daughter, but because of the grandfather's
or father's role in the birth. The expectation, jubilation, and celebration
that men have expressed upon the birth of a female into our family separate
me into a special category, one which I take and define from family narratives.
A category which I claim as ethnic, Franco-American; a family definition
that has evolved into my generation. Perhaps because of the stereotype
of women as expectant mothers for daughters, and men as indifferent bystanders,
that these particular family stories create such a unique pattern. As Stone
describes: "...the attributes that a family member claims as family traits
may seem humdrum or inconsequential or even unattractive, but to the family
member the presence of these traits will almost always demonstrate that
the family is indeed "special" and in some way the family identity corresponds
to the sense of generic specialness that most of us privately believe ourselves
Throughout all of the family stories I
possess, many, almost too many contain "...rules that chafe uncomfortably"
as Stone writes. I see my grandmother as a woman that survived alcoholism,
Catholicism, and discrimination. "But day by day and story by story,
the family teaches us that such extremes of altruism and self-sacrifice
are, if not customary, at least not astounding," as Stone tells us.
This blind loyalty to family runs abound in the family stories I've been
told. The whole concept of enduring childhood instead of enjoying
it, expresses the essence of sternness and rigidity of my mémère's
generational stories. One thing I am realizing, as of late, is that
you cannot destroy the unattractive legacy your family leaves behind as
they blow through one generation to the next. But I can finish these
tales with a happy ending. A beautiful memory that was revealed to
me through my mother while probing for stories. It is too delicate,
too serene, too precious to be labeled as a story, I like to think of it
as a family vision:
One fall afternoon, my great aunt Elva
recalls looking out of the windows of their house, where upon she spied
the twins Rhea and Rita, as babies bouncing and playing in the tall grasses.
The twins were wearing tiny knitted caps called "des cloches" because the
caps were bell-shaped and knitted with silver yarn. Because the girls
were so small, all she could see were flashes of silver, silver little
heads bobbing up and down in the tall grass. Perhaps they were giggling
and singing little songs in little French voices to each other. Perhaps
les enfants were enjoying un petit peu of their childhood.