Family Stories

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 heritage.
  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."  " 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 to have."
  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.

Twins, Rhea and Rita, matching shoes, front row

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