The Family, French Maine, and Me
By Lilia Bright

as part of: Franco-American Studies Northeast

Like the others in this course, I am of Franco-American descent. For this reason I am studying the history of the French in North America; I believe understanding the history of my people will eventually help me understand myself. To ignore the French influence on the development of my identity here in Lewiston-Auburn would be to deny my roots here in Maine. 

To my mother, I am a first generation U.S. citizen; I am her first-born, in St. Maryís Hospital in Lewiston on 2 April 1976. She is an immigrant from Costa Rica, brought here as a trophy bride by my U.S. Marine father. On the paternal side of my family, I am 75% Quebecois. Although I have done some genealogical research, I am not sure how many generations back the paternal side goes here in the Northeast. 

The family of Hermann Koss Jr. and Isabelle Levesque, my grandparents, resided in Little Canada, Lewiston. According to my father, the youngest of ten, he attended a Catholic school, which gave lessons in the language of his homeóFrench. My aunts and uncles still speak that unique French and the lilted English familiar to local residents which reveals a French heritage. Even though my strand of Kossís in this area carry a Polish-Jewish surname, they actually carry more French blood in them. 

The hushed legacy passed on orally through the generations is that my great-grandfather, Hermann Koss Sr., a member of an affluent Jewish family, was excommunicated because of his desire to marry a French Catholic woman named Florence Bonneau. They were married in the St. Peter & Paul Cathedral of Lewiston. Hermann Jr. followed in Hermann Sr. footsteps and took a Franco-American wife, marrying in the same church. My maternal grandparents, Jean Levesque and Elizabeth 

Landry, were also married in this church. Most likely, they were acquaintances of my fatherís parents. Nowadays, my family is very disjointed. I do not know my cousins. Some now live in other parts of the country. The ìmother tongueî is fading. Personally, the only real ìFrench-nessî I can claim is to have tasted home-made crepe once-upon-a-time and that I remember a day when the Lewiston Franco-American Festival brought hordes of real live French-speakers from all over to celebrate their culture. Unfortunately, many from my generation do not speak French, and with the language the cultural traditions seem to fade. The monthly luncheon gatherings of local Francos at the St. Maryís Church host a meager number of (mostly retirement-age) Franco-Americans in relation to the population of the twin cities.

Oddly enough, I have found myself running into people who know me: in class and at the convenience store, people have stopped and asked me, ìAre you a Koss?î and then proceeded to tell me how we are related. It is likely that I am related to half the local population, with a name like Levesque in my recent genealogy! Due to the disconnected nature of my family, I am unaware of any relations in Canada. Like many people here, I never even visited Canada until only a few years ago. 

On the flipside, I discovered recently that many folks across the border have also forgotten their familial ties in Maine. When I housed a visitor from Quebec City last spring and showed her all the people with her family name in the phone book, she was amazed. We even have a Rancourt Laundromat! Furthermore, Marie-Pierre was intrigued by the existence of many French-speaking people here, however different their dialect from hers. It was equally refreshing for locals to meet a French-speaking North-American of a younger generation, to know that in a city several hundred miles north of our home, the Franco-American culture continues to thrive.

I visited Quebec City twice, arriving by car. However short my trips were, they were meaningful. I noted the changes in architecture, the signs in French, and the typical cuisine. These trips were part of the inspiration to explore my French heritage. A year ago I saw an original one-woman comedy, called ìFranco-Fryî sponsored by L/A Arts at the Lewiston Middle School that examined the authorís cultural exploration and travel north to revisit the Franco-American village of her childhood. She obviously learned so much about herself in that journey, reflecting on the changes in the Franco-American community over the decades, and I was inclined to follow her lead. Hence, Je suis ici aujourdíhui!

-15 Sept 2004

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