|Performing family stories, forming
cultural identity: Franco American mémère stories
By Kristin M. Langellier
Family stories participate in the formation of culture as they imagine and reproduce ethnic identity. This essay examines grandmother (mémère) stories in Franco American families as the cultural location of a global moment where family, white ethnic identity, and gender intersect. Within a transnational feminism and performative theory of family story telling which historicize and situate cultural texts, grandmothers become linked with the motherland and mother tongue in the imagination of Franco American identity. The analysis of a corpus of mémère stories identifies both the performative agency and constraints on traditional ethnic women within structures o gender, culture, and power. The performance of mémère stories enchants the grandmother as cultural icon and reproduces the Franco American family. However, the formation of cultural identity through family storytelling in mémère stories is a problematic achievement because it is built upon myths of cultural purity and goodness, "although narrative strategies complicate these images.
I was thirteen when my mother was pregnant-again-with the baby who would unsettle the symmetry of my profound place in the middle: I had three older brothers and three younger brothers, one older sister and one younger sister. Then another baby sister makes ten: the Langellier tribe, clan, family. Someone at school, in one of those clusters of kids, a boy, said, "geez, Kris, don't your parents know about birth control. "It got a laugh and I got red-faced, fell silent, felt the embarrassments of adolescence. More than by anything else, I have felt defined by my big family, a family size I interpreted in terms of our Roman Catholicism. But not yet in terms of my ethnicity, of being a French Catholic family in an area of French Canadian immigrants, the Bourbonnais, Kankakee, and St. Anne of our families that formed the Little Canadas (les Petits Canadas) of the Midwest.
After my father died I decided to get some of my mother's stories on tape, something I regretfully did not do enough of with my dad. In asking her to tell some family stories, she narrated scenes from her childhood, stories of her parents, fragments of French, Depression stories, grade school, work at 13, marriage, children, and, in her 50s, a degree and work as a licensed practical nurse. "We were all one thing," she said-meaning Catholic. About her ten children: 'you know I loved babies and it never bothered me to have another. We always made room. " (One bedroom for the boys, one bedroom for the girls). When others began "limiting their families," as she puts it, 'T just didn't do that. I tried it, and I always felt guilty." Then a little laugh. "It didn't take with me. "And I thought, is that it? Is that all? Two or three sentences about all ten of us ? Searching not just for more explanation but perhaps for myself among the multitude, the magnitude of this family.
My mother tells me her mother's stories and her own; I tell my mother's and grandmothers' stories and my own. Family storytelling is an embodied performance that materializes particular conventions to reproduce meanings for family as well as to constitute family itself over time. Within a performative perspective, a family is the communication medium of "material expression" as well as the ordering of information and meanings inscribed in that medium (Langellier & Peterson, 1993, p. 63). Although family storytelling functions in many ways-to represent family history, to teach family values, to entertain at family gatherings, to bond family members- here I want to explore the cultural formation of family as it is implicated in some social and historical relations of power. As families perform themselves, they imagine and reproduce identity, including their ethnic identity. According to Appadurai (1996) the performance of cultural identity is less the mechanics of primordial sentiment, that is, group identity based upon shared claims of blood, soil, or language, and more the work of the imagination in the modern, global context.
Gillis (1996) identifies family narrative as a process of enchantment that maps a family we live by onto the family we live with. The enchanted family is always on display, performing itself to itself and to others. Responsibility for this performance falls heavily on family women who create and maintain the rituals, myths, stories, and images upon which the enchanted, ethnic family has come to depend (Pleck, 2001). Family narrative about grandmothers-here the mémères of Franco American families is crucial to the imaginative effort of cultural identity. In the enchanted family, mothers give birth to a mythic motherhood, and grandmothers come to epitomize a nurturing and loving presence. For many women in the world, mothers and motherland become linked in the imagination of cultural identity. From a transnational feminist perspective Radha S. Hegde (1998) argues that "the feminine has always spurred nationalist ideology with images such as motherland, mother tongue, and nation as mother" (p. 281).
In this essay I explore how family, nationalism, and gender intersect by examining mémère stories in the cultural formation of Franco American identity and the enchantment of the Franco American grandmother. First, I look at Franco American family stories as a cultural dimension of globalization by historicizing mémère stories and situating them in their ethnic community. Second, I analyze a corpus of mémère stories written by daughters and granddaughters, considering both the constraints on Franco American women's performative agency and their strategic responses to these constraints. The formation of cultural identity through family storytelling in mémère stories is a problematic achievement in that it is built upon myths of cultural purity and gendered "goodness" for Franco American women, although daughters' narrative strategies complicate these images.
GLOBALIZING FAMILY STORIES
Family storytelling is a cultural location from which to speak at a global moment, and the local context is imbricated in a larger transnational and feminist frame (Hegde, 1998). Following Appadurai (1996), I conceptualize family storytelling as a performance practice with a cultural dimension because "culture is not usefully regarded as a substance but is better regarded as a dimension of a phenomena, a dimension that attends to situated and embodied difference" (p. 12-13). This culturalism permits us to think of family stories less as a property of individuals (family members) and groups (families) and more as a heuristic device we can use to talk about difference and power and about how gender is mobilized and naturalized in specific contexts. The example of mémère stories invites us to ask "what do globalization and community contribute to understanding of Franco American family stories? And what do mémère stories contribute to understanding the tensions between globalization and community?" Mémère stories are not merely an example of something larger. They are also "a site for the examination of how locality emerges in a globalizing world, of how colonial processes underwrite contemporary politics, of how history and genealogy inflect one another, and of how global facts take local form" (Appadurai, 1996, p. 18). This approach to family storytelling tries to avoid, on the one hand, an interpersonal or small group communication approach that focuses on relationships within the family, effectively ignoring how family is a social product mutually interpenetrated by historical, political, economic, and global forces. Elsewhere we have called this constant focus on the "insides" of family life a form of overpersonalization that diverts attention from the family and family storytelling as a discursive and social production (Langellier & Peterson, 1995). On the other hand, a performative theory of family storytelling tries to resist an overgeneralizing move that foregoes or forgets a history of embodied difference. Berube (1997) describes the history of Franco Americans trying to survive in a fiercely Anglo North America in this way: "Silenced, forgotten, lost, sold, abandoned, translated into English, absorbed, deported, or conquered, still often too poor or working-class, keeping to ourselves, staying out of sight, on the move. And ashamed of ourselves" (p. 47). As a result of having little or no awareness of their ethnic history, Franco Americans "make family-sized stories into group-sized stories," an overgeneralizing move that dehistoricizes and depoliticizes cultural identity in North America (Ledoux, 2000).
Both overpersonalization and overgeneralization in communication analysis miss the relations of power and embodied difference that discursively produce Franco Americans in North America, the Franco American family, and Franco American women. The project to analyze how mémère stories as a local performance practice traversing national boundaries creates "situated knowledge" from "somewhere in particular" rather than the knowledge claims of a "conquering gaze from nowhere" (Haraway, 1988).
Why a Franco American performance practice as a site for researching and theorizing communication? Culturalism designates "a feature of movements involving identities consciously in the making" (Appadurai, p. 15). Among Appadurai's examples of identity movements are French-speaking Quebecois after the Quiet Revolution of 1960s which led to the separatist referenda of the last two decades. North American French identity movements respond to the defeat and colonization of the French in Canada by the British, and to the forces of assimilation in the United States. In rhizomatic fashion, Franco American identity also links to La Francophonie, the French speaking world outside of France that connects Africa (e.g., Senegal, Cameroon, Algeria, Morroco), the Caribbean (Haiti), Asia (Viet Nam), and northern Europe (Belgium, Switzerland) as well as Canada, Louisiana, and the Northeast in North America. Franco American cultural identity presents an opportunity to explore the construction of white ethnicity in North America.
The term transnational destablizes nationalism and resists the fixity and status quo of international boundaries. French identity in North America is an instance of what is variously referred to as diaspora, hybridity, and borderlands within postcolonial literatures. Most remarkably, North American French embodies a cultural identity that has persisted for 400 years, enduring today as a "quiet presence" of Franco Americans, particularly in the Northeast where French descendants number seven million, many who still speak French. Franco Americans are twice immigrants, first from France to New France and then from Canada over land bridges to the U.S., their movements largely invisible because U.S. migration history is traced almost singularly over water through the east and west coastal ports of entry. Franco Americans' proximity and continuous border-crossings to their motherland Canada distinguish them from other white ethnic groups. U.S. boundaries with French-speaking Canada form a Northeast borderlands parallel with the southwest borderlands with its Spanish-speaking peoples (Anzaldua, 1987). And two hundred years of discrimination, oppression, and poverty have shaped Franco American culture and character that yokes ethnic pride with ethnic shame. Within the white ethnic hierarchy in the Northeast, Franco Americans have been at the bottom. One 1918 -19 study, for example, ranked them seventh, far behind first-ranked "native white Americans" but ahead of tenth-ranked "Negroes" (Doty, 1995, p. 89). On both sides of the border, the French have a lower socioeconomic status and earn less than their Anglo counterparts (Wartik, 1989). The postcolonial strategy that rejects an easy opposition between colonizer and colonized finds an example in Franco American cultural identity.
Why women-mamans and mémères? Transnational feminism calls for an understanding of the social construction of women's subordination in a global context. Hegde (1998) asks, "how is gender naturalized in specific contexts and how do we explain the constraints on the performative potential of women's agency?" (p. 277). Women participate in ethnic and national processes as biological bearers of the community's future generations and as key actors in the transmission of the community's values (Wilford, 1998). The traditional ethnic woman is of particular significance because she becomes a metaphor for cultural purity and authenticity, cast in the images of the motherland, the mother tongue, and nation as mother. The performative power of the traditional ethnic woman as mother and grandmother is considerable, contradictory, and complex. She is, on the one hand, described as a "matriarch" and impugned with familial and discursive power. On the other hand, as Boscia-Mule (1999) notes, this power is contingent on its conformity to patriarchal interests and her performance as a traditional wife and mother. Di Leonardo (1991) and Narayan (1997) reiterate how easily the ethnic woman is transmuted to nonfeminist and antifeminist causes and identity movements.
Historicizing Mémère, Mythologizing Motherhood
Hegde (1998, p. 281) emphasizes the need to historicize and situate cultural identities within the larger structures of power, ideology, and culture. French history in North America began in 1604 with the first wave of migration from France to the present day eastern Canadian provinces and Quebec; and then with a second wave of one million people farther west and south to industrializing Northeast from 1820-- 1920. The defeat of the French by the British in 1713 and 1760 (La Conquête) was coupled by the deportation of the Acadians (Le Grand Derangement), expelling them at bayonet point from Nova Scotia 1755-1763, many to settle as Cajuns in the bayous of Louisiana (popularized in Longfellow's Evangeline). Under British rule, the French elite fled Canada, leaving New France to peasants and Roman Catholic priests. The British closed off immigration from France, effectively isolating the North American French. "Yet against all odds, this migrant group survived as a distinct nationality" (Wartik, 1989, p. 48). Their ethnic survival is usually attributed to la survivance, the passionate and valiant effort to maintain French identity in North America. Also characterized as sheer stubbornness, French pride, and a long memory (je me souviens), la survivance focused on language retention, strict allegiance to the Catholic Church, parochial schools, and ethnic social organizations. La survivance disproportionately conferred on women the task of preserving the "spiritual distinctiveness" of French culture, a distinctiveness largely located in the home (Narayan, 1997). The legacy of Louis XIV's vision to grow the population of New France offers a way to observe how gender is specifically naturalized in North America.
French Canadian and Franco American women bore a particular, indeed, literal, burden for la survivance: to produce numerous children to combat the dwindling numbers of French within the swelling sea of British and Americans. In 1670, the King of France designed a new law to accelerate and increase the population of New France: "any household in New France, who had 10 living children all under one roof, shall be entitled to receive a yearly pension of 300 livres/pounds from the government," later amended to 400 livres/pounds for 12 or more living children and a one-time bonus of 100 acres land grant of farmland. A provincial law in Quebec in 1890 revived The Law of 12 Children/La Loi des 12 Enfants. In a survey conducted in 1906, 5,143 families had claimed and received deeds. The combined forces of Catholic Church hegemony and pronatal social policies resulted in a "heroic fecundity" (Bouliane, 1995, p. 10) and "the spectacular success" called "the revenge of the cradles" (la revanche des berceaux)) (Chodos & Hamovitch, 1991, p. 14). The population doubled every two decades from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.
The legacy of the large French family lingers. Lest the revenge of the cradles seem too distant to inform the Franco American family of the twentieth century, consider "the return of the cribs" (Binette, 1993, p. 12). This 1944 law allotted monetary allowances for all children in Canada under age 16. Through French newspaper accounts, Binette traces one Joseph-Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lepage who has 41 children, by three wives-the first bearing 6 children and dying at age 28; the second bearing 14 children and dying at 32; and the third bearing 21 children and dying at age 50. Binette concludes, "If the exploits of Mr. Pierre Lepage is not a record of family size in North America, I surely would like hear from the challenger" (1993, p. 12). Binette writes the father's story.
About the transmission of patrimony, Nancy K. Miller writes, "You write what your father speaks, just as you eat what your mother cooks" (1996, p. 31); and further, "mother is body, father is story" (p. 34). The mythologizing of motherhood and the exaltation of fecundity historicize contemporary mémère stories, specifying the power relations between gender and cultural identity. In this public story, mothers held the key to the survival of culture, religion, morality, education, language, and family, and "if they stopped behaving in the prescribed manner, if they ceased to embody all the ideal characterizations not only of French Canada but of humanity itself, they would bring down the social order in ruin about their heads" (quoted in Bouliane, 1995, p. 10). Motherland, mother country, mother tongue: ethnic survival is writ large in the enchantment of the large Franco American family, in its mothers and mémères. As Hegde concludes, "woman becomes a metaphor for cultural purity and authenticity, resulting in the manipulation of the material conditions of women's lives" (1998, p. 281). This nationalist narrative is the father's story, and it is told over women's bodies and silences.
Situating Cultural Identity: Franco American Community
Ethnic groups are intermediate between the family/kin and the nation, and all ethnic groups are characterized by a notion of `community.' How can we situate Franco American community? One way is by designating relatively bounded and stable places of geography, neighborhood, workplace, and home. Recall the line in Thornton Wilder's Our Town that refers to the "Canucks" in "Frenchtown." In 1900, one in every five people in New England was French. When French Canadians migrated south, they formed Franco American communities known as les Petits Canadas: barricades against assimilation in the U.S., specifically, the English language, Protestantism, and dominant Irish Catholic church hierarchy. Church power secured French identity through its hold on education, the system of some 200 parochial schools unifying language, faith, and customs. Organized around parish churches, these bilingual schools anchored the neighborhoods with French language newspapers, ethnic organizations, social clubs, hospitals, and orphanages. Reproducing rural villages in urban settings created the structural bases that successfully resisted assimilation. Proximity to French Canada also advanced and maintained ethnic identity as Franco Americans crossed and recrossed the borders to visit families. French Canadians called the Northeast Quebec den Bas (Quebec Down Below).
A second way to consider Franco American community is in terms of social class. Although reproducing rural villages in urban settings created a diverse class structure in les Petits Canadas of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, by the 1940s the Franco community was largely working class. Sacks (1993) argues for defining class by community rather than individual criteria. Her study of Euro-ethnic working class women's community rejects the private-public split of bourgeois culture for a logic of "our world" and "theirs." "Our world" of Franco American community joined family and community, work and politics, into a single sphere. In a related project on contemporary Italian American women, Di Leonardo (1984) distinguishes three kinds of labor: waged, household, and kinwork. Kinwork is a term for the invisible and creative labor performed by ethnic women to knit households together, the communication work of rites and rituals between households to maintain family, community, and work ties, for example, birthday parties, holiday activities, communal meals, and festivals. Although kinwork is not limited to working-class women, in crossing households it corroborates Sacks' argument that ethnic communities reject the dichotomy between public/man and private/woman.
The notion of community assumes that ethnic groups are bounded in a relatively stable place throughout their lives and bonded by homogenous values and beliefs. Ethnic community is built on the myth of cultural purity and authenticity, and "it is women who have suffered most from these assumptions of unified and homogenous collectivities" (Ugaris, 2000, p. 55). In the traditional North American French family, the family patriarchy echoed church patriarchy within the parish as religious and civic community. The hierarchy of control and dominance within the parish community ranked the priest highest, the extended family patriarch second, followed by his married sons, and women and children last (French, 1981). The mother's specific role was to provide the spiritual distinctiveness of French culture and moral support for the family. At the intersection of contemporary ethnic community and women's culture, women are still "cumbered selves" whose cultural labor guarantees ethnicity as they produce ethnic foods, religious rituals, holiday traditions, and family storytelling (Di Leonardo, 1987, Pleck, 2001, Fine & Speer, 1992). In particular, the working class ethnic mother-as the most folk of the folk-embodies the gender stereotypes and patriarchal structures of family ethnicity.
The Franco American mémère is the most French of the French, a privileged icon and a locus of performative power. She is at the center of the defining ritual of Franco American community, the extended family's Sunday-after-Mass visit to mémère, with its storytelling, music, and meal (Dufresne, 1996). Keeper of family and folk memory, she is mythologized in cultural stories about "good mémères." "Good" mémère stories enchant the Franco American family. An analysis of mémère stories written by women offers a way to see culturalism at work, to examine how gender is naturalized in a local context, and to suggest constraints on the performative potential of women's agency.
"GOOD" MÉMÈRE STORIES/"GOOD MÉMÈRE"" STORIES
When Kim Chase (1999) writes that "The three most important heroes of my youth were Joan of Arc, Madeline de Vercheres, and Mémère Beaudoin (a great grandmother who birthed 16 children-14 surviving-delivering two of them herself)," she participates in the imaginative act of family and cultural storytelling. The heroes of Chase's youth succinctly index the transnational relations of Franco Americans: Joan of Arc of France; Madeline de Vercheres, French Canada's 14-year-old heroine who single-handedly fended off an Iroquois attack and saved New Frances's fort along the St. Lawrence River; and the Franco American mémère who bears numerous children. A "good" mémère story narrates a plot of courage and perseverance against adversity: poverty, toil, discrimination, assimilation. Historically, the mémères are situated within the second wave of migration from French Canada to the U.S. as families found and followed work to the lumbering camps, textile mills, factories, and farms. Biographically, these stories chronicle a Franco American woman's birth, usually in Canada; a brief childhood; moves to the U.S. and sometimes back home; work at home and in mills, factories, and farms; courting, marriage, and childbirths; widowhood and old age-for these are survivors' stories. Communicating pride, courage, determination, suffering, and sacrifice, these narratives resound of the "strong women" tradition of family stories (Stone, 1988).
Having globalized Franco American cultural identity and situated it in its ethnic communities, I now bring this formative context to the analysis of sixteen Mémère stories written by women and published in Le Forum between 1977 and 1994.1 Le Forum is a bilingual newspaper founded in 1972 that circulates to a dispersed national and international French-identified readership. I identify five textual strategies that construct Franco American women's identity across the corpus and illustrate them with excerpts from the mémère stories. My analysis responds to two interrelated questions: how do mémère stories materialize cultural identity and naturalize gender in specific contexts? and how do they reveal and resist constraints on women's performative agency? Although I separate the five textual strategies for purposes of cultural analysis, they are always co-articulated, intersecting, and intertwined.
Mémère stories often lead with and feature the "heroic fecundity" of la revanche des berceaus (the revenge of the cradles). Mémères and mamans in the stories give birth to and lose large numbers of children, although the events of childbirth and childrearing itself are not elaborated. Births most often occur at home, with a female relative serving as midwife (sage-femme), and where doctors and men play minor roles. Such birth stories historically precede or performatively resist the medicalized narratives that produce the maternal body described in Pollock's (2000) study of the performance of birth stories. The opening to Kimberly Cook's "Tribute to Pheobe" is illustrative:
In 1917 Pheobe Ouellette married Thomas Marin. By 1937 she had carried and delivered eighteen children. After her first child was born the doctor told her she would never be able to have any more children because she nearly bled to death. Two of her eighteen children died shortly after they were born. One son died before he was old enough to marry and have children. Being a devout Catholic she could not practice birth control. One of my aunts asked her one time why she had so many children. Her reply was "Because I didn't want anyone to take my place." Pheobe, my maternal grandmother, was buried on the day before Mother's Day in 1986 and 89 years old. At the time of her death, she had eleven surviving children, 104 grandchildren, 150 great-grandchildren, and several great-great-grandchildren. (p. 66)
Pheobe's story would be striking under any circumstance, but the more so when the reader finds in the next paragraph that her husband died in 1937, leaving her a widow to raise 16 children. The narrative features numbers, an excess of numbers, numbers without names, styled by a dearth of emotion and evaluation in the narrative. And Pheobe's story is not unlike the other mémère stories in the collection, which likewise report large numbers of births (e.g., 12, 14, 8, 12, 17, 10, 12, 12) but also deaths- of infants, of children, of grown children, of husbands, of parents, embedded within long lives of mémères (e.g., 89, 91, 97, 81, 91 years). Survivor stories indeed. But with Dorothy Allison, "I thought about their one-note references to those they lost, never mentioning the loss of their own hopes, their own futures" (1994, p. 33).
The master narrative of the heroic French Canadian/Franco American mother who produces French children for the motherland informs these mémère stories. Canonical forms and sedimented meanings fix characters in their identities as "good" mémères who champion la survivance. Yet these are not quite the father's story, as written by Binette above. If mere stories speak the national narrative of fathers and sons, they are nonetheless written by mothers and daughters. In mémère stories, daughters-whose lives at the end of the twentieth century differ significantly from their mothers and grandmothers-remember their mémères. The narrating of children lost and the stoic grief reminds us of the high infant mortality rate that accompanied the high birth rate. The health risks of numerous births to women remind us that the long lives of survivors are set against the backdrop of those women who died young in childbirth.
Consider Cook's story where her mémère is given a single sentence to speak. When an aunt asked Pheobe why she had so many children, she replied, "Because I didn't want anyone to take my place." What is heard and muted in this reply? Its meaning suggests the silences in mémère stories. Her place may be taken by another woman: through an annulment of their marriage? Through her husband's extramarital affair? Less directly, Pheobe states she is carrying out her marital duty at the risk of her own health, even life. Granddaughter Cook is constantly in touch with being the youngest daughter of the youngest daughter of eighteen children. She writes, "As I grew up, especially after I became a mother, I realized how terribly difficult life must have been for Pheobe. Life is hard enough now in the 1980s as a single parent with one or two children" (p. 66). In herself becoming a mother, the younger mother identifies with the older mother. The granddaughter's speaks for her mother and herself, in emotional attunement, in empathy.
But this speaking for my mother/myself is not simply personal or biological identification because it is culturally and historically situated. Cook continues,
as my feminist consciousness grew, so did my realization that if these strong women had not suffered the oppression of the Catholic patriarchy I would not exist today. If my grandmother had had contraceptives at her disposal, as we do today, how many people would not exist now? How many of those eighteen pregnancies would have been voluntarily terminated had that been a viable alternative? These are questions whose answers I will never know, perhaps for the better! (p. 66)
Here Cook imagines, albeit guardedly, another voice for her mother, a questioning voice: then and now, before feminism and after. Notably, abortion is referenced but not named. Cook neither requires an answer nor expects her grandmother to answer it in the same way as she herself might from a different point in historical time and cultural space. Her narrative strategy embodies the desire to give tribute to her mémère's life but also to negotiate the identity issues of her own adulthood, for example, between economic opportunities and threats to (single) motherhood; and within the personal and social options opened by feminism(s).
Narayan (1997) writes about feminist daughters' strategies for telling their mothers' stories that "Telling the story of a person whose life is intertwined in one's own, in terms different from her own, is often a morally delicate project, requiring accommodation and tact and ability to leave room for her account even as one claims room for one's own" (p. 9). Although these narratives appear on the surface to serve nostalgia and the conservative political idealization of the traditional ethnic female within the mission of la survivance, they simultaneously unveil a complex negotiation between grandmother and granddaughter about changing gender roles. The performative agency of the mémère story reproduces the maternal body of the "good mémère" at the same time that it intervenes within the politics of women's bodies.
Homeplaces: Chez Nous
Although ethnic community often assumes space-restricted, geographically bounded lives in a town, a neighborhood, a workplace, a home, chez nous for Franco Americans complicates the myth of purity and homogeneity. Chez nous was necessarily mobile, and homeplaces were multiple. Situated in difficult and changing economies of Canada and U.S., mémère stories recount how families moved to find and follow work, often crossing and recrossing the border and moving frequently from town to town and state to state. Some families moved seasonally, or women and children stayed behind while fathers sought work in the woods or cities. Perhaps because physical space was so changeable, mémère stories present interior spaces-kitchens, porches, and rocking chairs-to symbolize the stability and centrality of mémères' places in the Franco American home.
Anne Lucey's (pp. 62-65) story of her mémère Claudia situates family places within the Northeast borderlands. Born in a farmhouse in Thetford Mines, Quebec, Claudia was the last of twelve children. Between farm seasons her father Breton took the family to Biddeford, Maine, where he worked in textile mills and her mother Bellesmere worked as a weaver in York Mills, Maine; and then between Thetford Mills and Berlin, New Hampshire, for lumbering. As a young girl, Claudia alternates between a 64-hour work week at York Mills and four-month respites in Thetford Mines. Married at sixteen to a Quebecois, Amadee, the couple moved to Biddeford when their jobs were lost in an economic slump. Lucey writes that "Claudia and Amedee moved often, once in the middle of the cool, dark night because their apartment building was beyond repair" (p. 63), once to live with a sister's family, six under one roof in three rooms, and once to a four-room apartment with a toilet but no bathroom in a tenement for mill workers. However, "the greatest battle of perseverance loomed ahead. Because Claudia had left the United States for more than six months to care for her dying mother, the U.S. immigration officials caught up with her in 1938" (p. 64). Claudia does not obtain her papers, is hauled into the Portland city jail and deported to Thetford Mines the following day, leaving her husband Amadee with their four children and his job at the Saco-Lowell foundry. Their daughter, born during a two-week vacation in Quebec, is also deported. By the time Claudia obtains papers and the family is reunited in the U.S., the youngest daughter Anita barely remembers her mother. Amadee is naturalized in 1943 and Claudia in 1944, although her parents Breton and Bellesmere stay in Quebec.
Claudia's story materializes the transnational economic forces on the family and the border-crossings that patterned their lives. Poor and land-poor French with large families to feed were enticed by agents recruiting cheap manual labor for the rapidly growing textile industry, paper mills, machine shops, and shoe factories in New England. With women and children joining men at work, French Canadian families hoped to quickly earn enough money to return to Quebec. In competition with English, Scotch, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, and Greek immigrants, the French were considered to be desirable workers, and, by 1900 in the cotton industry, they surpassed all other ethnic groups in number and percentage (Roby, 1996). Called birds of passage (oiseaux des passages) because they hoped to return to their motherland of Canada with a new start, many, however, stayed on to become permanent citizens. Claudia's family narrative shows both these variations.
Claudia's story positions her as personally responsible for her deportation ("Claudia ignored the requirement [for papers], figuring she could escape the red tape"). This reason may well be accurate, but it simultaneously mutes the contextual factors around migration and border-crossings that separated her from her dying mother and U.S.born children. We also read that "Because the land and livestock were not so obedient, Breton had to leave the farm and find work [in the U.S.] in order to save a small bundle to take back to Thetford Mines" (p. 62). Ledoux (2000) notes that Franco Americans make family-sized stories into group stories, and that "the most difficult anecdotes for me to hear are those that reduce history simply to personal issues. 'They came down to work in the mill because they were not able to make a living on the farm.' The truth is of course much more complicated;" and it includes active recruitment of French Canadians to industrializing New England, economic recessions, lean harvests and loss of arable land, and a host of British policies (e.g., railroad lines, voting blocks, school taxes) in Canada that did not favor the French. Situating family places and crises in a larger context of economics and politics reveals constraints on women's performative agency.
The North American French are known for their joie de vivre, the enjoyment they take in sociality and expressivity. Mémère stories narrate the family times that cross households to gather kin, neighbors, and family friends for visites, storytelling, card-- playing, music (accordion, fiddle, violin), singing, and dancing. Other social rituals include courting, holidays and celebrations such as le reveillon, and religious rites of baptisms and first communion. Mémère stories recount how family times are organized around French foods, for example, beignes (doughnuts); galettes, crepes, and ployes (flat cakes and pancakes), tourtieres (meat pies), and soupe aux pois (pea soup). They recount the daily and holiday rituals that celebrate and enchant the family.
Marie Martel Hatch's (p. 71) portrait "Mémère Thibodeau" recounts that "All of our social life centered around our grandparents and their extended family. Everyone would gather at their home for breakfast on Sunday mornings after Mass." She continues that "providing food for such a large group was easy for my grandmother who kept a few chickens, tended a large garden of fresh vegetables and fruit, and canned hundreds of quarts of food for the winter." Mémère Thibodeau made eight pies at a time, serving them for both breakfast and dinner. "Every Saturday night after dinner, the cards were brought out for a game of quatre-septs, and after Peper's death, Mémère's suitors." At her granddaughter's request temere makes beignes, plump doughnut rounds boiling briskly in lard.
Family time features the social and expressive culture of Franco Americans in the rituals and relationships of everyday life, but the burden of family time, its organization and preparation, falls primarily on women who create "home culture." Invisible and creative, this kinwork is the responsibility of mémères and mamans, regardless of individual class membership. It embodies the seeming contradiction of mémère as matriarch in patriarchal family and culture, centering women in the family with considerable performative power, particularly in creating communication networks with other women. Hatch writes that
The Canadian border was not really far from Wilder [Vermont] and the daily train from Montreal would bring a procession of obscure relatives, some of whom seemed to make a profession of visiting their kin folk, of carrying news from family to family and helping out when new babies arrived or when there was some serious illness. Usually these were young unmarried women, widows, or spinsters .... A "cousin" who visited annually and lengthy was simply explained as "having a mean husband," her prolonged absence from home accepted as a substitute for divorce." (p. 71)
Here we glimpse the power of kinwork to foster women's community. However, this support is constrained to the extent that it is contingent on conformity to patriarchal interests and their performance as a traditional wife and mother who bears and transmits cultural values. Ethnic men can more easily enact a private traditionalism and a social individualism without conflict; but because of the burden of kinwork, ethnic women cannot so easily engage in expressive freedom and personal interests (Boscia-Mule, 1999). Kinwork embraces both the responsibiltiy of ethnic women to maintain the family and community relations and their strategic responses to this burden, for example, their use of traditionalism as a resource to bond with each other in sociality and support. It captures how women's performative agency within family time is simultaneously constrained and exercised.
Hard Work: "A Life of Toil and Labor"
Mémères stories are replete with their protagonists' "toil and labor." Mémère Thibodeau's kinwork, described above, already suggests their labor in the home. The stories often read as a litany of chores: food preparation and "running the house smoothly," killing hens and shearing sheep, gardening and picking berries, canning vegetables and meats, sewing and knitting. Michaud (p. 70) writes that "My mother could knit one of us a pair of mittens overnight if one of us needed it for school." Lucey writes that Claudia's struggle with poverty was "no excuse for filth" as she battled with lice and bedbugs (p. 64). Notably, mémères also work outside the home in textile, cotton, and woolen mills; shirt factories and electronics factories; potatopicking; as maids and caregivers. These mémères knew the value of hard work, honesty, and humility.
Blanche "Queen" St. Germaine Michaud's poignant "Tribute to My Incredible Mother-Victoria Gagnon St. Germain Daigle" (p. 70) illustrates the hard-working Franco American woman. At age ten Victoria began work in a cotton mill as a spinner. Married at sixteen, she gives birth to seventeen children, of whom the narrating daughter is the thirteenth. The family moves between a northern Maine farm and the father's work in the woods, saw mills, and a factory in Waterville. Victoria takes the family back to the farm while her husband stays in Waterville. However, he dies. The daughter writes, "Imagine the load on my mother's shoulders-nine of us-she never complained, always held her head up high and tried to work out a way to support us. Many a night I heard my mother cry." In their struggle for survival, Victoria raised food for the family, made her children's clothes, picked potatoes for farmers, took in laundry-without electricity or running water-and spent winter months as a cook in a lumber camp in order to send her last three daughters to school. Blanche writes, "She'd be up at four o'clock in the morning to cook breakfast for the men. She'd also have to put up their lunches because they worked too far from the camp. She certainly had to work hard all winter till spring to pay for our education."
In this way, mémère stories are characterized by actions and events in which mémères "do" and "make do"-the hard work inside and outside the home of economic and cultural survival. Annie Ernaux sardonically comments on how the lifetime of a rural French Catholic is split into successive stages when people become "old enough to. first, take Holy Communion," and last, "die." She concludes, "in our lives nothing is thought, everything is done" (p. 50). Similarly mémère stories are external dramas wherein me meres speak through their actions, as mothers' labor is enumerated and documented by narrating daughters. This narrative structure displays a pattern of gendered discourse identified by Di Leonardo (1984) among Italian Americans: women talked about mothers' productive labor whereas men highlighted their mothers' nurturant activities. Mémère stories make visible not just family work but also the daily cultural and economic work that Franco American women have done. Daughters do not downplay, but indeed, they dramatize their mothers' work, with empathy and emotion and without romance or nostalgia.
Victoria's struggle against poverty is quite extreme; however, a remarkable 78% of Franco American women worked outside the home, principally in the textile mills, including almost all girls over fifteen and many married women (Roby, 1996). Women and girls worked twelve hour days, giving 95% of their earnings to their family. French Canadian families had a higher percentage of women and children in labor force than any other ethnic group, a historical fact which figures prominently in Anita Shreve's recent best-seller, Fortune's Rocks. But even with responsibilities and struggle for survival, some Franco American women found pleasure in their independence, friendships, and solidarity with other women. Married workers transgressed the prescriptions of la survivance and defied the Catholic clergy's admonitions not to work, not to break their solemn contract as wife, mother, and housekeeper, not to violate the 'natural law' of motherhood, except in extreme need (Roby, 1996). DeRoche's (1996) oral history of second-generation working-class Franco American women also etches a complex and ambiguous rendering of ethnic identity, marked by gendered experiences and practical demands that challenged religious rigidity and replaced the formal organizations of la survivance with informal networks among women.
Language and Religion: Qui perd la langue perd la foi
"Who loses their language loses their faith" was the strongest admonition of la survivance. Rarely are mémère's own voices heard in these stories; and when they are, mémères speak in French ("non, non, vous des en vacances", "no, no, you're on vacation" in response to offers of help from grandchildren in Morin-Scribner, p. 68) or a mixture of French and English as in Hatch's (p. 69) "you call that pea soup, Lucie? This is not fit for the couchons! (pigs)." Cook writes about Pheobe that "[mémère] knew little English, I knew little French" (p. 66). Mémère stories note that French was spoken at home and often at work, too, for example, "the small boss" who ran the second shift at Claudia's textile mill spoke French (p. 64). Hatch (p. 71) notes how Anglicisms creep into Mémère Thibodeau's French (Hatch, p. 71). Keaton's mémère story is a bilingual conversation in which the mémère's French is responded to by the granddaughter's English (p. 79). It is worth keeping in mind that granddaughters who wrote these mémère stories may neither speak nor understand French.
Some mémères were distressed at Anglicizing French names and the language loss of younger generations, and others were themselves caught in the generation of transition to English. Lucey writes that "to these grandchildren, Claudia was 'Memay,' because they were unable to pronounce with French accents 'Mémère" (p. 65). French was Claudia's first language, but "It was English [her children] were forced to learn from little schooling and street practice. By adulthood, English was their first language with their families. When Claudia and her children got together, talk buzzed in French. Claudia was capable of understanding and speaking English, but was embarrassed and self-conscious about using it" (p. 65). Hatch (p. 71) imagines a visite with Mémère Thibodeau in which she says, "You know, Mémère, ethnicity is popular today and people everywhere have grown proud of their immigrant roots. Your own granddaughters are trying to recreate the dishes that were served to us as children in your home and your great grandchildren have studied French in high school and college. Some speak it fluently and are equally familiar with Paris [and] Montreal." Mémère stories written by daughters reveal diverse responses to linguistic tensions, from language retention to loss, and from mémères' English adaptations to granddaughters' return to French.
As in the case of the Quebecois, the French language issue in the Northeast has also been tender and tendentious. The pride in being bilingual was undermined both by outright hostility and by knowledge that North American French was viewed as substandard to "Parisian" French, le franfais de France. In Canada, the French were admonished to "speak white" by British who overheard them using their mother tongue in public, a racist form of ethnic shaming. In the U.S., public schools were a threat to family and community for Franco Americans. From the 1920s to 1976, a language law in Maine functioned to suppress French. Franco Americans tell stories about being punished on the school grounds for speaking French, as Anglo children accumulated rewards for tattling. Or about how classrooms might be divided into two groups: those who spoke "good," "real," or "right" French from those who spoke "slang," "kitchen," or "wrong" French. Bilingual children were mocked for their French accents ("mudder" and "fadder"; "tree" for "three"); and as recently as fifteen years ago, young children were placed in speech therapy to "correct" their accents. Rhea Cote Robbins (1997) writes about "the wound of being French avec les americhaines all around you-being tough in Franglais-speech and body language dead giveaways" (p. 17); Jack Kerouac writes with regret about hiding his French and "Englishing myself" (me faire un Anglais) (Doty, 1995, p. 92). And, yet, remarkably, bilingual speakers persist in the Northeast, defying the straight-line theory of irreversible ethnic decline and assimilation.
French language is at the center of the movement for an equal and independent Quebec, particularly after the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s transferred power from the Catholic Church to democratic institutions. Franco Americans display much greater language loss, but the Church's hold over French people is still strongly in evidence in mémère stories. The hegemony of Roman Catholic religion resulted in its being narrated in a taken-for-granted manner, through references to Mass, baptisms, first communions, wakes and funerals, crucifixes and worn rosaries. Granddaughter Armand Barney Messier recounts her mémère Antoinette's life as wife and mother marked by her strong faith in Catholicism. "Antoinette was a very religious lady, she always prayed to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She never missed a Sunday Mass or a Holy Day of Obligation, [...]and the family attended church every Wednesday and Friday during Lent. Wednesdays were reserved for the saying of the rosary and Fridays were obligated to the Stations of the Cross" (p. 74). In her role as wife and mother, Antoinette was responsible for religious and moral education of children. As a devout Catholic, she used no birth control. "Good mémères" are devoted to Catholicism; and if challenges to religion were made, they are muted or not narrated. Indeed, the thread of Catholicism weaves through each of the five textual strategies, exacting the specific constraints of gender difference.
Arguably, the Roman Catholic church both held French Canada together culturally at the same time that it hindered the social progress of its people. In the U.S., the devotion to French language and Catholic faith made Franco Americans the targets of religious hostility and racist attacks. The Anglo imagination attacked the French refusal to assimilate by challenging their whiteness. The French were characterized in an 1880 Massachusetts labor report as "the Chinese of the Eastern States" (les chinois de Pest) (Doty, 1995, p. 87), a comparison not to other white groups but to another race. Using French Canadians to argue against a ten-hour work day, the report concludes, "Now, it is not strange that so sordid and low a people should awaken corresponding feelings in the managers, and that these should feel that, the longer hours for such people, the better, and that to work them to the uttermost is about the only good use they can be put to" (Wright, 1881). Class, linguistic, and religious conflict submitted Franco Americans to two hundred years of discrimination, oppression, and poverty. In the mid and late 1880's and again in the 1920s, French Catholics were the target of cross-burnings by the Ku Klux Klan. In Maine, for example, an active and flourishing Klan in Maine, numbering 150,141, waged campaigns against the Catholic Church and foreign-language schools (Doty, 1995). Anti-French and anti-Catholic attacks suggest how larger historical forces shaped language and religion within the specific cultural formation of Franco American identity.
FAMILY STORYTELLING AND CULTURAL FORMATION
For communication analysis, membre stories create an opportunity to see cultural formation and to talk about difference and power within a historically specific set of global and communal relations. As cultural performance, mémère stories materialize Franco American identity and reproduce the Franco American family. The analysis reveals how the performance of family stories is a work of imagination in which the mémère figure mobilizes and maintains cultural identity. Mémère stories suggest how cultural identity takes local form within a transnational frame, including valorization of traditional ethnic women, patterns of north to south migration, colonial and economic processes that underwrite contemporary politics of French and American identity formation, and forces of assimilation. In this site of culturalism at work, historical and political relations of power naturalize gender and ethnicity in the figure of the mémère.
Through five textual strategies in mémère stories-heroic fecundity, homeplaces, family times, hard work, and language and religion- daughters and granddaughters lovingly remember and mythologize their Franco American mothers and grandmothers. In these stories, the mémère becomes a centralizing and compelling figure who embodies Franco American identity and survival. The "good" mémère story narrates the "good mémère" who serves as the hero/ine of la survivance in the fight against the disappearance of a people-a battle both material and symbolic. Ironically, the mémère becomes iconic in the same period that she is threatened with cultural erasure. In the struggle to recover and project Franco American identity, the mémère story is an imaginative act that maps the family lived by onto the family lived with.
Mémère stories participate in enchantment, a nostalgia for a more traditional past: more family-centered, more clearly demarked gender roles, more religious and less materialistic, and less assimilated. Thus, celebrations of the heroic mother serve a conservative political idealization of the traditional ethnic woman: pregnant, suffering, sacrificing, saintly, and serving, in the name of the family, faith, and French identity. In the tensions around North American identity and communal forces, women bear the burden of ethnic survival through the reproduction of bodies, values, and cultural identity. Di Leonardo (1984) argues that ethnic identity depends on tradition, and that tradition encodes the ideal of the patriarchal family. "A woman, in this ideological frame, is properly ethnic when she provides the nurturing, symbolically laden environment for which ethnic men can take credit" (p. 221).
But mémère stories do not cover over the difficult truths of women's lives nor the rewards of motherhood and women's bonds. Daughters' narrative strategies also suggest some internal conflict and diversity in ethnic community through mémères' silences and subtle challenges to the master narratives of la survivance and cultural assimilation. The analysis of these stories reveals resistances in response to power as well as constraints on women's performative agency. Smith and Watson (1996) emphasize the privileged role of narrative performance in the making, unmaking, and remaking of American identity: "Autobiographical narratives, their citation, and their recitation have historically been one means through which the imagined community that was and is America constitutes itself on a daily basis as American" (p. 4). Mémère stories strategically perform cultural identity in response to a host of transnational and communal forces: gendered and ethnic ideals, border-crossings, economic pressures and class migration, racialized labeling and ethnic shaming, linguistic tensions, and hostile religious circumstances. In this struggle, traditional gender roles were mobilized as both a resource and site of resistance in the formation of cultural identity.
Still, the cultural formation of mémère as icon is a problematic achievement in requiring conformity to both ethnic and gendered notions of identity for women. Ethnic community ideology and women's culture ideology, whether feminist or nonfeminist, are both built upon myths of authenticity, purity, and goodness. In mémère stories we can see how easily traditional ethnic women are converted to patriarchal and nationalist causes, and their costs and consequences for women. These myths deny or lop off the existence of negative poles-here the existence of "bad" mémères who do not conform to gendered and ethnic norms- but also any negative qualities of ethnic community, such as sexism and racism (Di Leonardo, 1991). An additional danger of a "rhetoric of hardship" embodied in mémère stories is that, while courageous struggles against impossible odds evoke sympathy from readers, it reduces subjects to either victims or heroes (Berube, 1997).
But the value of an icon such as the mémère lies in its multiple and competing meanings. The cultures we imagine as stable, timeless, primordial, homogenous, and without internal conflict did not exist, and even within the mythic mémère stories are gaps and glimpses that patriarchy and the purity of ethnic community were never fully and successfully normalized. Although these narratives serve nostalgia and the conservative political idealization of the traditional Franco American woman, they do more than that, revealing internal conflict and diversity within ethnic community as well as feminist possibilities. Particular mémères persist in differing in interesting ways from the imagined ideal. In her recent book on grandmothers, Edelman (1999) calls for stories about how "she made her way through joy and loss and prayer and pain not as an icon but as a human" (253). Wilford (1996, p. 16) also calls for strategies freed from past male-formed imaginings that imply "plural identities of nationality" that can validate differences of ethnicity, class, and gender. There are more mémère stories to tell.
What now does it mean for me to understand this cultural and gendered legacy as a context for mémère stories, for my mother's story, for my life of being one of ten and mother of one? The political enterprise of a transnational feminist analysis has different goals than telling stories within families. I am not suggesting that it explains my family stories, although it does reveal something about the canonical status of family narrative; and it does nuance, with the specifics of an ethnic history, Roman Catholicism and the birth control commonplace. It also complicates family storytelling beyond interpersonal or small group explanations. When I was pregnant with my son, I was surprised and confused by the approval that I did not understand had been withheld until it was showered upon me. Shulman (1999, p. 86) calls this "the mirroring of maternal approval that leads a daughter to want to reproduce. "But mem&re stories suggest that the reproduction of family is a social and cultural performance, implicated in transnational and communal politics of history and difference, as well as a personal narrative.
Blake Morrison writes that "I used to think that the world was divided between those who have children and those who don't; now I think it divides between those who have lost a parent and those whose parents are still alive" (quoted in Miller, 1996, p. 18). This reminds me of a story about my parents (Langellier, 1999):
A couple of years before my dad died, my mother invited my brother Kevin and me to the cemetery where our brother Craig is buried to see the new family gravestones. It wasn't an outing I looked forward to, but I consented, discerning its importance to her. My parents' marker is common enough, a low rectangular gray granite with LANGELLIER carved in the center. Dad's and her names and birth dates below. "It's very nice, " I murmured. Then she beckoned me to the back of the gravestone and pointed. Inscribed on the back were all our first names, the ten children, five in a column, in order: Lawrence, Dennis, Joan, Craig, Kristin,/ Celeste, Kevin, Keith, Darryl, and Colette.
"You don't have to be buried here, "she hastened to tell me, "but I just wanted them there." A pause. "One dollar for each letter. Sixty dollars. Not bad"
What do family stories of the past give us for the future when we must live without our mothers? How can we tell our ethnic grandmothers' stories without turning them into myths or martyrs?
1 The narratives examined for this essay are from
Robbins, Langellier, Petrie, & Slott (1995), an anthology of women's
writings from Le Forum, and all textual references are to Robbins
et al.: "Mémère: The Life of a Franco American Woman" by
Anne Lucey (1987); "A Tribute to Pheobe" by Kimberly J. Cook (1987); "Une
Immense joie" by Stephanie Vire (1993); "Notre Heritage Vivant or My Grandmother"
(1977); "A Canadian Matriarch" by Monica Comeau (1981); 'Ma Belle Petite
Mere" by Nicole Morin-Schribner (1977); "Soupe Aux Pois" by Marie Martel
Hatch (1991); "A Tribute to My Incredible Mother-Victoria Gagnon St. Germaine
Daigle" by Blanche "Queen" St. Gemaine Michaud (1988); 'MemreThibodeau"
by Marie Martel Hatch (1989); "A Second Chance" by Lanette Landry Petrie
(1993); "The Tea Party" by Lanette Landry Petrie (1993); "The Story of
a Woman: A Biography of Antoinette Milotte Messier" by Armanda Barney Messier
(1994); 'Melasse, D'la M'lasse" by Venney Bolduc (1986); "Focus on Christine:
Une Faute du Passe"by Christine Rouleau-Nedik (1977); "Alphonse and Jeannine"
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Kristin M. Langellier is Mark and Marcia Bailey Professor at the University of Maine. Portions of this essay were presented at the 1999 National Communication Association meeting in Chicago, IL. Address correspondence to the Department of Communication and Journalism, 5724 Dunn, Orono, ME 04473-5724; telephone 207-- 581-1942.
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