Muriel (Labbé) Michaud
by Steve Michaud

Monday, November 5, 2001 12:12:05 PM
From:  Steve Michaud
Subject: Interview Essay: Muriel Labbe Michaud
To:  FASWSTInterview


FAS 329 Interview Essay, Muriel (Labbé) Michaud
Steve L. Michaud

 As I think about the focus of this course, I find myself looking at the stories we have been reading as reflections into the heart and soul of the Franco American women in history. These women have had courage incomparable to that of any other historical figure. Their bravery and their ability to overcome and triumph over life's obstacles are what build their character. When trying to think of whom I could interview that embodied these qualities, I could think of no better candidate than my own mother, Muriel Labbe Michaud.
 From the moment of her birth, Muriel has faced many obstacles in her life, and has faced much adversity. She was born in April 19 of 1948 to Leo Paul and Jaqueline Labbe. She was the first of a long line of children, totaling seven children. She was born in the small rural township of Wallagrass, ME. Things were rough right from the beginning for Muriel and her family. At that time, Aroostook County in general was even less developed than it is today, particularly in the most northern reaches of the area. Wallagrass at that time was primarily a farming community, so job opportunities were very scarce. Muriel's father had served in World War II as a naval enlisted sailor, and had been inured during the war, which made jobs that much more difficult to come by. The family mainly survived by taking on odd jobs when they came about, either by working for a farmer in the fields, or by Leo Paul working out in the woods from time to time.This sets the scene nicely... 
 The house that they lived in certainly didn't make life any better. In fact, the home that Muriel spent the majority of her childhood in wasn't really a house at all, but rather was an old garage-type chicken coup that had been once used by a local farmer. This one story building was converted into a makeshift home with wood shingles on the outside. Though the outside wasn't too horrific, the structure inside made life uncomfortable. Muriel recalls that the house had a common area, which served as kitchen/living room. There were two wood stoves, one meant for cooking, and the other meant only for heat. A kitchen table was also located in that common area. Aside from this common room, there were also two simple bedrooms, one for the parents, and the other for the children to share. As the number of children in the room grew, it became more uncomfortable to live in. there was no plumbing or running water -- the kitchen sink had a bucket hanging from its side for the children in the family to go fetch water at the neighbor's well. Furthermore, they had no bathroom in the house, only an outhouse. Being Northern Maine, particularly during the winter, that kind of living arrangement was difficult. To make matters worse, the makeshift home had no real walls or insulation; the walls of the bedroom that Muriel grew up in were insulated only with cardboard boxes to keep the wind out. Add to this the fact that they could not light the heating stove all night, it got extremely cold on winter mornings as the children would try to get ready for school. Besides living with the extreme cold in the house, and the lack of running water, they also did not have much in terms of food. They did not have electricity, and therefore no refrigerator to store food in. They did have an old-fashioned icebox, but the family was too poor to afford ice for it, so it was used more as a cupboard for storage of non-perishables. The rare times that they would have meat, it would be game meat and would have to be eaten immediately. Other than that, they would make anything they ate with canned meat such as Treat or Spam, from making spaghetti with it, to potat fricassees with it. Potatoes were a constant staple in their household, gathered from leftovers in the farmers' fields. Most of the food they had was gathered from what was available in nature; berries, game animals, and growing a small garden on their land. The few times when they had milk on hand, it was milk straight from the cow, warm and not pasteurized, making it unbearable to drink. Eventually, living in such an exposed and unhealthy environment would later prove to have lasting repercussions on Muriel's life.This is pioneering in modern times.  I can only be amazed... 
 Growing up in such conditions, everyone had to pull their weight in the family. During harvest time, as soon as the children were able to grab something, they were out in the potato fields picking potatoes to earn money for the family. Muriel spent most of the harvest times of her childhood picking barrels of potatoes, and neighbors would take care of the younger kids who were unable to work in the fields. If anyone has worked in a potato field, particularly picking potatoes by hand, they will understand the type of strain that is on a person. It is difficult and tiring work. Once she was old enough to take care of the younger children, especially as the family grew in numbers, she would stay home to take care of the children while the rest of the family worked out in the fields. 
Both taking care of the children and the work in the potato fields were difficult, grueling work, yet Muriel kept strong and determined, and lived the best life that she could. She worked hard, both at home and at school. Her grades were at the top of her class, and despite the hardships that she and her family faced, she lived a fairly happy childhood. Her hard work and her determination kept her going. 
Then, it hit. By the time of her last two quarters of third grade,...thinking here that she is old beyond her years... she had been feeling very ill. She didn't think too much of it at first; a little pain and stiffness in her legs didn't seem to be too much of a big deal given the kind of work she grew up doing. However, it wasn't sore muscles that were causing the pain, and it got progressively worse until one day, she couldn't move her legs without intense pain. Muriel, at the age of ten, had her first crippling bought of arthritis. She could no longer walk at that point, and it got so bad that her father actually had to carry her to get around the house. She missed almost an entire quarter of school due to this bout, and Muriel felt helpless, unable to move around herself or to help the family by working. It also was difficult for her to not be in school, as she had always enjoyed being in school. The extreme cold that lingered throughout their tiny house only made matters worse, as the cold made her arthritis even more inflamed than before. However, unlike some people who would have given up and wallowed in self pity over her illness, Muriel struggled onward, never giving up, and working toward getting better in order to go back to school. By the end of the school year, Muriel was back in school, and walking again. Not only was she well enough to go back to school, but she managed to catch up on the work she missed, and advance on with the rest of her class.This is incredible. 
It was shortly after her first bout with arthritis that Muriel and her family moved into their second house. This second house was located just next to the house they were previously living in. Though it still did not have actual rooms like the first house did, this house was an actual house, with two floors, and electricity. However, they still had no bathroom, and though there was running water, the water was bad, so they still had to haul water form their neighbor's well. Still, it was a vast improvement seeing how small the other house was. By this time, there had been six of the children who had been born in the first house, and suffice it to say, six children in one room makes sleeping rather difficult. In the new house, there was more room to breathe, and the walls were well insulated in comparison to the old house's cardboard box insulation. Muriel's father in turn took the old house and converted it into a garage for him to work on his trucks. As he worked on his own trucks, doing bodywork, people around the area began to notice that he was skilled at automobile repair. They then began to bring their cars to him to get fixed, and his auto-body business was inadvertently born. 
Though things were better than they were initially, Muriel and her family continued to have financial difficulties. As Muriel went through high school, she worked odd jobs to assist her family in any way she could, buying little things for the house and for the kids, and also trying to save money to go to college. By her senior year, she was starting to feel a little ill, but she didn't let that stop her. She was working at one of the department stores in the neighboring town of Fort Kent, trying to save money to start college. Despite her family's financial troubles, she wasn't able to get any financial aid to assist in paying for a college education, for reasons that I will not mention here. But despite that drawback, she continued to be determined to go to college. Another drawback came when she was laid off at the store she was working at due to a cut in the store's funding. Even this did not discourage her, however, and she continued to work by babysitting a neighbor's child to earn money. However, just as she was about ready to enroll in college, she was struck with a second bout of arthritis, this one worse than the first. She was able to recover over time as she had before, but as a result, all of the money that she had so laboriously saved to go to college ended up being used to pay for the doctor's bills. Because of this, Muriel was never able to go to college as she had hoped to.And this is one view which unless someone such as yourself tells this story...these things are left unsaid.
Not going to college was the least of her worries, however. With this last bout of arthritis, the doctor told her that she could not have children. This was very discouraging for her, as she had always wanted a family of her own. Rather than let what the doctor said get her down, she decided that doctors don't always know for certain if she couldn't have children, and she was determined to have her family regardless of what the doctors told her. It is a good thing that she did not listen to the doctors, because then I wold not be here today.  Good for her! Despite what the doctors told her, she ended up having two children of her own. Granted, the births were difficult given her illness, and she nearly lost the second born of her children (namely me) due to a complication with the child's circulatory system, but she was fortunate enough to have the family she wanted. 
That is not the end of her story, however. She is still facing adversity, and dealing with the financial strains that her family has to deal with, but she handles these problems with grace and dignity. A lesser woman may have given up several times when facing the obstacles that Muriel had to face, yet she held strong, persevered, and came out fighting. She shows great courage in every task and obstacle that she takes on, and I can't think of a better woman who can symbolize better the strength and tenacity that Franco American women have shared among the generations. Rather than give up on her dreams, she fought to hold onto them. She had the family she wanted despite the dangers to herself, and she has faced every obstacle with courage. There are many other obstacles that I have not mentioned here that she, along with her children, have faced throughout their lives, but those stories are meant for another time. However, it can be said that she faced those difficulties with the same strength that she showed as she was growing up. Whenever I feel like my world is crumbling down around me, and I don't think that I can go on, all I have to do is look to my mother for advice, for courage and for strength. I then think about it; if she could accomplish all she has, and get through all the obstacles she faced, then I can too. Muriel, my mom, has been a guiding light in my life, a beacon of hope and strength when I thought I had none, and that is why I feel that she, like many of the women we have read about, is a perfect example of a strong-willed Franco American woman. Yours is a testimony/temoinage to her and her life.  She can be proud of her son who is sensitive to the events that were her formation experiences and that they give you strength as well.

Sunday, November 11, 2001 3:34:22 PM
From:  Steve Michaud
Subject: Re: 
To:  Rhea Cote

Hi Rhea,

I spoke to my mom about publishing this interview, and she said it would be alright with her. So, if you are interested in publishing it, please feel free to so so.


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