|Thursday's Child: A reaction
to Wednesday's Child by Rhea Cote Robbins
By Monique L. Reno
"Qu'est-ce que c'est?" I asked myself the first time I read your book. "Why is she so negative? What a cynic!" "What a waste of time and money, to have such a stupid book assigned to a college-level French class". And then your words settled. Settled in the pit of my stomach like that extra slice of tourtière I should never have eaten on Christmas Eve. And I read your book again. And I began to realize that the reason you made me so uncomfortable was that you had so much nerve. How dare you? How dare you say so many negative things about my childhood, ma famille, and my heritage? How dare you say out loud for the whole world to hear what I have been trying to keep secret all these years?
"We can hold a memory -- precious or terrifying -- a long time in us as a companion with whom we often hold counsel." (15) Your words, not mine. There were so many of us. When I would complain about having to share my small bedroom or my bed with so many siblings, I was told that my father had to sleep crossways, "seven of them in one bed". And then my older sister started having babies and my mother wasn't done having hers! And I complained about another crib being set up in my already-too-small bedroom, and I was told I was the "worst little sister ever".
How could you talk about Mon Oncle like that? I remember being left with Ma Tante et Mon Oncle and so many cousins whose names I can't remember. Some were good people. Some were not so good. Related strangers. And then my brother came home in a full body cast. My brother was laid out in a hospital bed in a full body cast in the same spot in the living room where my other brother had been laid out in a coffin. And he was so demanding of my mother that there was nothing left for the rest of us. Like you said, "Fighting for space in a family is dirty business. One for which you hope the others can find forgiveness in their hearts."(23) I bet I would have been demanding, too. I only hope I have been forgiven for my jealousy.
I had a perfect childhood until I read your book, Rhea. Walking to school, you always walked in the middle. I just walked. Sometimes I ran, ducking behind huge oaks and maples, dragging my feet through the decaying vegetation fallen in my path. What is beautiful in the trees in autumn is a hindrance on the ground when you are being chased by kids from "across the brook". You stole my perfectly formed selective memories when you reminded me of the parochial school that closed after I finished fifth grade. Junior High was a nightmare for a "fairy" like me. "Saint Mary's Fairies, Saint Mary's Fairies" their incessant chiding broke my fragile spirit. My books were kicked out of my arms and my face rubbed in the mud. "Stupid Frog." Now I understand why my "backyard neighbors" had refused to play with me all those years. I was French and Catholic, and they were neither. Even the principal of the public school tried to stop me from crossing the little homemade footbridge over the brook on my way to school. That was until my father told me that the brook, the bridge, and the land in question belonged to my family. The principal was Protestant, too.
Before sixth grade though, those were the days. Attending Catholic school, it was just like you said: "a complicated system of reward and punishments" punishments were daily. Mostly for who or what you were"The abuse began in the classroom, continued outside in the yard."(35) The ruler slapped across my fingers only once, the punishment at home was harsher than anything the nuns could dish out. Big trouble. Big trouble came when my friends and I wore shorts under our uniform jumpers. We did cartwheels in the playground during recess. Only once. Our parents were called and the justification for our punishment came from something Sister Alice said. Something like "what will the neighbors think?" Maybe the neighbors would have thought that we were being allowed to be normal kids. Like you said Rhea, "the too strict ritual placed on ordinary children who were expected to be at all times - temples of God. Temples of Doom."(37) Catholic girls don't do cartwheels.
You described body language of French girls and your body, your "curvy legs and French-speaking girl peasant feet."(62-63) Now I am certain that all these years of being told that I have the "family" hips -- the way my hips go from my waist to my knees -- now I know it wasn't a joke. You made the "curse of the big hips" real for me when you complained about your own hideous feet. And my naturally curly hair? You mean that's French, too? My Mémère used to say, "a woman's hair is her crowning glory". My Aunt still tells me that every time she sees me. I love my curly French hair.
My son has naturally curly hair. My eldest daughter talks with her hands. My youngest one still needs to be reminded to stop poking holes in the plastic covering the red meat in the grocery store. French. French. French.
"The day comes when a woman is faced with herself"She has only to re-begin her life, now. Decide in her later years what it is she wants to do with what is left of her."(26) Thanks for saying that, Rhea. And thanks for saying all of the dark things you said in your book. I've read it three times now. I know I'm at a fork in the road. It's a road I ran out of my childhood on. Now that I look back, I'm not filled with regret for who I am or where I've been or where I came from. But I am looking back so that I can better look forward. I was born on a Thursday, you know. Thursday's child has far to go. And when I take my next step, wherever that may lead me, there is one thing I know for sure. I want to be French. Je me souviens.
Robbins, Rhea Cote. Wednesday's Child. Brewer, ME: Rheta Press, 2001.
Rhea, You have my permission to publish my reaction paper on the website for the FAWI 'ezine (only). I am assuming it will appear in its entirety and I will be credited as author.(?) I am delighted that you can appreciate the writing and the spirit in which it was written. Obviously, I was very moved by your book. Sincerely, Monique L. Reno