Waves of Memories

By Susan Gagnon

Presented on July 31, 2003, to the Society for Values in Higher Education, at the University of Maine at Farmington 
A Franco-American Panel Discussion

  I was born at the old Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, during the post war years, joining my extended French-Canadian family, in a clustered tenement building on Main Street, in Chisholm.  The petite village, located at the south end of Jay, also bordered northern Livermore Falls and is approximately 15 miles south of here. One of my earlier childhood memories was illustrated only hundreds of feet away, when we resided on the third floor.  Our young family lived in a cold water flat above my Mémère and Pépère's, including my two aunts and uncles. Our back-porch view reflected the Otis Paper Mill's looming smoke-stack, rumbling sounds of clanking and whistling trains, and clouds of steam pouring from the paper mill brick's structure, was all part, of the daily fabrics of our lives. 
  The oral stories of the local French-Canadians migrating to our extended region have been rarely documented, and there has been little historically researched, regarding their presence, contributions and lifestyles.  Yet, Chisholm, mirrors other textile and paper mill communities, sprinkled throughout Maine.

 A local book, entitled A History of Jay, Maine was published in 1995, a historic account of my hometown of Jay.  The book contains one thousand and thirteen pages.  On page 23, when the author is referring to 1898, and the development of Chisholm village, only a paragraph was written of our [Franco-American] cultural impact within the community.
Author Virginia Plaisted Moulton quotes, "Most of the inhabitants of these two communities in Jay were immigrants of French and Italian descent.  They were industrious people, ambitious and hard- working............ in most cases.  Many tenement houses, as well as single family dwellings, sprang up within walking distance of the paper mill, with the Chisholm area soon numbering about 400 families."

 I would like to take a few minutes to reflect on a few brief family accounts and the cultural ripples that I can still feel today:

 Before I was born...In the 1870's, my great-grandmother, Claudia Soucy, at the tender age of 13, left her native land of Quebec, seeking employment in the textile mills of Lewiston, Maine.  There, she quietly joined the grim child work force, desperately clinging to the hope of a better life.

  I was not yet born ...in 1900, when my Acadian, great-grandmother, Ester Doucette Gallant, left Summerside, Prince Edward Island, traveling alone to the Great Lakes, with six young and hungry children, to accompany her husband, later running a boarding home.

 I was not yet born...during the 1940's, when my Mémère, Alma Ouellette Lauzier worked the night shift at the Otis Mill in Chisholm, pushing logs down with a pike pole, on the cold Androscoggin River, while the wind howled against her, trying to support her family.

 I had not yet been born...In 1924, to see the fiery crosses burning on Spruce Mountain in Chisholm, boldly displayed in a strategic location, terrifying the residents, including my 12 year old Aunt Ester, as she looked out from her bedroom window, in stunned horror.

 I was not alive...when my Mother, Doris Lauzier Gagnon  started St. Rose of Lima Parochial School at the age of 7, not speaking one word of English.  In later years while attending public school she was struck by her teacher while she played on the schoolyard, because she spoke her mother tongue, French.

 I was not alive....when my father, Lawrence Gagnon was not able to graduate from Jay High School, and was later drafted into the Army, dispatched,  fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. 

 I was not alive...to witness the agony that my Grandmother Gagnon endured in April 1945, when hearing the devastating news that her son, Amos Gagnon, had been killed in the Pacific. Later, history would repeat itself, as my grandmother comforted her two sisters, who each lost a son, killed in action, while serving in the military.

 I was alive... when my father, took his two weeks vacation every September, one of the fastest apple pickers around, to raise money to pay our property taxes.

 I do recall...at a very early age, being ashamed of my family's broken English, and hearing stinging French jokes, and ethnic slurs relating to us, as being frogs.

 I do recall ...in November of 1998, the excitement that ran through me like radiating electricity, when seeing for the first time in Franklin County, the word Mémère in print, at the 13th Annual Maine Women's Studies Conference, here on campus, and the incredible impact it played in my life.

 I do recall...the day that I realized I had been wearing the blanket of shame for over four decades concerning my French-Canadian cultural heritage, and finally realized that the time had arrived to unravel my past memories and re-claim my own voice.

 For over 125 years, the silenced waves of shame have violently crashed against the rivers banks in Maine, rippling through many of our hearts...  Let us not forget our neighbors of Quebec Street, and our working class ancestors, who have worked in the paper mills barefoot, and endured much, as I quietly collect and record their monumental stories. 

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