The stories told about my grandmother Madeleine are many and varied and mostly colourful. The most colourful and varied of these are those she told herself. I heard a lot of them before she died because she told us all stories when we were growing up and later I asked for more.
I’m writing these stories down and putting them together in some sort of order but I make no assertion that anyone else will agree on the truth of them. What does that mean anyway, truth? We tell ourselves and each other stories to work out who we are, to decide who we are, to construct our own personal truths.
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This anthology of memories has been so long in coming that I no longer know which details were told to me by someone else, which I read somewhere, and which I simply made up to fill in gaps and make the stories make sense when I tell them to myself. I make no apologies for the unreliability of memory or my tendency to stitch together facts in an attempt to create an illusion of cohesion. These are traits of all humans.
One thing I can be fairly sure of is that my grandmother Madeleine was born in Québec on the sixteenth of December, 1929. Tiny, she said, because of the stress her mother was under during the pregnancy. She was delivered by her grandmother who, although Madeleine was the youngest child of her youngest child, would have been just fifty. Alphonsine was her name.
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When I asked my grandma to tell me her story, she began by telling me Alphonsine’s story. Hers is common story among my grandmothers: Catholic girls pregnant before their twentieth birthday and married to their sweethearts as soon as possible.
‘As soon as possible’ was quite a long time in those days of pretending babies were only conceived within marriages. The church and provincial government required the banns to be read—a public proclamation of a couple’s intention to wed—for at least three weeks before the intended wedding date for the couple to be eligible to get married.
Between the ages of sixteen and about thirty-five, Alphonsine and her husband Pierre found themselves with thirteen surviving children. They had bought a farm as teenage newlyweds and worked it to feed their family. Cows, chickens, maybe pigs or goats, probably wheat and flax, and an enormous kitchen garden. They ate what they grew and sold or traded the excess to buy things like cloth and cooking pots, shoes and books.
Through her friendship with some First Nations women who lived nearby, Alphonsine became a skilled midwife and herbalist. My best guess is that they were Abenaki. Their children must have played and grown up together and as far as I can tell, some of them married each other when they grew up.
When she was about thirty-five, Alphonsine’s husband died of pneumonia, leaving her with a farm to run and a few little children still at home. She ran it until she no longer could. By that time she only had her two youngest at home, both girls. The baby was about twelve at the time and she grew up to be my great-grandmother.
A widower businessman in the nearest town, St André, had made it known that he was interested in marrying Alphonsine. He finally convinced her when he promised to bring her little girls up as ladies with tutors and needlepoint and silk.
Alphonsine sold the farm she had bought with her husband when she was sixteen and he eighteen, the place she had given birth to her children, where she had spent her entire adult existence. She sold the farm and went to live with a man she didn’t love, or particularly like, so that her little girls didn’t have to work their hands raw to keep cold and hunger at bay.
Luckily he was away a lot as we’ve seen before.
While you’re waiting for the next instalment, check out the rest of the Grandmother chronicles.