Grandmother chronicles: Finding the start line

Posted on 2 March 2011

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This post is the second in a series I’ve started about my Quebecois family history. (The first one is here.) At this point, I’m planning on posting once a month. It will probably be ten or fifteen posts in all. It is partly preparation for novelising some of the stories I know and partly because my family has been waiting for me to tell these stories for over a decade and I don’t want to make them wait any longer. I’m hoping that writing will reveal holes in my research and plotlines. I’m hoping my readers will point out gaps and inconsistencies too.

Judging by the quality of the memory I have, I think I was nine or ten when I first heard that my Grandma Madeleine had been partly brought up in an orphanage. I heard other stories about her, from her and from others, and when I was eighteen I decided it would be fun to put them together.

So I asked her to tell me her whole story from beginning to end. Every couple of weeks for two or three months, I went to her house for dinner where she would have a bottle of wine open and new chapter of her story ready to tell. I bought a cheap cassette recorder and taped our conversations. Once or twice she asked me to turn it off.

She began her story with the story of another. Her grandmother Alphonsine had figured large in her early life and so that’s who came to mind when she thought of her beginnings.

It must be a strange thing to have someone who has only known you for a sliver of your life ask you to start at the beginning and finish at the end. How does one begin the story of one’s own life? Does it start at your first memory or the story of your birth you’ve heard from others? Or if you have never heard the story, do you start by simply quoting your date of birth? Is it even earlier than that, maybe with how your parents met and how they got from that first meeting to liking each other enough to make you?

For my Grandma Madeleine, the answer—that day—was to start with her first memory which was of her grandmother. In it she is about four and her grandmother, her Memére, tells her that she must do a wee before she can go with her mother to visit her sisters and she had better hurry up because her mother is almost ready to go. Little Mado is sitting on her potty which is on the huge table in the middle of the kitchen, the heart of the house and the room from which her Memére runs the household. Madeleine’s mother is upstairs getting ready to visit her two elder daughters at the convent home in the next town.

That’s it; a simple story which manages to give a quite a lot of detail. As beginnings go, it’s pretty interesting for all the questions it provokes. I’ll try to answer them as I go along.

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More information on this project is here.

Image: Toe the Riley’s Rumble Starting Line by Zurnaly. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.

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