One of my pie-in-the-sky dreams is to write a book, preferably some sort of historical fiction type of work.
That fantasy usually seems so out of reach for me - what would I write about? What would I say? How do I get it to be interesting, without stealing some other author's ideas? And the big one...when would I have the time to do this, to research it properly? Well, I know in my heart of hearts, there is always time to do something you want to do. Frankly, if I had started this book twenty odd years ago when the idea first struck, I probably would have it done by now. And the idea came in a Creative Writing class I was taking, when my instructor, Bill Meeks, said this: "Write about what you know."
And the most interesting thing I know about is definitely my mom's family.
Unlike my father's side, which was always a little bit of an enigma to me since I had never met my grandparents and didn't really know my aunts, uncles and cousins too well, I virtually grew up surrounded by my mother's family - her nine siblings, in-laws and their children. Even as some of them moved away, or in some cases moved frequently, letters and phone calls always kept the family posted on the goings on in places like Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Washington and even Australia. Nearly every Sunday we gathered at Uncle Paul's house, where seven of my cousins (six boys and one girl) lived, and my second home was at Aunt Rose and Uncle Jim's house where my cousin Maureen and I grew up more like sisters than cousins.
(Note: My second idea for a novel is one tentatively titled "Between Sisters and Cousins", by the way...)
Anyway! The point is, on my mother's side of the family, I knew who I was and where we came from, long before I knew anything about my Dad's ancestry. I didn't even know what ethnic background I was, paternally, but I knew my mother was 100% French-Canadian, and that my grandfather's family had immigrated to Canada from France through Louisborg in New Brunswick. We even visited Fort Louisborg once on a family vacation. At one point, my Aunt Peg (not her real name, although we all call her that...there's a lot of that in my family! Read my comment on Tattoo's and Teething Rings post about names!) really researched the family tree and I was hooked on genealogy. Not only did I have those facts, but I had interaction regularly with people who knew my grandparents, and I even met my maternal grandfather on several occasions. We had a handful of pictures, and lots of first and second-hand memories from the ten children born to my grandparents, Arthur and Zelica.
Oh, and I had a grandmother with a very unique, exotic name, too!
Like many French-Canadian families, everyone refers to my grandparents as "Ma and Pa". This is Ma and Pa's wedding photo, which was one of the few photos we had of them.
They were married on October 30, 1922. This photo always fascinated me because it was one of maybe four photos I had of my grandmother, Zelica. Later, when Aunt Peg put together her scrapbooks for us, she was able to locate more photos of our relatives, including some from their wedding day...
From Left to right, Ma's sister, Mary; Pa's brother, Fleuriand; Pa and Ma, Ma's father, Patrique, and Ma's sister, Exilda. (Again with the names!)
Here's one of the boys...the third from the left, top row is my great-great-great grandfather.
Pretty cool to have a photo of your great-great-great grandfather, even if you don't know his name. I do know, from Aunt Peg's notes, that it is either Fabien or Dominic.
Here's the whole extended family.
It looked like such a happy day, and there definitely were happy times ahead. But it would be relatively short-lived.
Married in 1922, her first child was born in February of 1924, her tenth in February 1934. Then, early one morning, around 2:00 AM on November 26, 1935, my grandmother Zelica woke up, got out of bed, not feeling well (she had pneumonia at the time) and went to the kitchen to get a drink of water. My grandfather heard a crash and rushed in to see what had happened, and found his wife dead on the floor. I've heard it said that she was six months pregnant with her eleventh child. Even though only twelve years had passed, if you put her wedding photo next to the other one we had with her shortly before her death, you wouldn't have thought they were the same person. The resemblance was certainly there, but you'd think it was a woman and her grandmother.
My grandfather could not physically, mentally or financially care for the ten children, so they became wards of the state and while some went to live with relatives, others went into the foster care system.
My Aunt Peg wrote the following in the scrapbook she put together for each of her brothers and sisters:
"With the depression things were very hard and Pa just couldn't cope with both it and raising a family. All of us became wards of the state of Massachusetts. We were separated and, some in pairs, some singly, were placed with other families. Each of us has our own memories of these times. Prior to this, a neighbor came and took a family picture.
We all then went our separate ways. In order to give a chance at a good life, Pa authorized us to be adopted but only Loretta was in fact adopted. As time went on, our relatives started to take us out of foster homes.
In 1946 the family was reunited and a second family picture was taken. The order is the same as the earlier one.
From left to right, starting with the top row: Paul, Francis, Rose, Loretta, Cecile, Florence, Germaine, Simone (aka Peg), Blanche (my mom) and Ferdinand.
One of the first things we did when we reassembled was to have a monument made for Ma's grave. It was such a shock to find that she only had a number.
Coming from such a large loving family, it was hard to understand why no one had thought of this before."
I think it was a good idea for her to say "each of us has our own memories of those times" and leave it at that. It's true, those ten children all grew up in very different circumstances. My mother, for instance, was raised by an Irish foster family in Dorchester, a section of Boston that at the time was predominately Irish. Irish and French people didn't get along that well, so basically she was there as a servant and a source of a little extra income from the State. My mother is not one to exaggerate - in fact, she usually downplays events that touch her life - and I remember that she said "the family dog was fed better than I was". If they had pork chops for dinner, the family's biological daughter, Mary, would eat the meat, the give the bone and the gristle to my mother. They gave Mary the cream, and gave the rest to my mother (which years later would make mom laugh, saying "I was getting the healthier milk! Mary got all that fat! I bet she has cholesterol problems!")
But my mother was lucky, for a foster kid growing up during the depression. After the death of her mother, she had very few good memories of her childhood but at least there was no physical abuse. Her foster mother (and her daughter) treated her like the second-class citizen they perceived her to be. But between the near starvation, the long nights sleeping on the cot in the basement next to the furnace (at least it was warm, for when she was about eight years old, it was her job to stoke more coal in the furnace when necessary) and the constant reminder that her ethnic background was anything but desirable, she remembers with fondness the nuns at the hospital she passed on her way home from school - they would be waiting for her as she passed, telling her she was too skinny and giving her some oranges or apples to eat. She remembers the occasional visits with her sister, Germaine, who was with another foster family. And she remembers when, at the age of fifteen, she found she was going to live with her Aunt Rose and be reunited with the rest of her family.
I'm sure they all had similar stories. I've heard bits and pieces, but like Bill Meeks told me, "Write about what you know". So I'll leave it at that.
Perhaps it is because of their history, and because of the tragedy that touched them when they were children, that they grew up into the people they became. I can tell you that on my mother's side I have about 30 cousins, and every single one of them is kind, funny, loving, honest, hard-working, compassionate and in various ways, successful, whether measured by material things or their own wonderful families. The next generation will prove to be even happier, I think, because we all put our families first. I've heard my mother and my Aunt Rose both say "How on earth did we ever learn to be parents?" The younger ones have only scattered memories of their mother, Zelica, and all were raised in less than ideal conditions, to put it mildly. Yet each and every one grew up to be wonderful parents. It's as if someone decided that since they were denied worthy childhoods themselves, that they deserved to be better-than-average parents, knowing their children will never know the sadness that they knew as children.
I think it was in 1989, we had a family reunion. Nine of them came (Freddie was later Photoshopped into the picture!) At one point, I drove a few of them up to the city they were from and saw the house that they had all been born in. They knocked on the door to ask permission to have a photograph taken in front of their old home, and to our surprise and excitement, we were all invited in to take a look around. I remember my mother commenting on the kitchen - with the exception of updated appliances and new linoleum and paint, it looked the same as it did in 1935. That sent chills up my spine, as I looked at the floor wondering where exactly Zelica had fallen. As we walked out, I felt as if some sort of closure had descended on the group. There were no tears, just calm and peace as we left to meet other family members for dinner.
It was a blessing to get them all together, from the somewhat reclusive sibling to the one who had spent the past 25 years in Australia. They talked, they laughed, they sang, and they bragged about their children and grandchildren, many of whom were also in attendance at some point during the multi-week event. I just sat back and soaked it all in, watching my mother in her glory, absorbing stories from all directions and all points of view.
And reminding myself every moment how lucky I am to have been born into such an amazing family. And how much I love them all.