I recently posted a picture of pink wintergreen mints on Facebook. Since I stopped drinking, I struggle with sugar and I satisfy my cravings with these candies. The pink mint picture triggered a discussion with my friend, Marie. She grew up in Jonquière, which is part of the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region of Québec. When Marie speaks, you can hear the Saguenay dialect in her French and she uses colloquial expressions from her part of the world: un gigon [an idiot], un cotteur [sidewalk], un wiper [a wiper] . . .
The pink candies triggered childhood memories for Marie and she told me about her grandparents Rosario and Lucille, their house, the barn (and the cats in the barn), plucking dead chickens, and their wood burning stove. She spoke with passion in her Saguenay French. I was riveted by the recollections of her childhood minutiae and by her unhindered self-expression. Why? Because I have done all I can to suffocate my working-class accent with forced and sustained “proper” diction, and forget the French Canadian part of my past.
As a kid, we often visited my uncle who lived in a rural town called Saint-Hyacinthe. For a city-boy, Saint-Hyacinthe was “the country,” a hole—purgatory. Once a month, I died, and woke up in the upstairs guest room of my uncle’s house, with my siblings, in purgatory (this is where I thought French Canadians who negated their heritage and native tongue went to be punished, and to be reminded of their roots).
Marie remembers the cold from her grandparents’ house. It slept with her under the wool blanket on her bed. The cold woke up with her in the morning and followed the dissipating heat of her body; until she sat in a chair close to the wooden stove and ate a slice of toast.
When I sat beside my uncle’s cast iron stove, he would curse if I added wood to fight the cold, or refused to eat my burned toast, and when we city folks did not appreciate the layer of fat resting on the raw cow’s milk he collected at 4 a.m. while we were asleep. Yet, each month, we’d return. (You will not forget your French Canadian heritage, Eric).
Spring’s arrival prompted more frequent trips to Saint-Hyacinthe. With the warm weather and less icy bitterness, the melting snow released the shriveled landscape and the playground of my childhood blossomed once again. Before we would receive our hosts’ blessing to explore their acreage, there was the obligatory seasonal Easter Sunday tradition of watching my pious aunt lamenting the crucifixion of Robert Powell‘s blue-eyed Jesus of Nazareth.
With spring, Marie renewed friendships with Rosario’s barn cats by sewing cat garments with the help of her grandmother. She would suit up in full rhubarb leaves armour, and amuse the dressed-up cats with a harmonica rendition of C’est l’aviron qui nous mène from a then popular children’s television program. The cats lamented, like my pious aunt.
Marie was a fast-talker as she fervently described her childhood memories. She feels every recollection: Rosario’s large hands, a painting of the house as it stood years before her birth, a bicycle ride, climbing a fence, and playing barefoot in the barn with chicks. I was engrossed by her past, and the parallels to my own childhood. I paid attention to every Saguenay French word she uttered, but I was pensively and preemptively rewriting her words in my conversational Frenglish for this post . . .
And you know what, Eric? There was always a bowl of pink wintergreen mints in Rosario and Lucille’s living room. Marie’s last words that morning.
Note from the author: I would like to thank Robin Coyle for reading my post, and editing parts of it. I have specifically asked Robin’s feedback as I truly respect her craft as a wordsmith. This post is the first of a series about my childhood as a French speaking Canadian, while living in an affluent English borough, and struggling with my heritage.