by Eric Poirier
« J’ai tombée deux fois aujourd’hui. »
« Ah non ! » her grandson, Lee, said, tightening his grip on her.
« Êtes-vous correcte ? »
« C’est comme on dis… je suis habituée. J’me leve pour aller au chambre de bain et s’arrive. »
« Memère…faut pas qu’c’arrive. Cris à Tina pour d’l’aide quand vous tombez… »
« … »
« Memère… ? »
“… Si j’cris pour Tina à chaque fois qu’c’arrive… »
It’s our monthly visit. My father, Lee, slowly ushers my great grandmother, Augustine, out of her room and into the common area. It always takes her twenty steps to complete the journey. I count it every time. With the twenty steps completed today – this time in record time, only taking 7 min and 35 seconds – my father sits my great grandmother down in her rocker that is placed in the common area. The area is always host to the aroma of mints and moth balls, of cleaning chemicals and put-away old people. My father sits in the stool beside her and gets comfortable immediately.
« C’est la fête à Maxim aujourd’hui, » my great grandmother says.
« Ah oui ? »
« Y a sept ans. J’m’en souvient quand Guillaume avait sept ans. Maxim me fait penser à Guillaume à cause Guillaume avait d’l’aire comme Maxim à la même âge. C’tait à cette âge qu’il était presque écrasé par les vaches. T’en souviens-tu de ça ? »
« Oui, c’est vrai. J’ai presqu’oublié. »
Maxim is my godchild. It’s a good thing she’s still around because I keep forgetting about his birthday. I’ll have to give the little tyke a call later today. There are so many family members and details, it’s difficult to keep track. It’s amazing. She’s amazing. Our own family Beauchemin archives. So many stories. I have heard one for each brother. I really have to talk to her before it’s too late.
« C’est qui ça assit la bas ? »
« C’est Alain, memère, » I scream.
How to start…
I don’t know how to tell this story. Her story. These stories. I don’t know how to clump them together into a sound premise. This piece is literary memories from distant conversations formulated onto a blank page. I never recorded her voice, took notes or asked her to repeat herself. Every one of my uncles has his own special story locked away in her memory. Even my aunt, the only daughter in a family of twelve children, has her own. There are so many interesting ones of love, obedience and misunderstanding, and all related by one family, communicated by one old tired voice.
This is a story!
But it’s somewhat of an empty shell, a collection of simple random thoughts from an author who has no message to provide readers. Who wants to hear the everyday adventures of another family? Maybe by simply writing them down, my mind will conjure up something profound and thematic to deliver to avid readers.
What I want is to produce a piece of literary fiction with a message that will be interpreted and discussed for years to come. Isn’t that every writer’s dream? To be re-noun like that and congratulated for your wit and genius. Unfortunately for me, all I have are a bunch of family stories to tell that are all tied together by one woman.
Maybe that’s enough?
I wrote the above paragraphs when I was in my last year of high school. I remember being excited because I was accepted to complete an undergrad at the University of Ottawa. Everything was set for my student days. I had a place to stay, paid for by my parents, as well as good friends to live with. Except I felt I had one major problem…I was leaving home to pursue a degree in English Literature and I considered myself a ‘would-be’ author without any real, unique messages concerning life. I had a passion for a profession I felt I lacked talent in.
I was on my way to study great authors whose messages we study and spend countless hours deliberating on today. Most authors I have learned about experienced tragedies in their lives that they have eulogized in their work. Many others were creative in their own time and possessed a natural ability to portray, in fiction, what they saw in life, tagging their work with their trademark beliefs and philosophies. I was preparing myself to study these people in hopes to imitate them, but I had no philosophy of my own. I felt I lacked creativity. I didn’t even have a tragedy off of which I could piggy back; though I remained reasonable enough not to wish for any tragedy.
So what the hell was I thinking paying ridiculous amounts of money to learn about a way of life in which I felt lost? I still remember the expressions on my high school science and math teachers’ faces when I told them my plans for higher learning: “Why?” I figured that considering my high grades in those subjects, their reactions were warranted. Even my English teacher gave me an expression that shouted “Good luck, because you’re going to need it chum.” But I went anyway, and I persisted and I even succeeded academically. I was bloody organized and I knew how to prioritize and I attended every one of my classes. I was studious. I learned about the great authors and about different life messages. But I never related with any of them. Even the authors that were obscured and criticized in their own time, and celebrated only after their mediocre existence ended, could not speak to me. Nevertheless I persisted, supported my subjective thinking during my midterms and papers.
It was at home I failed, in private with my own works of fiction, trying to deliberate on what kind of message I should have and promote. I had ideas. I even had electronic copies of short stories about bestial things, creatures eating men; big laugh, who cares, whatever. I could write clearly and concisely, but nothing felt like it belonged to me. I felt like I had no great story to tell that people would want to suffer through. And at the time, I felt that having a message was the only way to engage your readers. So I gave up trying to develop some profound theme and simply persisted in a writing project I knew had no message. I decided to write about my great grandmother, Augustine. At first, my work of fiction looked hopeless. It looked more like a diary than a chapter. But once I accepted that I should drop this notion of the message and just write, I was able to put it on paper. As soon as it became clear that my project would be a mere chronicle than a sound story with a resounding message, my words came out like water out of a hose. I knew that it wouldn’t be entirely accurate but it would be mine and it would be, to me at the very least, a keepsake and gift to an honourable woman.
At the time I knew the story should be in French than in English. I grew up listening to my great grandmother’s stories in French. In fact the only English words I have ever heard her speak were “Open the door!” on a cold winter night. We had just arrived from picking her up from her retirement home and we were in between the car and the house when she randomly spoke in English. I was a young boy who had never experienced such a strange phenomenon. It only lasted a second but my memory of it is one of my more dominating ones of my great grandmother. At the time, I thought it would be easier to write in English. Despite my French background and attendance at French schools, my grammar and spelling were much easier to come by in English; a fact that all of my teachers would agree on even today.
What I decided to use were collected memories of my great grandmother just talking to us about my father’s youth on the farm. My great grandmother only gave birth to one child, but she inevitably raised thirteen; her son, Leo, and his twelve children. She had a story for every grandchild, each one funny and appropriate to that person’s character. And luckily for us all in the family, her elephant-like memory never allowed these pieces of the family history to disappear.
As Augustine would say, about the farm and her husband, Moïses …
“Many people have accused your great grandfather, Moïses, of buying the farm to escape the War. They tried to guilt him into saying that he was actively choosing to omit his part in shaping the history of a new nation. Well, in my opinion, he made his own history by starting a family, and I helped. I am absolutely proud of the man. I remained proud of him throughout our hard years; from watching our own son grow, to watching our son’s wife, Mildrid, push out her twelfth child. We had our own history because we had our own little army, with each little soldier in the group making a story for him or herself.”
Augustine’s first story goes…
“The summer we bought the farm, the entire church believed Moïses was abusing me. He never in his life laid a hand on me. But there was one Sunday that required damage control for us. Your grandfather, Leo, wasn’t even born yet and the farm was newly purchased, although it was not in new condition. The hay and tool barn needed a lot of repairs and proved to be a test of one’s courage to enter. During our first assessment, hope was fleeting.
‘I would still rather be here with you,’ Moïses would say to me.
We began repairing the barn immediately that first summer. Certain piles of dead wood and dirt needed to be cleared out before we could discern how much renovating the barn’s foundation and structure really required.
‘The ladder leading up to the loft seems intact. I think we can use the loft to store excess hay,’ was my assessment. Moïses didn’t even get passed looking at the ladder before he threw me a gaze that screamed, ‘Are you kidding me? That ladder is about to fall apart!’ I could always read his expressions. He didn’t even have to talk to me. We could carry entire conversations with him looking at me and me responding to his looks. Sometimes I was the only one who talked at all. The only problem was I was stubborn. I climbed that ladder anyway. Moïses’ expression was dead on right.
Luckily for me I didn’t get past three rungs up when the ladder disintegrated from underneath me. I wasn’t very high when I fell. However, the beam that the top of the ladder was nailed to, accompanied me in the fall, landing on top of me and striking me across the face, conveniently where an abusive husband’s fist would land.
Oh how I remember the service that Sunday afternoon. It was a brilliant first impression amongst church goers we had yet to meet. I still remember the hymn. Moïses knew it by heart so he was able to look around the church, while everyone sang, at all the interested people looking our way rather than at his program. I knew the hymn by heart too but my eyes were glued to the page. It was the summer we had purchased the farm and my face was beholden to many for the first time with a nice shiner.
‘Where is the new couple that bought the Legault farm at North Field? I heard they’re going to attend mass here.’
‘Oh I think that’s them over there, the man with the obvious guilt on his face next to that woman with the black eye.’
I still remember the first time father Dimoulin spoke to us: ‘So nice to see new members flock to participate in wholesome family love. I hope to see you at confessions.’”
Augustine’s favourite is the Jean-Louis manure story…
“What can be worse than mud? I remember having a rather heated discussion with your grandfather, Leo, about tracking mud across the house after coming in from the field. Your grandmother, Mildrid, told him three times that week to ‘Make an effort not to come into the house because your mother had to wash the floor five times in the last four days.’ Leo was about to come into the house again with dirty boots when I stopped him at the door with my broom at the ready.
‘If you come in here again like that, I am going to smack those damn boots off your feet,’ I told my son.
‘I just want some water,’ Leo said.
‘Wait there and don’t come any closer,’ I demanded.
I lowered my broom but waited a few seconds before moving to ensure his obedience. He just looked at me with a smile on his face, the big brat. I finally went over to the cupboard, grabbed a glass, poured him water from the tap, and handed it to him at the door. He drank, handed me the glass and planted a wet, stinky kiss on my cheek before leaving.
About an hour later, I returned to the kitchen. I noticed a brown trail from the door, through the kitchen, and heading into the living room. The trail continued onto the carpet and ended at the feet of little five-year old Jean-Louis who stood in the middle of the living looking down at his hands. I was about to ask ‘Have you been rolling around in the dirt?’ when I caught a whiff of something foul. At first I thought it was the well water that had come out of the tap, but the odour was stronger. It took me a second to realize I was smelling manure. Leo was fertilizing the fields that day.
I remember saying nothing. Then Jean-Louis turned around and looked at me. He was covered from head to toe; chunks were falling from his cheeks and onto to the carpet. I will never forget what he said: ‘Memère, I’m full of shit.’
Augustine’s only suspense story was the one about the stampede…
“The one that gets my heart going every time I tell it is the one where Guillaume nearly got trampled by the cows. Your dad was in charge of watching Guillaume and Daniel while they frolicked around in the field. He was rebuilding the cow fence with your uncles Denis and Richard. It was a pretty hot day but your dad was making good progress. I remember stepping out on to the veranda just in time to see the whole thing happen.
Denis, Richard and your dad were working on the gate, Daniel was on the tractor, which your dad parked beside the fence, and Guillaume, well, I couldn’t see him at first. I was still trying to spot him and was about to call to your father when the tractor burst into life. Daniel managed to turn it on, probably having seen his older brothers do it a thousand times. It was the year the tractor was experiencing mechanical problems right before we scrapped it, so I was getting a little afraid for Daniel. I was about to call to your dad to get Daniel off the tractor when the engine backfired, letting out a deafening shotgun noise that startled the cows. Because the boys were working on the fence, the cows were mingled around them and so the noise just frightened them out of their wits. I literally nearly pooped myself. I screamed at them all to get on the other side of the fence to avoid the stampede. The cows were running in a pack away from the tractor along the fence, following it around. Just then I spotted Guillaume along the fence inside the cow pen in the stampede’s path. I screamed at your father, ‘LEE! Your brother!’ and pointed in his direction. Your father noticed me, saw his little brother, and reacted instantly. Good thing I could shriek like a banshee back then.
I have never seen anyone run so fast in all my long life. I think I tried for a month to convince your dad to join the track team at school. Your father leaped over the fence, ran across the cow field, grabbed your uncle Guillaume who just stood there looking at the oncoming animals, and hopped the fence again, a split second before the stampeded ran through. The cows ran in circles along the fence for at least twenty minutes before they got hungry and started grazing again.
To this day your dad says that instead of being scared, your uncle Guillaume was angry at your dad for grabbing him because he wanted to ‘pet the moo moos’.”
Augustine’s story about burning her leg always makes me laugh…
“You always laugh when I tell this story. No I don’t mind, your laugh is soothing. It is a funny one, but let me tell you, it was another incident that required damage control over suspicious town’s people. Of course, the day after it happened was a Sunday and so we went to mass. Because of where the burn was, I was limping and needed help getting into the pew. I think we got more eyes on us that day than father Dimoulin. In fact, I think father Dimoulin changed the theme of his service at the last minute that day and gave an impromptu one because, coincidentally, the topic of the service was ‘respect thy wife’.
What happened was, the twins, when they were still very little, snuck away from their mother, Mildrid, who was collecting eggs from the chicken coupe, and made their way, undetected, to the new tractor. The only reason I spotted them was because I was coming to ride the tractor back into the barn. Richard got into the habit of leaving the tractor out before going into town. It was causing quite a raucous between him and Leo that I decided to start riding the tractor into the barn myself to avoid further confrontations. It was a difficult year and Leo was taking everything out on his kids. Just when he needed the eldest ones the most, they were showing signs of shirking their chores and daydreaming about moving away. Denis had moved into Cornwall that year, and Richard and your father wanted to be next. The farm was expanding and naturally the work was doubling. Moïses and Leo and everybody were working hard. That’s farm life though.
Anyway, I was on my way to put the tractor away when I noticed the twins climbed into the seat. Like all their bothers before them, they managed to start the tractor. The difference this time was, because there were two of them, one started the engine while the other was pushing down on the pedals. The machine jerked into motion. The twins were barely hanging on, despite the fact that Yvon was still managing to steer the thing down the driveway. As nimbly as I could, but really very awkwardly, I ran to the tractor and leaped up onto it. In my haste I leapt up and pressed up directly on to the engine. I tell you, the tractor must have been working hard that day because I was burned immediately. It hurt so much that I frantically moved away and fell back onto the seat, which poor little Yvon was still standing on to steer the machine. I nearly knocked him off the thing. I also stepped on poor little Yves’ hand which, inadvertently, got him to remove his hand from the gas peddle which stopped the tractor before it fell into the ditch it was moving towards. When the tractor stopped moving, my leg was burning, the twins were crying, and the tractor was steaming. When the kids finally stopped crying, they told me that they weren’t hurt, but that they were sad because we ran out of bread and they wanted to go to the store to get some more.”
Even my mother, Edna, has her own stories that she adores recounting with Augustine. She has about three of them that involve her relationship with my father, Lee, before they were married. While my parents were dating, my father often brought my mother over to the farm for dinner. I realized one day that no matter who the person was, if they were reminiscing about something that happened on the farm, they were the most gifted story teller, for they always commanded the attention of everyone who was listening.
“For the first year we were dating, your father brought me to the farm for dinner one Sunday a month. I can remember at least one thing happening each time for that first year. It will always remain an important year for me because that was when I decided to marry your father: he always made sure I was comfortable, everyone made me feel welcome, and even after something bad happened, I never once faltered in my decision to become part of this family. After that first year, I was ready to do anything to participate in this family’s history.
The first time I came over for dinner was the last time I drank milk for almost three years. Families in our area during those times were only making enough to survive. Everything you used and consumed was a necessity and not a luxury. Your father’s family was certainly no exception to this rule. Your great grandmother, Augustine, poured me a glass of milk that will never disappear from the taste buds of my memory. I was so excited and nervous to be there that my first sip was a gargantuan gulp that nearly incapacitated me. My limbs froze, my eyes became shrink wrapped and tears rolled down my cheeks. I was going blind. I could feel my other senses screaming too. I could feel the milk chunks swimming in my mouth. Then I felt your father lean over to me and whisper, ‘I forgot to mention to you that we drink evaporated milk that never seems to dissolve fast enough.’ Before I went completely blind with tears, I remember your great grandmother saying from across the table, ‘Would you like a glass of water instead, Edna?’ No one else seemed to notice. With such a large family there were so many people around the table that the tiny antics of a silly city girl went unnoticed.
Needless to say I cordially declined a glass of milk from your uncle Richard the following month. Your great grandmother quietly set a tall glass of water in front of me and smiled at your father before sitting down to her plate.”
Mom loves telling the Tarzan story…
“The only one of my stories that doesn’t involve your great grandmother is the one where your father and his brothers always played Tarzan with the ropes in the equipment barn. Augustine was inside the house helping to clean up and was not privy to the acts of death-defying that went on in the barn. Sure it was nothing but macho bravado, but it was quite entertaining to watch.
They would climb up to the loft, if the ladder didn’t break from underneath them. If the ladder broke, then the evening was spent fixing the ladder. However, if it didn’t break, then it was a real show. Once up on the loft, they would grab the ropes and swing across the barn and land in a pile of hay that was at the opposite end. Nothing to it really. It was the execution that was the focal point of all the panache. Uncle Richard always tried to do it the fastest, while Denis did it backwards. Your uncle Jean-Louis’ tricks were the most geriatric because he was just a clumsy boy when he was young. Your father was the most refined and it was like watching a suspended ballerina.
One night, the Swing Brothers managed to give a grand show, despite the entire stage crumbling to pieces. All performers went through twice, even to the accompaniment of increasing splintering wood sounds. It was your father’s second go at the rope when everything collapsed. Richard and Denis pushed Lee off the loft to give him more speed. As soon as he cleared the loft, the entire platform came crashing down, with Richard and Denis falling into a pile of hay underneath (your father and his brothers always knew where to put a pile of hay in the barn). Your father was at the end of his swing when the beam the rope was attached to snapped. Because of the momentum, your father cleared the hay he was supposed to land into, while he was in the middle of performing his infamous double back flip landing. I punched myself in the face bringing my hands to my mouth in fright. All I remember seeing is your father disappearing behind his landing hay and the sound of 175 pounds hitting concrete. I screamed ‘Lee! Oh my God! Are you all right!’ and your father’s response was, ‘Dammit! I wanted to land with one leg forward and not my feet together!’”
Even though we’ve never had pets, despite me and my brother’s yearly nagging, my mom still talks about my father’s old farm dog as if he was still alive and tied up in our backyard.
“I loved your father’s dog when we were dating. He was the biggest creature on four legs that wasn’t a horse or a cow. I played with him every time I was at the farm for my monthly dinner with your father’s family. He was never around during meal time, but afterwards he would always come into the living room where we were; he knew the kitchen was off limits between five and six. I loved that dog, so much so that I would later bug my parents to get a small pug.
The first time I ever met George was right after the lumpy milk incident. I was trying to redeem myself and not allow my first impression to be a complete disaster. Your father and I went into the living room with a couple of your uncles and we just sat and talked to get to know one another. At one point, your father started talking about moving into the city. I remember getting completely lost into his eyes. Then suddenly I heard your great grandmother say to someone, ‘Go on into the living room and go meet Lee’s new friend’. I was anticipating yet another brother. While staring at your father, I felt a head rest on my lap. My first thought was maybe a younger brother was trying to be cute. Instead, when I looked down, I saw that a creature with fangs put its head on my lap and was looking up at me with great brown eyes. All I remember was losing control. Your father says I jumped out of the sofa as if a large insect stung me on the ass. I ran out of the living room and into the hallway screaming. When I finally regained my senses, I could hear your great grandmother laughing from the kitchen (Augustine always laughs at this point in mom’s story).
Your father asked me to come back in to the living room. He was on his knees on the floor rubbing the belly of this gigantic Saint-Bernard that was lying on its back with its tongue hanging out. ‘Meet the oldest brother, George,’ your father said. The dog stood up and shyly backed away from me into the kitchen out of my view. ‘Come back in here George and say hi,’ your father said. ‘Get down on one knee, Edna.’ I did.
George slowly came back into the living room and stopped a foot away from me. You could tell he wanted to like me. He stared into my eyes and I into his. I held up my hand and said ‘Come on George. I’m sorry. Sorry I scared you. You scared me first that’s all.’ George approached to sniff my fingers. Within seconds he was slobbering all over my hands. Before I could pet him, he was slobbering all over my face. When I knelt, the creature was as tall as me. I couldn’t even hold his head back to get his tongue away from my face. Boy did he stink. We remained like that for a minute; him licking me and me trying not to let him lick me. But my heart was growing fonder by the second. Then, your father jumped up and body slammed the dog onto the rug. They wrestled while I watched with a smile from ear to ear. Every dinner after that, you couldn’t pull me away from George when we were in the living room. Although he denies it, I think your father got a little jealous.
He died maybe two years after. He was an old dog when I met him. Your father and everyone else didn’t seem to mourn for too long. That was life on a farm. Animals come and go and the hard work remains. But I took it hard. I remember the Sunday after he died. George passed away in his sleep the previous Wednesday. They buried him at the end of the hay field on the other side of the pond. I remember visiting George’s grave. Your father had his arm around me. There were three other graves there as well, each marked with a cross that had a name painted on the horizontal piece of wood; Pete the hamster, Marcel the snake, and Jean-Francois the pig.
I really took it hard. I cried in the living room after dinner that night. I remember your great grandmother had shooed everyone out of the room, even your father. She sat next to me on the sofa (Augustine usually helps mom to remember this point in the story).
She said: ‘You should know there are more dead pets than there are graves. When you live on a farm, you don’t pick up or buy a pet, you simply become attached with animals you notice among others or find wandering around. JF the pig for example was supposed to be our Christmas ham one year but ended up being JF the pig for Richard when he was little. Pete the hamster was just some critter Denis happened to catch in the barn. Actually, Pete the hamster was Pete the hamster for only about ten minutes because Denis had crushed the critter. In fact, I am not even sure it was a hamster. But you could imagine Leo’s annoyance when his son begged him to bury Pete and spend time making a cross with its name on it. As for Marcel the snake, well, it was just something Jean-Louis came into the house with one day. The reason they got buried in the first place is because they belonged to the sons who could plead the loudest to their father. There are pets buried out there without a cross.
‘George was special. Lee came home from school one day with a dog behind him. We all loved him immediately. Moïses and Leo were a bit skeptical that the dog might scare the cows into giving sour milk, but the dog never did. Lee took good care of that dog and George never caused any trouble. Like all things in life, creatures come and go. Life goes on and we remember them.’
I never felt so comforted in my life. In fact, I remember falling even more in love with your father and his family that night.”
The depth of these stories…
I grew up on these stories. I listened to them intently and watched the narrator, either Augustine or my mother, like a preschooler mesmerized by the colours of a Crayola set. For the longest time I wished I could have such great stories to tell. I spent every day with the constant reminder to visually record my own events in the hopes that one day I would have an archive of captivating stories to share with the family. It wasn’t enough to be part of this family and its rich history; I needed to make my own contribution. I felt helpless and lost. I felt like just another cousin or nephew or grandchild who appeared out of nowhere during family reunions to eat free food. The only attention I could generate was the curiosity of my relatives wanting to know how much weight I put on. A family tradition that has seemed to cease was getting the boys, uncles, and nephews, onto the scale every New Year’s day. “Alain! It’s your turn!” I didn’t have any material with which to gather an audience.
Even well into my university days and into my self-motivated, but misguided days of fictional writing, I felt like I didn’t have anything to share. I had stories, but no message. I felt that if I ever wanted to write a none-sensational, down-to-earth drama, I would have no great philosophy or advice to offer to an audience.
But something has happened in the last few years. I haven’t had any revelations or epiphanies that would be worthy to publish. But it’s enough to have motivated me to finally sit down and just write, simply write, put thoughts on paper. I know that some people might say that I could have started a diary if all I wanted to do was write. But I wanted to write stories others would want to read. Stories that weren’t too far fetched and that were dramatic. Family stories are always dramas, and I apparently did have my own stories that were Augustine-type caliber tales to contribute to the Beauchemin family history.
Augustine is 97 today. She has wanted to leave this world for the last ten years. When you’re in a home with only a few occasions per month to tell stories to avid listeners, time gets a little long. She may get her wish soon. For the last several months my great grandmother has been withering away. “Unfortunately not fast enough,” Augustine would say before she lost the ability to speak coherently. I guess the thought of Augustine checking out soon has always weighed down on my mother, Edna. A few years ago she started telling me her stories of my relationship with my great grandfather, Moïses, when he was dying in the hospital. I was a toddler and don’t remember anything, but I feel as if I was there when my mom tells me these stories. They have become my stories.
My father was close with his grandparents. He would ensure we met at least twice a month. Augustine and Moïses would pop in for dinner or we would visit them on a Sunday. We all became close. I was definitely my great grandfather’s favourite. When the two of us were in the same room, you couldn’t pry me out of my great grandfather’s arms. Not that I was unwilling to move, but he was unwilling to let me go.
Moïses spent his final days in a hospital bed in Ottawa, and our Sunday afternoon for several weeks consisted of a trip to see him. As soon as we walked into his room, the first words out of his mouth were, “Give me my great grandchild already.” We were inseparable. My two favourite stories revolve around Moïses’ final week.
My car story…
I was brought along every Sunday for the one-hour road trip up to Ottawa to see Moïses. There was absolutely no exception. Moïses wouldn’t hear of it. In the car, my dad, Lee, always drove, Augustine was in the passenger seat, my mom, Edna, was in the back, and I was in front, in the middle, in my car seat that was shaped like a mini car. I had my own steering wheel, squeaky horn, sticker dashboard, and turn signal lever. Apparently I would drive as my dad did for the entire hour. If he turned the wheel, I turned my little plastic wheel. If he honked, I honked (turns out my father learned road etiquette because of me; if he swore, I swore). I would even flick my turning signal lever in the right direction.
Everybody talked amongst themselves during the trip and let me drive my fantasy car. They couldn’t even get a word to me anyway without taking the appropriate steps. According to my mom and Augustine, on my first trip in my car seat to see Moïses, my great grandmother was trying to talk to me, but I simply ignored her. “Alain. Alain,” Augustine said, and still I continued to drive, seemingly unfazed by the sound of a grownup trying to get my attention. My great grandmother persisted while my parents quietly laughed. Several minutes went by before my mom finally spoke from the back seat, “He can’t hear you grandma. You have to ask him to roll down his window.” A little bit stunned, my great grandmother reflected on this for a few seconds and then pretended to knock on an imaginary passenger window. “Knock, knock, knock.” I turned and looked at her and then, with an expression of surprise, made it look like I just realized she was standing there. I pretended to roll down my window with an imaginary lever, while making the sound effects for an old car window retreating into a rusty door. “Yes, grandmère?” I asked. Now Augustine could talk to me. When we were finished our conversation, I said goodbye, and rolled my window back up. It never failed. Whenever I was steering my plastic wheel, you had to knock on my window so I could roll it down before I could respond. My mother’s fondest memory is of Augustine imitating me rolling down my imaginary window in my car seat: “Eek, eek, eek,” was the sound of my window retreating into a rusty door.
My last conversation with Moïses…
For my last conversation with Moïses, we were in different cities. The night he died was the Sunday my mother decided that she and I should stay behind. My mother never goes into detail about her reasons for staying at home. I imagine making the one-hour trip once a week was becoming daunting for a toddler and a full-time working woman. My dad also worked full-time, but he made the trip rain or shine, so long as Augustine wanted to see her hospitalized husband.
One night, after putting me to sleep, my mother went to the kitchen for a drink during a commercial on TV. From the kitchen, my mother heard me speaking in my bedroom. I was supposed to be sleeping. Very curious and a little alarmed, my mother put her ear to my door to hear me having a conversation with myself. “Next time I come, I will bring the superman cape grandmère made for me,” my mother heard me say. Then silence. Then, “When can I visit?” Very curious, my mother opened the door to find me standing inside my crib, looking out the window. It seemed like I was talking to someone outside in the yard. My mother left the window open a crack that night because it was hot out and so she began to worry that someone was in the backyard. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of grandmère while you’re gone,” was the last thing I said before my mother turned on the bedroom light and called out my name.
“Uh oh,” I said, turning my head to look at my mom and said, “Grandpère is gone, mommy.” My mother was speechless but she immediately knew what it meant. A minute later the phone rang. My mom left the room with me still standing in my crib. She answered the phone. It was Augustine on the other line.
“Grandpère is gone, isn’t he?” my mom asked.
Some time after, my mother and Augustine calculated that Moïses’ last breaths were taken at the exact same moment I was speaking to my stranger outside my window. Even though I wasn’t there when he died, Moïses still managed to say goodbye to me.
It’s my ghost story. It’s the only one I have and I don’t even remember it happening. My mother is my source and Augustine believes it happened. My great grandmother once told me that before his chest stopped moving up and down, Moïses stared at the ceiling as if focusing on something only he could see. Then is eyes glazed over and the tiniest of smiles cracked his face. “Your grandpère said his goodbyes to me and your father,” Augustine once said to me. “Then he zoomed over to Cornwall as quickly as he could to say goodbye to you before being called up. That’s the kind of man he was.” I have heard of people seeing a loved-one at the strangest places, moments before that person passes away. My mom’s mother claims she saw her brother in uniform in her driveway the night he was killed in action during WWII.
I do have my own stories. Even though I don’t have a profound message to share or plug into my prose with clever poetic style, I do have stories I can tell. I am a big part of the Beauchemin family history. I was closest to the man who started it all. And I was raised around the woman who began a legacy of storytelling.
The more I write this, the more important it becomes to me. I am the next to carry on the legacy. I am taking the spoken word to the next step, by putting it in writing. Today I write for the sake of writing. All I want to do is get all my thoughts and ideas written down. Who cares if my words seem unguided or tedious? Things can always be reworked. Who knows if people will want to read it or even discuss it? I look back at my days of feeling misguided, confused, and lost in my inspiration, and in so doing, I’ve come to the undeniable conclusion that I have been doing what I’ve always wanted to do, tell stories. I learned from the best.
Today I live in Europe while Augustine is dying in a hospital bed in Cornwall. The last time I saw her was my official goodbye, which I think she knew. I keep asking my mother to tell Augustine, if she is coherent that day, that I am continuing her legacy. Unfortunately, she will never read it to discover that her life is my inspiration for literary self-discovery. She will never know that any success I achieve will be because of her. This saddens me when I think about it. Maybe if she appears outside my window one day, I can read it to her.
Copyright Eric Poirier 2013