Je me souviens." To you it's the slogan on a license plate from "that other world across the border." To me it's tourtierre for Christmas breakfast, galettes at a summer cookout, and singing "O Canada" to a maple leaf flag after "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Not that I was born in Quebec, you understand, but more like a convincing stage reproduction of it, a trompe l'oeil of culture, complete with actors never stepping out of character, and Ste. Anne de Beaupre set up in miniature on the banks of the Blackstone.
We're talking about a hemorrhaging of humanity that leeched southward from the St. Lawrence River around 1900 and pooled in little pockets of a territory that, evidently, it was not France's "manifest destiny" to possess: Manchester, Nashua, Concord, Claremont (New Hampshire); Lewiston, Waterville, Biddeford, Sanford (Maine); Fall River, New Bedford, Central Falls (Massachusetts); Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
Disaffected farmers they were, these less glorious sons of Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, men weary of nine months of snow-bitten earth (the natives say there are two seasons in Quebec: winter and construction) and lured to that new invention of Samuel Slater's, the textile mill, with its promise of a slight easing of the curse of Adam.
Besides cheap labor, they imported their language to New England. And there it languished, and there it died, in that graveyard of all languages, America. It was a deed that took four generations and was complete by mine. Still, my guess is that we would all be speaking French today if Francis I had not been an indifferent patron of exploration, and Henri IV had not been busy waffling on his Catholic or Protestant identity.
In any case, it was back to this land that my friend Lynn decided I should go and that she should take me. And so, not at all sure that I could go forward, I journeyed backward in the summer of '99.
And it was Europe again!-the smells and window boxes and narrow winding cobblestone roads like the crooked lines of a preschooler's drawing. And it was breakfast in sun-drenched sidewalk cafes by tree-lined streets washed nightly and still shimmering, the way Monet does shimmering. And we rode the caleche through the Plains of Abraham and conjured the ghosts of Generals Wolfe and Montcalm in that fateful battle of 1763. And it was stick bread carried under the arm and shared with cheese and mille feuille on our terrace overlooking the Ursuline convent gardens. And we guessed about Madame Chouinard and Monsieur Giroux who ran the inn. And yes, we even laughed, and for six days pretended that life was only beautiful.
And all those childhood names I knew-Legare, Desjardin, Godbout, Lefebvre-I saw lacquered on the sides of tourist buses, on street signs, on banks, the lithographs of local artists, like some surrealistic reconfiguration of my past, a déjà vu. And, wondering who I was now that I was not a wife, I went, alone on Saturday, to Lavale University and pored over yellowing marriage records and pushed back the darkness a few generations-Mailloux, Perrier, St. Pierre, Lambert, Laflame, Belhumeur, Fontaine, Champagne. But it didn't feel like family.
And on Sunday, on the Rue St. Louis we found a church of fellow transients where we all sang common hymns and remembered a common Father and a common emancipation. And it felt like family. A better genealogy.
Je me souviens: "I remember." The homage we give our fathers. What the Recabites were commended for, and the Israelites stumbled over. And now one greater than Cartier and Montcalm is here, one more worthy of our cultivating a remembrance.
I had been feasted sumptuously. I wanted to pay-a croissant, a taxi fare, something. But Lynn explained that it was a gift. And I could see the truth in it. And how it is that we like to pay our own way, not because we are so good but because we are so evil. Never mind, she will be repaid on the day the books are opened (Revelation 20:12). Moi, je me souviens.... And more importantly, He also will remember.