Archive for August, 2007

My Heritage

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Like I said in the last blog, I wanted to tell you some more about my grandmother because she was one of the great ones (picture above–isn’t she so cute?!). The past year or so I spent a lot more time listening to her stories and reflecting on my heritage. In fact I came to love and appreciate her in so many new ways. What I have come to understand most of all through her, is that my heritage, above all else, is Love. Not the feeling, but the kind of love that comes from sacrifice and births kindness.

She was born Rose Mary Arsenault in 1920 in a french village in Western, PEI (St. Felix). Her mother was raised by nuns and was a strict woman and teacher. My grandmother was the oldest girl and when she was born she was missing a knee cap. The doctors said that she would never learn to walk, but through determination she finally did (though at an older age). I remember her sad face as she would recall how her brothers and sisters would run to school and leave her behind to limp along at her slow pace. She absolutely loved school, but was heartbroken when she was forced to quit (around age 13 I think) because her mom had a nervous breakdown. Being the oldest girl, my grandmother was responsible for the house and raising her 5 siblings. What disappointed her the most was that she always wanted to be a teacher (she had a huge passion for reading) but had to forfit for her dream.

Eventually she met my grandfather. He was “from the shore” as she would say. The boys from the shore had a reputation for being bootleggers and very rough. They were fishermen and often in the winters they would head to New Brunswick to work in the lumber yards. My grandfather, though, was one of the good ones. Being a small town there wasn’t much to do so all the young people would hang out at the end of my grandmother’s lane (drinking the bootlegged liquor I suppose). One evening a boy from the shore name Jean-Pierre Perry offered to walk her home and she accepted. I guess in those days that was enough to mean you were dating.

My Pepe was blind in one eye which saved him from having to go to war (though he tried) unlike his brothers. I always laugh at the thought of the pair of them–a bum knee and a bad eye–and remember that love is for everyone, not just the perfect. From what I know, they knew a lot about love.

Eventually, after they were married, they moved to Summerside which was a bigger, English town. Both being from very poor families, they started out with very little, but managed to build a small, three bedroom house in the west end of town. It’s funny to hear anyone over 40 talk about the west end–like it was the Bronx. It had a pretty rough reputation, being the poorest area. My grandparents had 12 children and raised them all in that tiny house (and often took in extra kids)! But no one complains about that part. They just remember the fun times, all living together; they remember my grandmother every night at 6 p.m. sharp making them say the rosary on their knees in the living room (in her thick Acadian accent, “blessed are you amongst womans and blessed is da fruit of dy womb, Jesus”). Anyone who happened to drop by at that time was also made to participate, no exceptions. My dad remembers trying to sneak out at that time, while some of their friends who came from incredibly broken homes, would try to sneak in so they could feel like part of a family.

My grandparents made everyone feel like part of the family, as though there were no limit to the number of people that could belong. They were surrogant parents to many and I truly believe they didn’t have the word ‘judgement’ in their vocabulary (so rare for that generation!).

In 1960 my grandmother lost a child. Her daughter Anne, age 13, was hit by a car and killed instantly. The tragedy really marked the family but instead of letting it tear them apart, my grandmother appreciated her family more than ever and let it draw them closer together. I think that love may be the only thing strong enough to keep something like that from destroying you.

I don’t know how she did it–I honestly don’t. She worked outside the home, yet managed to raise 12 amazing children (no exceptions). Everyone of them willing to move heaven and earth to lend a hand; everyone of them kind, generous, and caring. She would work late into the night, then up early cooking, cleaning, and getting the family ready for the day…and with a gentle hand at that!

I think it’s amazing what we are capable of as women and men. Being able to carry such a heavy load and not crumble, or love under the toughest of circumstances. As I learned about my grandmother–not just the facts, but who she was–I found myself in awe. This woman’s blood run in my veins! I had never been prouder of my heritage–poor, catholic, Acadian.

My grandfather died in 1996 of a massive heart attack. It was a shock to us all, and my poor Meme was left for the first time on her own with no one to care for. What a shock that must have been! From caring for her brothers and sister, to caring for her 12 children and husband, to no one needing her anymore. I believe those were the longest, saddest years of her life. Although she rarely talked about it (she really wasn’t a woman of many words), the ache of missing her husband never stopped for a second.

In the final years she would say her rosary many times a day, sit quietly, and think of her beloved. Her family was her life. I think it was the most amazing thing to watch as things switched in the past few years and she became our life. It was amazing to watch her children and grandchildren care for her–like it was a joy and a privilege.

I think of my Meme as a great matriarch. I look at my massive family and think “this all extends from you, Rose Mary Arsenault Perry. You couldn’t have known.” And what a legacy she left! I have so much to be thankful for, and she taught me to not just appreciate my heritage, but to appreciate family in the broadest sense. I see how she made her family her priority and I want to do the same; I see how she took in the lost and lonely and made them like her own children and I want to do that same; I see how she loved her husband and I want the same–they set too great of an example (followed by my parents) to be able to settle for less. I have so far to go still, but I’m working on it.

I once read in a history book that during many British-French wars over the Maritimes the Acadians were always the most humble and hospitable people. No matter who was in charge, they were loyal and kind. The only thing they asked for was to be able to keep their homes. They weren’t adventureous or wild. They didn’t revolutionize the country or even fight much for their lands. They just made their homes and created peaceful, loyal, and joyful communities (I think of them like the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings). I see that spirit in my Meme and I am so proud of her.

There is a song that Eva Cassidy did called “Songbird” that I love. I always imagined it as a wedding song until Meme passed away when suddenly, as I played it, the words were mine to her. They sum up how I feel about my time spent getting to know her better, caring for her, and how she is finally at rest with my Grandfather, her daughter Anne, and her son Alfred. The words are:

For you, there’ll be no crying
For you, the sun will be shining
‘Cause I feel that when I’m with you
It’s alright
I know it’s right

And the songbirds keep singing like they know the score
And I love you, I love you, I love you, like never before

To you, I would give the world
To you, I’d never be cold
‘Cause I feel that when I’m with you
It’s alright
I know it’s right

And the songbirds keep singing like they know the score
And I love you, I love you, I love you like never before

Like never before.

Thanks for sharing this part of my life with me by reading.

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Where I’ve Been…

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It’s been awhile since I’ve written so i’ll give a recap of my life lately for anyone who is interested (i’ll try not to bore you but I can’t make any promises).

Last Tuesday, August 14th, I got a phone call saying that my grandmother passed away (my Dad’s mother). Although no one is prepared for those kind of calls, I can’t say I wasn’t expecting it. You see, i’ve already gone home twice in the past few months thinking that my poor Meme (we’re Acadian) wasn’t going to make it. She was 87 years old and lived and incredible life. I would like to tell you all about her because in my opinion she was one of the greatest people I have ever known, but that will make this blog far too long (stayed tuned though).  

Unfortunately I took her for granted for most of my life. You see, she lived with my family for about 7 years after her husband passed away and I saw her most everyday. However, it was only in the past year or so, when the realization that perhaps she might not live forever hit, that I finally took the time to get to know her. In one way I am so very grateful that I did, and in another I am kicking myself for waiting for so long.  I will write more about her in the next blog because, like I said, she was amazing and in a sense part of me…Yes, she is a piece of me and I am apart of her. That is how blood works I suppose.

So Wednesday I rushed home (but did NOT get any speeding tickets like last time). Unlike many deaths I have experienced (that is people that I know who have died, not experienced PERSONALLY by dying myself) there was an element of peace attached to her passing. For one she was very ill and had little quality of life in the past few weeks, and secondly she has lived a faith-filled life and has been, in a sense, awaiting this day since her husband died eleven years ago. We rejoiced in the fact that finally they can be together. 

After arriving home I very immediately proceeded to my Aunt Linda’s house where all the family was gathered. You must understand that my grandparents had twelve children and on my dad’s side alone I have twenty-four first cousins (that is not even mentioning their spouses or children!). So I do indeed have a huge family–and most of them were there upon my arrival. I barely entered the door before being greeted by love, hugs, laughter, and of course, a bowl of chowder. There were conversations everywhere I turned, some in English, some in French, and enough wine and food for an army! Although all of the people there were a part of my family, I still saw unfamiliar faces and was introduced to second cousins, great uncles, and relatives I never knew I had!

My mom told me that once as a little girl, I told her that I loved funerals (unfortunately having had to partake in too many along the way). It is the scene that I just mentioned that caused me to say that then, naive to the ramifications funerals brought to our lives. There is something about the gatherings that take place amidst the loss that brings comfort–everyone abandoning their commitments in order to just be together. That is what my Aunt Linda’s house was like, though noisy and crowded, I knew that I was where I needed to be.

I had the great privilege of writing my grandmother’s eulogy (well, more like facilitating the inputs of many, particularly my mom who co-wrote with me). Of course, being a Catholic family we do not have eulogies at funerals, so instead it was read just before the wake started. My dad did the reading and though I had written and re-written many many times, I still joined every wet eye in the place when Dad’s voice broke in tribute of his dear mother.

It was an exhausting week at home, though incredibly rich in many ways. My sister was home from Boston and our uncle Kevin from BC stayed with us as well. Once again I ate too much and stayed up far too late talking into the night with family. I did a reading at the funeral on Saturday morning and by Sunday I was packing again to leave. It felt far too soon and this time I found it very hard to leave the island. In fact, Sunday evening as I entered my apartment, I burst into sobs.

Perhaps it is the loss of my grandmother (the last grandparent for me), imagining my family without its matriarch (always the glue that held us together), or maybe just the emotion of leaving a family that cares so much for one another; but whatever it was, Sunday night alone back at my place felt very empty and long.

All of this has me thinking so much. Am I making a mistake starting my masters and commiting to 2 more years away? It is the first time I have ever truly looked back after  leaving the island two years ago.  I see what I have given up and am weighing it out wondering if it was worth it. Perhaps part of the pull is that existential longing found in so many people from my generation who are desperate for some sort of roots. We are indeed a rootless generation and although the world is at our beckon call, our sense of home is virtually unreachable. My island family is slow to assimilate and stirs that longing for home in my wandering soul. But I know that for now at least I am where I want to be–though for perhaps the first time in my adult life I can picture my returning to P.E.I. someday (who would have thought?!).

This week, after the whirlwind of returning, my parents came to visit. As much as I needed a large family around me, they needed some reprieve from it. Where does an islander go to get rest? To a smaller island!  We took two nights away from life and spent them on Deer Island (see this blog to hear about my previous adventures there) where life moves slower than you can ever imagine (even for those of us from PEI). We also took a day trip over to Campobello Island, home of President F.D.Roosevelt’s beloved summer home (worth checking out if you are ever in the area). The greatest part is the ferry ride in the Fundy Bay!

And now it’s over and I have to go back to regular life again. I can hardly remember what that is like. I find myself having to fight the urge to lock myself in my apartment and succumb to my lethargic whims telling me to forsake all responsibility, eat tons of cookies, and watch movies and reruns of The Office.

Kelly Clarkson’s Grudge

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I woke up this morning to Kelly Clarkson’s song “Never Again” on my alarm clock. Man that girl is bitter. It’s not just that song, it’s EVERY song she’s ever had out (minus the original ballad from American Idol). At first I was like “you go girl and tell off all those (insert choice word) men that screwed you over.”  Now it’s just gotten old and I am wondering: is it just that she is holding a very long grudge toward some guy that hurt her once, or does she just keep getting dumped over and over?

I either feel a lot of pity for her or I am very annoyed by her, i’m not sure which. Maybe a little of both.  I hope for all our sakes that the next guy she meets will be someone who is too scared to dump her.


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"Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things"

Currently reading…

"'Tis" by Frank McCourt

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