My Heritage


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.


4 Responses to “My Heritage”

  1. 1 Dayna Chu September 1, 2007 at 2:45 am

    Amazingly expressed, Shelley! What a touching tribute to your meme. “Love is for everyone, not just the perfect…” that’s a great principle and philosophy.

    Thanks so much for sharing your heart and your Meme’s life!


  2. 2 Ryan September 2, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    I got a little teary-eyed reading this. I think it’s wonderful that you have such a fantastic perspective on the lives of your grandparents…so many people know nothing about what their grandparents went through at times to make life easier for their children and grand-children in harder times. Here’s to your Meme…

  3. 3 Jeannie September 21, 2014 at 11:30 am

    I was suggestsd this blog by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written byy him as nobody else know such detailed about my trouble.

    You’re amazing! Thanks!

  4. 4 Warren January 15, 2015 at 10:02 am

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    What if you could copy article from other sources, make it unique and
    publish on your page – i know the right tool for you, just
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