Thursday, 15 December 2011

From Patchwork of Memories to Stories


Today is my maternal grandmother's birthday.  Her name was Laurette Desjardins. She would have been 99 years old. Every year, my mom sends out an e-mail to me and my brother, reminding us that it's her birthday.

Every year, it leaves me nostalgic because I never really knew my grandmother.  She died when I was only two years old.  My memories of her are patchwork at best. Once, in a perfume store, my cousin and I recognized a scent but couldn't place it. My mother and my aunt came to investigate, and they informed us that it was the same scent as the pot-pourri my grandmother so loved and used in her home. Another time, a wallpaper caught my eye and tugged at my memories. It was the same wallpaper that had graced my grandmother's walls.

My other grandmother, Simonne Bilodeau, died before I was even born.  It was years before I learned she collected tea cups, just as I did.  I inherited the saucers, since the cups were long lost.  It's a funny connection to a woman I never knew, but hearing the stories my family shares, I feel as though I do know her.


My maternal grandfather, Gérard Desjardins, died when I was six. I remember he used to give us cookies and he had a short leg (he had suffered from polio). My other grandfather, Louis-Georges Bilodeau, died when I was a bit older, but he was badly off in his final days, so I try not to remember the final visit we paid at the hospital. All I really remember is the pain on my dad's face when his father didn't recognize any of us.  Instead, I focus on the days we spent at his camp, and how he used to sit and smile as he listened to his children and grandchildren chat and laugh.

Roomy grew up with her grandparents. She stayed with them after school, celebrated occasions with them and even brought us home to their place once, our gang of girls, to meet them. Her grandfather slipped me $20 when I left.  I didn't know what to do, but apparently that's what grandparents do, Roomy informed me.  I learned a lot about grandparents from hearing her speak of them.

A patchwork of memories, at best.

What's in a Name?

As we celebrate my grandmother's 99th birthday, I can't help but think of how lucky my niece and nephew are.  All of their grandparents still live, and I sincerely hope they'll get to know all of them well. 

In a way, my grandparents live on in the stories we're told, and in our names. Mine captured my grandmothers' and my mom's (Suzanne Laurette Simonne Marie Bilodeau is my long catholic name).

My brother's captures the granddads' and dad's (Gilles Louis-Georges Gérard Jean-François Bilodeau. The priest said there was no room for Joseph. I might have screwed up the order of my brother's name - sorry, Jean! Note that on our baptisms our actual first names come right before our last names. I believe that's because once you get there, you won't remember everything that came beforehand.)

My nephew's name captures grandparents like nobody's business, George Henri Bilodeau.  My great-grandfather was Georges-Henri Bilodeau.  My sister-in-law's dad is George.  So they used the French spelling of Henri, the English spelling of George, and there you go. Pretty awesome, eh?

My niece is Ada-Marie Marguerite Bilodeau.  I'm sorry, but that's the cutest name in existence.  Ada was my sister-in-law's grandmother, an artist who studied with the Group of Seven (Ada Torrance). I get a hyphen, which touched me so much I actually didn't know what to say when they introduced me to their little girl and told me her name.  Marguerite is my sister-in-law's mother's middle name.

So what's in a name?  A history.  A story.  A link to those who came before us, and to those who'll come after us.

What's in a Story?

Last night, I had the great honour of being the feature performer at Voices of Venus, an Ottawa-based spoken word series focused on female performers (an awesome series, always with a warm and welcoming audience. Worth checking out!)  I was given a wide field to play in: tell stories of strong women on a cold December day.

I decided to hinge my stories on a hoe I had found behind the couch (you can imagine the fun we all had with the word play!)  That hoe, I now know, belonged to my great aunt. For years I was fascinated by the story of this strange object, broken in two, the wood old and coarse, the metal rust-covered. I carried it around with me, for a while. It's in my car trunk right now, actually. Don't ask me why - I honestly don't know. Yet it lives there. I guess that I've learned by now to let my mind explore stories in its own way. Sometimes, it feels like I'm just along for the ride.

I hinged the storytelling set yesterday on finding the perfect ending for Maribella, whom I'd given the hoe to, in my story. It took many tries, but I think that, in the end, we found it.

I tend to weave genealogy, family legends and history into my stories. I think part of it is that I never really knew my grandparents except through story. Their siblings, lives and histories all came to me as stories and suppositions.

Weaving them into stories is not necessarily leading to enlightening any actual history, but it does allow me to imagine I get to glimpse, for a brief moment, their dreams, desires and fears.

And they, in turn, get to wield swords and ride air ships. I think they'd like that. They are related to me, after all!

So, bonne fête grand-maman.  I'll meet you again and again in story. And I can't wait!