Andrèe Seu Peterson: Je me souviens

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, October 14th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Here now is WORLD commentator Andrée Seu Peterson.

ANDRÉE SEU PETERSON, COMMENTATOR: 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 in school just after “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Not that I was born in Quebec but more like a stage reproduction of it, a trompe l’oeil of culture, with Ste. Anne de Beaupre in miniature on the banks of the Blackstone River.

We’re talking about a hemorrhaging of humanity southward from the St. Lawrence River around 1900, pooling 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 Jacque Cartier and Samuel de Champlain, men weary of nine months of snow-bitten earth, 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. There it languished, and there it died, in that graveyard of all languages, America. It was a murder that took four generations and ours put the final dagger in. Still, we might still be speaking French today if Francis I had not been an indifferent patron of exploration, and Henri IV had not been busy waffling between Catholic or Protestant identity.

It was back to this land that my friend Lynn decided I should go and that she should take me. And so, after the death of my husband, 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 hosed nightly and still shimmering, the way Monet does shimmering. And we rode the caliche through the Plains of Abraham and conjured the ghosts of General Wolfe and Montcalme 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.

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 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. Moi, je me souviens. Et le Seigneur, il se souviendra. (I remember, and the Lord, he will remember.)

For WORLD Radio, I’m Andrée Seu Peterson.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

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