Well, there ya go…
I have an old photograph. I don’t know who took it and I’m not sure exactly when it was taken, but it must have been sometime in 1944 because in the picture my father is holding in his arms my step-sister, Denise, who was born on January 10th, 1943. In the photograph she appears to be a year old or so, which would mean the photo would have been taken sometime in mid 1944. Given that my father’s first wife, Yvonne, died on June 22nd, 1945, it stands to reason that the photo was taken sometime in 1944. It doesn’t look like Yvonne was pregnant at the time with Roger, but she may have been.
There is no obvious way to tell where the photo was taken, but the ground is dry and there’s no snow. I’m guessing it was taken somewhere in or close to New Westminster, British Columbia. Actually everyone in the photo is dressed for a nice, warmish spring day, and they’re all standing in front of my father’s 1929 Ford Model T.
In the photo, my father’s first wife, Yvonne, is farthest on the left. She is standing just behind my step-sister, Lucille, who at that time was two years old or so and she has her hands resting on Lucille’s shoulders. Next to her on her right is my father and he, as I said, is holding Denise. Standing next to him is my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier at the time. Next to her is Rémi Leguerrier who married my father’s older sister, Isabelle, and farthest on the right is my aunt, Cécile, mother’s older sister. Uncle Rémi, standing between them, has his arms around the shoulders of my mother and my aunt. He’s smiling too. The children are not smiling, neither is Yvonne although she may have been suffering from morning sickness and that might explain why.
Who could know when this picture was taken that my father’s first wife would be dead within the year and my mother, Lucienne Leguerrier would be his new wife within two years. So, here we have my father flanked by his wives. Never would he have guessed at that moment, smiling for the camera, holding his youngest daughter, that Yvonne would be gone and that he would be scrambling to find a way to look after his five daughters while still going to work. The picture tells nothing of the sorrow to come.
As it turns out, my father and Yvonne had over the years since moving to British Columbia in 1936 made friends with the nuns who ran St. Mary’s hospital in New Westminster where all their children would be born. Apparently my mother had worked there for a time and it was they who suggested, after Yvonne died, that my father ask my mother to come help look after the children while he went to work in local sawmills. That wasn’t a stretch, because the Albert family knew the Leguerrier clan when everyone was still living in the vicinity of Bonnyville, Alberta a few years before. So, my father knew my mother’s family before a number of them migrated to BC during the Depression looking for work. My father was resourceful and capable of doing various kinds of mill-related work so he was able to find employment. My mother too.
When Yvonne died, my father asked my mother if she would help and she agreed that she would. Months later, actually it wasn’t too many months later, my father had my grandfather and grandmother come to New Westminster to look after the children because my mother had returned to Alberta unexpectedly it seemed. It turns out that she had returned to Alberta anticipating that my father would join her shortly so they could be married in Alberta at Fort Kent and both return to New Westminster as husband and wife.
Now my step-sisters had a new mom. My mother was only twelve years older than my oldest step-sister, Hélène. That caused minor friction to start with because when Yvonne died my father had told Hélène that she would now have to be mommy to the four younger ones. Now, she was being displaced as mother of the family but that animosity soon dissipated because my mother had lived with them for a few months already giving time for attachments to grow between them.
I cannot imagine that my father was not steeped in pain and sorrow during that whole time, but he had no other choice but to carry on. Sorrow must give way to children and their needs.
I don’t mean this series of posts to be or become an exposé of my family’s little secrets. I have not discussed this series with my family members at all. I’m sure they would have very different memories and impressions of the lives we shared than I do. I use some of the incidents and events I know about or have some impression of as a means of expressing my sense of the complexity of life and especially of relationships both personal and social.
Life is complicated. Relationships are complicated. People are complicated. Take my father, for instance. He was intelligent, generous, level headed and kind hearted, but at times he had fits of anger that were shocking because they were so out of character for him. He teased us mercilessly, sometimes to distress. He could be, and was, physically violent on rare occasions. We never spoke of such things so I have no way of knowing what were the deep-seated causes of his rare bouts of uncontrollable anger. He was never violent towards my mother that I know of, but he beat my older sisters one time that I recall very vividly. From what I remember, my sisters were whining and complaining about doing the dishes or some such thing, probably yelling and screaming, fighting amongst themselves when my father, for some reason had had enough of it. He let fly with a pot that was handy, hitting them with it repeatedly until they were all cowered on the floor, weeping and in shock. I might have been six or seven years old at the time and I remember cowering myself in the hallway, by the bathroom door wondering what could possibly be going on. To this day as I think about it, I can still feel the sense of fear that overwhelmed me at the time. I don’t recall anyone discussing it much after the fact, but it was traumatic and definitely left an impression. That I do recall.
He hit me too on the odd occasion for various reasons. I was no angel as a child and I may not always have conducted myself with the propriety and reasonableness that should, of course, inform the actions of all well-behaved five year old boys. I remember one time when at about six years of age, maybe seven, I smacked a kid (accidentally, of course) over the head with a garden hoe drawing a substantial amount of blood. No serious damage done, but you know how head wounds can bleed. I got ‘the strap’ for that one. When my father got home from work that day and my mother had conferred with him telling him of all the sordid details of my great misdead, his duty (I presume he saw it as that) would be to clinically administer several blows to my open hand with a rubber and leather strap he had gotten from his workplace and which he kept on a kitchen shelf for just such occasions. He did not draw blood, but in his mind I had to learn that there were consequences for what I had done. The logical course of action was for him to hit me, a perfectly acceptable and even expected thing to do at the time.
My father was driven by a sense of duty to his church, his family, and French-Canadian tradition. He did not question his duty to have as many children as God expected of him and he took great joy in each of us. He was ill-educated in the formal sense. He never learned to read nor write although he could do rudimentary arithmetic. He might have made it only to grade four in school but it was not because he was incapable of schoolwork, but because he was needed to work on the farm in Alberta and for other reasons not of concern here for the moment. He seldom drank alcohol and didn’t smoke but he did gamble every once in a while. He was what most people would have called “a good man” in the day. He worked hard and rose to management positions in lumber mills around the Lower Mainland in spite of his illiteracy.
I don’t know if what I am about to write is true or not, but it may very well be given the time. It was 1945, June 22nd. The war would be over soon. Normally this day would be a time for celebration, but this day would not be one of those. This day my father’s wife, Yvonne, would die in childbirth. She was an otherwise healthy 29 year old woman who had already given him five daughters. This day, something would go horribly wrong in the delivery room and Yvonne would bleed to death. Her newborn son would also die in the deIivery room. I heard it said that Yvonne died because my father couldn’t afford a blood transfusion that would have saved her life. I don’t know that to be true, but just imagining what he had to go through with his wife dying in childbirth and five young daughters to look after at home I expect that he was wrought with anger, panic and despair no matter how his wife had died. He may have believed that it was God’s will. I’m certain my father thought about that wretched day in 1945 every subsequent day of his life.
I know where I was conceived. It was in a small rickety, squeaky bed in a small room at the end of a small corridor, door on the right. I’m quite convinced all nine of my younger brothers and sisters were also conceived there although I can’t be absolutely certain. I’m not at all sure of where my older siblings were conceived. They are my father’s children but not my mother’s. They shared this house with the rest of us but the details are not important for now. The small room where I was conceived was also the room where the baby of the family slept. There was always a baby in the family as I was growing up.
The house containing this small room was also small, and it was always full of children. It no longer exists. The small room and the small house are gone now, torn down and replaced by a large brown duplex not so many years ago. No one driving by on the inconspicuous street on which it fronts would ever know that the house in which I grew up had ever existed. Yet there was life there, lots of life. There still is life on that same place, in the brown duplex, but the people living there now would have no idea of the life that preceded them in that very location years before, just as I have no idea of the life that goes on in that duplex now. We share the experience of a place those duplex dwellers and I, not that they are aware of that. Why would they be?
January 29th, 2015, marked the 69th anniversary of my parents’ wedding day. My father has been dead since April, 2007 but my mother lives on in body if not in mind. She no longer recognizes the faces nor the voices of any of her family members and every moment of her life now is disconnected from her past and even from the very moment preceding it. She spends most of her days in a state of catatonia, as a result of years of dementia, she cannot feed herself and three years ago she was beaten up by another resident of the home in which she lives, but that’s mostly forgotten now.
In days gone by, when I was born, say, there was much life in my mother. She was a young, beautiful, strong twenty-one year old woman, twelve years younger than my father. In her time, she bore ten children, five daughters and four sons. I’m the oldest of my mother’s children but the sixth oldest of my father’s. He had five daughters from a previous marriage before his wife died in 1946 in childbirth bearing her sixth child, a son they were to call Roger. He shares a coffin with his mother.
…to be continued sometime.