a poignant peek at the cultural evolution of closely-knit family ties
My, oh my, how times have changed.
A reflexive smile mirrors my thoughts while sifting through a passel of old photos from the early fifties, prints of long-since deceased relatives from my father’s side. They were a hardy brood of poor, but proud and resourceful French Canadians who had emigrated from the logging camps of eastern Quebec to the mountains of central New Hampshire. Back then, their closely-knit clan lived together within a small enclave of tidy little farmsteads built atop a high knoll, a picture-perfect scene overlooking apple orchards and hay fields. A wide boulder-strewn trout stream wound its way about the base to complete the idyllic setting.
Generations must come and go I suppose, but I truly do miss the fun and frolic of the good 'ol days. These family snapshots may have inspired immeasurable pleasant memories, but at sixty-nine, it also saddens me that so few of us descendants are left— let alone that we've become indifferent strangers scattered to all points of the compass. Yeah, times sure have changed.
I was about ten at the time when just about every Saturday my folks would pack the old Woodie with our toys, fishing gear, and baskets of food stuffs for a festive gathering pitching horseshoes, playing cards, or fiddling. My only regret was not learning their language when I had the chance. When I grew older, I eventually discovered that during the war my Dad "did the right thing" as they say, and married a volunteer nurse from a prominent English family. But the price Mom paid was high, for I never did get to know her half of my heritage. Stripped of her title and a sizable dowry, she was immediately exiled; ironically not so much for getting pregnant out of wedlock, but for "having brought a commoner, a foreigner, a bloody Canuck" into their noble Devonshire fold. By default, we kids grew up speaking only English at home which at times hindered our ability to fully appreciate much of the weekend camaraderie.
Nevertheless, and speaking of good-natured Canucks, I've stumbled upon a closeup of my Aunt Amelia of whom I was particularly fond. What a character she was— a sprightly, but quick-tempered and tough-as-nails widow who lived for Red Sox baseball. Whether by choice or if a bout of bad weather had kept me from fishing or playing in the hayloft, I relished spending an afternoon with her listening to a ballgame on the Philco.
She would lock the common portal separating us from the clan reveling at her younger sister's, my Aunt Teresa's attached bungalow next door. She'd swear me to secrecy when handing me one of her big cigars and a jigger of applejack my Uncle Armand was famous for. In fact, she told me stories of how her brother's home-brew got him deported five times, but his potent brandy proved so popular with the village locals, they'd pay his fines and bring him back across the border.
Aunt Amelia was quite the pistol; what fun times we’d have smoking cigars and sipping ‘shine while cheering for another Ted Williams homer. It was then I’d learned most of what little Canadian French I still recall, like when a Sox infielder bobbled an easy grounder. Oh my, how the string of cuss words flowed from Aunt Amelia’s lips.
She was also the one who rescued little Poivre, Grandfather Pépé’s black and white Spaniel from a freakish accident at the fishing hole. I had hooked an enormous yard-long eel, and when it popped the surface, its sheer size and wild gyrations startled me. Panicky, I quickly whipped it 'round toward shore where it hit little Pepper in the rump. In less than a flash, that slippery, writhing, twisting s.o.b. managed to weave itself into a massive knot of fishing line, eel, and dog tail.
The crazed pooch whirled its behind in circles, yelping and biting at the tangled gob. I held fast to the other end as if fighting a marlin, trying to control the frenzied action until my brother could fetch help. He soon returned and sat on the exhausted mutt as Aunt Amelia cut away line and chunks of eel with a filet knife found in Dad's tackle box. Minus blotches of fur and likely a lot more dignity, it seemed like hours before my grandfather's spaniel was freed.
But all was not a total loss as a platter of fried eel bits ended up among the many side dishes that night. Despite Aunt Amelia's superb culinary talents with cayenne seasoning, I hated the pungent taste and made mental notes never to reel in another one of those slimy 'bâtards' again. But, oh how those Saturday night feasts have remained forever embedded in my mind, where the mood was always warm and cheerful as everyone gathered at Aunt Teresa's for a smörgåsbord of story-telling and home-grown recipes.
Though Aunt Teresa had only an old wood-burning stove, she was an unrivaled master in the kitchen; everything made from scratch whether she was making ordinary meals to curing bacon or grinding her own flour. Flipping through these photos, I can almost smell the baked pork 'n beans simmering for hours in molasses, or the spongy sourdough loaves for sopping up side dishes of minced deer meat and 'tourtiers', her seasoned pork pies that were to die for. Others brought canning jars filled with pickled pig’s feet, relishes, rhubarb, and corn tips. For desserts, I still long for her apple crumble and cinnamon swirls— or “trou du cul’s” as my Aunt Amelia used to call them, meaning little ‘ass holes’ to us giggling kids. Ah, and no doubt among the many favorites was her steaming hot, sweet brown-breads saturated with slabs of melted butter churned that very morning. As a special treat, Mom would sometimes daub a healthy spoonful of hooch-flavored maple sauce on top. I swear, life didn’t get any better than that.
Yes indeed, those were the days— when kin were close, foods were wholesome, and treasured photos were kept in shoe boxes versus sim cards for all to hold and share. I could go on and on reliving many a precious moment, like the hours I'd spent in the barn cuddling baby chicks, or of riding atop Cain and Abel, a pair of powerful Belgians Uncle Frank harnessed to the hay wagon, and especially of standing in awe of Normandie, a gigantic bull moose Grandfather Pépé had raised from an orphaned calf into pulling timber from the nearby wood.
We’ve all heard it said how pictures are worth a thousand words. Maybe so, but for me, I reckon they’re worth much, much more. Each one of these images could easily morph into double the verbiage in delectable memories, or “deux-mille mémoires” as my Acadian ancestors can almost be heard whispering from behind the veil of the beyond. May God bless them all.