JAMES LaFOREST for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT
Among the pantheon of characters in the French North American narrative, St. Anne is firmly established as one of the earliest and most important. The grandmother of Jesus and the Mother of Mary, St. Anne was already an important figure among French Catholics, with one of the earliest sites of devotion to her found in northern France. St. Anne is the patron saint of Brittany where many early settlers embarked from, as well as of those who voyage by sea. Among the First Nations, St. Anne was quickly understood as ‘grandmother’ and acquired a deep and lasting significance among First Nations, Metis, and French Canadians alike.
Grandma LaForest was very religious. She went to Mass nearly every day and probably would have gone twice if she could. Although we did not go together per se, we all went to Mass on Saturday evening and as kids we sat in the row right behind Grandma. She always sat next to the center aisle, in the second row. Three of her sisters and many cousins would usually be scattered around the church. In the Summer relatives who were Up North to see family or to visit their place on Black Lake would be there too. That was my experience at St. Paul’s, in Onaway, Michigan: surrounded by an extended French Canadian family.
For a long time Grandma lived with her mother, my Great Grandma Bernia. They lived next door to Great Aunt Louise, Uncle Ray, and (as my cousin Denise says) “God’s special boy, Kenny” in a one-bedroom house up on the hill in town that belonged to the Beauregards. It had a nice yard and they had a thriving garden. We didn’t spend much time in the yard and always had to ask permission to play in Uncle Ray’s lot across the street. I have a dim memory of sitting on my Great Grandmother’s lap in the years before her health gave way.
Grandma too had some health problems. I think the worst of her health problems was thinking she had a lot of them. Of course, when people get older, they often have more need to see the doctor. Sometimes I think that Grandma sought medical care because she thought there was something ‘wrong’ with her and that it could be fixed by medicine. I imagine that life’s twists and turns – she was widowed at 46 and worked for years in a garment factory – might have weighed her down.
When I got to an age when I could be in town on my own and especially after I learned to drive, I would visit Grandma fairly often. I used to enjoy spending the night with her when I was little, but I enjoyed my later visits with her even more. We would play cards and drink Zing. Sometimes she’d share her homemade strawberry preserves with me, on rice cakes. She was the first person who got me to eat a piece of apple pie, and it was a life-changing experience!
Once I visited and Grandma was making tourtière, which we called meat pie. It smelled like Thanksgiving, the aroma of sage lifted by the steam. I had never seen my grandma lift so many big pots. I saw her pouring her heart into that tourtière. She was consumed with making holiday fare.
When she was in her 70s, Grandma quit smoking. One day I was visiting and we were sitting in the living room watching the PTL club (had there been a Catholic religious show available, she certainly would have been watching that…), and I asked her why she had quit smoking. She said she had been sitting in her chair one day and she heard a voice from behind her, near the windows, that told her to quit cigarettes and she did, after many decades of smoking. She said it was the Blessed Virgin Mary. I would later learn it was not the first miracle recorded in our family history.
My father quit the same year after close to 50 years of smoking. As far as I remember, they both quit cold turkey which was how I did it many years later. I took it on faith that Grandma heard what she said she heard. I didn’t know how to respond to her, but I was happy she quit smoking.
Eventually I left home and a few years later, when I was at school, Grandma passed away. During my college years I gradually gave away a lot of things because moving apartments six or seven times in the course of four years will do that to you. Among the things I gave away was a plaster cast statue of the Blessed Virgin that Grandma had given me. Sometimes I have regretted giving that away.
I’ve come to realize though that when she gave me that statue, she was probably hoping that in the course of my life I might look at it and remember a bit about how I was raised. But with or without the statue, when it came to remembering how I was brought up, it was my visits with Grandma that left the more lasting impression. It was in witnessing her ‘everyday moments’ of generosity and humble devotion (despite her frailties) that I learned to honor faith and tradition –– meaningful gifts in their own right but especially when passed on as something of value to the next generation.