GENOT PICOR for THE STORYKEEPERS PROJECT
In the little French village above the straits, the end of September marked the time of the year when people chopped wood to be stored for winter. Four families in the hamlet (Goudreau, Sabourin, Trudell and La Forest) came together to lend laughter, food and muscle to the task at hand. This way, each family benefited from their shared labors. The autumnal tradition had been part of the circle of life once the newly arrived Fils du Roy married the traders, trappers, and voyageurs who found other occupations and settled into quiet community life.
Now, as the teller of this tale, I want to be clear about this annual ritual. I’m not sure it is practiced by any other village west of Les Cheneaux and south of Grand Marais. Each individual family hosted the entourage of relatives and friends on four successive Saturdays, which by my count covers one month. Even weddings were discouraged during this time of the year, which was really more a matter of convenience or inconvenience, depending on your circumstance. You see, Fr. Jacques La Forest, the parish priest, was one of the woodchoppers who lent a hand.
Friends and family members arrived early on a Saturday morning. The women brought dishes of food to pass and helped the mother of the household prepare hot meals for everyone. The men, dressed in their flannel jackets, dungarees and tap-board caps arrived with their axes and “misery whips,” which were long two-man saws. Work began in earnest and proceeded well into the afternoon. Those who could not work because of age or frailty were also invited. Uncle Gautier was one such individual. He earned his leisure as a retired lumberman, saw mill operator and family member who gave up his month of Saturdays from decades past.
You may recall from an earlier story called “Boue Pudding,” that our dear Uncle Gautier’s memory was starting to fade. Even still, his body was strong and he remained stout and barrel-chested. Much like his voyageur forebears, he was short and muscular, with deep set eyes and a stubbly, greyish white chin. His smile revealed staggered teeth much like those found on a Lance tooth cross-cut saw. Uncle Gautier could tell you stories from his youth in the lumbering camps, but couldn’t remember where he left his suspenders from the day before. His dear wife, our beloved Aunt Assomption had passed away many years ago, and our recollection of her was scant at best.
Genot Élan de L’Hiver and Cousin Paul Andre struggled with one of the bucking saws. Bucking saws could be operated by one person, but Genot and Paul Andre, believing the work would be done twice as fast, took a handle opposite of the other. Back and forth they yanked and pushed on the cradled log, heaving and sweating, each blaming the other for the sticking blade. French curse words were hurled about with such veracity, why, a sailor would have blushed!
“The blade sticks because you young bucks didn’t sharpen the darn thing before you put it to use!” scolded Uncle Gautier. “You’d have been better off buyin’ a couple of rusty, old axes from the Salivation Army store in Cheboygan.”
What you just read was not a misprint, but a direct quote. Uncle Gautier was an unintended master of the Dogberryism in his everyday confusion and butchering of the English language.
“Uncle,” said Claire-Marie, who was setting the table, “I think you mean ‘Salvation.’”
“That’s what I said!” shot back Uncle Gautier.
Genot Élan de L’Hiver and Cousin Paul Andre, both with blank stares had paused to listen to the verbal exchange between Uncle Gautier and Cousin Claire-Marie. Not fully comprehending what had just been said, Genot and Paul Andre shrugged their shoulders and resumed cursing and sawing on the unforgiving log.
Soon thereafter, Claire-Marie rang the dinner bell and the work came to a slow, plodding halt. The men wiped their faces on crinkled kerchiefs and shuffled up to the long, outdoor table, shaking off bits of sweaty saw dust along the way. Fr. La Forest said grace and everyone sat down to a healthy, well-earned meal. Over the tapping and scraping sounds of cutlery on dishes, Uncle Gautier offered a recollection of his departed wife Assomption.
“I remember my time in the logging camp,” began Uncle Gautier. “I would come home from work tired and fatigued, but the pay was good and steady. Your Aunt Assomption, God rest her soul, would have dinner waiting for me. We was recently married almost a year earlier and still gettin’ know each other. Every Saturday night, we went to the social hall to dance, drink beer and have fun. Our favorite tunes was “The Black Velvet Waltz”** and “Woodchopper’s Reel.”**
“Assomption had one annoying trait in those early years. She talked enough to deafen a spider. Everyday I’d come home from work with the sound of the mill saw ringin’ in my ears. I worked a twelve hour shift and all I wanted was silence so I could to eat my dinner in peace.”
Most of those in attendance stopped eating, mostly out of curiosity, for this was to be a story they had never heard.
“No sooner had I sat down to eat, Assomption sat ‘cross from me, leaned forward, folded her arms on the table and started firin’ off her questions. ‘What did you do today?’ ‘Did any of the piqueur (log drivers who used a pike) fall into the river?’ ‘Did you see the new dress Colette Chanteuse was wearin’? She ordered it from the Sears’s catalogue. Do you think she will let me borrow her Sears’s catalogue if I asked?’”
“On and on it went, day after day, and all I wanted was silence. I told her we’d talk after I was done eatin.’ I told her talkin’ and eatin’ didn’t go together and it gave me heartburn, but she never paid me no mind. So one day, I had an idea. I was handy as a woodworker. I made me a tiny ‘chevalet (pronounced ‘shev-ah-LAY’)’ out of wood that I could set on the table.”
Genot interrupted with a question. “Why would you make a tiny ‘Chevrolet’ and place it on the table?”
“Not a Chevrolet you dullard, a chevalet, an ‘easel,’ now let me finish the story. I writ the words ‘Yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘maybe,’ ‘I forgot,’ ‘I don’t know,’ and ‘ask me later’ on a sheet of paper and placed it on the chevalet. I figured any question she asked me could be answered with those words so I could keep on eatin’. All I needed to do was point at the words that answered her question!”
“Well, I brought the chevalet home in my duffle bag. I sat down at the dinner table like always. Assomption brought me my dinner and sat down across from me. Sure enough, right after the first fork-full found its way passed my gums, Assomption began with the questions. ‘Did you hear our favorite musical trio Trois Bouffons is comin’ down from the Soo to play music Saturday night?’ ‘Did you ever get that old 78 dance record back from Jean-Guy?’ Do you think they sell dancin’ shoes in the Sears’s catalogue?’
“Without a word, I reached into my duffle bag and placed the chevalet on the table. At first, Assomption didn’t understand the meanin’ of what I was doin’. She paused for a moment and cautiously resumed askin’ me questions.”
“‘Well, did you know they finally fixed the roof on the bécoose (backhouse/outhouse)?’”
“I paused for a second and pointed to ‘no’ and without a word, kept right on eatin’. Assomption looked puzzled by my action before she asked her next question, but slower this time as the intent and purpose of that action slowly sank in. Her eyes narrowed and she clenched her teeth.”
“’I got a letter from my Aunt Louise in Marquette. Will we be visitin’ her over the New Years?’”
“With my eyes fixed on my dinner, I silently pointed to ‘Ask me later,’ although now that I look back on it, ‘I don’t know’ would have worked just fine I s’pose. But it was the last question that set her off.”
“Did you remember our first year weddin’ anniversary is this week?”
“I meant to point to ‘yes,’ but somehow I mistakenly pointed to ‘I forgot.’ Well by then, Assomption had seen enough. She slammed both hands down on the table and rose up s’fast she knocked the chair to the floor. She came ‘round the table and dumped my dinner on my head while I was mid-fork-full! I got my message ‘cross to her, but I guess she didn’t like it much.”
A stunned gasp rose from long dinner table.
“She never did ‘ask me later’ ‘bout the visit to Aunt Louise. In fact, for a whole week after that, she never spaked a word! When I come home from the saw mill, she’d be sittin’ in the rockin’ chair with her arms folded ‘cross her chest, stone-faced, starin’ out the window of our one room cabin.”
“And ‘OOOOO,’ that woman could be stubborn! She didn’t make me no breakfast OR dinner….didn’t pack my lunch neither. I had to do it all on my own. And while I’d be eatin’ the can of beans and bacon I threw together for supper, the only sound I’d hear was the creakin’ of that rickety rockin’ chair on the floor boards….back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.”
Uncle Gautier motioned the “back and forth” part with a fork in his hand and his head swinging in rhythm from side to side.
“The sound of that rockin’ chair was worse than her questions and more deafenin’ than the mill saw.”
Cousin Gilbert was the only person at that table who let out a loud belly laugh, which is quickly stifled by Claire-Marie’s icy glare.
“How did you make it up to her?” asked little Rosanne. Her round green eyes probed Uncle Gautier’s face for a conclusion to the story.
Uncle Gautier wiped his mouth and paused for a moment before he answered.
“Well, things ‘ventually returned to the way they was. She went back to makin’ me my breakfast, dinner and packin’ me a lunch. Assomption let me be when I come home from work so I could eat in peace. After dinner and weather permittin’, we went out for a walk along the old river road. We talked and got to know each other a little more each time. I hadn’t forgotten ‘bout our anniversary neither, ‘cause you see, you CAN buy dancin’ shoes from the Sears’s catalogue.”
Hear a rendition of Black Velvet Waltz and Woodchopper’s Reel by visiting the website troisbouffons.com. From “Stories that Mimi and Pipi Told” ©Genot “Winter Elk” Picor, 2016. Published on Voyageur Heritage with permission.