© 2020 Donna Hébert. All rights reserved.
Today is National Acadian Day in Canada, marking the 1755 date when the British forcibly and brutally deported French Acadian settlers from Nova Scotia, some 11,500 of the 14,000 living there at the time. As history, this had essentially intellectual meaning for me until last year, when I learned that my 4th great grandfather had been deported from Grand Pré in 1755 at the age of 19. I pictured his family reacting to this outrage, pictured his mother weeping. He took 20 years to do it, but Etienne Hébert not only reunited his family, he brought hundreds of others from his Grand Pré community to Becancour, just south of Trois Rivières in Québec.
There was nothing dry any more about these real people who were my ancestors. Almost all my Québecois ancestors originally settled in and were driven from Acadie. Some of them still rest in the cemetery at Fort Anne in downtown Annapolis Royal. None of this was known to us until 2019, when one of the genealogists at the Annapolis Heritage Society took on my search.
As a very closeted Franco-American, I grew up in a family where our French-ness wasn’t important or even mentioned much. My parents didn’t bring their heritage into daily life. French-Canadian was the common term in the 1950s and Franco-American as an identity came into use in the 1970s. As it was, only one of my three French-Canadian grandparents spoke the language daily. She was my father’s mother, Clara Hébert Hinds . She chattered away with her friend Josée from across the street but when I asked her why she didn’t teach us to speak French, Nana replied, “Little pitchers have big ears.” As an adult, I saw that French was her private language where she didn’t have to watch what she said, a sanctuary. She attended Mass in French almost every day, said her rosary in French but, born in Franklin NH, she still considered herself American, not French-Canadian, and I never once heard her call herself Acadian.
Nana was highly skilled with a needle. Women and men sought her out. She altered and repaired clothing, made new dresses and wedding party outfits and also repaired the zippers in old men’s woolen trousers, not a task I would have enjoyed. She taught me how to position patterns to cover every scrap of fabric when cutting out material. She often inherited the leftovers from her custom work and would find an artful way to use them.
Nana would turn on the radio to listen to the station in Québec late at night and sew while Papa worked the night shift at the woolen mill. The Singer sewing machine and ironing board were in her bedroom. When I was little, I’d sleep in the big double bed behind the machine, letting the motion of the treadle and the sound of music in French lull me to sleep.
For all that, my family was so thoroughly assimilated that I wasn’t aware of my own French-ness at the gut level, as an actual birthright that I already carried within me, until I met Josée Vachon in the early 1990s. Sitting around Martha Pellerin’s dinner table with her and other French women, I realized that our busy conversational rhythm was comfortable, breaking up into duets and jumping back in with comments about what someone else just said. There was a give and take there that has never been part of Yankee conversational etiquette. I felt at home. Even if I didn’t speak French much (and that, badly), these were my people. I belonged. For several decades, every time I cross into Quebec, and now, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, my eyes fill with tears and there’s a sense of homecoming.
I still feel that way. I understand myself better knowing that many things about me are French, in the blood, can’t be removed even if I tried (and why would I do that?). I understand that the music of my French-Canadian ancestors, Acadian and Québecois, flows like their DNA through my veins and down my arms. Speaking French may still be tough, but my fiddle speaks it fluently for me and now I know who I am . . . and I think Nana knows, too.
Here’s her song, called “Nana Danced.” I wrote it back in the ’90s, when I was singing in Chanterelle with Josee Vachon, Liza Howe Constable and Alan Bradbury.
© 1994 Donna Hébert, all rights reserved. Recorded on “Soirée Chez Nous” in 1996 with Chanterelle. Written for her French-Canadian Nana, who really did die of a heart attack while playing sixteen cards at Bingo.