Before I begin, let me be clear: I am no stranger to long car rides. With my paternal family settled in southern New Jersey, and my maternal relatives mainly scattered around MontrÃ©al, the drive over the Verrazano Bridge and up the I-95 from our home on Long Island was a familiar and unremarkable journey.With the sheets of ice still clinging to the sheer edges of solid rock that jut up and out from the landscape surrounding the highway, the short breaths of spring were hard to spot, but looking for the buds of late March, I – an experienced observer – took note.
We were headed up to LaSalle for Easter with my mother’s family in their little sleepy Canadian town, only this spring there was a change in plans. My grandfather, a wiry man of ninety one years, is still rather insistent. Having grown up on a farm in eastern Quebec, dearest Ferdinand still gets his honey and syrup from a man down the road from his childhood home. Having not returned to lovely Coaticook since the death and burial of my grandmother eight years earlier, my mother decided we should take her father on a four-hour drive to his “lieu de naissance.” Since mon grand-pa-pa needs his homemade syrup more than he needs clocks to build or Flintstone tapes to watch, we all obliged this visit to his roots.
Heading east was a gorgeous ride through the peaceful Canadian “paysage,” or countryside, and the remarkable nature of the stillness of empty greening fields is oddly soothing even as I sit, trying to pick apart years of traveling north of the border. Though I couldn’t tell you how exactly we ended up in Coaticook nor how we made it without my navigationally-inclined father, the ride passed easily while I practiced my French linguistic skills with my grandfather and my younger brother complained about our “foreign talk.” While trying to maneuver our clumsy Windstar through the narrow dirt roads leading to the family farm, now operated by my mother’s cousin, Laurent, and his wife, Diane, I contemplated exactly what I would say to these distant relatives of mine. To be honest, I was clueless, and even here everyone managed to notice the bitter twang of my New York accent seeping through my advancing French.
Traveling to Coaticook was not something I had ever wanted to do again, only remembering the village by the somber funeral procession just months before my seventh birthday. But as we halted in front of the correct address, Laurent stepped onto the porch and waived, walking down his stairs with an uneven gait I will attribute to sixty-one years of hard labor in the Quebec sun. Diane stepped down after him, her long grey braid stunning me. I was grateful that I would never have to plow or harvest or tend to livestock as they had. I suddenly realized how cushy my little life was, how unthreatened I stood.
Seeing my cousin Manot for the first time, I realized how far apart our worlds were. She, only ten years older than me, was already married with three feisty sons. Even being distantly if even remotely related, the family resemblance between her oldest boy, Ryan, and my brother was almost eerie. Their habits coincided. The little visit to my grandfather’s village managed to show me the odd happiness seeing family can bring, and the importance of understanding not only heritage but heart.
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