BÉBÉ and Me
by Louise Peloquin
My mother lost her first child, a girl. Two years later, I showed up at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, another girl. Both my parents were thrilled with their strong, healthy child and gender didn’t weigh in on their love at first sight. The little girl I became was not as spectacularly striking as my four elder cousins Michelle, Monique, Denyse and Renée. Nonetheless, I was said to be “as cute as a button”, a label I never found particularly pleasing. I simply couldn’t figure out how buttons could be cute. Kittens and puppies and chicks are cute, but buttons? Why couldn’t people just use ”cute” and drop the button part? Anyway, I knew this label wasn’t up to par with “charming” and “stunning“. I had to make do with button cuteness. Fortunately, Maman and Papa had no doubt that buttons could be very cute and their little girl was the proof.
Three and a half years after my arrival, to my parents was born a son, the first son of the first son who was my father. A son eclipsed the button to shine forevermore within the family galaxy.
We only had two grandparents at the time of my brother Antoine’s birth: my father’s parents, both immigrants from Québec who had made a good life for themselves in New England. Joseph my grandfather, a self- made man with a primary school education, had begun his professional life at the age of eight working six days a week in the wool mills of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He and his father had left their family in Canada to try to make good in the then booming textile industry.
Father and son worked, ate and slept in the mill and were allowed to meet on Sundays when they attended Mass together and spent the afternoon sharing stories as they walked around town. In the early evening. Joseph would get back to the warehouse where his “bed” – a bale of wool – was waiting for him. House rules stated that family members had to work and lodge in separate buildings. Joseph missed his father’s company but he always kept a stiff upper lip, feeling lucky to be able to send the two dollars of weekly wages to his mother back in “le pays” – the old country. The foreman quickly noticed the youngster’s quick reflexes and decided to take him under his wing to train him. Joseph climbed up the proverbial ladder and, a half century later, he ended his career managing Lowell’s Tool and Dye Company founded on the success of his inventions. He was very proud of his life’s journey as a self-taught engineer.
My grandmother Marianne, after her own stint in the mills, married her seventeen-year-old beau at age sixteen and soon had her hands full raising two boys and seven girls on the top floor of a Merrimack Street tenement. Honest, hardworking and lovely people, they reflected the traditional values of the times in which they lived. They made it a point to keep their French- Canadian heritage alive by speaking French, living their Catholic Faith and continuing many traditions like the cuisine and the way to raise children. When their elder son presented them with his first son, it was as if their universe had welcomed a new planet.
I revered my little brother and prided myself in the new role of big sister and soon-to-be playmate. Never was I disappointed that he turned out to be a boy rather than a girl. Playing was playing after all. As a girl, dolls were part of my entertainment for sure. But I often found them too pretty to roughhouse. Wrinkling their starched dresses, messing their hair and dirtying their little faces would have displeased them. So I usually proceeded to make my dolls perfectly content by displaying them on the dining room table in a miniature pageant for everyone to admire. I also gave them orders to behave daintily at all times, to practice their piano scales and to sketch and color very carefully. I had heard those instructions ceremoniously given to my cousins Denyse and Michelle. Their mother insisted on their using their time wisely. Playing with me, a younger child, would waste precious time and couldn’t possibly be beneficial.
Maybe my dolls mirrored my accomplished cousins too much and discouraged me from building a real playmate relationship with them. So naturally, I was drawn to other toys and games which fired up my imagination: plastic farm animals with accessories like tractors, silos, fences and barns; little figurines representing all kinds of trades from artists to scientists as well as doctors and nurses, firefighters, soldiers, whatever the toy shop stocked. My all time favorite were my hand-sized plastic horses. With them, I was a girl centaur before even knowing what centaurs were. My collection of a half dozen horses all spoke just like “Mr. Ed”, the TV show star horse. They were the very best of companions and I gladly shared them with my baby brother whom I affectionately called “Bébé Antoine” or just “Bébé”. The big problem was that I couldn’t always understand what Bébé was saying. It was all goo-goo and ga-ga to me. On the other hand, I always understood my horses.
The months slid by and my brother and I were both growing fast. When I was with him and my parents, I never once felt overlooked or underloved. I was my father’s princess and my mother continued to find me as cute as a button even after I knocked one of my front teeth out falling off of the stool I was perched upon in an effort to reach for the forbidden fruit, AKA, the cookie jar. Life was good.
As we were growing in height and hopefully in wisdom, I became more and more aware of family members’ attitudes and reactions towards us children. The feeling became acute and pervasive. I was increasingly sensitive to this during our Sunday lunches at my grandparents’ house, now on Stevens Street. Grand-mother Marianne, whom we called “Mémère”, was an excellent cook, her cuisine largely inspired by the hearty rustic dishes of her native Québec. A favorite meal was the tenderest of pork roasts accompanied by potatoes sautéed in lard and generously buttered mashed turnips and carrots. During summer harvest time, green lettuce leaves handsomely cradled the slices of pumpkin- sized beefeater tomatoes that grandfather,“Pépère”, grew in his garden. Warm dinner rolls, homemade relish, piccalilli and pickles also adorned the dinner table.
The lunches required our dressing in our “Sunday best” – carefully pressed trousers with a white shirt and tie for Bébé and a fluffy-skirted fancy dress for me. Maman knew that our appearance would be scrupulously evaluated and would lead to judgements on how successful and accomplished a mother she was. Mémère expected us at noon on the dot. The threshold barely
crossed, rich, heady aromas of simmering food embraced us. I called this “the Food Fairy’s hug”. Our mouths watered and there was never any need to coax Bébé and me to sit straight, with elbows off the table and napkins tied around our necks. After saying “Bénissez-nous mon Dieu…” – “Bless us Lord…”, steaming platters of food were passed around as the Food Fairy continued to flit about. Cheery conversations abounded as compliments to the cook resounded. Generally, Maman passed the fit mother test mainly because Bébé and I always cleaned our plates with minimal mess and without coercion. Enjoying, one could even say respecting good food, was in our French- Canadian genes.
Then came dessert, or rather multiple deserts. There were always a couple of pies: pecan, cranberry-raisin, apple, blueberry, banana or chocolate crème. Then all sorts of pastry squares. One couldn’t call them simple brownies lest the Food Fairy be insulted. The flavors varied from chocolate to coconut to date, fig, caramel, toffee and yet others which had no specific names because they were Mémère’s secret concoctions. Bébé and I had a favorite desert – home made butterscotch ice cream sundae topped with a generous dollop of freshly whipped, slightly sweetened double cream.
The ice cream came from Kimball’s farm and melted quickly causing the topping to slide down the sides of the bowl and dangerously threaten the white linen table cloth. As soon as the ice cream tower began to lean, Bébé and I were allowed to rescue the cream with our fingers. The procedure entailed licking, slurping and tongue-clicking, certainly not part of proper table manners. The sight of our little fingers oozing with sweet white liquid horrified Maman who thought she would lose her rank as a good mother. But no. Mémère allowed this violation of dining etiquette simply because she was thrilled to see that her creations were so very much appreciated by her grandchildren. Maman didn’t dare contradict the lady of the house.
It was during one of these epic Sunday lunches that I began to observe that I was treated differently from my little brother. I have to say that from the earliest age, he was a precocious talker, singer, performer and storyteller who constantly put Mémère in awe. She showered compliments on him commenting how he was “un beau grand garçon très intelligent”, a handsome, very intelligent big boy. It wasn’t that she ignored me. I received my smile, hug and kiss upon arrival but not much else, not even the abhorred “cute as a button” comment. At first I just brushed it all off thinking that favoring the younger child was in the natural order of family displays of affection and never was I jealous. But when I saw that Bébé’s sundae was systematically garnished with far more butterscotch and cream than mine was, perplexity set in and I started tuning into the adult conversations for confirmation of my suspicions.
Sure enough, Mémère talked incessantly about “Antoine, le fils”, the son who would insure the family’s future. She punctuated her tirades with loving glances towards Bébé, catching his eye and beaming. When I tried to make eye contact with her, she usually turned away, not out of hostility but rather like someone who glimpses towards a familiar inanimate object like a table or a chair. It’s there. It’s useful. But otherwise it’s devoid of interest. More details of the sort cropped up – rather unpleasant words relating to my resemblance to “the other side of the family”, observations about my uncontrollable, baby-fine brown hair and my missing front tooth
which marred my smile. These times never once triggered animosity against my brother or even against my grandmother. They just made me feel sad inside. I felt like a multicolored birthday balloon which had once delighted but was now in a corner, ignored.
My yearning for recognition must have been born when I was about five. As early as three years of age Bébé was the life of the party. He was a hard act to follow, not that I had any intention to do so mind you. But I was tired of being invisible so I thought I’d do something to be noticed. I knew where Mémère kept all of her kitchen utensils since I had always enjoyed watching her meticulously prepare our Sunday feasts. As a good grandmother should, she warned us about the danger of handling knives and getting too close to the hot stove. Although very young, both Bébé and I obeyed because not doing so would lead to butterscotch sundae deprivation and we certainly didn’t want that.
I had observed that Mémère kept all kinds of scissors in a special drawer, conveniently reachable by “une petite” like me. So one Sunday, while everyone was in the parlor listening to Bébé sing Gene Autry’s “Back in the saddle again”, I thought I’d come out of the wings and take center stage for myself. I removed the black patent leather shoes Maman forced me to wear on Sundays, although she knew they were uncomfortable and irritatingly noisy when I walked. I slinked into the kitchen, opened the scissor drawer, examined all of the pairs and chose the large bulky instrument Mémère used to cut chicken parts. It was larger than my hand could properly maneuver but I was sure it would work fine. Determined and strengthened at the thought of implementing my plan of action, I grabbed those scissors and quickly proceeded to do what I had set out to do. As Bébé’s song was coming to its final crescendo, I entered the parlor where the family members were gathered for his performance. No one saw me at first because I hadn’t put my shoes back on and the plush oriental rug muffled the sound of my stockinged feet. The applause following the singing recital resounded so I wouldn’t have been heard anyway.
The performance ended and the Food Fairy returned to make all of our mouths water again. Everyone rose and turned their gaze from my brother to the welcoming dining table beyond. Smack dab in their line of vision, there I was, proud, smiling and liberated from most of the long, fine, brown hair that never managed to hold a banana curl for more that five minutes even after a whole night wearing those uncomfortable, pink plastic, spoolie curlers. The poultry scissors had worked quite well I thought. Tilting my head this way and that, I awaited the expected compliments. After all, my new “do” was quite similar to Bébé’s close- cropped head.
My mother, dumbstruck, swooned. After a lightning bolt of shock in his green eyes, my father picked up his princess to give her the softest, most tender of kisses on both cheeks while whispering in her ear, “tu es toujours la plus belle”, you’re always the prettiest. Pépère laughed heartily, without malice or mockery. After all, no serious injury had occurred.
My Mémère, the person whom I sought to impress the most, turned beet red and shouted: “You fished through my kitchen drawers. You knew very well that this is forbidden. You used my scissors. You may have damaged them. You got into mischief rather than come listen to your
little brother sing. You failed to be a good example for him. And now, you look even worse than you did before. You won’t be able to go out in public without a kerchief on your silly little head.”
This reaction was bad enough and I really couldn’t figure out how my baby hair could have possibly hurt scissors which cut chicken parts. The worst came afterwards when my grandmother scolded Maman: “You’ve obviously failed with her. What can be done with such a girl? She must be disciplined more, punished more. I know very well that you’ve never spanked her, although I’ve told you that it’s a necessary child-rearing procedure. Now you see the result of your laxness. She’ll turn out bad. Mark my words.” Maman had miserably failed the fit mother’s test for the first time and it was all because of me.
Fortunately, Bébé was thrilled with my new do. “You can be a good cowboy with me now! Not a squaw!” With a mischievous giggle, he helped the whole family move forward from a distraction which could have ruined our appetites.
My hair grew back with its fine, flat, silky sameness. I never again sought out the limelight during Sunday lunches. Today, as I plow back through the years, I see the source of many things to come. Most of all, I remember those rich and plentiful French-Canadian meals at Stevens Street when the neighborhood homes were flanked by impressive vegetable gardens and nearby Chelmsford was still largely rural.
Mémère, Pépère and too many others have passed on. The house on Stevens St. was sold and my grand-father’s extraordinary garden was turned into a buildable lot. Urban sprawl took over the surroundings. But family traditions have lived on and the Food Fairy never forgets to give us a hug as we gather anew.
Louise Peloquin was born in 1952 at Lowell’s Saint Joseph Hospital where her father Laval U. Peloquin pursued his medical career as a general practitioner in his nearby Pawtucket Street office, then as a surgeon and finally as a radiologist.
Her mother, Marthe Biron Peloquin, was the daughter of Louis-A. Biron, owner of Lowell’s French language newspaper “L’Étoile” on Prince Street. In his novel “Maggie Cassidy”, Jack Kerouac mentions his father working at the “L’Étoile’s” print shop.
Louise attended Franco-American School and Notre Dame de Lourdes Parish School on Merrimack Street and spent her first eleven years living in a two-family home on Harvard Street in the Highlands.
Now retired, her career started in 1973 as a French teacher at Chelmsford High School and continued in France after obtaining degrees such as a Ph.D. with a thesis about New England’s Franco- Americans.
Her professional experience abroad included English courses at the University of Paris, the Sorbonne and other institutions of higher learning before ending in 2018 as a language coach at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs working with ministers, diplomats and high- level civil servants.
The French government recognized her work by naming her to the “Order des Palmes Académiques” and the “Order National du Mérite”.
Her academic papers on Franco-Americans have been published in France, Canada, the United States and other countries.
After years living abroad, Louise is happy to be back in the Lowell area.