“A little star dust caught”
By Louise Peloquin
The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star dust caught.
– Henry David Thoreau
Let’s peek into Louis-A. Biron’s routine at L’Etoile. Anecdotes, gathered over the years from his three late children, offer flashes of how he could have described a typical workday.
I get up with the chickens (1) because I mourn the impossibility of retrieving lost time.
Dawn encourages reflection and inspirational readings help me focus on the day’s priorities.
Lately, Lacordaire (2), a 19th century French thinker, journalist and political activist, has helped me set my sails. Just this morning the following struck me.
Read history attentively, and in it you will clearly see one of the saddest things for human pride. I mean to say this perpetual contradiction between man’s will and the result of his efforts. (3)
If you wish, reflect upon it. I shall proceed with my account.
I was born on the banks of the Saint Laurence, a seaway, more than a river. We French-Canadians grow up facing the elements, not domineering them but rather embracing them. And thus, perhaps we assimilate pinches of their power. We learn to adapt to the seemingly endless winters which immobilize our environment to the point of halting our mighty waterway. We know that the glorious renewal of Spring frees our beloved habitat. In the meantime, we survive the run-up to the big thaw. Forgive me for succumbing to the temptation of puerile reminiscing. However, these memories are linked to my taste for hearty breakfasts.
I have always been self-sufficient. When I married in 1910 at the age of 49, my young spouse knew that I was not demanding. On the contrary, tolerance and respect have always been my beacons for daily life and the state of matrimony did not modify that. All of the above to say that I have never lived with expectations from anyone, least of all from Marie Thibodeau, my wife. May I add that, from the beginning of our union, I have never failed to express my gratitude for her daily délicatesses (4) towards me.
For example, every morning, inviting wafts rise from the kitchen and suffuse the upstairs bathroom where I perform my morning ablutions. I hear the crêpes sizzling in the hot lard. I can already taste their golden, lacy crispiness. When I get downstairs, a stack of canadienne-style pancakes are laid out along with a large pottery cup of strong black coffee sweetened with sirop d’érable (5) from my cousins’ maple woods in Québec. Thus strengthened in mind and body, I set out for Prince Street.
L’Etoile is a team venture, or rather, it is a collective adventure. Every colleague plays an indispensable role. We strive to activate our skills and put them to the service of the public. Consequently, it is with determination and great joy, that we tackle the day’s agenda.
Some of us are out and about collecting local news, interviewing people around town, taking notes, writing reports and editorials. Others translate breaking world and national and regional news into French. Some meet business owners and merchants interested in posting advertisements. And of course, master artisans of the printing trade – our linotypists and machinists – enable us to pursue our objectives. Keep in mind that L’Etoile is a printing company whose business activities allow us to publish a French daily newspaper catering to Lowell’s Franco-American community. We are proud and humbled to observe that the Prince Street Star shines upon readers outside our city as well. All of this cannot be a single person’s accomplishment. On the contrary, the working body of L’Etoile members makes everything possible.
As a man of few words, it is not in my character to fall into sentimental verbiage. The above will suffice to enlighten you about the mornings at Prince Street.
Although the rolling, rumbling Mergenthalers do not pause for a midday meal, my artisans do take their turn for a well-deserved repast.
And so do I. My business partner Paul Chaput and I sometimes patronize local eateries offering simple, home-cooked meals. Fasting is out of the question. We must maintain our physical stamina as well as our mental acuity.
I must say that our favorite collation is Marie’s soupe aux pois (6), with lardons (7). Thick slices of her freshly-baked pain de ménage, (8) make for a most satisfying lunch. My dear daughter Jeanne usually delivers us a still-steaming lunch pail along with a picnic basket with bowls, cutlery and large napkins made of Lowell cotton.
Like her two siblings, my elder daughter is an active member of the Etoile team. She balks at no chore and is quite an efficient publicist. This young mother never restrains her enthusiasm despite inevitable moments of fatigue. Accompanied by her toddler, I suspect that she succeeds in establishing an even larger following for L’Etoile.
Seeing Michelle, my first grandchild, is always a delight. “Grand-Papa, je suis ici! Je veux un beau bec!” (9) the curly-haired, petite brunette calls out. Her shrill child’s voice brightens every corner of the austere, functional premises. To all of us, she brings a flash of glee in the middle of the work day.
The afternoon continues with the numerous exchanges and activities involved in running a print shop and a newspaper – placing orders for paper, discussing headlines, opinion pieces and layout, examining sales, distribution channels and so forth and so on. Each day has its repeated tasks. And yet, each day is unique. Our team is focused on meeting clients’ expectations. This is rather banal a statement, I know. But I assure you that the mission of community service, and not the profit motive, is what ceaselessly propels our efforts.
The day’s hour glass empties and all of us retire to our homes in Little Canada, Pawtucketville or elsewhere in Lowell.
When I return to my two-family home in the Highlands, dinner awaits. The menu is simple but always delectable. Yesterday’s was slow-roasted pork accompanied by turnip and carrot purée, sauteed potatoes and apple compote. A favorite traditional dessert finished off the meal – tarte au sucre – a luscious maple sugar and heavy cream pie.
I enjoy having a glass of the cherry wine I made from fruit gathered at a Tyngsboro farm last Autumn. This year, the liquor is peony pink, with definite floral aromas and quite dry to the palate.
As the evening comes to a close, I also enjoy smoking my pipe. This habit could become dangerous because I am prone to dozing off in my chair. The pipe tips and out fall the ashes, some not yet fully consumed. I willingly keep my eyes closed as my wife whispers to Marthe, my youngest, “Ne dérange pas ton Papa et ramasse tout cela tranquillement.” (10)
I need not open my eyes to know that the young woman in her twenties dutifully follows her mother’s instructions.
When the clean-up is over, I leave my half-conscious state to find Marthe sitting on a stool at my feet.
“Papa, what shall I undertake at L’Etoile tomorrow?” she asks. “I could I write a piece on…”
Tomorrow, ma fille, you will share your ideas. It is now time for evening prayer and repose.
“Bénissez-nous mon Dieu, bénissez ceux qui nous entourent, ici, dans notre ville et dans le monde entier. Veillez sur nous tous.” (11)
The day ends as it began.
1) “Se lever avec les poules” is a French equivalent of “getting up at the crack of dawn.”
2) Jean-Baptiste Henri-Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861) was reputed to be the greatest pulpit orator of the 19th century with lectures mixing theology, philosophy and poetry.
3) “Pensées Choisies de Lacordaire. Septième Édition. Tome II. Paris, Librairie Ch. Poussielgue, 15 rue Cassette, 1892. Page 396. Bookmarked page from Biron’s copy of the book. Translation from French by Louise Peloquin.
4) “Delicacy”, used in French in this context as a gesture of sensitivity and affection.
5) Maple syrup.
6) Pea soup.
7) Lardons are half-inch thick pieces of bacon cut from a thick slab and cooked crisp.
8) Homemade bread.
9) Grandfather I am here. I want a nice kiss.
10) Do not disturb your father and pick all of that up quietly.
11) Bless us our Lord, and bless those who surround us, here, in our city and in the entire world. Watch over us all.