an immigrant’s first christmas: thérèse writes home from california


therese to tous le mondes 26dec64-1You can read the letter in French by clicking on this link or the letter to the left.

About the Letter: what it tells us

What makes her letter so damn important? That she retrieved it from Canada and kept it safe until her death.

It starts with the green ink, probably the color assigned to nurses on the hospital ward floor – green meant nurse.

This letter was probably written thought by thought, interrupted repeatedly, in the cafeteria, the lunch room, breakfast table, or nurse’s station over a time. Or, it might quickly scribbled during a late night shift, thirty quiet minutes on the floor.

Knowing a night shift work cycle, Thérèse likely picked up any pen available or prescribed by protocol.

The letter is written to Thérèse’s mother-in-law, Amabilis. By writing to her, Thérèse knew the letter would be read by everyone in the family paying their respects to Amabilis as they passed through Sainte Croix. Family life for Thérèse centered around a triangle between Thetford Mines, Sainte Croix, and anchored by Québec City.

Thérèse talks about her start date at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC), her struggle learning english, and my father’s job selling women’s shoes at the Broadway on Euclid, well before Al Bundy.

Her lack of English and the absolute terror of trying to be a nurse in a foreign land – Orange County, California are raw. She took intense english lessons as soon as she arrived. She struggled to survive an intense and demanding nursing environment what was then (and is now today) cutting edge pediatrics nursing. While I was going through the same thing at the same time, it was through the eyes of a six-year old – I didn’t have to support a family at the time.

Thérèse mentions a trip that Françoise and her two young children, Louise and Jean-François took by train to California. According to Louise, the tickets to California were a gift from Aunt Celine and came wrapped in aluminum foil under the Christmas tree. I have no doubt that part of their journey was on the famous Santa Fe Super Chief or the El Capitan, running from Chicago to Los Angeles, a journey which my family took in reverse, when we went back to Quebec for the first time from Los Angeles at Olivera Street.

The Letter

Orange, 26 decembre 64

Chers vous autres,

We are always happy to get news from you, we received your last letter on the 24th of December. I hope you all spent a merry Christmas together. For us, it was very ordinary, except for the children who waited anxiously for Santa Claus.

We woke them up at 0100h. I had gone to Mass at the hospital. I work with young children at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC). They sang some very beautiful songs in English.

therese celine amabilis choc 1969

Thérèse, Amabilis Bédard, and Céline Corriveau at Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) in 1969.

I’d like it here a bit more if my English was a little more perfect. I’ve got to tell you that the first week was horrible. I understood neither A, nor B. Now it is a bit better. My first week at work I thought I’d be sick, I was dreaming in English by the end of the week. It took a lot of will power because I cried un coup (a bunch) each and every night.

It’s been seven days since I last cried. I’m resigned to my fate. If they keep me, I stay. If they let me go, I leave.

But, everything seems to be getting in order. I started working on the 7th of December. John finds the time long – but enough about me.

Finally – for the gifts we went to Céline’s and it was a great party even if Santa Claus did not make his appearance. Pierre received a scooter, a pool table game, and a full soldier’s outfit. He was proud. Marc received a racecar, a music radio, and the same outfit Pierre got. They were both proud.

We finished with a lunch of sandwiches and hors d’oeuvres at Yvon Lageux’s, a Canadian from Thetford Mines. We came back to the house at about 0400h. I did not work on Christmas Day but was tired all day (from the festivities).

John still works at the Broadway, in the shoe sales department, but he doesn’t really like it and is waiting for other things to happen. He has lost 10 to 15 pounds and carries himself better. Pierre is on vacation and loves well his brother Marc. He says “I’m lucky to have a brother, Maman.”

On Christmas Day, it was a beautiful 80°F – it almost didn’t seem like the holidays, there were decorations everywhere but no snow.

christmas 1964 1024

Picture likely taken by John Bédard. From left to right, Rolland Corriveau, Marc and Thérèse Bédard, Pierre (big Pierre) and Celine Corriveau, and Pierre Bedard (little Pierre).

At Montgomery Wards, a large chain store, they made 2 feet of real snow for Santa Claus’s arrival. It looked very funny with all the girls and boys in shoes and shorts playing in the snow, throwing snowballs at each other. I really think Marc will never remember the Canadian cold and snow.

Besides all that, chez Rolland, everything goes well. He works maintenance of a large processing plant, which makes juice and Jell-O (MCP). He loves the work. Celine came to see me at the hospital tonight to tell me that she had lost her job at one of the big department stores. She’s going to find another job. I’m not worried about her.

les moineaux

Françoise with her sparrows: Louise and Jean-François Doyon in early 1965, shortly after Thérèse wrote this letter.

Françoise, my sister, is supposed to arrive the 13th of January with her two sparrows. I don’t know what’s going to happen, we may need to hook them up to the ceiling. Either way, we will figure out what to do.

Rolland’s brother-in-law is here. He comes from Henryville. He is alone and it has unfortunately, rained almost every day. I hope that it will be nice for the arrival of Jeanne Mance and her husband.

We would love to get records (from Quebec). I’ll pay you for them if Suzanne or Jeanne Mance can buy them at Miracle Mart, the long play records are not that expensive. In any case, I need to write to Jeanne Mance about this.

For my Maman, it is always the same, she is at the foyer Notre-Dame de la Guadalupe. She doesn’t seem to be lonesome. Que c’est bête (it sucks) when you are far, so far away.

I don’t know if we’ll be able to come back in ‘65. We need to furnish a bigger house we have yet to even find. I have to tell you that these are not anything like the house we left in Montréal, but we are looking to find a place with two or three bedrooms.

Well, if I want to send this letter I need to leave you with a goodbye and wish you a better and happy New Year to all.

Mom at 340 Olive Street. We lived in back with the Corriveaus. You can fit eight people in a one bedroom cottage!


Thérèse passed away in January 2015 just a few miles from where we first settled, from the house and backyard where this letter was written.

Thérèse’s handwriting is precise, almost technical, Tektonish. She was naturally left-handed, forced to  be right-handed by nuns. This probably explains her professional-grade manual dexterity, which was a must for pediatric nursing. She was resourceful, quick on her feet, and had the amazing ability to keep her head while all around were losing theirs. Sadly, it was dementia that claimed her at 87, a great life wound down by a terrible disease.

As a Registered Nurse, she was the one brought in for the difficult cases, starting IVs on suffering, crying, and (usually) thrashing children. She was not a creative seamstress, but she was technical enough to thread IVs into an infant’s vein.

On Olive Street in Orange, we lived eight in a one-bedroom coach house, but none of us cared, we had made it to California. Blue was my favorite color, and the sky that year was bluer than I had ever seen sky. It was as if we could finally see color in the world, after living in black and white forever. There was neither cold nor snow.



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