Her name means (or translates to) Mabel in english, a popular Victorian name. Amabilis means lovable, or dear.
And she was.
Amabilis, as we all are, was a product of her time, nothing more and nothing less. We are lucky she thought enough to document her thoughts. I bring them to you in English because it is the best way I know to bring her back to life. The writer in me wants to embellish. The historian wants to understate what she wrote about, to not give it undue credence. The grandson in me just wants to relive time spent with her on the shore of the Saint Lawrence in Sainte Croix.
This book is about Canada, specifically a key, fertile slice of acreage on the South Shore of the St. Lawrence River, la rive sud. It is a bilingual record of Amabilis Hébert Bédard’s life, written in her 70’s, about her life in rural Quebec in the 20th century, as translated and interpreted by me, her grandson.
Amabilis Hébert, was born at the dawn of the 20th century – 16 February 1902. She became a schoolteacher and married Delphis Bédard on 20 July 1923 in Sainte Croix; a village located just 20 miles west of Quebec, on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence. By chance, I married in Pasadena, California 62 years later to the day, a world away from rural Quebec.
Once married, Amabilis quit teaching and began to do what the Catholic Church considered her calling – making children.
Amabilis carried twelve children to term. Eleven lived to adulthood, in no small part to exceptional luck and enough food to eat. The two often went together.
Trained as a teacher, she practiced and mastered her many skills on her family of eleven children born over a span of almost twenty years.
Amabilis Hébert was the third of fifteen. Only eight survived beyond early infancy. The first six were born in a short span of seven years – June 1899, February 1901, February 1902, March 1903, June 1904, and June 1906.
Between 1899 and 1904, five Hébert girls were born to Marie Zelphida Hébert, née Charest. Between 1924 and 1946, these five Hébert girls gave birth to sixty (60) full term babies.
Amarilda, the eldest, had fifteen (15) children. Ida, the next, born in 1901, bore sixteen (16). Amabilis, had twelve (12), followed by Anne Marie with nine (9), and Juliette with eight (8). My father, Jean (aka John) Bédard was born on a cold day in Saint Flavien, the village abutting Sainte Croix, on 28 December 1924. He was the first-born.
Many Québecois crossed the border south to find fortune, maybe a new home with new roots. Above all, they sought work. Many left for the mills to the south, in New England.
People think the Québecois (or Quebeckers as les anglais say) are French. Fundamentally, we are not. We are Canadian – we are North American. We made the mills in Nashua, New Hampshire hum. We gave you Kerouac – not the predestination dialectics of an old Europe which often relied more on birth than talent for success and advancement.
Amabilis’ experiences document a large part of the 20th century. She wrote about rural Québec from the turn of the century to the post WW I Spanish Flu epidemic, the flapper era to WW II, Korea, and to the jet age. In the center of this is migration, back and forth across the US border and beyond.
Ironically, and often tragically, family circumstances forced the eldest, who often risked the migration south first, to return from Nashua or Worcester, wherever the mill work took them, due to a sudden turn in family events, usually the death of the patriarch.
Amabilis’ father, Alexis Hébert, my great-grandfather, returned to Québec from the United States to take over the family farm on the death of his father. As you will read, she goes out of her way to say that he should have never returned from the States.
On the other side of the family, my maternal grandfather, Antonio Roy, worked in Manchester, New Hampshire, before returning north to work in the asbestos mines of Thetford Mines, in the upper Appalachians, in the Eastern Townships of Québec.
Both Antonio and his wife, Emérentienne, spoke English. This helped the family survive in a world run by english-speaking management. Antonio, as an English-speaker, was a foreman, he was management. During the Asbestos Strike of 1949, the family residence was on Rue Cyr in Thetford Mines needed protection.
My own family emigrated from Québec, immigrating to Orange, California in 1964 for economic opportunity, which my father thought unavailable in the Québec of the early 1960’s.
It was a time preceding the great social change of the Quiet Revolution in Québec. John had fought and sacrificed in both WWII and Korea. He had yet to get his piece of the tourtière, the traditional Québecois meat pie and he was not a patient man.
However you might define success, my parents felt that it wasn’t in Montréal-Est. Jean, who started calling himself John in the US, was forty years old when he and Therese packed the family for the trip to Southern California.
Amabilis, was a diplomaed schoolteacher. She was intelligent and articulate enough to document events with some lucidity. She kept her wits to the end. I used to lamely attempt to cheat at cards against her, to see if she still had it. I clearly had no shame, but she never failed the test.
Translation is interpretation and opinion; I put her words and views through my prism. While I think I’ve captured her essence, this is not a word-for-word translation – which she undoubtedly approves and rejoices in. The thought that the world at large has her opinion at their fingertips no doubt makes her happy.
It makes me happy.
Some of her memoir is disturbing to modern mores and attitudes – especially about animal control. The Depression in Québec was not kind to cats, dogs, and other living things in general.
Life in her time was about survival, and unexpected events could quickly end the survival of you and yours. Not everything, as you will read, was perfect in the “good old days.”
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