While I look for my ancestors, my mind often goes back to my childhood days. Those memories take on a dreamlike quality, parts as clear as a running stream and others hazy and filled with uncertainty. I spent very little time with my grandparents which makes the memories all the more poignant. My father’s parents lived in a little bungalow on Horace Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My grandfather carried in him all the talents and abilities of his French Canadian ancestors. He was a carpenter by trade and a “cultivateur” at heart. The long back yard of the little brown tiled house was beautifully green with Caragana bushes around it. In the spring, they would be filled with robin’s nests and the delicate blue eggs inside.
At the back of the house was a coal shed and at the top of the house in a little attic was his room. It smelled like tobacco because he ground his own in through a grinder. The grinder sat on a little table which was beside the small, square window that looked down over the yard. A huge sunflower swayed in the breeze beneath the window, just within arms length. At times a head of it would be sitting on the table and grandpa would show me how to get the seeds out. The tart smell of tomato came from the seedlings he had planted in cans which also sat on the table. There was a simple dresser beside his beside his bed , the drawer of which was filled with beer caps.
Downstairs, in my grandmother’s cozy kitchen, there was always a pot of soup in the soup burner at the back of the stove.It was a special spot where the pot could be sunk in and kept warm. I remember him telling me to always have a pot of soup going, barley was the best. He would show me one day how to make it. He did not talk much when I was around. He had that old habit of dropping by at the corner pub after work to meet the men and would often come home when I had been put to bed on the couch. There I had been crouched in fear of the pot-bellied stove , it’s embers casting strange shadows on the dark walls.
I would wait for a while and then slowly walk to the kitchen doorway. I would find him sitting like a statue at the table in the dim light, sometimes drinking tea, sometimes not. He had the old habit of pouring it into his saucer first. On such a night, I summoned up the courage to talk to him. I asked him if he would put the hair back onto the much coveted china doll my cousin and I always fought over. To this he smiled and made an examination of the doll’s head and put her on the table. In minutes, my grandmother was out of her room, tired and cross. She shooed me back onto the couch. The next day the brown-haired doll was sitting on the table waiting for me, that was until my cousin came over and the fight started again.
The house in St. Boniface was very close to the Seine River which froze over in the winter. On some visits my brother and I would trudge through the deep snow down to the river and just start walking. The trees hung with ice along the snow crusted banks. Eventually, we came upon the framework of a teepee up the side of the left bank and scrambled up it. We wondered about it, wondered what it would have been like to live in one, having no idea that that is exactly what many of our ancestors did.
One day, after I had just started school down the road from my grandparent’s, I came upon a man walking slowly in front of me. He looked different. His hair was in long, black braids and he had a colored sash around his middle. He wore a buckskin jacket and his skin was dark coppery brown. Being precocious, I asked where he was going and he pointed to my grandparent’s house. I asked him his name and he said “Daniel”. I was mystified. I do not remember interacting with him in the house but the next day when I came home he was up on the roof mending shingles. I suspect that he was my grandmother’s brother, Louis Daniel Daigneault. It remains to be seen.
My grandmother, Rose Daigneault was born in St.Boniface in 1889. In the 1901 Census of Canada her father, William lists the family as Red under the Color column. For the main part, they lived their lives as French Catholics. Her mother, Virginie Cyr’s family extends back to the Lagimodiere family and thence to Riel. She was much loved by the family but I did not feel that from her. I think she did not appreciate being saddled with her half Irish grandchildren when she was older. She was very strict with me and did not talk much. I remember my hair being scraped back from my head into tight braids and being sent out to find my way to school in freezing weather when I was just 6. My mother had to work you see.
I do remember her giving a lovely tea party for my birthday one year where we had a turtle race. All the boys who had turtles brought them. I was dressed very prettily in the flouncy nylon confections of the 50’s but for the main part I felt abandoned. My first communion was a terror for me. St.Boniface Cathedral was a looming castle. My father was a wreck. I begged him to not make me go into the confessional box but there was nothing he could do. My grandmother sat with the cousins and made no move to help. Somehow I survived as we all did. It was surely a preparation for life.