It was 2003 and my sister and I had taken a voyage to Québec. We were what she described aptly as genealogical tourists. We had traveled back in time, in reverse chronological order, to each of the towns where our paternal line had lived over a span of 200 years. You can drive to all of these places in a morning and an afternoon. The final destination in our tour was Sainte-Famille, on the pretty island of Orleans, Île d’Orléans, near Quebec City.
It was a beautiful summer evening. We had made this leg of our trip hurriedly, wondering if we could see Sainte-Famille before nightfall. Here, most likely on some other summer morning or evening in the 1660s, had landed a ship carrying our ancestor Antoine Vermet who had disembarked near here never to return to his native France.
Behind the church of Sainte-Famille, a structure from the days of the French Regime, we found a beautiful little park. In the park was a monument. At the top of the small structure, a human figure with branches for hands and roots for feet extended itself in a dance-like gesture. Below the figure was a list of names with the title “Les Familles Souches de l’Île d’Orléans” – founding families of Île d’Orléans. Among the names on the monument was Antoine Vermet. Among these names, my mother’s ancestor also appeared.
“We are not people who have their names on monuments,” I thought. But who are the people whose names are monumentalized, memorialized, carved in stone or engraved in metal, the hard surfaces that capture our collective memories?
I grew up in the Boston area, a place synonymous with storied American history. The place is so very monumentalized that each locality within Greater Boston has its local heroes and ours were the Adamses, Daniel Webster, and the Mayflower Pilgrims. These were the people who were remembered, this the cast of characters in stories told and retold.
The background of my family, textile and shipyard workers; railroad men and lumberjacks; machinists and factory foremen; farm women gathering and canning and sewing, these were not the people whose stories were told and there was, indeed, a vague embarrassment about them. They were “nobody special” and it was the “special” people, with names like Adams, Webster, Brewster, Cabot or Lowell whose names were monumental, worthy of commemoration and hence of admiration.
But here was evidence to the contrary. Here, at Sainte-Famille, was my story, our story, a story not so dissimilar to those Boston stories. It was a story of pioneers, sailors, soldiers, and voyagers. It was a story of women sent by the King of France with a mission to be the mothers of a new race. Through the violent death of the dream of a New France, with the slide of its habitants into the status of a conquered race, through rural poverty and hence ignominy, through a border crossing, the Vermettes and hundreds of thousands like them had entered the realm of Adamses, Websters, Cabots and Lowells.
What could be clearer evidence of the conquest of New France by New England than the fact that my great-grandfather Charles Vermette, eight generations after Antoine, came as a poor lumberjack to Brunswick, Maine to work in the Cabot Mill, a place whose principal partner was Francis Cabot, one of the famous Boston Brahmins whose surname is found on buildings at Harvard and monuments without end in New England?
The reddish gold of the setting northern sun struck the silver of the monument at Sainte-Famille, Île d’Orléans and shone on its list of names of the long dead but long remembered. “We are not people who have their names on monuments,” I thought.
Here I stood in front of that thought’s incarnate contradiction.