I don’t remember my Aunt Grace — technically, my great Aunt — the same way that I remember my grandmother, Ethel. Grace was our next door neighbor for three or four years, but somehow her presence during my boyhood seems less tangible. Perhaps, it was because she lived close to us only when I was quite young.
I do, however, remember her cottage. I remember its smell, its layout, and the land it was built on. I remember the old and the new outhouse. I remember the barrel that collected the rainwater from the roof. I remember playing thirty-one by the light of an oil lamp in the inky dark of night.
I also remember the short walk to the nearby lake. I remember the spot where we’d wade into it to swim or launch the canoe. I remember the shape of the lake, and the spot where we’d collect spring water. I remember the low bridge, a short walk from the lake, where my brother and I would fish a shallow creek for trout.
I don’t remember how often I went to Grace’s cottage when I was a boy, but the depth and clarity of my memories seems to suggest it was reasonably often. I do know that, in my adolescence, I went to the cottage on my own a few times. The solitary time away was regenerative.
It was Grace who donated Frank Maheux’s war letters to the Public Archives of Canada — now the Library and Archives of Canada. I can’t be sure why she did it, but I seem to remember that she understood the historical value of her father’s letters, which had reached her mother, Angélique, uncensored. I suppose there might have also been a measure of vanity in the gift. Once the letters were accepted by the Public Archives, we were a family with a relative who was institutionally recognized to have been historically significant. We had a place in Canada’s history.
All of that is probably true. I also wonder if the decision was motivated by another kind of hope.
I have read that the land, for indigenous peoples, is a kind of encyclopedia of stories. Plants, animals, places and activities are all cues to tell and retell the stories that remind them of their place on the land, their connection to each other, and the knowledge that makes all of it possible. The land — just as effectively as the letters, words, and sentences of any book — helps a person, a family, and a people remember the stories they tell and retell to know who they are.
When I was in grade school, I went to read my great grandfather’s letters in the Public Archives. I wrote a short speech about his experiences for Remembrance Day and won an award for it. I recently learned that my brother also went to read the letters when he was a teenager. A few months ago, when I returned to the letters as an adult, I found a note slipped in among them. It was written by a relative, unknown to me, who had also gone to read the letters at some point. It stated simply that he, Christian Maheux, had visited the letters and that his grandfather was Frank Maheux.
I don’t know much about the other descendants of Frank and Angélique Maheux, but I do know we are all connected to each other through those letters and the stories we tell about them. Not everyone of us who visits the letters will blog about the experience or leave notes behind, but, every time one of us visits those letters, we create one more story that connects all of us to each other. Our family no longer has a traditional territory, sacred places or the daily routines of life to prompt our collective story-telling, but we have those letters.
And I suspect Grace might have had something like that in mind, when she donated Frank’s letters to the Public Archives — the letters of my great grandfather and possibly yours.