A Small Act of Grace: A Story We Can Tell

Frank MaheuxI 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.

My Place In Your History

img_20150725_113856“There are stories in these stones, this place, this land. Remember the stories, tell the stories, and you’ll always be on the path to healing.” It sounds like something my great grandmother might have said to me. The words come to me, as I am sitting in McCormick Park in Hintonburg, a neighbourhood in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.   

I imagine these words for my great grandmother because twenty-eight years ago, I was twelve years old and a student at Connaught Public School, which is a few hundred metres from this spot. In those days, my friends and I would come here to share our lunches, play poker, and smoke paper bag cigarettes. Sitting here now, the memories of that time rise up like ghosts on an ancient Indian burial ground.

According to Desmond Morton, “one of Canada’s most noted and highly respected historians,” my great grandmother was “full-blooded Odawa.” He makes this claim in an essay about her husband and my great grandfather, Frank Maheux. I stumbled across Morton’s essay late one night two years ago, when it occurred to me that the internet might help me settle once and for all whether or not one of the family legends about my great grandfather was true.

I was born in this neighborhood, not far from McCormick Park, where I’m sitting now remembering ghosts and imagining words for my great grandmother. The Grace Hospital is long gone, but the land is still there. There’s a different building there now, but it seems to me to be reminiscent of the old. I’m not sure if that’s a trick of memory or if it was intended by the builders. Either way, it’s the land of my birth and many many others born in Ottawa.

Morton’s claim about my great grandmother’s pedigree came as a bit of a surprise to me because, growing up, I don’t remember anyone being as certain of her blood quantum as he seems to be. “She was probably full-blooded” is how I remember my family describing her. Much more surprising is Morton’s claim that she was Odawa. My grandmother and my mother always described themselves as Algonquin. My grandmother even ran a service organization with the word “Algonquin” in its name. It’s possible she meant “Algonquin” in the broadest sense of the term, because the Odawa are a part of the Algonquin language group, but I’m pretty sure my grandmother thought she belonged to the Algonquin nation. I wonder what they put on her status card, when they gave her one in the eighties.  

Connaught Public School still exists, but the building I knew is long gone. The land is still there. The new building — of this I am sure — was built to be reminiscent of the old. Thanks to an open house in honour of the school’s hundredth anniversary, I was able to walk its halls a few months ago. The interior of the new building is not like the old, but it couldn’t keep the ghosts of memory from rising up. A few of the ghosts even morphed into people, who then reminded me of stories I had forgotten. My stories, of course, aren’t the only stories remembered in those halls. For others, I was the ghost that became the living breathing storyteller.

As it happens, Morton was very late to the party, when he published his article on my great grandfather in 1992. In ‘84 or ‘85, when I was in grade five or six at Connaught, I wrote a short piece about my great grandfather for Remembrance Day. Morton and I wrote about him for the same reason. My great grandfather’s letters from the front, written to my great grandmother, somehow managed to make it back to Canada uncensored, and then, thanks to my great aunt, ended up in Archives Canada. In the piece I wrote, I remember that I focussed on the horror and brutality of life in the trenches, which my great grandfather describes graphically in his letters. Morton’s piece paints a broader picture, illustrating how my great grandfather was a typically atypical example of a soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

I’m sitting in McCormick Park today, reminiscing with ghosts and imagining words for my great grandmother, because I came here for a change of scenery. Normally, I read in Parkdale Park, a few blocks away. It’s a nice spot in this gentrified and gentrifying neighborhood, but it’s new to me. There are no ghosts there, so I forgot that I might run into them here. I’m trying to finish the last few pages of Rupert Ross’ Indigenous Healing, but I am distracted by the memories of this place, the memories invoked by the book, and the words I imagine for my great grandmother.

As an adolescent, the idea of my great grandfather resonated with me. I wouldn’t say I idealized him, but I think I wanted to see a part of myself in him. It probably began with the short piece I wrote about him, but it occurs to me only now that the appeal of him must have been the simple fact of his availability for this kind of identity making. He was a story my mother and my mother’s family often told and they told it with pride. He had the gall to enlist in three wars and would spend long months alone deep in the bush watching for forest fires. It was said that he came from a good French family, which connected us by marriage to Sir Sandford Fleming, but his family had disowned him for marrying an indigenous woman. He rode a moose once. His story, in my family’s telling of it, is thoroughly Canadian.

In McCormick Park, I take a picture of the table and stools that conjured my ghosts and the words I imagined for my great grandmother. The table and stools are anchored deep into the cement and are likely to be here long after I am gone. I am sure my ghosts aren’t the only ones that haunt this spot. Others, in time, will also come to call this place home. I post the photo to Facebook and tag friends, who might remember the lunches we spent together here at this spot a very long time ago. The likes and comments trickle in. Someone I haven’t seen in twenty-eight years, and who I will likely never see again in person, responds. He tells me that when he returned to Ottawa a few years ago, the spot where I am sitting now is one of the places he made a point of visiting. He writes, “Thought I was the only one who remembered.” No, I remember. This place remembers. We all remember, even if we sometimes forget to tell the stories.

Unfortunately, neither Morton’s essay nor my great grandfather’s service record, which can also be found online, corroborates the family legend I had set out to verify. According to the legend, it was often said that my great grandfather had been awarded the rank of “King’s Sergeant”, a rank only the King himself could take away, because he had saved an officer’s life in combat. No such rank, it seems, is likely to exist. If it does, it wasn’t awarded to my great grandfather, but he did, nevertheless, earn the Military Medal for bravery. I also learn, however, that he contracted gonorrhea while on leave, didn’t send as much money home to his family as he could have, and twice admits in his letters to murdering prisoners. The problem with family legends — like history — is that the facts often get in the way of a neat, clean, and simple story.

In Morton’s article, there is a picture, unfamiliar to me, of my great grandfather and his dark skinned wife and children. He is in uniform and she and the children are in European clothing. There is something unexpected and unsettling in my great grandmother’s broad and warm smile. Her eyes are in shadow, but they seem to look directly and happily into the camera and the future — both hers and mine. The demeanour captured in this photo doesn’t match my memory of the grim and unsmiling demeanour captured in the photos taken at the other end of her history. I wonder, looking back into that happy face so much like my own, across the void of a history unknown, untold, and unwritten, if I am the great grandson she wanted or the product of a betrayal she could not foresee?

“There are stories in these stones, this place, this land. Remember the stories, tell the stories, and you’ll always be on the path to healing.” It sounds like something my great grandmother might have said to me had her history, my history, and the history of this country been very very different.

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NB: I wrote this story about a year ago. I didn’t share it until now because I submitted it to a contest, which it did not win.  I’ve learned a lot more about my great grandparents since I first wrote it. You can learn more here.