I was at the local historical society’s annual Christmas party the other night and heard a grandson address his grandmother by that name. I had not heard anything else that the grandson had said, but my ears picked up on that Franco-American term of endearment. It did more than strike a chord with me. It pulled my heartstrings too.
“Memere,” I said to the grandmother, giving the word a whirl. “I have not heard that word in a long time.”
I misspoke. What I meant to say was that it had been a good long time since I had heard a grandchild directly address his grandmother as “memere.” My memere – my mom’s mom – passed away in 2006, so whenever I have spoken her name these past 12 years it has only been in reflection and remembrance. It brought back a flood of instant warm memories to see a grandson speak to his “memere,” alive and well before him.
“He calls me that all the time,” the grandmother beamed and told me. “Anything he says, he always adds ‘memere’ to the end of it.”
I nodded in recognition. Yes. There is something about the word “memere” that makes grandchildren of Franco-American heritage want to say it when speaking with their grandmother.
This Christmas marks the 100th anniversary of my Memere’s birth. Ledeenne Contois was born in Thetford Mines, Quebec, on Dec. 25, 1918. She and her family moved to the United States and settled in Maine when she was a child. As a young adult, she met my grandfather, Arthur Bourre, here in Sanford. It turned out that he too had been born in Thetford Mines and had moved here with his family when he was a child. I called him Pepere, of course. He died young, at age 65, in the summer of 1981.
Every Christmas, my family and my aunts and uncles and cousins and I went to Memere’s house – first on Emery Street, eventually on Lincoln Street, and finally on Brook Street – and celebrated her birthday. We had cake, naturally, but we also had the staples of our cherished Franco-American traditions: slices of pork pie and pieces of bread with corton smeared on them.
Memere was a quiet and reserved woman, at once serious and no-nonsense, the kind of person who could cut through the bull and tell it like it was. She was quite a contrast to my looser, prankish grandfather. She was Margaret Dumont to his Groucho Marx. One time, just for kicks, Pepere told a friend that he and Memere had just returned from a whirlwind trip to California. The friend turned to Memere and asked her how she had enjoyed the trip. There was one problem with this: Memere and Pepere had not taken such a trip. Pepere had just been making mischief. Memere smiled tightly through pursed lips and answered the friend that she had had a wonderful time. Oh, how she had resented her husband for making her a co-conspirator in a fib told only to amuse himself and make her his straight man.
“Well,” Memere told Mom one day. “I guess I finally forgive your father for that joke he played about the trip to California.”
She said this a whole decade after the incident, years after my grandfather had died.
Memere shed her seriousness during the trips she actually did take. Throughout the '80s, Memere joined Mom, Dad, my sister Kelly and me on trips to Quebec, Niagara Falls, and Maryland, where my cousins lived. Memere would sit wedged between Kelly and me in the back seat and would never complain as we drove hundreds of miles in our sedan. She seemed to enjoy getting away from it all and often turned slaphappy on the road. I have a photo of her from a trip we took during the summer of 1984. She’s wearing my baseball hat and sunglasses and has such a fun-spirited smile that you just know her eyes were twinkling behind those shades. Did she put on the hat and sunglasses herself, or did I put them on her? I suspect the latter. All I know is that she just rolled with it, and I can be seen off to the side in the photo, doubled over in laughter.
Memere never made it to California. But I bet she would have had a blast if she had.
Those are my humorous memories of Memere. I have other ones, of course, and they are rooted in the care she often provided for me when I was a child.
In the earlier grades, I’d spend the day with her if ever I needed to stay home from school to recover from a malady. She and Pepere lived on the top floor of an apartment house they owned on Emery Street. Theirs was a cozy space, especially at Christmastime, with the soft colored lights on their modest artificial tree and the greeting cards posted on their walls. It was during this season in 1980 that I was out of school for quite some time because I had the chicken pox. Yes, I recall being miserable and itchy during this time; strangely, though, my memories of this chapter in my life as a third-grader are warm ones. Memere and I would watch “The Price Is Right” every morning and, half way through, Pepere would arrive home for his lunch hour, walking through the front door with a Happy Meal for his grandson. In the afternoon I’d watch another game show, the name of which escapes me, although I believe that the comedian Buddy Hackett might have been its host. In the afternoon, I’d tune in to WSME on the radio and listen to Santa Claus either take calls or read the letters that he received from local children. These were quiet, restful days – just what I needed while I recovered from what had sidelined me. Memere provided that for me.
For that, and for so much else, on this occasion of the centennial of her birth, I have one word I wish I could say to Memere. I hope I said it often to her during her days.
Shawn P. Sullivan is an award-winning columnist and the author of “Islands in the Chaotic Ocean of Life,” a memoir that is available online at Amazon.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.