DL: “I Come Into the World” is an excerpt from my memoir French Boy / A 1950s Franco-American Childhood. The use of Canadien, the French version of Canadian, in this text as everywhere in the memoir is to distinguish an English-speaking Canadian from a French-speaking one without resorting to the term French Canadian. [When was the last time you read something like “Margaret Atwood, the English Canadian writer…?” Probably never. She’s always the “Canadian writer.” Marie-Claire Blais, who died earlier this year, was referred to in the New York Times as “…the French-Canadian writer.” What’s going on here?]
Excerpt from my memoir French Boy
On the cold afternoon of the Saturday that was January 18, 1947, because snow had begun to fall heavily, my mother told my father he had better put the tire chains on the car. They would be driving to the hospital soon as their second baby would be born that day, she was sure.
Thick snow was accumulating on the city streets as my father drove the red Buick a mile and a half towards city center to the Canadien hospital on Sabattus Street. Even in so short a trip, perhaps he looked at my mother with some apprehension. Surely she would be all right! He would have held her arm as she shuffled her way through the accumulating snow to the entrance of the hospital. The unaccustomed weight of her pregnancy would have altered her center of balance and would have made traversing slippery ground problematic. Soon, my mother having been admitted and brought to the pregnancy ward where she was to wait for her contractions to progress, there was nothing for my father to do but to follow the strong admonitions given to fathers at the time to return home and leave his wife to the attention of the nurses and the doctor. There was no need, the staff assured my young father, for him to stay. He would not be permitted, anyway, into the birthing room. Dr. François Méthot would be in soon—if he was not already in the hospital. A gruff man with a pencil mustache, Dr. Méthot had seen my mother during her pregnancy and now he would help deliver her baby.
The tire chains clanking their sonorous rhythm as they gripped the slippery streets, my father returned to his parents’ house, and there he awaited news of my birth. By late afternoon, nothing had happened. Both my grandmother and my grandfather would have been home as the mill was closed on a Saturday afternoon. Perhaps my father and my grandfather were chatting in the double living rooms, or listening to the radio, or reading the Evening Journal—and again, perhaps they were occupied with the French-language Le Messager? The two men, being bilingual, might have read either or both publications. My grandmother, who did not speak or read English, was an autodidact who had taught herself to read only in French.
My family waits
As evening approached, perhaps my mémère was preparing supper in the kitchen galley, a little room with cupboards, counters, drawers, and a sink, but without a stove and a refrigerator, both of which were in the adjoining room where the family ate. That room was not quite a dedicated dining room nor was it at all what one might call a kitchen.
My father sat in the living room, my mother told me years later as I wrote in her memoir, waiting for a call from the hospital. In those years after the war, there had been a big push to take birthing out of the home and into the professional arena—the hospital. My mémère Ledoux had had her five children at home, and my mémère Verreault had also birthed ten of her twelve children in her own bed. (Both of her children born at Sainte-Marie General Hospital—René and Paul—had come into the world there, according to my mother, because my grandmother Verreault, having a bit of spare money at the time, had sought a break from the demands of her large family.)
Products of the middle of the twentieth century, my parents submitted to this professionalization of birthing. By the time I came along, children were often born under some drug, certainly under anesthesia. I was the second of my mother’s children to be born without her experiencing childbirth consciously. Decades later, when my own children were born at home without drugs, my mother shared that, while she had had the experience of being pregnant, she had never known birthing. It was something that happened while she was unconscious.
News of my birth is at hand
At seven o’clock that evening, I came bawling into the world, and sometime later, a call went out to my father. I can imagine the phone ringing—it must have been on a doily set on a small telephone table. (Yes, telephones were honored with their own little settings.) The phone stand was placed perhaps in the living room, but I seem to remember—obviously from when I was older—that it was in the large hallway whose steps led up to my parents’ quarters. My grandparents would have refrained from answering and would have looked at my father.
“Albert,” my grandmother might have said pointing to the phone, curious about what must be a call to announce the new baby.
My father would have gotten up and walked to the phone. Would Lucille have had the girl she wanted? They had a name for a girl—Claire—but they had not agreed on one for a boy—they had wavered between “Raymond” (her) and “Gérald” (him).
I imagine my father uttering short phrases on the phone and smiling. Perhaps he turned to his parents and said, “Un garçon!” Soon, he came with his father to the hospital to see his new son. My grandmother did not go. My brother Billy who was most likely in his crib by that time of day certainly needed an adult around, but across Warren Avenue, there were many adolescent Verreault aunts and uncles who could have stayed with him while my grandmother went. My mother remarked, years later, how strange that neither her mother nor her mother-in-law had come that evening.
Choosing a Name
As was customary, my mother was hospitalized for the better part of a week. During this time, she roomed with a woman whose husband was a union organizer for mill workers. His name was “Denis.” Since my parents had not agreed on a boy’s name, it occurred to my mother that “Denis” might be a good compromise. One evening, when my father came after his workday at Bath Iron Works some thirty miles away, she ran the name “Denis” by him, and he concurred that “Denis” was a good name. “Denis” I was to be called, but my father did get his “Gérald” as my middle name. (Nineteen months earlier, my mother had gotten her “Raymond” as Billy’s)
[End note: As a life-long, liberal Democrat, I have always appreciated that I was named after a union organizer and couldn’t resist including this factoid in my memoir French Boy!]
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