LEWISTON – “We all have pieces of the puzzle, and we are all trying to put it back together,” said Rhea Ct Robbins in her talk about Franco-American women at Thursday’s Great Falls Forum.
Ct Robbins, founder and executive director of the Franco-American Women’s Institute, told an audience at the Marsden Hartley Cultural Center of the Lewiston Public Library that facts about everyday life are the essence of the Franco-American woman’s culture.
“How people come back to the culture is an individual journey,” she said.
Each Franco-American community “has its own fingerprint, its own personality,” she told the audience. “What may work for cultural preservation in one area may not be right in another.”
Nevertheless, she urged everyone who may have a story, a comment or a bit of information about lives of Franco-American women to add that knowledge to the FAWI Web site archives (www.fawi.net). She said the FAWI is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week.
Ct Robbins singled out several Franco-American women from Lewiston who have made significant contributions to preserving the culture.
She mentioned Alberte Gastonguay (1906-1978), who wrote “La Jeune Franco-Amricaine.” It’s a small volume about a young girl’s conflicts between the strict moral code of the Catholic church and the allure of the materialistic world.
Ct Robbins explained that “morality stories” were a traditional genre of French literature and it was common for women to write stories about how to choose a good husband.
“It’s kind of a how-to book, but it’s told in story form. I call them the happy husband hunters’ handbooks,” she said.
Ct Robbins emphasized the importance of “Le Messager,” which was Lewiston’s French-language newspaper for many years in the mid-1900s, and she paid tribute to the contributions of Charlotte Michaud, a former writer for the Lewiston Daily Sun and Lewiston Evening Journal who was first president of the organization of women journalists known today as Maine Media Women.
Another significant work by a Lewiston woman, Ct Robbins said, is “Canuck” by Camille Lessard Bissonnette (1883-1970). The book chronicles the New England mill town experience in Lowell, Mass., and life in the Quebec countryside.
Camille Lessard Bissonnette worked for four years at Lewiston’s Continental Mill and was a writer for Le Messager. “Canuck” was serialized in Le Messager and was published in its entirety in 1930.
“The book’s locale is Lowell, but it’s about Lewiston,” Ct Robbins said.
She also credited Madeleine Parent Roy, first director of the Franco-American Reading Room at L-A College, with work on a translation of “Francaise d’Amerique,” an important Franco-American play of the early 1900s by Corinne Rocheleau.
She noted that “Francaise d’Amerique” is written with special sensibility toward Native Americans.
Ct Robbins said she is working on publication in the near future of “Canuck and Other Stories,” which will contain these translations.
Ct Robbins read a few paragraphs from her book, “Wednesday’s Child.” The selection, titled “Something That Will Cure,” featured an assortment of sayings and proverbs she heard from her mother and others, such as beliefs and admonitions about the significance – sometimes good, sometimes bad – of hats on beds, eating utensils dropped on the floor, itchy noses, open umbrellas in the house, spilled salt, other superstitions.
She told how Franco-American women would sprinkle holy water on the windows during a rainstorm to prevent lightning from striking. If good weather was needed for an outing the next day, a statuette of the Virgin Mary would be placed on a windowsill.
“No culture exists in a vacuum,” she said, urging people of other cultural backgrounds to add their stories that relate to the Franco-American experience.
“Here in Maine, several communities have been chez-nous (our home) for Franco-Americans for more than the past 150 years,” she said.
“Scrapbooks, recipe books, baby books, letters – that is also publishing,” Ct Robbins noted. She referred to this as “lived culture” and emphasized the importance of preserving all these “pieces of the puzzle.”
Ct Robbins said Maine’s population is about 40 percent Franco-American, and women of this heritage live in pockets of communities throughout Maine, the Northeast and elsewhere.
Rhea Ct Robbins was brought up bilingually in a Franco-American neighborhood in Waterville known as “down the Plains.” She was the 1997 winner of the Maine Chapbook Award for her work of creative biographical work, “Wednesday’s Child,” which is taught at several institutions. She teaches creative nonfiction, literature and Franco-American women’s experiences at the University of Maine in Orono.
The Great Falls Forum is a monthly program featuring leaders in public policy, academia and the arts and is co-sponsored by the Sun Journal, St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, Lewiston Public Library and Bates College.