Feathers flew over and into the maple tree in the unexpected breeze. Children, whooping and giggling, scurried around trying to capture some before they were gone forever. Mémère, visiting for a month, had been in a “grand ménage” (spring cleaning) frenzy. Every down pillow had been ripped open. The feathers were handwashed, then laid on sheets to dry on the lawn. She usually had an uncanny sense of when it would be a still, sunny day, but sometimes the kids were called on to rescue feathers, That night, the fresh scent of the outdoors on the reassembled pillow was magical as I snuggled my nose into it to go to sleep.

As a little girl of 6, I was transported to a different culture and language, moving from Madawaska to Bangor.

In our new neighborhood, no one spoke French. I only knew a few English words. Hardly anyone went to a Catholic church. My new friends thought it was weird having to eat fish on Fridays. Not everyone had dozens of close first cousins, aunts and uncles. I wore hand-knit and hand-sewn clothes made by my mother, Mémères and aunts. Bangor did not have a French neighborhood, unlike most cities in Maine. French was not spoken by neighbors, nor in corner markets, stores, school and church. I remember running to my father, asking how to say “parrain” in English. Then, after explaining to my friends that Uncle Ray, who lived with us, was my godfather, they asked, “What is a godfather?” Didn’t everyone have a godfather?

English came quickly, though, as languages do for young children. Resistant to my parents’ efforts to speak French “chez nous” (at home), it became more difficult over the years to talk with my French-speaking grandparents. Neighborhood, friends, school, books, TV, movies, were all English, and clothes became store-bought. Over time, bits of my French self were lost. Only visits from extended family and trips “up north” uncovered that familiar French during raucous get-togethers full of love and laughter — not just the French words, but the “joie de vivre.” And, oh, the aromas and flavors of chicken stew and ployes, tourtière, and cretons were wonderful and just ours.

We were proud of our Acadian heritage. The immigrants left France in the 1600s, crossing the Atlantic to settle in Nova Scotia. A hundred years later, came the tragedy of the dispersion of separated Acadian families to the shores of Louisiana, and ports along the way. I think of Mémère’s feathers flying in all directions. My ancestors made their way to Quebec before the dispersion. Acadians and Franco-Americans are now assimilated and spread out geographically. I have relatives in more than a dozen states and provinces. This diaspora means few live in French neighborhoods, holding on to French language and culture.

If only we could capture Acadians and Franco-Americans like the children caught Mémère’s feathers. I dream of a magical raucous family reunion like there was in the past.

Madeleine Martin is a resident of Hallowell.

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