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June 18, 2021

Grandpa Frédéric, treasured memories from long ago

When Mom’s eczema affected her mood, the children left. Dad placed the two smallest ones with Aunt Olivette, my brother went to the neighboring cobbler and I was left with Grandpa Frédéric, who fed me with bread warmed in milk and sweetened with brown sugar for a month. I was in heaven, joyfully following him everywhere: to the barn, where he milked the cows; to the fields, where we spent days collecting pebbles we would throw on an imaginary line between the fields; and to the little bridge by the brook, where he fished for trout for supper that he never caught. I learned that when he was my age, he used to spread cod and herring heads on top of the manure in the seeded furrows to fertilize the soil.

Another time in the fall, Grandpa insisted I put on thick wool socks that went up to my thighs. Wearing a parka buttoned up to my neck and a tuque knitted by my late grandmother, we went to check on the hare snares. I was 7 years old and I had to take long strides in the snow to step in the big footprints left by my grandfather's moccasins as he moved along. 

Sometimes Mom’s depression coincided with the planting of the potato crop. Grandpa let me put the big pieces of tuber we had cut the day before in the furrows. He followed afterwards with a rake covering them with soil. 

- “The bigger the pieces, the more potatoes there will be under the plants,” he taught me, insisting that each piece should have at least one sprout sticking out of its skin.

Grandpa declared that children were allowed to miss school to help shear sheep, plant potatoes, pluck chickens, pick rocks in the fields, gather hay and stack firewood. One day, we made a scarecrow using bits of twigs for legs and arms. I dressed the skeleton in Dad’s old holey jacket and a black beggar’s hat tucked neatly over an old straw basket shaped like a head. Laughing, Grandpa planted the frightful character in Mom’s garden to protect it from the birds of prey circling above in the Gaspé sky.

I learned something new every day from Grandpa such as: 

- “When the moon is red, it’s going to be hot the next day. But when it’s misty, it means rain is coming.” 

- “If the ground freezes before the snow comes, it’s a sign that the maple trees will flow in the spring.”

Sometimes on Sundays, Grandpa would heat up a meat stew that a neighbour had brought over. On the big kitchen table, there would be a nice slice of homemade bread and a white porcelain cup for tea for each of us. Grandpa would ladle the stew into two large, shallow soup plates, and we had to eat it all up if we wanted to have dessert. When my plate was completely clean, Grandpa turned it upside down and poured a serving of molasses into the cavity on which a faded engraved name appeared.

- “Best not to use too many dishes when the wife is no longer around," said Grandpa, spreading a thin layer of butter on my slice of bread.

At that time, it seemed that Grandpa was the only one who realized I existed, the only one who took the time to talk to me. He is the one who explained to me that in the spring, the schools of cod were drawn to the Baie des Chaleurs by the warming water and all the food swarming at the bottom of the river. Sometimes, after lunch, we would go down to the shore and he’d explain the difference between smelt, flounder and mackerel. One afternoon, the sight of a barge arriving full of cod and flounder reminded him of the day Grandma’s cat had snatched a big flounder for dinner right out of the sink and took off with it outside. Poor Joséphine, God rest her soul, had no idea where the fish had gone.

Sometimes to make me laugh, Grandpa would wrap a few long strands of brown seaweed around his neck and start tweeting and flapping his lame, cloth-covered arm as he stood on the shore. Turning serious again, he would tell me stories of abandoned picnic baskets of townspeople who had been washed away by the tide or of lighthouse keepers who disappeared while chasing ghost ships. 

I would learn much later that my grandfather was an orphan whose father, a cod fisherman, never returned from the sea, and that around the age of 14, he was already working in a sawmill. Somehow he had managed to put his entire right arm in a machine used to crush the wood. As a result, his arm was always covered with a cloth and he had to lift it with his left hand to move it. Despite this handicap, grandfather married Joséphine Leblanc at the age of 22. She was a teacher from Carleton. The marriage produced 10 surviving daughters, including my mom, who was also a teacher.

I hope all the cooks at our restaurants will read this letter. Because they’ll learn the story behind the name of the soup plate that we often use to serve the lunch dish, breakfast poutine and other specialties occasionally. This plate has been with us forever, nicknamed “assiette grand-père” (grandfather’s plate) in honour of all the meals I once shared with my grandfather, some 70 years ago. 

It’s quite unbelievable that most of the elements of the Cora concept are rooted in the salty waters of my childhood.......To be continued!