A bear knocking at the door
I often hop in my Mini Cooper in the morning and go for a spin. I fill the thermos with piping hot coffee from which I take sips as I drive and admire the landscape. Yesterday morning, after passing by the town’s wonderful movie theatre to reassure myself that the huge sign out front still read OPENING SOON, I decided to head off to the Ste-Adèle cemetery where both my parents are buried. The day was mild, so I rolled down the window and filled my lungs with the smell of pine.
I love pine trees. As a young girl growing up in the Gaspésie, I can recall seeing groups of 3, 4 or 5 of them, holding hands and forming a line along Highway 132. I imagined them to be a family out for a walk admiring Grandpa Frédéric’s land, where a real bear could sometimes be spotted.
As I turned right towards the cemetery’s parking lot, a memory assailed me. It took place on a hunting weekend in the Gaspésie in October or November. My brother wanted to see a real bear before the snow arrived, so Mom decided that we would all go with Dad to Uncle Gaston’s shack in the middle of the forest.
Mom crammed a big metal lunch box to eliminate the smell of food at the campsite into the truck, along with woollen sweaters, thick flannel jackets, felt boot liners and all us kids, dressed in our parkas buttoned all the way to the top. As soon as we arrived, she stopped nursing her youngest and took stock of the lodging. It turned out to be a single-room structure equipped with a covered metal chamber pot and a homemade wood stove, whose pipe, which was affixed to the ceiling, exited through a hole in the wall above the door. I remember that there was one bed which we would squeeze into that night, with the kids lined up in the middle with one parent on each side. The baby was to sleep in a portable cradle, borrowed from the neighbour, which we attached to a chair placed next to Mom’s pillow.
I will never forget that horrible night. The littlest hollered at the top of her lungs, my younger sister had shoved her head under a pillow and I spent my time on the floor on all fours rocking the cradle in the desperate hope it would put the baby to sleep.
Mom picked up the pace as darkness fell inside the shack. She berated Dad out loud as she hurried about.
How could he have gone out without telling her? How could he have taken along my brother when the night was as dark as a black hole?
- “He wanted to check out the area,” I answered calmly.
- “To be ready to go hunting in the morning.”
But nothing would appease her. Mom stared at the gun mounted on the wall in its case. “He may just need it,” she murmured worriedly.
As the baby’s cries subsided, our ears caught the low growl of a bear, followed by the terrifying sound of the animal scraping its claws on the front door. The intruder had appeared even though Mom had been carefully to pick up every last crumb of the bread we had gobbled down with molasses before putting on our jackets. Nervously she climbed on a chair and stuffed her parka in the shack’s only tiny window and told her daughters to join her on the bed. She wanted to pray, she told me, to say a few words to the heavenly lord, but nothing came out of her mouth. Instead of uttering a few words she swallowed anxious gulps. Her eyelids flitted with fear and the eczema sores on her hands began to flare up.
I was maybe 6 or 7 and I knew how to write. Right then, I thought about writing a few words on the walls before I was devoured by the beast knocking at the door.
Kneeling at the mid-point of the bed, Mom was no longer speaking, but gestured to us with her arms to gather close to her. We stayed in my mother’s arms for such a long moment that I felt like I was in heaven. The warmth of our mother’s heart had a calming effect on us, and without knowing it, sleep had wrapped us in a quilt of dreams. Perhaps it transported us to a clearing full of wild blueberries. To the warm pebbles of the Bay in July. Or to Aunt Hope’s, who let us pat her docile sheep.
At dawn, Dad himself woke up the camp with my brother in tow, who, with sleepy eyes, insisted on recounting their night stuck in a tree. My tiny young sister applauded her hero. She too wanted to see a bear.
Mother remained mute; her silence was the harshest torture for Dad to endure. Fortunately, the next day, like every Sunday afternoon, he left with his salesman’s bag full of soap samples. He spent his life canvassing the surrounding areas of the Gaspé peninsula, returning each Friday evening, only to leave once again two days later.
A wall as solid as the Berlin Wall was erected between our two parents. Mom
suffered with her eczema-inflicted hands while Dad’s heart was preserved in brine. As kids we never knew the love or comfort of family life. The most painful was their silence, from both sides, like a guardrail that allowed them to live a somewhat normal existence. Yet I remember to this day often hearing their silent sobs filling the kitchen with sadness.
I learned the true story much later, after they had both passed, one after the other, in 1982. When my mom met the man who would become her husband, she had already experienced great heartache. She had just broken up with a young English protestant, whom she had fallen head over heels for. The village priest and her family forbade her to marry him. In Quebec in the 1940s, it was unthinkable that a Catholic would marry a Protestant, and an English one at that.
When my mom’s dad, who had nine daughters to marry off, met my father, he thought he was a good match, clean and well dressed, employed, and more importantly, in love with his daughter, the village’s teacher. They were married on April 6, 1942.
My mom gave into her father’s insistence and married my father. She remained sad and melancholic for most of her life. Soon after the marriage, she developed a severe form of eczema that never left her. As for my father, his father-in-law had been right: he was the best of men, brave, responsible and so in love with his wife that the elders of the village would tease him.
My mother’s sister told me the details of their marriage, a story that was sadly common at the time. Single her whole life, she explained that life can bite so deeply that some wounds never heal. Many men and women had to sacrifice their happiness in the name of society, religion and family.
Happily, the ship is steered more by the heart and true love today. Happily, successive generations have gained more freedom. Reflecting on my parents’ lives, I feel great compassion for those who came before me, and for my mother and father.
I hardly managed to do any better when it came to my own marriage vows. Nearing my 75th year, I am still looking for the balm that will sooth my own wounds that cast a shadow over my children’s youth. But I am hopeful. Very hopeful especially for my grandkids. Hard working, brave and positive, they will most certainly escape the chains of their forbearers and be free to create their own happiness.