Apples, brandy (Calvados), cows and hills. Maybe pears, horses, clay and camembert.

Images that settle and stay as I read my not-a-Christmas-present book from my brother John. A big, big book about everything Calvados (written in 2011 by Charles Neal). A non-holiday book my bargain-hunting, travel-for-points brother saw in a remainders bin and instantly recognized as belonging in my hands. He was as much tickled by the idea of getting a $60 book for $2.50 as he was about identifying just the right recipient: a sister who is also tickled both by the bargain and the information, but more especially by the realization that her image lived in his mind, though they hadn’t seen each other in months.

Calvados-apple pie is becoming a birthday tradition, a gift made by the sister, to John and another brother (Donny). Though a decade apart in age, they celebrate a birthdate a day apart in late November — at the end of apple-gathering days, at the start of the bitter-winds season when a draught of Calvados fortifies body and soul, at a pause in the growing cycle when field produce is transformed into all manner of physician finger-wagging delights.

The book is subtitled: The Spirit of Normandy; it begins with cows, horses, cheese, food, and wine. By the time I get to the recipe for Poulet Valleé d’Auge, I am in love. And surprised that I have all the ingredients – including sea salt, chanterelles, cider, and cream — in my larder, or under heavy plastic in an experimental garden plot where I am learning how many years parsley will continue to sprout if semi-protected from New England winter extremes.

“Most Normans are content to be Normans and proud of their history…” Neal writes (p. 22).

What is my Norman history? Am I proud and content 400 years removed from this place? Are there qualities and habits inherited along with other Gallo-Roman-Norse physical traits that are there but invisible to my conscious mind?

This question is part of the quest that draws me out, a quest to seek my personal Holy Grail: the answer to the question How long does a physical, emotional, learned, inherited, or remembered experience persist from ancestor to descendant? Especially those of the almost unknown women who made me.

Who of the ancestors I’ve learned of thus far came from Norman regions – the departments France now calls Manche, Basse-Normandie, Orne, Haute-Normandie, and Seine-Maritime?

Ever aware that tracing the ancestors involves murkier certainty as the centuries reverse, still, what do I think I know of them thus far?

Vivienne Brunelle and Pierre St. Denis linked to St. Jacques de Dieppe (Seine-Maritime) before 1663 when their daughter Marie St. Denis shows up in Chateau -Richer, Quebec to marry Pierre Boucher dit Pitoche. I can’t find Marie in either the Filles du Roi or Filles à Marier books of Peter J. Gagné, so what is her emigration story? And what about her mother, whom geneaologist Drouin lists only by name without a known origin? What is her story?

And isn’t this curious that my sister’s first grand-daughter was given the name Vivian before anyone knew that Vivienne was a prenom de famille (first name). That Vivienne was a Brunelle is also curious as my mother – 11 generations from Vivienne – was born a Brunelle. Aurore, my mother’s name, is also the middle name of sister Sue’s first granddaughter: Vivian Aurore. She carries the name of two Brunelle women 11 generations apart.

I learn that it was common enough in the 17th and 18th centuries among my French/Acadian/Canadian ancestors for a first daughter to be named after her grandmother. My neice Melissa and her husband Mike did not know this when they carefully and secretly chose the name of their first child, a name they revealed to us after her birth.

Gabriel Samson de St.-Gatien-des-Bois, Lisieux (Basse-Normandie) married the Francoise Durand from Quimper in Brittany on Nov. 29, 1669 in Quebec City. They later migrated to Acadie where son Guillaume married Jeanne Martin in Annapolis Royal in 1704. The generations lived in Acadie on Cape Breton at least from 1734 when son Mathieu married Marguerite Poujet, who seems to have descended from the not-so-uncommon marriages between French men and Micmac/Pasamaquoddy women.

Mathieu and Marguerite’s daughter Anne married Francois Carrier in Louisbourg, Cape Breton in 1777. Somehow, their son Simon ended up in Rimouski by 1808 when he married Genevieve Desrosiers. Somewhere in there is another story of a family who escaped, who survived the Grand Derangement of 1755 and its aftermath.

Pierre Levesque and Marie Caumont, married in Hautot-St-Sulpice, in the Caux (Seine-Maritime) region of Normandy, in 1641, according to a book by Ulric Levesque published by the Levesque Family Association. Their son Robert is the second husband of Jeanne Chevalier, another Norman from Dieppe or Coutances, who migrated to Quebec after her father died. She was a fille du roi in 1671 when she married Guilliaume Le Canteur in October in Quebec City.

When Le Canteur died, he left Jeanne a widow with 3 young boys. How she met the 36 year-old bachelor carpenter Robert isn’t yet known. After they married, Jeanne moved from L’Ange-Gardien to Riviere Ouelle where Robert had cleared land. Their three living sons founded the Levesque surname lines. We know we’ve descended from two of them through my maternal arrière-grandmère (great-grandmother); who knows whether the third son will also appear in an as yet unfinished line of ascent.

Guillaume Couture was born about 1616, St. Godard de Rouen (Seine-Maritime). In Peter
é‘s Before the King’s Daughters is a harrowing tale of Guillaume’s life before he married Anne Emard, the 7th child of merchant-tailor Jean Emard and Marie Bineau from Niort (Poitou).

Guillaume, a carpenter, was a donné (someone who signed a contract to help with missionary work) of the Jesuits when he arrived in New France on June 26, 1641, and “soon set off to deliver supplies to the missionaries in Huronia.” (p. 131) In 1642, the 26 year-old brought back three men who were ill – the Huron chief Ahatsistari and the Jesuits Isaac Jogues and Charles Raymbaut.

About two weeks later, Guillaume, Ahatsistari, and fellow donné René Goupil set out to return to the chief’s home. Captured by an Iroquois group, Guillaume was tortured: “his fingernails torn out, joints broken and one finger sawn off with a shell. He was brought to the Mohawk villages, forced to watch the murder of Ahatsistari and suffer further torture.”

Somwhat ironically, to me, Gagné adds: “During his time among the Iroquois, Guillaume learned their langue and customs and gained their respect and the name Achirra. In July 1645, he accompanied chief Kiotseaeton to a council with Governor de Montmagny at Trois-Rivières.”

So, does 29-year-old Guillaume then stay in New France? No, he goes back to Mohawk territory to work on a peace agreement. He asks to break his contract with the Jesuits in 1646, and is allowed to do so. By October, all hell breaks loose and peace is not an option. Guillaume returns to Huronia.

Perhaps by 1647, as a man of about 31 years old, he had had it. He and a partner, Francois Bissot de La Rivière, settle at Pointe-Lévy where they clear land and build houses. This is a man whose capernter’s hands were mutilated only 5 years earlier.

On November 16, 1649, he and Anne married in Guillaume’s home in Lauzon. They had 10 children, and Guillaume continued on missions among the Mohawk and to seek the Northern Sea.

But wait, there must be an Anne story in here, too. How did they meet? What did this 22 year-old girl see in him? What did she think and feel while he was away? How’d she handle her growing brood as a single mom during their separations?

Another tidbit surfaces – their daughter Anne is the great-great-great-grandmother of Genevieve Desrosiers who married Simon Carrier, the son of Anne Samson and Francois Carrier. This is the Simon who seems to have averted capture in the Grand Derangement, one of the descendants of the Norman Gabriel Samson and the Breton Francoise Durand.

Pierre Crenel (or was it Crevet?) and Marie LeMercier, married in Benouville, July 18, 1613 (arr. Caen, Dioc Bayeux, Basse-Normandie). They died before their daughter Marie came to Canada in 1637 when she was 20. What happened to them? What was going on in Benouville before 1637 that contributed to their death? Or did they live a long life and pass in their elder years? What enticed Marie to uproot herself from Normandy, never to return? I suspect it was opportunity for this now-orphan. Still, what was in her character or experience that she thought it a good idea to sail for months across the Atlantic in a wooden ship stocked with food and water that would become increasingly questionable as the days passed?

Francoise Creste and Barnabe Gagnon married in 1571 in Tourouvre, Orne, Basse-Normandie. Their son Pierre married Marie-Renee Roger in 1597 in the same town. Their grand-daughter Noelle Gagnon married Giles Fournier, Nov 20, 1619 in Coulmer, Orne, Basse-Normandie. Their great-grandson Guillaume married Francoise Hebert on Nov. 20 1651 in Quebec City (Francoise seems to be a grand-daughter of Marie Rollet and Louis Hebert, a couple of whom much is written). With generations in Normandy, what happened to entice Guillaume to leave for New France?

Marie Foubert from St.-Vivien de Rouen. She married fellow Norman Jean Cusson from Ste.-Marguerite-Duclair in the archdiocese of Rouen in 1656 in Trois Rivières. She doesn’t show up in Before the King’s Daughters, so what is her story? How did she come to be in New France then?

Marin Richard dit Lavalleé, born about 1640 in Les Authieux-sur-le-Port-Ouen or Les Authieux-Ratiéville (Seine-Maritime) married Marie-Madeleine Grangeon on Oct. 21, 1669. She was the daughter of nobleman Philippe Grangeon and Claude d’Argentière. Marie-Madeleine and 19 other girls from the Salpêtrière in Paris signed a complaint against the Compagnie des Indes Occidentales at Dieppe on June 17, 1667 (Gagné, Kings Daughters and Founding Mothers, p. 280). More stories to uncover. What were the girls upset about? Did she take two years to find a husband because no one was of suitable rank, as Gagné suggests, or did she fall in love with habitant Marin?

There are more Norman ancestors, but it is time to pause, to reflect, to return to Neal’s book .

“Another ten million years passed.” (p. 62) Neal is talking mostly about the evolution of the soils that will eventually support the apple trees of Calvados in our era. In the evolution of dinosaurs and deposits of soil substrate, he finds a connection to the nourishment that will sweeten or sour the fruit that becomes this apple brandy. In a much grander time scheme than mine, he is describing the ancestry and story of Calvados.

The thought comes: but what other stories happened in those 10 million years? I am seeking ancestral narratives strung and woven across 400 years, and there, in geological time, are stories, albeit pre-human, that span more time than my mind can fathom. The ancestor stories that pull and reveal are such a tiny moment, maybe even a micronanosecond, of universe time. Still, these are the ones that nourished the descendants.

Is it any wonder, then, that the pattern of my todays are not so different from the patterns of the people whose genes shuffled and sorted across these 400 years to coalesce in the organism I call “me”? It is only my human mind that thinks so much time has passed.