Identify Yourself Tuesday, Apr 29 2014 

The ladies are yammering about identity. Too many of the seemingly random readings I’m coming across raise slant questions to a perennial one my own mother frequently asked: Who do you think you are?

With mom (Aurore Orise Brunelle, grand-daughter of Parmelie Ledoux), the question was really more about a child acting with hubris, something that would challenge the gods of the French to rain down corrective lessons. That wasn’t something one wanted to invite into one’s life.

It’s a different question now, this Who do you think you are?

Are you what the dominant culture defines you as or are you what you feel inside? Or both? Or more? Or none of the above? Do you have to have a certain genome, untainted by epigenetic transformations or come from a certain place or be descended from certain people? Or be born someplace, or live there for some amount of years, or generations?

Did Marie-Reine Charpentier become Canadienne when she left Paris at age 13 to come to New France to marry? Was Marie Vigneau (born in Beaubassin, Acadie, and married on Iles St. Pierre et Miquelon, France) always Acadienne? Was Anne Pastourel (born in Boucherville, wet-nurse in Detroit, married in Montreal, and died in Trois Rivieres) always Canadienne? Was Parmelie Ledoux a French-Canadian because of where she was born (St. Octave in Rimouski) or a Franco-American because of where she died (Worcester MA)?

I imagine these women sitting around an old wood farm table in a French Nanog where they enjoy a grand chuckle at the confusion and questions they raise in their offspring – some French-French and some French-Other. “Just when you think you know us, here’s something else to think about: you can’t believe everything you read or think. You’ll get to know some things about us, some of which will even be true. Tee hee hee.”

What provoked this meandering of mind was a snippet in the September 27, 2013 The Week (p. 6) — okay, I am a bit behind in reading — in which Kashmir Singh, a Sikh community leader points out that he’s lived in Quebec for 40 years then asks “Am I Québecois, or not?”

I know that if he were the husband of my third cousin’s sister-in-law’s aunt, I’d say ‘yes’ without thinking. And thank him for diversifying the gene pool. But I’m not so sure that living in a place for 40 years is a priori proof of identity. I wonder next: does that make me provincial/narrow-minded/bigoted/limited? For heaven’s sake, do you have to belong to people rooted in a geographic place for hundreds of years to wear a tribal moniker? And if one or more of your generations leave that geographic homeland, do you lose your tribalness? When do you belong? When do you un-belong?

I’ve lived in Orange, Massachusetts for 28 years and am still considered an outsider by people born here, even more so by people whose parents and grandparents were born here. Though I’ve been going to Cape Cod for more than 50 years and have some deep emotional ties and one-week of property there, I’m there considered a “wash ashore,” a person who doesn’t really understand “Cape-ness.” This does give me an inkling of and kinship with Mr. Singh’s frustration.

Even plants have to struggle to be considered resident in the U.S culture. Plantain came to Massachusetts with the English colonists hundreds of years ago, and, yet, though this “white-man’s footprint” is ubiquitous in lawns and sidewalk cracks, it’s still an “introduced species.”

Well, isn’t everything? It’s not like we’re still stewing in some primordial soup waiting for life to emerge or watching pterodactyls sore across the horizon in our early primate forms.

Which thought then reminds me of a conversation I had with my Cape Cod pal Valerie Lane one August retreat. (Marie Vigneau was yammering for mental attention then.) We were wondering why we have affinities and affiliations for some places and people and not for others within our own families. What is it about the stories of some lives that rivet attention while others at best disinterest and at worst remain invisible?

Each question leads to more questions to revisions of thought and knowing to more questions and more revisions. Each step seems to reveal more about the “not known” than the “known.”

I can hear the ladies now: Aah. Now, you’re finally listening. Tee, hee, hee.

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Filles du Roi Part 2 Monday, Oct 14 2013 

When serendipity answers questions, magic seems to happen. Or, as Louis Pasteur once said: Chance favors the prepared mind. In my case, I think it’s the ladies talking again.

The Filles du Roi are still on my mind. These are the hundreds of young women (and a few matrons) recruited by agents of Louis XIV between 1663 and 1673 to populate New France. In Quebec, festivities and remembrances were in abundance over the summer as this is the 350th year after the first of these women and girls arrived.

Though 2.4 million people (Wikipedia) claim French-Canadian ancestry in the U.S., few of us, I’m guessing, are (were) aware of this anniversary. In Canada, Wiki puts the number at 7 million. Even without knowing the connections, and accounting for other women in the gene pool, that’s a lot of descendants for under 1000 women in the late 17th century. That’s a lot of cousins running around in this century.

Thank goodness for Jan Burkhart of the American-French Genealogical Society in Rhode Island and her project to document descendants. Early last week, she sent my certificate to confirm that I am a descendant of Marie-Reine Charpentier, daughter of Isabelle de Sens and Bonaventure Charpentier – the Queen’s master tailor. I’d picked her from among the many filles du roi in my lines because she is the progenitor of the mother-daughter line to me.

When I opened the folder, my reaction surprised me: I became teary-eyed. What the hey? Then I opened the folder holding the certificate for my sister’s (Sue) grand-daughter (Vivian), and the tears flowed. There was something overwhelming about seeing in print that Vivian Aurore Ober (now two) through her mom Melissa Paradis is a descendant of Marie-Reine, who came to Quebec City in 1671 when she was 13.

I guess that means that Marie-Reine has stepped forward to join Parmelie L., Marie V., and Anne P. at the country table in my mind. And that the conversation is becoming more and more lively.

Then comes a serendipitous moment. I am reading DNA Double Take by Carl Zimmer in the Science Times section of Sept. 17’s The New York Times. Apparently, what scientists think they know about the human genome is changing like a runway model during fashion week. “…it’s quite common for an individual to have multiple genomes…Some have genomes that came from other people.”

My first reaction was, well, duh, yeah, from our parents. But that wasn’t what he meant. Y chromosomes in breast tissue, a chimeraic woman whose genome seemed to indicate she wasn’t the mother of two of her three biological children, women who gain genomes from their children – DNA that is a whole lot less individual than what was biology dogma just a few years ago.

So, I got to thinking, well, if other people’s DNA is mixed in with our own, how crazy is it really to imagine that the ancestral ladies are talking in my head? How much of our ancestors’ “stuff” is mixed in with our biological “stuff” as well as our psychosocial “stuff”? Maybe we’re not only what we eat or known by the company we keep. Maybe we’re a lot more who they were than we realize.

Maybe not. But the possibility is certainly fodder for a writer’s imagination. Especially if she really, really listens.