Before my mother, there was Marie. There is a photograph of her being carried in a wooden box by the same man who would cradle my mother a year later. He is wearing a stiff suit, or he is being careful, staying still for the camera. Behind him, the sky is white as printer paper, but his face is a shade grayer than the grass, as if it’s the first time he’s raised his head in days. I know his eyes are the sharp blue of a faraway place, like an ocean from a postcard, but this is an old photograph, so his eyes are the color of TV static. It is impossible to tell he is a dairy farmer, but I know his hands are callused thick as firefighter gloves. I know how lean he really is, body fat sucked into muscle, and even though it’s black and white, I know his arms and neck are permanently burned into red dirt by the Québécois sun. The man in the photograph—penciled 1959 on the back—is holding a suitcase-sized coffin under his right arm, motionless before the funeral.

My older sister’s first name is Marie, though everyone calls her by her middle name, Emilie. I know countless spin-offs of Marie, cousins named Marie-Noëlle, Anne-Marie, Marie-Claire; Marie is the dandelion of Québécois nomenclature, its seeds always carried by the wind of the next generation, scattering throughout families, entrenching itself anywhere it can in a name. When I asked my father why everyone names their daughters Marie, he said, “So they have a better chance to get to le ciel.” Where my parents were raised, everything is holy. Even the tap that always tastes stale, like a glass of water on a nightstand in the morning, comes from the Saint Lawrence River. The towns they were born in, so small that Google maps takes a couple extra minutes to locate them––strewn like beads of rain across the spider web of highways stretched between Montréal and Québec city––are also named after saints. Jesus is splayed on the wall of every room of every house. The worst swearwords are biblical. The land is so flat that cornfields seem to stretch without boundary, laughing at the uptight horizon while keeping a respectful distance from the clouds as if they were off-limits, and maybe they are. The sky looks the part—like private property, maddeningly empty beside the transmission towers, those huge, metal praying mantises that carry power lines through pastures; the silos with ladder steps that climb their fifty-foot-tall backs; and of course, the church steeples that lay around like upside-down thumbtacks, waiting, as if hoping for God to step on one and finally pay them some attention.

Before Marie, there was her mother. The last time I see her alive, Saint Grégoire looks like a dirty white t-shirt. The pastures––wrinkled in snow and mud––have given in to the warm December, albeit Ski-Doos are still parked outside the only bar in town, which is slow. Out here, the only place where la vie passe vite is on the back roads, where 100 km/h signs are acknowledged as a speed, but not as a limit. At dinner, mon oncle Martin tells a story about two brothers who used to race on the long skinny road beside his farm, how their engines roared by until they burnt up; until the brothers died, one after the other, two years apart in separate car accidents. Ma grand-mère is going fast, too. Since November, the doctors have said it could be days, weeks, or months. When mon grand-père tells her he doesn’t want her to go before him, she answers, “Dépêche toi.” The world seems to stop moving while we’re here. Pieces of snapped plastic utensils, along with a Burger King bag pasted to the pavement, greet us outside the door of Soleil-Levant every day we visit her. The first night, there are one-size-fit-all blue scrubs for your shoes in the entrance; I try to slip them over my boots, but they rip at the toe. The scrubs drag helplessly from my heels as we walk to room D312. The empty hallway echoes our steps with shuffling clicks while my mother whispers to me that the woman who runs the retirement home is my age and single. Five minutes after chatting with ma grand-mère, she tells me the same thing. Mother like daughter, or daughter like mother, I can’t tell. I feel as if time has been rewound just to tick at the same seconds over and over, overlapping itself. A few days later, when we leave, we say à la prochaine as if there will be a next time. As is tradition, she hands all her grandchildren a twenty-dollar bill. On the way back, I break it on a bag of roasted and salted peanuts. They taste like roasted and salted Styrofoam pellets. I simultaneously realize the expiration date is from months ago, that the past is rushing forward just in time to be omnipresent, and that I will never spend the seventeen dollars and five cents I have left.

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Benjamin Bouvet-Boisclair lives in transit between New York where he serves tables, and Santiago, Chile, where he teaches English. His work has also appeared in The Literary Bohemian.

One Response

  1. jim Hannon
    at · Reply

    I’d like to read more. Growing up in New England, with some Acadian ancestry, I thought of Quebec as romantically foreign yet close. When I spent time there, especially rural Quebec, I understood much better my grandmother’s piety. It felt suffocating.

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