In the same year Marie was born, there was a blackout. The wedding photographer was so drunk he forgot to put film in his camera. It’s a little sad—not as terrible as what happened to the wedding photographer from my parent’s marriage, who committed suicide a week after the ceremony, but still a little sad. There remains a photograph that a friend took, though. They are together in the photograph, husband and wife, the left arm of mon grand-père invisible, presumably tucked around the waist of ma grand-mère as they stand before a four-story wedding cake with an edible church bell perched atop it, the small white tower sitting on a platter rung by flowers sharing a table with plates of finger sandwiches, sucre à la crème, and mixed nuts. Studying mon grand-père, his suit fits well. His shoulders are full, slightly sloping like the roof of a house. In his jacket’s chest pocket is a white rose. His tie is smooth. His smile barely fits in his face. His fingers wrap around ma grand-mère’s right hand, holding a ribbon-tied knife, its blade resting on the second story, flashing narrow shades of black, white, and gray that seem to ripple from her touch. She is difficult to pinpoint in this photograph. Her face is the only thing that isn’t quite still, as if she were pressing her head into a hole cutout from a carnival stand-in. She seems disembodied, a white dress where her torso should be, her tiara held in place by strings. She has a thin smile, like she were on the brink of saying something. Her eyes are full, but they somehow hover in and out of focus as if she is watching something from a distance as it closes in, something that is just beginning to take shape. I want to ask her what she is looking at. I want to know what is on the other side of the camera. I turn the photograph over. The corners are dateless, and the rectangle they bind is blank. I have always had trouble admitting there is nothing else to see.
I don’t know Marie’s birthdate. I know she was born and buried in Saint Grégoire, and that she didn’t live longer than a week in 1959. I don’t know what day she died, nor do I know how. “She didn’t have enough oxygen,” is the way my mother explained it the first time I asked her. “The incubator was broken,” was what she said the second time, and the third and final time I asked her for more details, “It was the hospital’s fault.” I doubt she was baptized. I don’t know if she lived long enough to be called a pine cone by her mother—ma cocotte—the pet name all Québécois mothers use for their daughters—because I don’t know how long it would have taken for her to be more than just Marie. To imagine more is to begin to envision her childhood. Her attending École Beauséjour, the matchbox school in the village, for instance, is to unfold time as if it had different answers, like revealing the hidden corners of a paper fortune teller. To think of her listening to the rumble of her father singing opera from the shower, or her fetching rhubarb from her mother’s garden to dip their stems in sugar for a sweet snack, is to conjure details of an unlived life. To know her father would have balanced her on his knees at the wheel of a tractor if she had ever been twelve years old is useless knowledge; none of it is hers. The reason I’m aware of everything she didn’t survive is because these memories belong to someone else.
A year after Marie, there was, and still is, my mother. I know her by maman, but her full name is Marie-Hélène Lise Bouvet. Everyone knows her by her middle name, Lise. She was raised like a first daughter. She is proof that life continues, even when it stutters. There is a photograph of her on her first day of school; in it, she is a smiling six year old girl with a short, boyish haircut, standing as perpendicular to the ground as possible. She is gangly, and yet compact—her white shoes pressed together, her thin arms dangling down her sides—as if she is trying to prove how whole and inseperable she is. She is the daughter who heard the tick-tack of her mother’s sewing machine as she fell asleep, the daughter who rose at dawn to milk the cows, held burlap sacks in the middle of winter as her father shoveled grains into them, filling one after the other until her fingers went numb. When I first saw this photograph, I cried out of awe. I had never seen my mother from so faraway in a place that is still here. Home is a stubborn place. The one my mother grew up in is the same one her father grew up in, and the same one that is now a two hundred and twenty year old stone house that her brother and his family live in. So little has changed that I could stand today where my mother was photographed forty-nine years before and see what she had seen. There is still the barn, and in the distance a father—nowadays mon oncle Martin—his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his gait stiff as the mud-caked laces of his boots, dusk settling around him as he makes his way to the front porch steps just as dinner is set by a mother who is condemned to floating between the kitchen and the table until the plates are clean. There is still a dog, barking until the rifle is pointed between its eyes. There is still a horse track down the road, hooves that still clack against a summer’s hard, dry dirt, lap after lap. There is still a stump in the backyard from the English walnut tree that was a century old when it was chopped down this past year, the same English walnut tree from which mon grand-père gathered its dark shells to crack with a vise for my mother, just as he did for me, just as his father did for him. It had been dying undercover for years from a thousand cankers—a disease common to English walnut trees, wherein its trunk and branches are tunneled through by beetles, effectively rotting the tree from the inside out, making it nearly impossible to know what is happening unless you shave off its bark; therein you see galleries, the labyrinth that has been eating the tree alive for all this time. One day, with a knife in his fist, mon oncle Martin revealed the thousand cankers, but by then it was too late for anything to be done.
—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.