AUCOIN’S GARAGE, LE TROU AND THE PRINCESS RING
Tante Petronelle gets to her feet to step dance – even at 100 years of age – because there is a lift to the fiddler’s playing.
A strong, straight-backed woman with well-developed forearms earned through a life of hard work, she never lost her “Joie de Vivre.”
After her mother died in childbirth, she and her sister raised 11 brothers. When they were properly raised, she went on to raise her own family.
But she always had time for children.
“C’est ma petite,” the Acadian says, giving me her inevitable pat on the head.
“Elle a le visage de son Père”, says this wonderful lady, leading me toward a plate of cookies.
Not that I was thrilled to resemble my father – a ruddy-cheeked ruffian if ever there was one – but whenever Tante Petronelle spoke - it sounded like she was blessing you.
When the Acadian went visiting, I was permanently attached to her hip. And when we were near the strip of shoreline reaching from Margaree to Cheticamp, there was a lot of visiting.
There were cows in fields, horses in barns and lots of cats in both barns and houses. There were cookies and fricot and gallons of milk and music in every home.
“Charlie – take out your harmonica.” This would be Charlie, Tante Petronelle’s son and inheritor of her quick wit and joie de vivre.
“We’re going to have a time at the house tomorrow night – you come over and bring all the kids,” says one of the Acadian’s hundreds of cousins.
“You have to visit Tante Sabine before you go – she would love to see you,” says another.
So, we go and we visit, at house after house – especially in the Cap Le Moine, St. Joseph du Moine and Grand Etang area. And more than a few in Cheticamp.
WHO DON’T YOU KNOW
Driving through St. Joseph du Moine one fine summer day in the late ‘70’s, I ask the Acadian if she knew all the inhabitants of all the houses along the road.
She gestures toward the little valley below the dark mountains.
“Your relatives are all along here – they’re either my cousins or aunts and uncles – it’s wonderful,” she says.
I pick a house just up the road from Charlie and Lena Cormier.
“How about that house?”
“Oh, Laura Aucoin lives there – she’s Charlie’s sister and an old school teacher. In fact, she taught me when I was in school,” she says, chuckling.
It is impossible to stump her.
We stay with my uncle, Tom Charles and Aunt Della. They’d bought and remodeled our old family home in Cap le Moine.
I ask my Uncle Tommy if he’d found my lost ring when renovating. He’d given it to me with great ceremony when I was five-year-old, telling me it was bestowed upon him after he did a favour for a princess.
I’d always kind of figured he’d slain a dragon or something equally valiant. He said nothing to dispel that notion.
“No, the princess’s ring has not been found but I’ll keep searching,” he promised.
Even though I was 20-years-old, I appreciated the effort.
Later that summer, I go for a long drive with my friend, Eileen and my nephew, Robert, who is six-years-old. On the spur of the moment, we head out from Sydney to the place the Acadian lovingly called Le Trou.
I borrow my sister’s little orange-coloured Volkswagen Beetle.
I have a momentary pang because it doesn’t feel right to be here without the Acadian. It feels disloyal.
In any event, we aren’t planning to visit anyone. This is a day of adventure – off to Pembroke Lake at the top of the mountain, with a view of the valley and the ocean below.
Robert is delighted.
“We’re going to the mountain,” he squeals.
The tough little Volkswagen has no trouble climbing the narrow mountain road. A puff of dust bellows out from behind the car as we wind our way up.
I hit a deep pothole, a stick catapults off a tire and plunges itself into the bottom of the Beetle. The car stops dead.
It won’t start. We’re half way up squirrel mountain and this car is dead.
I get out and look under the back of the car where the engine is. At least I know where the engine is located.
Stuff is leaking out.
I puzzle over our dilemma.
“We’ll roll backwards down the road and see what happens,” I say.
Robert yells an enthusiastic “Yay!”
Eileen is white-faced.
“Maybe we should walk down and call John,” she says. John is my brother, Johnny, who she ends up marrying years later.
“Nah, we’ll be fine.”
Carefully, we roll backwards down the winding, potholed road, maneuvering through the ruts, saying a few Hail Marys along the way.
When we get to the flat valley the car still won’t start. Of course.
My sister is going to kill me. I might have not told her where we were going.
We start the long walk from the valley to the village of St. Joseph du Moine.
Robert looks for frogs in small ponds along the way. He laughs at the sucking noise his sneakers make when I pull him from the mud.
We trudge up the hill, passing fresh cut hayfields and the scent of wild roses thickens the air. A small herd of sheep dot the green hills and we make up songs about fat lambs and frogs.
We stopped for a drink at the same spring the Acadian and her siblings stopped while on their way to school.
Pink and white snake flowers fill the ditches along the roadside.
I once asked a tremendously handsome French man the name of those flowers. His response: Fleur des Serpents. I almost swooned.
Robert’s little legs grow tired, so Eileen gives him a piggyback
“Can we go see if there’s any animals in that barn, Mae?”
Strange little brown-eyed boy. He calls me by the same nickname the Scot did, even though he died just a few years after Robert was born.
“We have to get to the garage – see if they can help us,” I tell him.
The man at the garage is not full of confidence.
“It’s a Volkswagen? Gosh, those foreign cars – I don’t know,” he says.
But he can get it out of the valley.
“You stay here and I’ll tow it this far at least.”
When he arrives with the little Beetle, he’s no more confident.
“The stick went through the oil pan and you can’t move that car without oil,” he says.
“You would need the part and there’s no place around here to get one and I never worked on those cars anyway.”
I must look stricken.
“Do you know anyone around here? Can you call someone,” he asks?
“Well, my uncle lives down in Cap Le Moine – Tom Charles Chiasson,” I say.
“Tom Charles Chiasson – well, you’re Helen Rose’s daughter - well, we’re cousins,” he says, smiling.
“My mother – Laura Aucoin – is Tom Charles’ and your mother’s first cousin.
He reaches into his pocket and brings out a key.
“Here – take my car and go see Tom Charles.”
“But …. But – you don’t know me…”
“Well, I know your mother is a Chiasson – right? That’s all I need to know,” he says, shooing us away.
And a perfect stranger lets us drive away in his car because I am his mother’s cousin’s daughter.