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3 O'clock thoughts: Feb. 2023

Morning musings: March, 2024

Tante Simone

Each Christmas for years, Simone and I spoke over the phone and caught up on our friendship. ALLO jo -A- na, she would holler, compensating for a 400 Km distance between Montreal and St-Irénée, Charlevoix. Until she reached 101 years old, Simone would send me a hand-painted holiday card with a long greeting, written in her thin shakey calligraphy. I first met her when she was 70 yrs. old(younger than I am now), when I was visiting her home to set up B & B services for my adult art students in St-Irénée. Her 200-year-old house was well-maintained, with low ceilings, cat-gut woven chairs(that fell backwards frequently), blurry glass windows, plus a feeling of comfort. The single bathroom was tiny but adequate, as were the four small upstairs bedrooms. Her home felt like a dollhouse, with Simone presiding at 5’ 8” tall, with her head often brushing against the ceiling beams. She was always well put together, wearing stylish homemade clothes, carefully make-up and sporting high-heeled shoes.

Simone was the eldest child of a large family from L’Anse St-Jean, a remote village in the Saguenay region of Québec. After high school, she travelled south to Charlevoix County to study professional cooking, weaving and dressmaking, then got a job as a cook in a cafeteria, found a boyfriend, and was happy with her independence. But, after a year or so, Simone was called home - her mother had died and her father needed her to raise the younger siblings. She complied as was expected, and dutifully returned home. Eventually, her father remarried and Simone returned to Charlevoix, where she wed a local road maintenance manager, Mederill Tremblay, and together they raised five daughters.

The Tremblays welcomed my art students into their home for 13 years, and early on, Simone signed up for a beginner watercolour class and became a fixture at my school thereafter. I was a frequent visitor to the Tremblay home and grew fond of Mederill, who was solid in build, dignified in expression, and shared Simone’s raucous sense of humour. They both loved having visitors in the house and enjoyed entertaining my students with vivid and funny accounts of life in St-Irénée.

I have clear memories of Simone and Mederill from those days, and an event that comes to mind is ‘the portrait’ session. I asked Mederill if he would sit for me since I admired his elegant face and stature, and, as I expected he was a relaxed model, who sat calmly and naturally. What I didn’t expect, however, was the presence of four of his five daughters, a few of their spouses and some grandchildren, who appeared at the designated hour of the portrait session - all ready to sit and watch. Simone had decided that there should be an appreciative audience for the momentous occasion. I was surprised but didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so I decided to go ahead anyway. I had studied Kendo (Japanese sword-fighting practice) for many years, so was capable of focused attention and because I frequently sketched in public, multiple sets of eyes watching my every mark didn’t make me too self-conscious. The whole audience, including the children, sat quietly watching all my moves, while Mederill sat still and solid. It was one of my stranger sketching sessions and made me realize that a commonplace activity for myself and other artists could represent both mystery and uniqueness for people who were not spoiled by worldly experiences. For the Tremblays, the sketching of Mederill their patriarch was a special occasion for the family to share and experience. Situations like this one have kept me humble, and remind me that there is an element of ‘magic’ in the reproduction of someone’s likeness. What I wanted to capture in Mederill’s face was his essential elegance, as well as his worn, large hands, familiar with hard, manual work.

After my art school closed, I continued to make periodic visits to Simone where we spent quiet days together, talking, walking and enjoying each other's company. And, each evening after supper, weather permitting, we did the ’tour de cemetière’. St-Irénée was originally a fishing village, accessible from the St-Lawrence River. The village was built along a steep incline, passable by horse and carriage, but not an easy climb for the abundance of tourist cars that would eventually wind their way up and down the main road. Simone and I would wander to the village cemetery, located downhill from her home, and walk among the headstones of several generations of locals, many of whom were known to Tante Simone. Our walk took about one hour - not because of the long distance, but because Simone was in no way emotionally constipated. Her sincere feelings were readily visible and vocalized as we stopped at specific headstones. Simone would stop, needing time to cry, laugh, or get angry, depending upon the deceased and their particular story. Even though I got to know these stories, I never got tired of the procession and the glimpses into people’s lives. After his death, Mederill’s grave evoked profuse weeping, but Simone’s tears morphed quickly into laughter as we moved on to the next headstone with a very odd plaque.

The tombstone was engraved with the image of a small truck with an oversized, incised pig body on the side. Wiping away her tears for Mederill, Tante Simone told me about a local farmer who had run over his favourite pig while inebriated(the farmer, not the pig) and when he died(the farmer, not the pig), it had been his wish to memorialize his precious porcine. Simone found this hilarious and always roared with raucous laughter, but abruptly, when we moved on, her eyes hardened at the headstone of a village priest. As was customary in rural Québec, the agent of God made annual visits to the homes of all the married women in St-Irénée, to ask them if they were pregnant. Although the church expected an annual pregnancy, Simone and Mederille had decided: c’est assez after their fifth child. The priest was furious, and as a result, Simone and Mederill stopped going to church - a courageous move for two Catholics in a small rural Québec village.

Another fond memory of mine occurred after Mederill’s death and involved Simone and a certain M. Bébé Hervé. For those not familiar with the nomenclature of rural Québec, “bébé” is often a designated name for toothless(or mostly toothless) ‘vieux garçons’(best translated as old boys or bachelors). This particular bébé was M. Bébé Hervé, a mainly toothless but very appealing man, whom I had the pleasure of meeting early on in my Charlevoix days. We were always on the lookout for beautiful painting venues, and the Hervé family home was a big farm property with a magnificent view of the river, situated between St-Irénée and La Malbaie. Bébé had done road work with Mederill for years and was acquainted with Simone. Since his retirement, he lived with his wife in Pt. au Pic, a nearby village during the winter months - and there he was a well-dressed, well-dentured and probably well-behaved husband. Then, during the summer months, his wife remained in their primary home in the village, and Bébé moved to the Hervé farm, where, minimally dressed, he stopped shaving and wearing his dentures - hence bébé.

Mr. Nature was in his element for a few months every summer, and when I brought students to paint his admirable landscape, he trotted around in his underwear, rubber boots and rodeo hat entertaining us with anecdotes and showing off his favourite turkeys and cows. He had no hesitation to boot a bovine in the arse if it stopped to chew and block the view of the river for the painters. Along with me, the students loved him, and we visited his home at least once a week. Over time, after the death of Mederill, Simone and Bébé rekindled their old acquaintanceship, and, because neither of them drove a car, I frequently dropped her off to visit Bébé for ‘un vrai café bouilli’ (a real boiled coffee) and, whatever else they got up to, while I shopped in La Malbaie. On the way back, I picked up Simone, and usually neither she nor Bébé looked me in the eye, but both wore broad smiles on their faces. In retrospect, I realized that Simone(even well into her 80s) was one of the most ‘alive’ and uninhibited people I ever met, and, Bébé, masculine and still good-looking - despite his toothlessness, had an Andro that had not yet paused. Once, after a few glasses of wine, Simone told me that when she was younger, she enjoyed going to a special place in the woods to ‘faire du toast’. I never got an exact translation, but it sounded like a salacious vernacular expression. Then she winked at me and asked me when we would be visiting Bébé again.

(Simone at 100)

I visited Simone one last time when she was 100 years old and living in a small family-run residence near Cap à l’Aigle, not far from St-Irénée. She was still an imposing figure: tall and stylish, wearing a red dress, and high heels, and her hair was gently dyed and permed. When she saw me, she bellowed: jo-A-na and gave me a robust oxygen-depriving squeeze with her still-powerful arms. She showed me her room, and her numerous day journals written over the years in beautiful handwriting, in which she commemorated her life, her B & B visitors from all over the world, and her loved ones. She seemed happy in the small family residence where she and 5 other aged souls occupied the small upstairs bedrooms, while downstairs they had access to a family room, dining room and kitchen, with a wide view of the St-Lawrence River. Attached to the side of the residence, the proprietor ran a hairdresser salon, and Simone could have her hair permed and coloured, and her fingernails manicured as often as she wanted.

Her Xmas phone calls ended after she was 101 yrs. old, and I knew she had died, and I was glad to have had one final visit. In my estimation, Simone symbolizes a true feminist spirit, at a time when women had onerous duties and limited choices. This strong woman lived life and love wholeheartedly and unashamedly. I have not yet visited her headstone, but when I do, I expect to both laugh and cry.

(Mederille Tremblay)

(Bébé Hervé)


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