Day 317 – Morbid Fascination

A simple trip home to bring my car in for a few small repairs turned into something unexpected.

I walked home from the garage, weaving my way through the village. This village is the quaint St.Isidore de Prescott, population 751 (according to the 2006 census). If you’re driving from Ottawa to Montreal along the 417 and you feel the need to grab a coffee about 1/2 way there, you’ll probably end up stopping at the St.Isidore/Maxville exit.

Did I mention my hometown is quaint? I mean, tiny. Very tiny. So tiny that I was blown away by the fact that it now has a new chipstand AND a new restaurant with a patio. Unbelievable! However, it’s not so tiny that the primary schoolyard is about the size of two average Ottawa city blocks… and this is for under 300 students. Ah, the benefits of the country.

However, I digress. While on my journey home, I decided to walk past the church and cemetery. I was raised as good french catholic girl, though I’m not so much of the good practicing kind of catholic these days. I noticed the cemetery had brand new shiny iron fences, with gorgeous stone pillars every 10 feet or so. Fancy. For the “fun” of it, I decided to visit the main “Quesnel” gravestone in the place. I won’t go into any detail about my beliefs, because that’s not what this post is about. What I will say though is that I feel places hold memory…energy… and can incite reactions when you least expect them to. It’s part of the reason why I love directing plays in really old theatres. I’m fascinated by the history, the many people incarnated there, the houses full of laughter and tears.

Cemeteries are full of history… and this particular trip reminded me of the uniqueness of my family history.

Huguette and Alcide were my grandparents. Both died of cancer.

Micheline was my aunt, but she was more like a cousin to me. She also died of cancer. I could probably write an entire post about her. Someone remind me of this someday soon. 😉

But the really amazing part of this image comes from the first five names. Helene, Jean-Guy, Claude, François and Françoise, ranging in ages from 5 years to less than 12 months, all died in a tragic house fire in 1956. I’ve heard the story told many times in many different ways, but the short version is that my Grandmother put the kids to bed and took Gerry (who was 3 at the time… he didn’t want to nap) out to the barn to do some chores. Gerry couldn’t speak much yet, but was able to tell my Grandmother “fumé” when he saw the smoke pour out of the house. I was also told that Helene, the oldest at 5, was found less than a few meters from the front door, holding the baby twins. She tried to save them, but didn’t make it.

I know it may seem strange that I would bother recounting this horrifically sad in a blog about beauty and joy, but to me it is a beautiful story. Yes, it’s tragic, but there are some amazing elements to it. I may not have known her very well, but Huguette Quesnel is one of my heroes. She was pregnant with my Dad at the time of the fire. So many people thought that she would lose the baby, or that my Dad would be born with some kind of freakish defect because of the insane amount of shock my Grandmother went through. Of course, neither one of those things happened. The other crazy beautiful thing she did was continue to have children… and lots of them. She vowed to “replace” all her lost kids. She did that, and then some. In fact, my Dad was named Jean-Guy, after the 4 year old that died in the fire. Also followed were the second Hélène, Claude, François, Françoise… and Michel, Sylvain, Suzanne, Micheline and god help me if I’m missing an aunt or an uncle somewhere in there.

I don’t remember her hugging or kissing me. I don’t remember her telling me she loved me. But I do remember her as an extremely hard worker. As someone who always seemed calm and collected. As someone who would sneak me cookies when my mom said I couldn’t have any. I remember feeling gutted when she died… not so much because of how I felt about her, but because I could tell she was the rock behind my large and amazing family and that life would never really be the same.

So… yeah… my trip home. Sad, but beautiful.


15 thoughts on “Day 317 – Morbid Fascination

  1. I felt the same way about my grandmother (my mother’s mother) – she had 15 children, lived a very country life, worked hard. I don’t ever remember hearing ‘love’, but I knew it was there. Thankfully, after she passed the children all remained relatively close-knit.

  2. Beautifully told, Natalie! I read the book your aunt wrote. Such a tragedy, and how inspiring that your grandmother found the strength to carry on. Thanks for sharing this,

  3. Beautiful story indeed… thanks for sharing. And thanks for giving me yet another blog that I want to keep up with… *sigh*

  4. My grandmother also had many children. 13 in all. She died very soon after the last child was born and my mother, being the oldest, took over the motherly duties for the family. When she had finished raising her brothers and sisters, she married (at age 33) and had 4 of her own, me being the last. She took a stroke when I was born (4th C section) and was paralyzed on the left side. But I still remember her sitting at the kitchen table rewiring the toaster when it wouldn’t work anymore. Women of that time were miracles. We should take lessons from them shouldn’t we? Thanks for sharing your wonderful woman with us.


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