©1987 Marie-Lynn Hammond
This is a story about geography – physical, cultural, emotional. To understand it you have to remember that Canada’s capital, Ottawa, is situated on the Ottawa River, which at that point, and for several miles in either direction, also forms the boundary between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Across the river from Ottawa is the city of Hull, but don’t be fooled by the name: Hull is French.
In the real old days, there was only one bridge between the two cities, the Interprovincial Bridge, and even I can remember a time when the Ontario side of the bridge was paved, and the Quebec side wasn’t. When you saw the sign halfway across saying “Bienvenue au Quebec,” and your car wheels hit those wooden planks, well – you knew something had changed.
Two separate cities, inextricably linked. You couldn’t live in one without being aware of the other. As I remember it, it was like this: Ottawa was English, Protestant, rich and staid. Hull was French, Catholic, poor and – funky. It was where all the students went to “get down.” The bars stayed open later, you could buy beer at a grocery store, and the French girls were, well…they were French – and you know what that means.
For me though, the differences weren’t quite so clear-cut. First, although my maternal grandparents had been born in Quebec, they had emigrated to Ontario. In the 30s they and their large brood settled in the Ottawa-Hull region, and there they had stayed, living largely in French but able to get by in English. They tended to live on the Ontario side, but there was a certain amount of back-and-forth across the river. Secondly, my mother had had the daring to marry an English Canadian, so I myself was a hybrid mix.
The summer of 1965 my air force father was still working for NORAD in North Bay. I had been accepted to Carleton University in Ottawa for the fall. Normally I’d have gone up to our cottage (which was on the Quebec side) for the summer with my mother and sisters, but the year before, after intense parental resistance, I’d acquired a horse. The deal was if I won a scholarship, I got to take him to college. If not, I’d have to sell him. I won the scholarship. We found a place to board Traveller on the Aylmer Road, on the Quebec side, (where everything seemed to be cheaper), and that summer I was sent to stay with one of my mother’s brothers, Mistai Vaillant, and his wife, Lucille. They owned a little grocery store in Hull and were delighted to have me: they loved children but had none of their own.
It was an idyllic time. In the morning I would catch the Aylmer bus to the farm where Traveller was stabled and spend the day riding through sun-bleached fields and shaded woods. There were mansions along the Aylmer road that fronted onto the river, but I noticed that most of the names on the mailboxes were English. The stable owners and horse owners in the area were also Anglo; the stable hands at our barn, though, were French. I suppose I was already aware that the English, with their power and money, felt contempt for French Canadians, whom they tended to view as illiterate peasants. I know that, away from my mother’s family, I unconsciously played down my francophone side, an easy thing to do with my father’s Anglo name and my unaccented English. But I didn’t stop to analyze: what did politics matter, anyway, to an almost-seventeen-year-old living out her equine passions in that shimmering green-and-gold summer?
In the late afternoon, I’d head back from the stables to my aunt and uncle’s place and start the vegetables for supper. Mis and Lucille lived behind their store in a tiny, old-fashioned apartment that consisted of a large kitchen and a bathroom on the ground floor, and one upstairs room partitioned to form two small sleeping spaces. There was no living or dining room, but then, my aunt and uncle practically lived in the store, which they always kept open late – the only way they could compete with the brash new supermarkets.
I loved that little store, with its rickety screen door and creaky wooden floors and faded cut-outs on the walls of pretty girls drinking Coca-Cola. After supper I’d hang around the cash register, drinking cream soda and chatting in French to my aunt, while my transistor radio played the hit parade – in English of course – in the background. It was pleasant, but part of me was just a little lonely.
One night a boy walked into the store. We stared in surprise at each other. It turned out we’d met once before, up at the lake the previous summer. Michel, who lived in Hull, was French, of course, although his English was quite good. He was two grades behind me and a whole year younger, but something about his shiny dark hair and soulful brown eyes made me feel I could overlook this. We began to go for long walks. Mostly, we spoke French. He was the first francophone boyfriend I’d ever had, and I discovered something. In French, you could talk about the most serious, heartfelt, emotional stuff, and it didn’t sound corny. It sounded wonderful, and right. Somewhere in the middle of our second conversation, I think I fell in love.
After I met Michel, the summer flew by. We walked, and talked, and poured our hearts out. Sometimes he’d recite French poetry to me, and sometimes, in the shadow of the maples behind the store, we kissed. Then suddenly it was September, and time for me to start a new life as a college student in residence. “Ce n’est pas loin,” he would say, pointing across the river at Ottawa. “We will see each other, certainement.” I wanted to believe him. The river divided, but, as I knew, things weren’t black and white. There was also the bridge. Surely the bridge connected?
I settled into residence and started university. I was unprepared for the busyness and confusion of it all. Registration, freshman initiation, lectures and meetings and parties and – dates. It’s not that I’d forgotten Michel, but suddenly guys were asking me out, something that had never happened in high school. Meanwhile Michel was trying to reach me by phone, but I was rarely in the dorm. When I’d finally phone back, I’d get his mother. The one Saturday I made it out to the stables, he was at his great-uncle’s funeral fifteen miles away.
Finally, almost three weeks after parting, we connected. Already his voice on the telephone sounded wistful, distant and – dare I say it – foreign. Still, we agreed to meet the next Saturday, in the residence lounge.
When I came down to meet him, he was standing stiffly by the lounge door, wearing a suit. I was taken aback. I’d never seen him in a suit before. “Hello,” he said, shy and almost formal. “How are you?” This was the second surprise. He was speaking English, and in English, he sounded the way he looked: awkward, uncomfortable. The soulfulness and poetry was gone, crowded out by the hard consonants and unmusical vowels of that other language.
Looking back, I understand it now. He was in alien territory. Around us, knots of confident-looking students were laughing and calling out – in English, of course. So why didn’t I have the courage to shift to French? I suppose I, too, felt intimidated. Instead I became tongue-tied, in both languages.
We muddled through for almost an hour, then he looked at his watch. We both knew it was over. “I must go now,” he said. “Goodbye.” We shook hands like strangers, then impulsively he leaned over and kissed my cheek. I started to draw back, but he moved in again, and suddenly I remembered – of course! In Quebec, you kiss both cheeks. I mumbled an apology, my face burning, and moved forward again to complete the stilted little embrace. As his lips brushed my face, he murmured, “Au revoir, Marie-Lynn,” and walked away. I wanted to cry out, “Wait, Michel, come back!” but I couldn’t think of the French words. They were gone too. And I knew it wouldn’t work in English. So instead I just stood there and watched him disappear.
Now, I wonder, how did he feel, on the long ride back down Bronson Avenue, back to the other bus at the city’s edge, the one that would take him over the bridge and across the river? As for me, I wasn’t feeling anything. I didn’t want to. There was a bridge inside me, and I’d just knocked it out. It would be years before I would feel ready to face the other side of the river – and rebuild once again.
The lyrics to one of my songs relates to this story