August is Loon Season
by Alexandra & Rebekah Chassé
I’ve just gotten a call from my brother Marc, who’s on his way to my parents’ house near Moncton and will be driving through Fredericton at lunchtime. Through lucky coincidence, my uncle Joce (whom, like all of our French Canadian uncles, we call “Mononcle”) is also in town. We’ve all agreed to meet for lunch. I get to see both my brother and Mononcle Joce once or twice yearly—usually at the Chassé Family reunion.
Mononcle Joce greets me with a cheerful hug and his trademark gravel stone laugh. His wife, my aunt “Matante” Joce (yes, they have the same name) is here for a nursing conference; Mononcle has decided to join her for the trip, just because. After putting in years as a police officer—including a nerve-shaving stint as a narc—Mononcle retired early to settle into the straightforward, honest trade of dry-walling. In their spare time he and Matante spend time at their cottage in Quebec, grilling meat and counting loons.
Mononcle gives us news of my other aunts, uncles and cousins from Madawaska County. Matante France has almost finished her doctoral thesis in nursing; her husband Guy’s foot has recuperated well from a forklift accident at the mill. My cousin Brad is back in school earning his real estate certificate. “And Mémère is doing okay. The manor is right next to the hospital where ‘Tante France works. So France can visit her every day.”
I didn’t know Mémère had moved into a manor. I ask Joce how she likes her new home. “Oh, s’okay. She’s adjusted well. Bit lonely though; they’re all paired up to play cards there, and Mémère hasn’t found a partner yet. Mémère, you know, she loves her cards.”
Mémère has just returned from the hospital in Quebec City. She was sent there three weeks ago with a pulmonary embolism; during her stay the doctors began to suspect there were other serious things inside. Mémère refused any further tests and asked to come home.
Today my mother, my cousin Julie and I have driven up to visit her. We spend the morning sitting in chairs around her. Julie is comfortable with Mémère and chats with her with ease and intimacy; after all, Mémère helped raise her from toddlerhood, following her parents’ divorce. When Mémère needs help from her chair to the dinner table, Julie guides her with a compassionate poise that is rare in girls her age. As I watch them, a lump comes to my throat, and a small epiphany dawns on me: the cycle of devotion and care, selflessly bestowed by Mémère unto her loved ones throughout her life, is now coming round to shepherd her on her last voyage.
The doctors said it could be weeks, or months. Before we leave that afternoon we help Mémère settle into a lawn chair in a sunny spot of the front yard. As our car pulls away I turn to look at her. She is wearing a knitted blue beret to keep warm. She sits thin and motionless, her gnarled hands grasping both arms of the chair. I wonder where her thoughts are—Are they levying the past, present and future? Can she see her mortality creeping forth, like dusk after the sun goes down; or hear it, like a distant drum growing louder with the minutes, the hours?
The blue hat grows small; a lump springs to my throat again. Something tells me she will tough things out until August.
Friday – The Arrivals
“La fête des Chassé” happens every year during the first weekend in August at France and Joce’s neighbouring cottages. The reunion—almost accidental in its beginnings—has gained in momentum and folklore over the years. I love how the simple pleasures we partake in—huge meals, salty jokes and late-night rides on France’s pontoon boat—cultivate in each of us a sense of heritage, of “Chassé-ness.” This year, a deeper, more urgent purpose draws us together: we are coming to say farewell. Mémère rests in a hospital an hour away; everyone will get to visit her once, in small groups.
My husband Bernie and I arrive late Friday morning; Joce and Joce are already busy preparing tonight’s meal. My twin sister Sandy—who’s making the trip from Germany with her husband Kurt—will be here soon. She’s five months pregnant, and the thought of it overwhelms me just a wee bit; just the same, I’m insanely curious too.
I’m out chauffeuring my cousins in the pontoon boat when Sandy and Kurt pull in. Sandy, wearing a bikini, strolls out onto the dock and waves; there’s the small bump on her tummy. I’m giddy; I hope she’s as anxious for the boat to get to shore as I am to steer it there.
Washers is a simple game with simple tools. Two small wooden boxes, connected by a rope, are set on the ground 20 feet apart, open side up, in a straight throwing line. In the centre of each box is a small, open-top cylinder. Partners stand behind opposite boxes, alongside their opponents; each player has three washers to throw for each turn. The game is played to21. Single points are given for washers landing closest to the box. Two points are awarded for a “leaner,” a washer which touches the box. Three points are given for a washer which lands inside the box, but outside the cylinder; and five points are given for a washer landing “in the hole.”
The morning is overcast as teams gather jovially to begin the tournament on the lawn in front of Joce and Joce’s cottage. My father and Mononcle Joce, two of the best washers players, are determined not to let the Chasse Cup slip their grasp again this year. They had made it to last year’s final when their third partner, a bottle of rum, led their strategy sideways.
I join Becky in a chair on the sidelines as my father and Joce saucily taunt their opponents. She pesters me to reveal the baby’s name, which I would love to do; but for once, I’ve decided to share this secret with Kurt only. We sit in quiet enjoyment, watching washers arc through the air. Our fun is tinged only by Mémère’s absence, yet it would feel unnatural not to gather on this weekend. And we all know why.
Saturday Evening- Giving secrets
Kurt and I leave the lake for the hospital in Edmundston as grey clouds gather and winds begin to swirl above the dilapidated backcountry roads, threatening a summer storm.
Mémère has summoned Kurt and me specifically. “I have a granddaughter,” she had boasted to the nurses earlier in the week. “She is coming from Germany. She is pregnant with my seventh great-grandchild!”
Tante Simone and Tante Liette are in Mémère’s fourth floor room. I hug them both and turn to Mémère’s bed. She is small in her light blue robe, and the thin tube passing under her nose distracts little from her skin, still smooth and lovely. Her voice is soft and alert, like the first drops of rain tapping outside. She smiles as Kurt calls her “Mah-mair,” and we sit next to the bed to chat with her. We talk about the baby.
She then turns to Kurt and addresses him in her best English, “You know, I am very proud of all my grandchildren.” I’m nearly struck dumb; Mémère has always been shy of speaking English, and yet at 84, her words are still measured and melodic; her accent is a wave back to my childhood. I look down to stop the first hints of moisture in my eyes. She is leaving the message of her history with him; she wants him to know her life’s loves.
Something else is happening in the room. My aunts, Mémère’s two oldest living children, are also revealing their history. I only now notice how Tante Liette has barely stopped moving since we first entered the room. She busies herself with the minutiae of Mémère’s care, enthusiastically assessing supplies and checking the bed’s comfort. Tante Simone, on the other hand, has remained seated, watching our conversation closely. Their actions and dispositions are so different, and yet both are so charged with duty and love and sadness. I suddenly picture Becky and me here, in a hospital room years from now, as we go through the motions of our own quiet duties and goodbyes.
It’s eight o’clock. We should go soon. Tante Simone leaves the room to go speak with a nurse. She is followed by Tante Liette, who’s getting another can of Ensure for Mémère. My chance is now here, short and fleeting. I want to leave something with Mémère, and it is the only thing I can do in this moment to thank her for her gentle hands, her wisdom, her history. For everything.
“Mémère, his name is Julien.”
She smiles. “Aaahh,” she says. “What a nice name.”
The words have barely slipped through the door when my aunts return. I kiss Mémère goodbye, and make sure I turn to look at her one last time before we leave the room.
It’s raining outside, and the wind is strong enough to press my wet shirt to my ribs. Tante Simone and I chat in the car on the way back to the cottage; we do not mention Mémère.
Sunday Morning – Loons
It’s early morning and I’ve wandered outside. Joce and Joce are in their chairs down by the dock. Last night’s thunderstorms have made the morning air cool and ripe with the fragrance of leaves and grass. The water on the lake is dead calm; a few ducks glide along, breaking the glassy stillness. Somewhere, a loon pierces the cool air with a loud trill.
“Becky,” Mononcle Joce calls in an urgent, excited whisper. “Come quick! Come see this!”
Mononcle and Matante are looking at something on the lake. Mononcle points: “Look at the loons. There! There are five, six – seven! Seven of them! Joce, get the camera! We never see them like that!” I look out and there they are: seven loons, swimming in close together. Suddenly, they all disappear underwater, searching for food. “We only ever see one or two at a time.” Mononcle and Matante are spellbound. “Loons only ever travel alone, or in pairs. This is really special.” The loons reappear, and Matante begins filming them on the digital camera. She sets it up: “Today is Sunday of La Fête des Chassé. There are seven loons on the lake . . .”
Seven loons, all together, on the lake. All together, a family reunion. This is really special.
Sunday Afternoon – On the pontoon boat
It’s been an hour since the last of the brunch dishes were cleared. Everyone’s thoughts have moved from scrambled eggs in maple syrup to more important matters: the final of the Chasse Cup washers tournament. Against all odds, Karine and Uncle Roger have stealthily dismantled all other opponents in order to meet my father and Mononcle Joce in this match-up. I have to hand it to Roger, who can keep a straight face and throw his washers accurately, despite my father and Joce’s jeers.
My father: he excels at keeping his inner and outer matters separate, organized, and in order. It strikes me, as I’m watching him squawk at Joce after a close call near one of the boxes, that he’s having a ball out here on the lake. In fact, all of Mémère’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are basking in nothing but the simple enjoyment of being assembled here in this place. The moment, though far from Mémère’s hospital room, is so perfectly synchronized with her terminal wishes. Our grandmother loved nothing more than to see every last one of her kin gathered together.
A cheer goes up: Joce and my father have claimed the Chasse Cup, at last. The trophy is brought forth, cameras flash. Watching them beam over a silly game of metal rings, it’s all I can do to keep from bursting.
Half an hour later, a quieter mood hangs over the cottages. People have pooled into small groups by the swings, in the screen house, under the birch trees. Tante Liette has just called from the hospital; Mémère’s condition is deteriorating rapidly. Though no one mentions it, the news strikes us as no coincidence: my brother was the last of Mémère’s grandchildren to visit her this morning in the hospital.
As I’m walking toward Tante France’s cottage, I suddenly see the pontoon boat, drifting silently out on the waves. I squint and spot my father’s white baseball cap, and I realize he’s out there on the lake with my aunts and uncles: all seven of Mémère’s living children.
They say sound travels faster over water, but I can’t hear any sound coming from that boat.
Sunday night – The drive home
From the highway, we can see the setting sun casting a pink reflection over the Saint John River. We’re leaving Madawaska County, with three hours of driving ahead before we reach my sister’s place in Fredericton. As Kurt takes the first driving shift, I roll over distant thoughts as the river’s pink ripples give way to a gentle indigo.
I remember the Chassé Family reunion four years ago, celebrating Mémère’s 80th birthday. I can still see the empty dinner plates strewn on top of our picnic tables. The cleanup was on hold as we waited for the pièce de résistance: an ode to Mémère, prepared in secret by each one of our aunts and uncles. We the grandchildren were especially looking forward to their tributes and memories of their past with Mémère. It’s no wonder a quiet gasp circulated when Mémère suddenly stood up, short and straight, and addressed us all:
“I don’t really speak like this very often, but if you could all stay a few moments . . . I want to tell you a little something about each one of my children.”
That was Mémère: humble, but one step ahead and a trick up her sleeve. As she deftly recounted vivid anecdotes of each child’s misadventures and exploits, we grandchildren revelled in our last laugh. Our parents laughed, too. But there were moist cheeks among them, as they still felt every bit as cherished by Mémère as in their childhood days.
Our grandmother, holding us spellbound at the lake.
Half past midnight
We arrived at Becky’s 15 minutes ago. The dogs have been let out. For some reason, we are talking in near whispers, even though everyone here is awake.
The phone rings. Becky answers.
Mémère was called Home, in her sleep, half an hour ago.
It has come to pass, exactly as Mémère wanted: she successfully orchestrated her own departure, waving goodbye to all of her own. Her very last stroke of magic.
Alexandra & Rebekah Chassé are twins. They wrote “August is Loon Season” in March 2005 as an entry for an essay contest about a year after their grandmother passed away. Becky lives in Fredericton, NB. Sandy lives in Houston, Texas. Each insists the other is a better writer.