Monday, July 26, 2010

Capturing a Character

Stories were always a big thing in my family.  It’s no wonder I write them, read them, live them as much as possible.  And there’s no great story without a character at its center.

Marie-Jeanne Beausoleil was from a Canadian French family who had immigrated to New England two generations prior.  She spoke French until she left her French elementary school at age nine and was finally forced to learn English in grammar school.  She came from a long line of notoriously strong women.  Her ancestors had left France and migrated to Canada, survived the voyage and worked at the stubborn soil for their livelihood before coming to the U.S. in the late 1800's.

 Her mother, Lucina Brida Champagne was rumored to have been the first trapeze artist to perfect a triple back flip in the air-  But it was during a practice with her brothers, so no one can be sure.  The young Lucina was married to Hormidas Adelard Beausoleil and they had four children.

Marie-Jeanne, or ‘Jeanne’ as her friends called her, was their youngest daughter and had inherited all the hot headed stubbornness that seemed to be passed down through the French bloodline.

It was to everyone’s surprise when she set her sights on a soft spoken young man named Richard Mills.  A man of English-Irish descent.  Up until then, most Canadian French liked to stick to their own kind.  The Irish, French, and Italians were in constant competition over which language the Roman Catholic mass should be read in and each of them clung to the cultures and languages of their forefathers- which meant they preferred not to mingle with other dominate immigrant groups.

But Jeanne was taken with the young man.  Maybe it was the way he played the banjo.  Or maybe it was because they were so different.  In either case, when she’d decided they would be married, he didn’t stand a chance.  She reluctantly agreed, however, to wait until after the war to wed.

When Richard was sent away to serve in the Navy during WWII, the time grew too long for Jeanne. Patience was not one of her strong suits.  She started to doubt he’d come back to her at all.  More and more time spanned between his letters. 

So, like any rational young lady in waiting, she decided to start seeing another beau- to secure a man in case her Richard had changed his mind.  She saw this new beau for three months and accepted his proposal of marriage.

Richard showed up at the house when his service was up and Jeanne knew in her heart that she still loved him.  He was the only man for her.  She conveniently forgot to mention that she was engaged to another and they agreed to marry that very week.  It was a whirlwind wedding and they left right away on their honeymoon.

Her beau showed up at the house the day after she left and her brother had to break the news to her ‘fiancé’ that she was already on her honeymoon!

Sixty years later, she still laughed when she thought about how that conversation must have gone.  No, she didn’t feel any remorse.  She did what was right for her.  She knew the young man would go on to find someone who loved him truly.  And she and Richard lived happily.

For the most part.

There are stories of a time when Jeanne took to drinking and smoking.  If Richard didn't bring her a six pack of beer and a pack of cigarettes when he arrived home from work, there would be hell to pay.  So like clockwork, he'd arrive home with a six pack in hand and a resigned expression. 


He explained to his youngest son that "If your mother's happy- everybody's happy."  
Then he'd heave a sigh and look heavenwards with a small smile "....and you know very well, if your mother's miserable- everybody's miserable."  


But something must have happened to make Jeanne realize that alcohol and cigarettes could be detrimental to a happy life.  For one day, she quit both.  She put a pack of cigarettes on the arm of her chair and a pack of beer in the fridge and they remained there for over a year.  She never touched either again.  Her resolve and stubbornness put to good use. 

They had six children and were married for over sixty years before Richard died in 2002.   
Marie-Jeanne outlived him by eight years.  Despite having Parkinson’s and diabetes, she still talked, walked, and went to bingo twice a week.  She wasn't judgemental- probably figuring she had her own sins to atone for without worrying about everyone else's.  And she followed day time soap operas or 'her stories' with an almost religious fervor.  


She always swore up and down that she’d never live with any of her children.  She wanted to be independent and believed a child shouldn’t have to take care of their parents in this way.  Maybe this is due to the way she took care of her own mother for a number of years.  In any case, when the decision was made that she would leave her home to live with her daughter, she died before the move could take place. 

Even in the end, she got what she wanted, how she wanted it.    

As some might have guessed, Marie-Jeanne was my grandmother.  She passed away this week and she will be sorely missed.  She had her flaws like anyone but she was the strongest woman I’ve ever known and I can only hope to have inherited a fraction of her verve.  She loved to laugh, no sickness could dim her sharp wit and she had a resolve that could move mountains.  She was also the last living family member who could speak French with my husband’s family and a part of me hopes I’ve done her and Lucina proud- moving back to France and renewing traditions and a language that would have soon been forgotten.

It occurred to me that no imagined character, no matter how well described, how many impossible adventures they go through or words attached to their name- no character can ever compete with the people who have really lived.  Try as we might, our characters are but shadows- trying to capture a glimmer of the life that pervades from the real thing. 

My grandmother was quite a character.

38 comments:

VICTORIA SAAVEDRA said...

Your grandmother was a character!!!

Life is a special, unique gift that writers dream of capturing in their stories.

I think it's possible to capture life and to create characters that are very real.

The English Writer said...

What a fascinating history, and no wonder she inspires. Drawing inspiration from real life people into fiction is my fav part of writing x

Cruella Collett said...

This was an absolutely brilliant post - it had ton of heart in it. All along I thought that this woman could easily have a been the main character in a book. Sounds like you have quite a heritage to live up to!

Slamdunk said...

I am sorry for your loss. That must be difficult.

I love hearing stories about where people came. Your grandmother sounds like she had some wonderful tales to share--and she made quite the positive impression on others.

Jen said...

What a way to remember her! I'm so sorry for your loss but it seems like she lead one full wonderful life and you go to experience a lot of it with her which is very special. I'm glad she made a positive imprint on your life!

Old Kitty said...

I can see the resemblance! What a beautiful picture of an amazing woman! I am truly sorry for your loss. I think this is a wonderful tribute to your grandmother who shall be forever remembered as a strong and unique woman.

Take care and thank you for sharing. I'll light a candle in my heart for her.

x

Aubrie said...

Beautiful post! I'm sorry to hear about your grandmother but she lived a truly full life.

Laura Pauling said...

Sorry for your loss! All my grandparents have passed away, and they do have incredible stories. I only hope mine will be half as exciting.

Vicki Rocho said...

So sorry for your loss. She WAS quite the character and your tribute was beautiful!

My grandfather was set against nursing homes. We lived with him for two years to keep him out of one. He passed just before he had to go into one.

Susan Fields said...

I'm so sorry for your loss - your grandmother sounds like a wonderful lady. I love the story about her brother having to tell her fiance she was already on her honeymoon - I bet her brother never let her hear the end of that!

And you're right, no matter how great a character is, they're still just a shadow of the real thing. Great post!

Candyland said...

Awesome!!! How fascinating Katie!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

What a beautiful tribute to the life of truly strong character -- the kind that life produces and fiction can never quite match. My condolences on her loss. I can see that she will be truly missed.

I loved the story about the two fiances and how she chose what was right for her!

Tom M Franklin said...

what a great remembrance. she must have been mighty proud of you.

i think you owe it to her to have her appear in one of your books. she's probably like that, too. : )

...

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Sorry about your lost. Your grandmother sounds like an amazing woman. Definitely one kick ass attitude.

Agree with Tom. You have to write her into one of your books. :D

Meredith said...

I'm so sorry about your loss. I have a kickass grandmother I look up to, as well, and it sounds like yours was quite the character! Your memories of her are incredible.

Jaydee Morgan said...

Your grandmother was indeed quite an interesting character and I'm sorry to hear that you lost her. You have great memories of her life and I thank you for sharing :)

Tessa Conte said...

A wonderful way to celebrate her memory. I'm sorry for your loss. I hope writing this post helped you come to terms with it.

And really, she was quite a character. Just goes to show...real life is just as interesting as the stories we write, you just have to look at it the right way.

Dawn said...

Your grandmother was awesome! And congrats on such a wonderful story. You were definitely meant to write, my dear.

Talli Roland said...

How amazing - what a fantastic story and so well told! Your grandmother was a fantastic woman. And Canadian! Bonus! :)

Matthew Rush said...

I'm sorry for your loss but I have to say - this seems like a pretty awesome way to honor someone who meant so much to you. I for one believe in celebrating a life well lived.

Thanks for sharing this with us Katie!

KarenG said...

Wonderful post!! I love the stories of real people, and you made her story jump off the page.

LTM said...

you do look like your g'mom! She was beautiful, and this is a wonderful post. Thanks for sharingt this! :o)

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

Your grandmother??? Wow! Apparently my grandmother was quite the slut (am I allowed to use that word?) Screwing all the American soldiers she could get her hands on! hehe

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

oh, should probably mention - in Germany :o)

April said...

What a beautiful story! I loved reading that. You told it well - as we all know you can. I am so sorry to hear about your grandmother's passing. She sounds like a fabulous woman, a strong woman with firm beliefs and lots of love. I'm glad she got her way in the end. How perfect! This is a case where the truth wins out over fiction any day of the week. Thank you so much for sharing this story, and my prayers go out to you and your family.

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Wow, what an amazing woman your grandmother was. I'm so sorry she's passed away. I'm sure you have, and will, do her proud. :)

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

What an interesting story! I believe every great fictional character is an accumulation of the author's imagination and borrowed snippets of real-life people.

Great post!!

Nicole L Rivera said...

Your grandma has such an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it with us. Our prayers are with you and your family.

Bekah said...

Great picture of a fascinating woman. Thanks for sharing with a bunch of strangers. Makes me think of the adventures of my grandmother

Jolene said...

Great story. I'd love to write the story of my grandparents. How fun to start something based on reality?

Carolyn V. said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. She sounds like an incredible woman.

Whisks said...

Sorry to hear your news, Katie, you grandmother sounds a real character - she lived in a whole other world, didn't she? I've heard tell that we can't die until our soul gives permission - i.e. we all chose our moment - just as your grandmother seems to have done. I hope that's some comfort to you. Virtual hug.

Whisks said...

P.S. forgot to say - she really looks like you! Fabulous photo!

Tamara Narayan said...

What a blessing to know your history-and what a fantastic history it is! I wish my parents would talk more about their pasts and their parents, there is so much I don't know. Hugs for your loss. Be well.

Donna Hole said...

Wow, your grandmother was an interesting character. So nice to have gotten to hear her story. I loved whenever my grandfather would sit and tell us stories of his growing up - he was born in around 1904 - and of his trip across the states from Missouri to California.

Its a shame young people have lost the desire to listen to the tales of the older generation.

.........dhole

February Grace said...

I don't know how I possibly did not see this sooner.

That was an absolutely amazing tribute.

I'm sorry for your loss.

I am grateful to you for introducing us all to such a fascinating, outrageous, spirited woman.


Thank you.

hugs
bru

Shannon O'Donnell said...

What a wonderful and loving tribute, Katie. Wow. I almost feel like I knew her now.

WritingNut said...

Aw Katie - I'm sorry I missed this yesterday - what a beautiful and loving tribute. I'm so sorry for your loss--your grandmother sounds like she was an amazing character.

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