Weaving the fabric spun in the home

By Judy Harrison Of the NEWS Staff
Bangor Daily News, August 18, 1997

 "There are taboos about stealing from the dead," writes Rhea Côté Robbins in her memoir, "Wednesday's Child." "Thirty-one-year old women don't usually go around stealing from the dead. Or the estate of the dead. Or the living relatives of the dead. Or the next of kin. Except I am all of those." 
 In this particular instance, what the author steals are quilts, one of them the prized pineapple quilt of her mémère (grandmother). But what she actually has taken from her family is their collective past, their memories, the stories they whispered to each other in French, the ones children were not supposed to hear, let alone repeat. 
 Robbins is determined that her Franco-American heritage not be assimilated and forgotten. She has assembled her memories into a 48-chapter memoir. Eight of those chapters she submitted to the Maine Writer's and Publishers Alliance annual chapbook competition. She won first prize in the group's new creative nonfiction category. Sven Birkerts, author of "Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age," was this year's judge. Part of the award included publication of the chapbook by the MWPA. 
 Robbins, 44, was born and raised "down the Plains," the section of Waterville where the French-speaking millworkers and their families lived. The only girl among three brothers, entangled in a web of an often feuding extended family, she completed "Wednesday's Child" for her master's degree in creative writing at the University of Maine.  "I started writing this book in my head when I was 16," she says from her home in Brewer. "I made a vow to myself I'd write something someday about my family. ... I am a product of the assimilation process. Symbolically by writing, I am building a bridge back to the past. My writing connects the two halves -- part American, part Franco." 
 Robbins begins each chapter with quotes from articles published in 1870 and '71 editions of The Waterville Mail newspaper and from Albert Fecteau's 1952 master's thesis, "The French Canadian Community of Waterville, Maine." These "Anglo" views of the community contrast sharply with Robbins' memoirs. 
 In the chapter, "Interesting Discussions Were Had Upon Various Topics," the author contrasts a report on a meeting of the Kennebec Baptists Association, published Sept. 9, 1870, with the everyday lives of the women who spent their lives working in the Hathaway shirt factory. It is Robbins' stunning sense of irony that makes her prose so powerful.  "On a good day, an expert, old hand at this can sew up to 120 dozen," she writes. "Which makes for good pay ... The women bring batch tickets home in their purses so their averages will remain average. The company figures that if you sew above your averages then the job is too easy for you ... A self-destroying type of self-governance to keep your averages average. You can't be too good on the job, or else." 
 Robbins believes that "who we [Franco-Americans] are comes out of the fabric in our homes. We are surrounded by American culture, its values, judgments and beliefs. We constantly negotiate with the mass culture, and our own culture is like the spice we add to flavor a meal." 
 She points out that the differences in the culture sometimes are also in the language. She cites the act of shaking hands when meeting another person. This is a two-part act, Robbins says, the first grasping another's hand, the second the act of shaking it. In English, the act is named for the second, the shaking part of the act. In French, it is named for the first, the grasping part of the gesture. Poignee. [Serrer la main]
 The writer admits that people not raised in Maine may never have experienced or understand the low esteem in which Franco-Americans have been held since immigrating from French-speaking Canada began during the last century. Some of the put-downs were subtle and controlling, some were more overt, Robbins recalls.   "You talk with your hands,' Sue of the pink-checkered dress, strawberry-blond tells me at age 11," she writes in the chapter titled "Excursions." 
 "`Oh, yeah? What did I just say?' I quip. 
 "`You must be French,' she accuses. 
 "`You must be a genius,' I sneer. ... She laughs at how I pronounce my words. How I speak. She repeats the sounds I make sing-song. Counter -- sneering. Screwing up her face." 
 And so she sets about to change, but "losing oneself is hard to do. Hard work. Remaking a girl into another girl is tough work." Now that she is grown, however, Robbins is working hard at "breaking down the metaphors" because "cultures that possess their myths survive." 
 Besides her French heritage, Robbins cites two other factors that are an integral part of her book -- her gender and her bout with cancer. 
 "I believe it is important to reflect the size of women's lives," she says. "I think of this as looking at the dish towels of our lives. At least, that is the metaphor I use for valuing what makes up women's everyday, common existences." 
 Over the past 11 years, Robbins had nine biopsies and lost her left breast to cancer. On her mastectomy scar, flowers are tattooed. One of her brothers died at the age of 41, proclaiming his cancer was bigger, meaner, than his little sister's. 
 In his introduction to the slim volume, Birkerts writes that he chose Robbins' work for the MPWA award because it is "an energetic, poignant, and revelatory memoir. Maine is here, in all its harsh abundance, but seen through a different lens, heard with ears trained to other speech-sounds. `Wednesday's Child' is astir in every sentence, full of woe, yes, but leavened by transforming grace." 
 Robbins is not finished telling the stories of her people. She believes this book may be part of a trilogy about her family. She is working on a book of literary criticism on Grace Metalious, author of "Peyton Place," and, with three other women, is editing an anthology of Franco-American women's writings. 
 Twice a month Robbins joins other Franco-American women at meetings of the Franco-American Women's Institute. She serves as the organization's executive director.  "The FAWI is an archival place," reads the group's brochure, "a recording place, an egalitarian place, a gathering place, a way to capture and record Franco-American women in a way which allows them to develop programming, panels, presentations of their gifts and talents, while at the same time leaving a record of their initiatives." 
 Robbins' "Wednesday's Child" is a moving and insightful record of one Franco-American family's life in Maine. Like most dish towels, it is worn in some places, soiled in others. Still, it is an essential and telling part of every kitchen. 

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