BOSTON — Belatedly, I report that the 1999 observance of Bastille Day was pleasantly held belatedly. It came on July 25 for us, and since nothing is ever done correctly until Bill and I do it, our celebration may be officially regarded as the right one. Vive, as we say, the difference.
Bill, as I have frequently remarked, is the father of our son's wife, Ellen, in consequence of whom we share two stalwart grandsons and, to date, two sweet great-granddaughters who have not yet caught a trout. When this particular nuptial came about, Bill and I decided to get acquainted, and we had our first week together in the Great North Woods of Maine. This was followed by 29 other weeks, a year apart, until the sere and yellow leaves burst forth and we decided not to go for 31. We settled in, separately, and ceased our youthful frolics in the greenwood.
Which brought an end to Bastille Day. Bastille Day in the Maine woods, as observed by Bill and me, began with a mere acknowledgment that it was the 14th of July, the sun was over the morning moose, Baker Lake was still there, and it was time to slice salt pork and fry six Salvelino fontinallis for our frugal wilderness breakfast. Because it was Bastille Day, we also had a couple of slices apiece of French toast. That was about it for the moment.
We soon found a strange fact about French history. Canada is full of many folks of French derivation who speak French and have a desire to preserve their French heritage. Bill and I were 20 miles from the city of St. Georges, Quebec, which is in the seat of ancient culture in County Beauce. This is also the home of many French-Canadians who come over the boundary to work in the lumbering of our Maine forest. As Bill and I wandered about in our grandfather posture, everybody we saw was a Canadian Frenchman!
This is not really a calamitous arrangement. We found our fellow Thoreaux affable and eager to indulge us, and we cherish them in memory. Most of them knew a little English, and Bill and I quickly learned many French words like "Ping-Pong," "chain saw," "fish-rod," and even "spittoon." And then we noticed that Bastille Day was something the Canadian French know nothing about. And if you pause to reflect, there's no reason they should. Their ancestors were in North America well before the French Revolution.
Jacques Cartier had a permanent trading post at Tadoussac before St. Augustine was settled; Hendrik Hudson certainly did not discover Hudson Bay, and the first milch-cow in America, credited to Jamestown, had been stolen from French settlers at St. Savior, up in Maine. Yes, indeed! Why should a chopper from St. Come, up in Kaybeck, know anything about the French Revolution? This bothered Bill and me, because these good Frenchman friends kept asking us what the Bastille was.
We had the tricolor to fly, the Marseillaise on a tape player, and in French a word of greeting from M. le President de Gaulle. This was touching and most emotional, but it was faked by an imposter. That didn't seem to matter. And as the swift seasons rolled, Bill, who likes historical oddities, developed a considerable speech on the Bastille, which he gave every year just before our Bastille Day supper of knockwurst, sweet cabbage, hot German potato salad, and Black Forest cake. (Bill's people came from Bassum, near Bremen.) Then we fired our 10-gauge saluting cannon.
All in all, we had as good a hooraw over Bastille Day as anybody, and it was always exciting to do so where nobody knew why.
This past Bastille Day was uneventful for Bill and me, and neither of us knew if Paris celebrated. Bill was in Vermont, and I was in Maine, each of us thinking about the North Woods.
The phone call came the next day. The young folks had made all the arrangements. Bastille Day would again be celebrated in the North Maine Woods, and we would be carried thence. We would again whistle "La Marseillaise" in French, Bill would again make his speech, and when the program was over we would be returned in time to watch the baseball game, if any.
This came to pass. Belatedly, we had the best Bastille banquet of all. Bill made his speech, showing that the Bastille was not made as a prison, but as a defensive fort for Paris, and by the first Bastille Day it was no more than symbolic, with only seven prisoners in residence, several of whom were from prominent families. It was duly noted that a "torture machine" found in the rubble of the stormed Bastille was really a discarded printing press.
The youngsters had little French flags for us, and dessert included French vanilla ice cream. It was voted that I should not sing my specialty, "Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, onomatopoeia, onomatopoeia." We had to draw the line somewhere.
For us, it made a ride of 100 miles each way, up and down the Sandy River Valley, a view once again of the prettiest part of Maine. The Sandy River meadows once supplied all the canned Maine sweet corn, but economics and the American housewife changed that. We saw one, just one, roadside sign offering corn on the cob in the old-time sweet corn season.
The day well observed, we got home weary but happy, and if there was a baseball game we missed it, gladly.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society