My queen of hearts

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, February 14, 2018

By Debroah craig

The Franco American Club in my small hometown was a nondescript brick building with glass block windows and a large double recessed door. It was located on a side street from the town’s center. Inside was a simple wood-paneled ballroom with a kitchen. Arranged around the room were old utility tables with folding chairs that were used daily for card games, Scrabble, lunches, and crafts by club members. Like the senior centers or church halls used today, these ethnic/heritage clubs, (Italian American clubs, Celtic Societies, or German-American Clubs, to mention a few), were cultural mainstays in towns and cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest from the 1920s to the 70s. Our family was French Canadian, by way of Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. And my grandmother and her sister were members of the club. The rest of our family was not interested in membership. Everyone else viewed these ethnic clubs as something for old folks, a first or second generation of Americans who clung to their language and culture of their ancestors. And as a teen, I dreaded anything that might cast me as “not cool.” And being caught dancing or listening to Québécois folk music or speaking French with my grandmother was definitely “not cool.” So I had to be coaxed into attending the annual Mardi Gras-Valentine Dance on Valentine’s Day at the club one year when I was 16. My grandfather was not feeling well, and there was no school that week, as it was midwinter break. I became their escort by default.

   Although not like Mardi Gras in the Gulf South, the celebration in New England and Quebec, often called “Winter Carnival” included balls and parties, skating and skiing tournaments, and snow sculpture contests. If Mardi Gras fell before or on Valentine’s Day, then there was a King and Queen of Hearts event that would include a grand march and the crowning of the royal couple, designated by whomever got the silver bean in his/her slice of cake. It was not with any enthusiasm that I arrived that night with my grandmother and great aunt, all of us in red dresses, my grandmother wearing her Fleur de Lis necklace. As I prayed no one my age would be there to recognize me, I sat down. Of course, I then immediately saw three of my classmates with their parents and grandparents.

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   Unlike me, however, they seemed to be having a great time. They were speaking in Québécois French to their families, serving them poutines and cretons from the buffet of party food, and then, to my utter shock and horror, they actually got up and danced with their grandparents to the three-piece accordion band of ancient-looking folk musicians playing for the occasion.

  I looked over to my grandmother, seated next to me, who was enjoying the ambience and spectacle of the evening. As she and my great aunt chatted in French, I began to feel guilty. I had given them such a hard time about coming. I came to the sudden realization that this was my heritage, too, that if my Irish American friends could celebrate St. Paddy’s Day with robust pride, why shouldn’t I feel the same way about this? My three classmates certainly were. A love and adoration for my grandmother furthered my resolve that I’d enjoy this night with her and for her. I pulled her on to the dance floor, and we danced to the Letourneau Brothers’ band of the accordion and fiddles, and ate tortiere and salmon cakes.

   Then the time came for the serving of the king cake and the announcement of the King and Queen of Hearts. I was thrilled to see my grandmother holding up the silver bean, as everyone in the room clapped and cheered for her.  I got to place the crown on her head and lead her around the room in the grand march.

   This grandmother who doted on me from the time I was born, who meant so much to me, instilled a change of heart in me that night: This special winter carnival day of French tradition and culture I would always consider special. Not with excess drinking or vulgarity or other distortions which have made the day so unsavory to so many, but to celebrate this day with memories of my grandmother, my Queen of Hearts, Franco-American pride, good food, and joie de vivre.