My grandmother was born Marie Olive Deveau on May 2, 1921 in Mavillette, Nova Scotia.

Her father, Philippe Deveau, was six feet tall.  Her mother, Marie Jeanne Deveau, was a dwarf.  She was barely four feet high.  Overcoming logistical difficulties, the couple had 10 children.

Times were very hard for French families in Nova Scotia.  The family lore is that the only way you could make it there was if you were a farmer or a fisherman.  My great-grandfather was a carpenter.

Playground in Mavillette featuring shell of wigwam for kids to play on.

A little bit of history here.  Nova Scotia was originally a French colony called Acadie.  Before that, the peninsula was the home of the Mi’kmaq indigenous people.  One look at my great-grandmother’s face told the story of the Mi’kmaq.

Mi'kmaq wigwam

The word wigwam comes from the Mi’kmaq.  That was their dwelling.  The wigwam is a structure covered in bark or mud.  It is not to be confused with the Native American teepee, which is traditionally covered in buckskin.

The warlike British conquered Acadie in 1710.  They renamed it Nova Scotia or “New Scotland.” The English had little use for the French settlers who had been there for 100 years.  They barely tolerated the Acadians, and such forbearance did not last for long.

Between 1755 and 1763, The Great Upheaval took place.  Acadians were deported from the colony by the thousands.  They were put in long boats and sent away.  They were sent to other British colonies, such as Massachusetts, Maryland and Connecticut.  However, the best known colony of Acadians were those souls who survived the long journey to Louisiana.  They became the people known to us today as the Cajuns.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem entitled Evangeline recounts the expulsion, the journey and life in La Louisiane for star-crossed lovers, Evangeline Bellefontaine and her beau, Gabriel Lajeunesse.  If you haven’t read it, trust me — it’s a real tear-jerker.

Getting back to non-literary reality, those generous Brits didn’t kick all the French out.  Although, they kept the good farming land for themselves, Acadians who lived on non-arable land were permitted to stay.  This area included the rocky ground along the Bay of Fundy.

Tides at Bay of Fundy

Yeah, a word about Fundy.  This bay features the largest tidal changes in the world.  Tides rush in and out dramatically.  Life is not so easy at times.

Guess where my people are from.

Mary Jane (as my great-grandmother became known once she had emigrated to America) was the local wise-woman.  She was well-educated.  During her school days, one-half of the instructional day was taught in French, the other half in English.  Of course, she also spoke the local patois.  My uncles also sounded like they were speaking with a mouthful of pea soup when they spit out short, angry phrases here and there.

Bay of Fundy

Mary Jane had apprenticed herself to the local doctor.  According to my grandmother, over time she became the medical authority for the small community.  She was trusted by all — including the doctor himself.

My grandmother tells the story of how she was playing in a field as a little girl.  She stumbled onto a hornets’ nest and was viciously attacked.  Many in the community gave little Marie up for a goner.

Not her mother.  She applied a poultice made of local herbs to the wounds.  Over time, my grandmother recovered.  Otherwise, I would not be writing this piece right now.

Although my grandmother came to America when she was still a young girl, she has fond memories of life in Mavillette.  She had lots of brothers and sisters around as playmates.  Mary (as she became known in America) has a particular recollection of the coolness of the root cellar in the summertime.

Root cellars would have been very important to the people of that region.  A well-stocked cellar would have been the only means of a large family surviving the hard winter.

Two food traditions have survived from Nova Scotia.  The first is disdain for lobster.  One man’s luxury is another man’s economic necessity.  Lobster was the only means of sustenance for long parts of the year along the Bay of Fundy.  Although the Canadian authorities (whom my family always called “The English”) imposed strict measures on what seasons lobsters could be taken, they turned a blind eye toward the poor French people of that region.  My grandmother remembers that every child in school had the same thing for lunch, everyday — homard acadienne sandwiches.

It doesn't look like much in this photo. But rappie pie is delicious.

Conversely, the other tradition has become a cherished event.  Rappie pie is a large, baked casserole into which dried potatoes and rabbit are cooked.  The dish also gets a liberal helping of lard.  In the new country, chicken was often substituted for rabbit.  The making of this dish was a weekend-long event, involving the entire extended family.  It is one of my sentimental favorite meals.

Philippe and Mary Jane were survivors.  Like planting a good and reliable crop, they had a child every two years.  The last one or two of the brood were born in America.

Philippe Deveau built this house.

Some time in the 1930s, Philippe traveled to America to work.  He was a quiet man who was good with his hands.  He could build a house from the ground up, performing all of the carpentry and masonry.  Over time, he built several houses for his family in New York and in Florida.  I drove by one of them with my dad one day.  It was very close to Kennedy airport.  My great-grandfather had constructed a stone, ornamental lighthouse in front of the house.  I was greatly impressed.

Some time after Philippe’s arrival in the U.S., Mary Jane boarded a boat with seven or eight children.  She may have been pregnant at the time.  At the port of debarkation in Boston, a kindly immigration official spotted this tiny lady with dwarf-like features with her generous band of progeny and all of their possessions.  He looked favorably upon her and moved her to the front of the long line.  From that point forward, the family was irrevocably American.

Philippe and Mary Jane were reunited in New York.  They settled in Queens.  They completed their family.  Eventually the entire tribe were naturalized as American citizens.

Their 10th and last child was a boy named Richard.  He was often teased by his brothers and sisters.  Whereas they grew up speaking French, he immediately spoke English.  When four of his brothers enlisted in the Navy during WWII, Richie later joined the Army.  Like their father, the four older brothers became carpenters.  Richie became a plumber.

I knew my great-grandparents as a small boy.  I remember them as being very nice to me.  I was the first great-grandchild.  Thus, I held a minor place of honor in this large family.

Mary Jane (known as “Little Nana”) gave me a small, gold box before she died.  I have it on my bureau to this day.

Philippe (known as “Grandpa Pop”) lost a leg to diabetes.  I remember seeing his artificial leg on a couch at his house.  My mother told me that I had nightmares for some time thereafter.

I also remember Grandpa Pop driving to our house to pay us a visit.  I was very impressed with his car, which had hand controls for speed and braking as he could no longer use his right leg for driving.

Mavillette Beach

In French, Mavillette means “my little town.”  Philippe returned there for the final years of his life.

Together with Mary Jane, they left a lasting legacy in America.

— The Major.

My grandparents, Mary & Bill sharing a laugh, 1981.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by LynneLevy on February 12, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Lovely memoir.


  2. Posted by lisa on February 12, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Thanks. You reminded me of a lot & taught me some too!


  3. Posted by lisa on February 12, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    Guess we all took after Little Nana, since none of us are tall!


  4. Posted by Teresa Lancer on February 13, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Michael, this is a very enlightning blog. I did not know some of these details. It’s a good thing we have you around to tell us of our history. Thanks for writing this. Mom


  5. Posted by Tammy on January 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Hi Michael! My name is Tammy and I am your second cousin. Jan and Mitch Mitcheltree are my mom and dad. I am the granddaughter of Marg (Deveau) Jeager. I have been searching out our family lineage and came across your blog and was delighted to find a cousin that I hadn’t met. Although I was very young when I met your mom, I remember her laughter the most of all. It has been soooo many years since I have seen the family. I was wondering if you or anyone else in the family would send me any information that you may have so I can continue filling in the family tree. Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you. Tammy


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