August 18, 2017

Strange musings in a Quebec graveyard

This famous farmers market was my first stop. Very interesting. The next was even more interesting.

This farmers market was my first stop. Very interesting. The next was even more so.

By John Guy LaPlante

Saint-Dominique, Province of Quebec–As you know, I count a lot on Lady Serendipity to make my wanderings more interesting.  I never know when she’ll tap me on the shoulder, or why. But it’s always wonderful. It always leaves me hoping she’ll do it again soon.

Well, she tapped me again today.

I got on the road early this morning, made a couple of stops, and it was 1:30 p.m.—13:30 the way they keep time here—and I still hadn’t had lunch. I like lunch at noon sharp. That’s a hang-over from my boarding school days. My stomach was growling.

I was rolling through this  tiny town by the beautiful Yamaska River. I spotted a Catholic church–and its empty  parking lot. Saint-Dominique Church, a sign said, Same name as the town, which is common up here. Pulled in and parked as far back from the road as I could where it was nice and quiet.

Right in front of me, only a hundred feet away, was a cemetery.  The Saint-Dominique parish cimetiere. Not a problem. Nobody resting there would disturb me, I felt quite sure. And I’d try to be quiet.

Back 20 miles, I had stopped in Saint-Hyacinthe. A very old city but quite modern now. Impressively modern, in fact. I’ve been there a few times over the years. I’ve seen the changes. But what I visited and liked best every time was its old farmers market.

It’s been a farmers market—THE farmers’ market hereabouts—for more than a hundred years. In the same grand, handsome brick building with big covered verandas on all four sides. Right in the heart of the ancient quartier.   This is superbly fertile farm land with talented farmers and it grows tons and tons of magnificent fruits and vegetables. It’s famous for them.

There are plenty of supermarkets here now. They sell good stuff from anywhere and everywhere, as all supermarkets do and as we all know. But at this farmers market is where you shop for the very finest local produce.  Blue-ribbon produce. So I went again.  It was a must, though my needs as a solo traveler are limited.

When I went there as a boy with my father, there were a few cars and trucks parked around it, but lots of horses and wagons. I remember it vividly. This morning I easily found the market again but the traffic was horrific. Not a single horse and wagon, of course. But so many cars and trucks. I had to circle around for a parking space, finally got one. But a one-hour limit! Oh, well, no choice.

As usual, the farmers on the verandas around the building were manning their stands.  Such an abundance of wonderful produce. They were real farmers. I could tell by their clothes and their hands and their boots. Plenty of shoppers, too.

I walked through all four verandas and studied everything. I liked the apple man’s wonderful displays. Decided I’d come back at the end to buy some. I entered the old building.

Very busy, too. But what a change. These were not the butchers and fish peddlers and egg sellers of the old days. As usual, the long central aisle was lined with little stands. As always, they sold eggs or cheeses or fish or poultry or sausages or jams and wines. prepared foods. But they weren’t really stands. They had become boutiques. Fancy, classy, pricey boutiques.

A lot of their products were nicely displayed in fancy show cases, some refrigerated. Many things were beautifully boxed or gift-wrapped. The men behind the counters wore high-fashion chef’s outfits, or big striped aprons and super-size bow ties. The sales gals were dressed as country milk maids, but right off a movie set. and they and the  gals at the cash registers could have made it as starlets for sure.

I was startled by the prices. They seemed astronomical, well, to me. But plenty of buyers around. Some locals and some obviously tourists. The apple turn-overs were irresistible. I bought one. Just a small thing….a one-person, one-meal dessert. Just three or four bites. $4.50! Welcome to the St-Hyacinth Farmers Market 2013!

The cash register girl looked so cute in her outfit that I snapped her picture.  I think you’ll agree she’s cute.

She wowed me so much I forgot how much my turnover was costing me!

She wowed me so much I forgot how much my turnover was costing me!

Oh, I also bought a smidgeon of fine local cheese, some tiny, right-from-the-garden carrots, a bunch of gorgeous red radishes, and a small, crusty, wonderfully dense bread.  I know you’re thinking a bottle of wine, too. Nope. I had some fresh lemonade waiting for me in my van.

Plus  the apples I had spotted early. I’m an apple man. Always have been, always will be. I’ve always believed an apple a day is smart. And three even smarter.

That stand had apples so beautiful that I thought Eve must have bought the one she used to tempt Adam from this farmer. This guy’s apples were so outstanding. So perfect. All fresh-picked. From an orchard just five kilometers out.

And his prices were a bargain. The only bargain in the whole market, it seemed to me. $1.75 per pound for one or two pounds. But only $1.35 per pound for three or four pounds. Then only $1 per pound for five pounds. I decided on five pounds.  Apples keep well. Besides, five pounds would last me barely a week.

They were displayed on long tables. Nice white paper bags full of them.  Four different varieties.  No Macs,  no Baldwins, no Delicious, no Rome.  A beautiful display. Each bag had its variety of apples printed on it. The names didn’t mean a thing to me. These were all local Saint-Hyacinth varieties.

The grower was impatient. I knew what he was thinking. Why didn’t I decide? Was I just a looker?

Monsieur,” I said, speaking French.  “Five pounds, please. I’m from the United States.  I know nothing about these varieties. Possible to mix them?”

“Bien sur, monsieur!”  — “Of course, sir!”

He chose them all carefully, from all four varieties, one by one, packed them carefully, even to the point when a few might fall out. Which impressed me. Handed them to me with a smile.  I handed him a crisp Canadian $5 bill.  (Must tell you their bills  are so much more beautiful than our bills, and so much more high-tech!)  He smiled and wished me a good day. I did the same. Back toward the van I started.

Oh, by the way. The Canadian dollar right now is worth less than our dollar, so my gorgeous apples cost less that a dollar a pound.

I spotted a bookstore. Very nice bookstore. I put my goodies in the van and walked back to the bookstore.  Just 15 minutes, I told myself. Just to look at Canadian books, French and English. I was in there for 40 minutes or so. And walked out with two books that put me back $74. Well, I like to bring home nice souvenirs for myself.

But I was in that one-hour parking spot, and I was a half hour late. I kicked myself for taking so long. A $25 ticket would spoil things. But no ticket! And that’s why it was 1:30 when I pulled into that church yard because I was famished.

 

I sat in my tiny, cozy “living room” in the rear of my van and ate my delicious cheese and crusty bread with a couple of tiny carrots and radishes and my glass of lemonade. And half my apple-turnover.  Then I had a thought. That small turnover had cost just a few cents less than that big bag of apples that would last me days! Not a good thought.

I’d enjoy one of those fine fresh apples as a late afternoon snack, and polish off that extravagant turn-over after my supper.

As I munched and enjoyed, I studied the cemetery right ahead.  It had rained hard yesterday, but today made up for it. Blue sky, great puffy clouds, warm sunshine.  It wasn’t a huge cemetery. Just a nice small parish cemetery. A variety of grave stones, old and recent, on a gorgeous lawn. And on a mound in the center, a monument of Jesus Christ executed on the Cross, with his mother Mary and one side, and Mary Magdalene on the other (some scholars now believe she was Jesus’ wife).

And below him, but much smaller, another of the Virgin Mary, as an afterthought, for emphasis, I imagine.

I like to take walks every day, often several. This was perfect for one. Didn’t bother even to lock the van. Absolutely nobody live around. Made sure I had my camera in my pocket. And ambled over.

About 250 graves, I’d say, lined up as usual in row after row.  I walked every row. Every single name was a French name.  Quebec has become multi-everything, with thousands of new immigrants from many countries pouring in every year. But not one of them had decided to die in Saint-Dominique. Yet.

In fact, I noticed the name LaPlante on five graves. My father, Arthur Joseph, who had moved down to the U.S. around 1923 as a young man, had grown up in a village near here.  (My Mom came from one farther north.) Surely some of these LaPlantes must be kin to me. No easy way of knowing,  of course. I’d love to meet a few of them.

Some of the gravestones were unreadable because so eroded by time, and some were just a few months old.  It was so easy to speculate about some of those resting under the sod here.    One was a boy of three months, Gaetan.   Another was a lady of 97—who came to rest here in 1953. So she was born 159 years ago. Imagine that! With today’s medical wonders, she’d probably live to  age 140.

Some of the stones were as modest as modest could be.  And some so big, of marble so beautiful.  So pretentious, but that’s not a nice word. Well, I don’t think so. What were the stories of their obviously different occupants, here in a community so homogeneous?  They’d be so interesting.

Then I saw a monument with a quotation on it. An engraved quote. So interesting. And another with a different quotation. And another and another. They were a small number in all, maybe 30 or 40. Most of the stones didn’t bother to carry such a post script.  Never had I seemed so many headstones with a quotation in such a small cemetery.

Not one LaPlante headstone had a quotation. What to make of that?

I reached for my pad and pen. I always have them on me. No pen. Damn! No way could I memorize all these. I wanted you to see some of them. But I had my little camera. I snapped a picture of each one as I walked up and down the rows. It would be easy later to look at the pictures and type the quotations.

Well, here they are.  They were all in French.  I’ve translated them for you. Have tried to do a good job.

 

             ~ Lord, you have called me back to you. I leave those I loved so much. Take my place among them.

            ~ I rejoin those who loved me. I await those that I loved.

             On a woman’s stone:  ~  I loved you on Earth. I will love you in Heaven. I await you.

            ~  One day, we’ll all be united again.

            ~ Peace. Love. Friendship.

            ~ Together for life.

            ~  God lends us life and then claims it back.

            ~ I believed. Now I see!       

            ~ On the road to eternal life.

            ~ Consider the life that I begin, not the one I have left behind.

             ~ As long as memory of loved ones persists, they live on.

            ~ The memory of those who are loved never burns out.              

             ~ Watch out for all of us. Not clear whether this was addressed to the deceased, or to the Lord.

             ~ God gives us life then takes it back.      

            ~  To your hands, Lord, I return my soul.

            ~  The eyes that closed see again       

            Said of the man in this grave: ~  A man of courage. A free man.

            On the stone of a mother with a large family: ~ God reunites those who love one another.

           On the stone of a 20-year-old woman: ~  Your little daughter loves you. The whole family thinks of you.

          Two or three quotations of the above got repeated in slightly different versions. One was used four times!  So popular! Which one do you think it was? I’ll tell you at the bottom of this report.

            Well, it was clear to me there were no agnostics or atheists interred here. Certainly not if all of them were honest in the sentiments made public.

            As I walked along, I wondered. Who had decided on including a quotation? The man or woman buried here, or the spouse sharing the grave, or  one of their children left behind, or a brother or sister?

And who had written these beautiful and heartfelt sentiments? Yes, who? Was there ever a heated discussion in the family about the words chosen. Did one or another want something more religious, or shorter, or more sentimental, or simpler? Was there any quibbling about the length? After all, some of these cost a pretty penny to engrave in marble or granite.

But maybe all these quotations were available in a catalog in the office of the monument salesman. Is it possible that these quotations got chosen the way we choose a Christmas or birthday card?

Were they sentiments churned out by an anonymous scribe who got paid per accepted sentiment?  Each one with an indicated price? Maybe in some months some of these quotations were put on sale?  When business got slow. Hey, could be.

As I ambled around and snapped pictures, I found myself in deep meditation. Wonderful meditation. After all, I’m reaching a certain age, as most of you know.

I wondered, Would I want to be buried in a cemetery like this, under a headstone with my name and dates of birth and death on it. A stone more pretentious than those around me, or less pretentious, in a spot I could select in advance most to my liking?  If so, I would certainly like to be in the shade of a tree, a maple preferably. But looking around, I saw no trees. Not even a bush.

Would I find comfort in familiar names around me?  People who had been part of my community for years?

Would I, too, like a nice quotation? Who would write it?  I have talented children. I have talented friends. Who would okay it? Might that process create discord? Could I insist that I preview it and have the last say?

Hey, shouldn’t I write my own? After all, these would be my final words.  In stone, which wouldn’t last forever, of course. Enough gentle rains can blemish even the finest engraved words, as I could see for myself around me here.

But whatever words finally used would be far more lasting than my poor flesh and bones. Or the many, many words I’ve written on paper. So, shouldn’t I choose them?  I’ve been scribbling words longer than I can remember. Getting that final sentiment right would be quite interesting to play with. Yes, I decided. I’d like to write my own. But I’m not sure I want one.

Well, I walked among those graves for 45 minutes or so. And nothing, nothing interfered with my reveries. Not another visitor stopped by. Not a squirrel appeared, not a pigeon dropped down to rest on a headstone. If the shadows of the headstones on the ground changed, I never noticed. I’d stop at this grave, and that one, and wonder.

There were so many family names here that have been familiar to me for years and years. This was such a wonderful, idyllic moment. I felt no rush to move on. No rush at all.

But then, nature intervened, I needed a toilet. I hurried back to my van. I was walking fast, well, as fast as I could. Still I checked the surroundings of this holy place.  Off to the right was a bank. It was a little too close, if anything. But to  the left was a croquet court–a permanent croquet court, a beautiful court, obviously a thing of great community pride. That interested me, though I couldn’t pause.

People up here in Quebec love croquet. People of all ages play, both men and women, and often they play together, picking up a mallet and doing their best.  Such a pleasant thing on a long summer evening. So much skill is required. It’s such a nice way to maintain friendships and make new friends.  Such a civilized pastime. Every little town in the province seems to have a nice court, every city several. Often impressive courts.

It made me wonder, Why don’t we play croquet back in the U.S.? Some folks do, I’m sure, but I don’t know of any. My town of Deep River is famous for its passion for horseshoe playing.  It’s a pastime quite rare among our towns, from what I’ve seen. But it’s been a tradition in Deep River for years. An entrenched tradition. We have half a dozen horseshoe courts right on our village green, side by side. They attract fervent players every Thursday evening during the warm months. I’ve seen some pitching shoes even in the rain.

Many, mostly men but some women, too, which surprised me when I first moved into Deep River and came to watch from the sidelines. And always lots of fans. A vendor is on the scene with hot dogs and drinks and popcorn. It’s a great evening. But how come no croquet court? Who decides these things?

As I hurriedly left the cemetery, I paid attention to Saint-Dominique Church. I  hadn’t noticed it pulling in.  This was an old

Gosh, Saint-Dominique Church was breaking a long, long tradition. But I liked it.

Gosh, Saint-Dominique Church was breaking a long, long tradition. But I liked it.

town but this was not an old church, not one built for the centuries as tradition demands, of good stone and topped with a proud steeple which is always, always painted silver. Which is the norm for Catholic churches throughout the province. Our steeples are always white. Here always silver.

There are hundreds of such stone and silver Catholic churches in Quebec. Who would dare design anything different that that?  Well, somebody here in Saint-Dominiquc did. And I was looking at  it. I liked it.

This cemetery was an old one, You’d expect an equally old church by its side. But this  was a modern church, very different, in fact  a strikingly modernistic church, and most attractive. I felt I had to take a picture. And did. Did the old church burn down or something?

Well, I made it to a toilet on time. Then drove on. As I did, I thought of how Lady Serendipity had come through for me again. Wonderful Lady Serendipity.

If you’re curious, of course feel free to check her out on Google or any other search engine. I’m confident you won’t find a thing. Truth is, she exists in my mind. I created her.

She was the only way I could explain some things. How I delayed lunch today and finally stopped here to eat my lunch, for instance. And spotted this parish cemetery. An experience so remarkable that it made me eager to tell you about it.

I’m so glad Lady Serendipity inspired me. Is part of my life.  What would I do without her?

I hope she never deserts me.

Oh, the most popular inscription was “Consider the life that I begin, not the one I have left behind.”  At the end was the name “ Bossuet.”  A very valuable clue.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet was a Catholic bishop in 17th Century France. Famous for his sermons and essays. Wouldn’t he be pleased to know that his words meant so much to some people that the words were chosen to mark their final place on Earth?

And pleased that one of them had given him credit for his words?

Well, some people will say, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet knows!

What do you think?

 

end

 

Comments

  1. bob johnson says:

    Hi John,
    A very nice story. Did you get my e-mail referring the schedule for all the functions in D.R. & Chester? Must know by Tues. on one of them.

    So long for now,

    Bob

  2. Joan Perrone says:

    Hi John, It’s funny….when you were listing the inscriptions on the graves, I was drawn to the one about considering not the life I begin not the one I left behind…but I also considered it in the reverse…consider the life that I was given and what I did with it while I was here….what is really more important???

    You have Lady Serendipity with you at all times, John, because you are not afraid to be alone with yourself and your thoughts, and then let them take you hither and yon….never stop doing that…it leads you to places where most of us never even think about going.

    Love hearing about your adventures….keep on trucking!!!! :) Joan and Frank

  3. “Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

    A quote from Epicurus for those who are not religion bound.

    The promise of some sort of afterlife evokes a futile hope, in many cases causing a damage to the art of life itself. Quite sad. Isn’t it?

    Apparently not to your life, John.

    Though, against the belief to start a new life, against all your adventure nature and your curiosity for new, you rather would like to prolong what you have right now.

    Happy to see you soon (in life we have, not afterwards!)

    Maria

  4. Ah, knowing your interest for big-box stores, I’d like to recommend you the chain-store Hannaford, present through MA, ME, NH, NY, VT. The apple turn-over there costs 99 cents.

    In Maine, Hannaford is my favorite besides Belfast’s COOP.

    Maria

  5. Lucie Fradet says:

    Another great story! You are so gifted! Thanks for keeping me posted. Love, Lucie

  6. what a wonderful life you lead! it’s better than marrying it “weathily in Padua”. :):)

  7. beautifully written. believe “watch out for us all ” is exactly what the Great Creator does. jim

  8. First visit to your blog John, your writing skills are amazing and your views are equally so. I look forward to continue to visit. -Chris

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