Friday, July 25, 2008

Je Me Souviens

by Katy of muchacha K

On a recent trip to NYC my sweetie and I decided on an impromptu journey to Ellis Island. More than one hundred millions Americans can claim that an ancestor of theirs came to American as an immigrant at Ellis Island. I am not one of them. However, my roots can be traced to another large migration of immigrants to America, from Canada. My family was part of the massive wave of French Canadians that moved south from rural Quebec to work in the mills of New England, between the mid 1800’s and mid 1900’s.

Current generations of our family have held onto some of the traditions of this first generation in America. Elderly relatives still remember how to speak Canadian French—and can critique the Parisian French I’ve been working to reclaim for my generation. We still eat pork pie—tourtiere—at Christmastime. And we are still working people.

At Ellis Island I saw pictures of women at work in American mills, and those pictures reminded me of the generations of my family that worked in those same mills here in New England. My great-grandparents, Tessier and Ricard were the first generation and they worked in "shoe shops". My grandparents joined their parents in the mills when they were of working age, and many of their cousins, aunts, uncles, also worked these types of jobs. In one old photo, my great-grandparents, and grandparents are together in a group photo of their union from the shoe shop.

Aunt Cecile, now 83, worked in the shoe shops her whole life, from high school, until she retired. Technically, she was a stitcher, but she does not consider herself a seamstress, and she did not experience sewing as a creative endeavor. After her father died, she and her mother worked in the shoe shop, side by side, to support each other.

The Ellis Island trip sparked the realization for me, that sewing is yet one more tradition that I carry on for these previous generations. But for me, the experience is totally transformed. Because Rose, Alexander, Leo and Bernadette came to the US seeking work, and seeking to improve life for their families, I have been gifted the luxury of experiencing sewing as art. I am able to create my work independently, and I am allowed to see my work product as totally my own. It is empowering to experience my own work in this way—and humbling to realize that this empowerment was bought for me through lives spent stitching in shoe shops.

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