Coming Home, Going Home
by Roch Carrier
translation by Donald Webb
As much as any author, Roch Carrier has succeeded in bridging the “two solitudes” — les deux solitudes — that distinguish Canada as a nation. His short story Le Chandail — “The Hockey Sweater” — has become a classic of Canadian literature. It appears in the collection Les Enfants du bonhomme dans la lune — “The Children of the Man in the Moon.” which recounts a young boy’s and young man’s experiences. This is the first story in that collection. It is slightly abridged in this translation.
After my first day of school I ran home with my reading book in hand. “Mama, I’ve learned to read!” I proclaimed.
“This is an important day,” she answered, “I want your father to be here to see.”
We waited for him. As soon as we heard his footsteps on the front porch, my first reading book was open on my lap, and I had my finger on the first letter of a short sentence.
“Your boy learned to read today,” my mother told him. She was as nervous as I was.
“Well,” said my father, “things happen quickly these days. Soon enough, son, you’ll be doing like me, reading the newspaper upside down while you sleep!”
“Listen,” I said. And I read the sentence I had learned in school that day, with Sister Brigitte.
My father looked at my mother. My mother did not come and give her son a kiss. And I had learned to read so quickly.
“What’s that?” my father asked.
“I’d say it sounds like English,” said my mother. “Show me your book.” She read the sentence I had learned to decipher. “I still say you’re reading like an English boy. Try again.”
I reread the short sentence.
“But you are reading with an English accent!” my mother exclaimed.
“I’m reading the way Sister Brigitte taught me.”
“Dis-moé pas qu’i’ va apprendre sa langue maternelle en anglais ! — Don’t tell me he’s going to learn his mother tongue in English!” my father protested.
I had noticed that Sister Brigitte did not talk like us, but that was quite normal. We knew that the nuns did nothing like other people: they didn’t dress like other people, they didn’t get married or have children, and they always lived out of the way, hidden. Did Sister Brigitte have an English accent? How could I have known? I had never heard a single word of English.
My parents began to whisper to each other that Sister Brigitte was Irish and had not even been born in Canada.
* * *
“Sister Brigitte, where is Ireland?”
She put down her book. “Ireland is the country where my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were born. I was born in Ireland, too. When I was a child, like you, I lived in Ireland. We had horses and sheep. Then the Lord asked me if I wanted to become a nun. I accepted. Then I left my family. I forgot Ireland and my village.”
“Forgot your village?” I could see in her eyes she did not want to answer.
“God has not seen fit to take me back there.”
“You must miss your country. Sister Brigitte, you are older than some of our grandparents! Will you return to Ireland before you die?”
The old nun must have seen in my face that death was so distant for me that I could talk about it with no concern, as if it were the grass or sky. She said only, “Let’s go on with our reading lesson. Irish schoolchildren are not as as scatterbrained as you.”
* * *
After Christmas vacation, Sister Brigitte was ill. She had lost her memory. We weren’t surprised. We knew that old people lose their memory, and Sister Brigitte had taught some of our grandparents.
At the end of January, the nuns of the convent noticed that Sister Brigitte was not in her room. They looked for her everywhere. Outdoors, a storm was blowing gusts of snow over the houses; you couldn’t see heaven or earth, as the saying goes.
Sister Brigitte had gone out into the storm. Some men from the village found her dark form in the powdery snow. She was barefoot. They asked her, “Où alliez-vous ?”
She answered, “Home. To Ireland.”
Copyright © by Roch Carrier
in Les Enfants du bonhomme dans la lune
Montreal: Stanké, 1976
The father's “protest” is quoted in the original to give the flavour of the dialect. The men who rescue Sister Brigitte ask her a question that must be left untranslated; the meaning of the question is obvious from her reply, and the fact that she answers in English is of paramount importance.
The original title of the story is quite prosaic: La Religieuse qui retourna en Irlande. The title I have chosen summarizes the story but is, ironically, impossible in French.
Why Ireland? It is not strange that Sister Brigitte would be Irish. In a recent Winter Olympics, one of the television commentators seemed a little perplexed that one of the Canadian athletes had an Irish name but spoke only French. There may have been a historical reason for it. In the 19th century and later, many Irish orphans were adopted by French-Canadian families, who allowed the children to retain their original family names.