Grandma Annie like nothing better than biting into a crisp apple or pear.
Unless of course, it was making a pear or apple dessert. With years of practice behind her, she did so effortlessly, by rote, but also with something that went beyond practiced routine. It was as though Annie and the apples and the paring knife and the sugar and the dough were one smooth-running machine.
I loved to watch her. She was deft. She was perfection. She was magic.
While Annie mixed and rolled the dough with nimble fingers, I would ask questions. Her childhood offered endless fascination for me. I knew the world was different then, although I was too young to grasp just how different and how much it had changed.
"Tell when about when you were a little girl," I would ask again and again.
And she would. Annie was wont to share more details when her hands were busy with cooking preparations.
I never tired of hearing the litany of her girlhood friends: Dena Bellmore, Lizzie Fournier, Agnes Grignon, Mabel Fortier. The lyrical, double syllable names of the girls of Frenchtown were music to my ears. I was in love with those names and fascinated with the fate of the young women who bore them.
Annie kept a packet of photos in the top drawer of her bureau: They showed group of eight girls, about age 18, in white dimity dresses leaning laughing on the neighbor's fence. They are fresh faced and smiling, their hair atop their heads, with only tendrils escaping in what looks to be the spring wind and sun.
In one photo the girls are clowning, some wear blackface, while others have donned their brothers' knickers, and still others hold musical instruments. Annie is always the straight-laced one, not disapproving but never posing in fun.
As Annie peeled apples, she spoke of their exploits, innocent even by the standards of my childhood.
When the pie was baking, Annie would look out the window, down Bellevue Street to a big gray house surrounded by trees.
"Some bad ladies lived there," she told me. "My mother told me I dasn't go near them."
It was years later that I learned the story of the two lumbermen who'd murdered a young man in a bar room brawl and were jailed for it. They were languishing in their cells, awaiting trial, when a lynch mob took a battering ram from a nearby livery stable and broke into the jail, grabbed the men, roughed them up and hanged them and dragged their broken bodies to that old gray house, known then as the "French whorehouse," and hanged them again, from a jackpine in the side yard.
It happened long before Annie's lifetime even began, but she'd heard the story. It had become part of her past.
I heard it again and again until it became part of my history, too. Annie's girlhood became my own, too, part of my makeup and my past.
Although Frenchtown has changed, Annie's house and the big gray house down the side street remain. There's an old jackpine tree down the street, and I wonder, I just wonder if that isn't a descendent of the other tree with its sad burden.
When I look at my life, I see it as part of a continuum, not a period that began on the day I was born and will end the day I die. It is part of something bigger and it is my job now to figure out the meaning of that part.