Myriam Laberge’s story of Simone

simone-26-ansSimone Grenier was born on December 13th, 1930 in St. Prime Quebec on a dairy farm, the fourth youngest in a Catholic family of 11. She had her father Antoine’s brown hair and eyes, a light sprinkling of freckles and just the slightest gap in her front teeth which would later be replaced by dentures. Her graceful features came from her petite mother Mathilda.

During the week, Simone and her siblings walked to the local schoolhouse. In winter, they wore moccasins made by her father and thick woolen socks knitted by her mother. The entire family attended church every Sunday travelling by horse and wagon.

Mathilda and Antoine encouraged their children to be proud and cultured. They were to speak well, dress well, and to contribute to the community.

At 13, Simone learned to sew and would eventually become a talented seamstress. In this as other things, she took to heart her mom’s motto that “all that is worth doing is worth doing well”.

Simone completed Grade Nine. She was denied convent admission because of her grades so was home-schooled by her mom. Both felt vindicated when Simone passed her exams at the top of her class. She learned typing and book-keeping at 18 through secretarial work. However, her main goal in life was to marry and have children.

At 20, Simone was active in the local Catholic Youth Action movement. Members travelled in pairs, going door-to-door on missionary work to bring the new humanist social doctrine of the Church to the people. One young man in their cohort caught her eye. Louis-Joseph Laberge had jet-black curly hair, blue eyes and an infectious crooked smile. She admired his cultured personality and intelligence.

Louis declared his love to her, though discreetly, concerned that the Youth leaders might oppose their romance. Sure enough, once others realized their attraction, in 1952 Simone was sent 100 miles away to cook for a group of Christian Brothers. Louis was dispatched to Alberta on behalf of the Union of Catholic Farmers (UCF) to find land for 30 young families to homestead.

This period of separation was very difficult. Independently, the priests pressured Simone to join a religious order, and Louis to join the priesthood. But all the while a secret exchange of letters occurred back and forth over the 4,100 kilometres that separated them. Louis eventually came to propose. He wrote asking her to choose a wedding date, ordered her engagement ring from a Winnipeg catalogue, and had it mailed. Trusting him absolutely, she planned the wedding, and sewed her own dress. The train brought him back just two weeks before their marriage on August 22nd, 1953.

One month later, after their honeymoon, Simone and Louis migrated from Quebec to Northern Alberta by train, leaving everything and most of their families behind. Simone spoke no English. Louis got by with his limited and heavily accented vocabulary.

They arrived in the parish of St. Isidore in late September, some 500 kms north-west of Edmonton, where earlier Louis had purchased land for the UFC. Already settled around the hamlet were ten pioneering families, of which three were Simone’s older sibling families. For the first six months, the newlyweds lived in the attic of her brother Valère and Lucette’s home.

Unlike the other settlers, Louis did not become a farmer. Instead he took on the accounting and management of their cooperative society. They moved to the village of Girouxville to be more centrally located.

Once again Simone and Louis lived in an attic, this one located above his street-front office with the nun’s convent at back. They shared their tiny space with another roomer – Jean St. Arnaud, a local bachelor. He took all his meals with the newly-weds though mostly he kept to his room when not at his bee-keeping business.

Simone was pregnant when they left St. Isidore. Their first boy Paulin was born July 8th 1954. Her joy as a mother was marred by a near-tragic accident when at 9 months. Paulin seated in his high chair managed to grab and spill the boiling coffee pot onto his lap. He nearly died of third degree burns to his legs and abdomen.

In 1955, they bought a small house for their growing family: Myriam born in 1956; Chantal in 1958; and then Christine in 1959. Simone sewed everyone’s clothing, gardened and canned, and also continued to cook meals for Jean St. Arnaud. She didn’t drive and Louis was constantly away on business. So she relied for help on neighbours, and also on her children, whom she encouraged to grow up fast and be responsible.

In 1962, they built close to the school and kept boarders to make ends meet.  Now they were in a modern home living right next door to the church. Their actions were observed and sometimes commented upon from the pulpit. Along with most of their community, they abided by Catholic temperance society principles, and refrained from all alcohol consumption. Until the late 60’s, they recited a daily rosary. They did pilgrimages. They sat in the sixth pew every Sunday.

After a miscarriage around 1964, and a further unexpected pregnancy resulting in the birth of their last child, Marc in 1966, Simone quietly underwent a tube ligation. Though technically, this was not “sinful” birth control, they kept this decision close to their chests.  Around the mid-60s, Simone and Louis left the temperance movement. Alcohol – or the over-consumption thereof became a source of conflict and argument. There were other stresses too, both business and health related. Louis underwent one major surgical operation after another, nearly dying once.

Though they lived in an Anglophone province, they spoke only French at home and also worked in French. From 1966 forward, once the older children were in school, Simone worked in Louis’s growing accounting practice. She typed up financial statements and did book-keeping. The children quickly became fluent in English from attending school and watching television. In self-defense, Simone registered with the Berlitz correspondence language school to learn English. Concerned that her children would lose their French, she spear-headed a petition throughout the region and gathered 5,000 signatures demanding French television. One year later, Radio Canada complied.

Simone and Louis travelled with the children to visit Quebec relatives for special occasions, camping along the way. In summer they vacationed at Winagami Lake and Shaw’s Point. Louis caught pike that Simone would sauté in lots of butter. They took up golfing. In winter, they attended curling bonspiels and loved to cross-country ski.

As the children grew more independent, and the older ones moved to Edmonton for university then to work and get married, Simone and Louis enjoyed an increasingly full social life. They sang and travelled with the choir, danced at weddings, and loved playing 500 at family gatherings. In early days, each family took turns hosting in their homes, but as their numbers grew from 35 to well over 150 relatives, get-togethers transformed into pot-luck at the community hall.

Simone became increasingly active in the region in the 70’s. She headed the French Cultural Committee, and organized festivals, concerts and summer programs for children. She operated Simone Laberge Secretarial Services, wrote a regular community events column in the French paper, and sold newspaper advertising. She also managed the region’s French Continuing Education program for the University of Alberta’s Faculty St. Jean.

After their Vancouver trip for Expo 1986, Simone started to experience stroke symptoms. Angiograms confirmed that she had blockages in her two carotid arteries. She was operated on the right side in July, but then sent home. Her symptoms persisted. A second surgery was scheduled the morning of September 17th, 1986.

Rather than perform a new angiogram, the surgeon relied on the month-old results, and inadvertently clamped down on a blood clot. When the clamp was removed, the clot broke loose and travelled to her brain. Simone went into a coma and was expected to die, or survive as a vegetable. She was 55.

When she regained consciousness after eight days, Simone had lost the mobility of her entire body except her right arm, neck and head. Only once the tracheostomy tube was removed could she confirm she could speak. She had retained her memories and intelligence – but little else. The doctors declared that Simone would never walk again. She would be 100% dependent on others for the rest of her life. None of her 9 grandchildren would ever know her whole.

The massive stroke erased her gentle, empathetic and diplomatic personality. All previous social graces and inhibitions were dissolved; and delays of any kind made her anxious. Her motivation, will, and interest in life disappeared for nearly 15 years. The process of rebuilding her personality to some semblance of the old Simone before what she called her “Big Bang” would never be fully achieved.

After 7 months in Edmonton, Simone was transported by ambulance to an acute care hospital bed in McLennan, 21 kms from their home. Eventually she moved to Manoir du Lac, a new extended care hospital annex. Except for the overnight stays that Louis arranged as often as he could with some help from Home Care, Simone never returned to live at home. Family and community helped and visited. A new normal was established. Simone even travelled to Edmonton to receive an Alberta Achievement Award. Mostly though, Simone spent her days watching TV. Everything else was challenging, exhausting; and the least physical pressure anywhere caused her pain.

She was still lost in this foggy, lethargic state when in the year 2000 the Alberta Conservatives announced a cut to Home Care funds. This news affected her as nothing else had previously done. Simone became angry at the anticipated loss of government support. Determined to send Premier Klein a letter to decry these cuts, with Louis’s help, she learned to operate and type on a computer with her able right hand. Buoyed by her success, Simone began to dream of writing a column again.

Thus began what would be a decade-long project of writing about her life and the reality of living as a dependent in Extended Care. She wrote in French and her family would correct her text, as well as translate it into English. The local Smoky River Express paper specially created a Manoir du Lac column to publish her articles on consecutive weeks, in French then in English. These became a source of interest and inspiration for her friends and family, as well as readers far and wide. She became a bit of a local celebrity.  Her children claim that this was when glimmers of the old Simone returned.

On June 20th 2001, six months after Simone’s newfound interest in life, Louis suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. She claimed that Louis had visited her room during the night to let her know he was going.

After the funeral, she decided not to move closer to her children. Though she was alone now, relatives and her French-speaking community were nearby. Thus began another phase of Simone’s life. A speed-dial telephone and a personal computer were installed in her room. A computer tutor, a seamstress, a local advocate, and a daily companion were hired to replace Louis. From a distance, her five children managed her affairs and travelled when they could.

Ten years rolled on. One by one her siblings and friends moved away or gradually died off. Following several health emergencies, in August 2011, Simone flew by air ambulance to the Calgary Southwood Care Centre, leaving her extended care home of 24 years, and community of nearly 60 years.

The transition was tough at many levels, but gradually Simone’s health and mental outlook improved. Though she no longer writes, she creates an uplifting “Thought of the Week” which her companions transcribe onto her paintings from class. These are posted outside her door for passersby to read, and to her Facebook page. Nearly 86, she says her mission in life is still not done.

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