Ghosts of my past and present – by Nicole Eva Fraser

Mikmaq womenWhen I was in my thirties, I discovered major secrets on my mother’s side of the family: she was Pennsylvania Shawnee a hundred years back on her father’s side, which was forgivable—but her maternal great-grandmother and many other female relatives were full-blooded Micmac Indians from Canada. My mother’s disowned brother was the rebel who had hunted down this truth.

Having Micmac blood was kept a family secret because, in early 20th-century Boston, Micmacs were considered contemptible, inferior creatures, similar to the low-caste untouchables of India.

My mother’s parents were social and professional climbers who benefited from the Scottish heritage that lightened their hair and skin. Their Indian blood, however, explained the fierce eyes, the broad foreheads and faces, the silent endurance and the melancholy that persisted through the generations to me.

My mother’s mother’s side of the family descended from Scottish Highland troops, who came to Atlantic Canada around 1800, and their Micmac Indian wives. The women were native to the region that became Campbellton, New Brunswick, across the Restigouche River from Québec.

Those original Scots settlers married Micmac women, had sons who grew up and married Micmac women, and so on. In the 1890s, some of these men packed up their wives and children and emigrated from Canada to Boston in search of better lives. The full-blooded Micmac women, my great-great grandmothers and aunts, were closeted away, and died before I was born in Boston in 1959.

Soon after learning about my hidden heritage, I found out through research that the Micmacs are a tribe with very little recorded history. The one book I uncovered is a cobbling-together of disparate historical items dating back to the 1500s—journal notes from French and Scots explorers; a few drawings and, later, photographs; Quebecois census pages; transcriptions of brief conversations with Micmac elders.

A few of those disparate pieces of history gave me an immediate sense of connection to my ancestors.

For example, the first French explorers who sailed into an Atlantic Canadian harbor in 1534 were greeted by tribesmen who ran into the water bearing gifts and calling, “Nikmaq! Nikmaq!” which means “My kin-friends! My kin-friends!” The innocence and naiveté of the Micmacs’ open hearts led ultimately to their destruction—a fractured innocence I relate to.

French explorer Chretien Le Clerc, writing around 1680 in Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula, said, “One cannot express the tenderness and affection which the fathers and mothers have for their children. I have seen considerable presents offered to the parents in order that they might give the children to certain Frenchmen who would have taken them to France. But this would have torn their hearts, and millions would not induce them to abandon their children for a moment.” That fierce, tender, all-consuming love runs also in my veins for my sons.

And the eighteenth-century missionary priest Abbé Maillard documented the Micmacs’ affinity for rhyming metered verse: “I take care of observing measure and cadence in the delivery of my words…I affect, above all, to rhyme as they do…If I read this (language) to you myself, the rhyming talent of these people would be obvious.” I was born with a flair for rhyme and meter, a quality that led me into a surprisingly successful career writing verses for commercial products.

Beyond the connections of history, Micmac myths and legends rang true to my own difficult growing-up story.

Micmac legends are dark; nothing is as it seems; no one is as they seem; very few of the tales have happy endings. Hideous, violent beings stalk the innocent ones, and at any moment, a seeming Hero could become a Villain and vice versa, because the universe is unpredictable and unreliable.

Many of the Micmac legends are universal—they would ring true for lots of people. Tales about marriage being a dangerous partnership. Cautionary tales about the mistake of flaunting your Power. Stories about the strong bonds between siblings, and between people and animals. One story about a grief-stricken father who braves the terrors of Ghost World in a desperate attempt to bring his child back from the dead.

I could see that the universality was one reason the Micmac legends had endured.

And that was the beginning of my novel The Hardest Thing in This World. I decided to weave, with universal threads, a story about ghosts, mental illness, and family—threads that many of us share.

I wanted to write a story that whispers to the reader, This is a little bit of what it was like for me, for us. This is how I see it. 

A story that asks Do you want to know what it was like? or Was it this way for you, too?

A story that invites the reader in and says I hope you try to understand, or You belong.

Your stories matter. Your life matters. And when you’re gone, your stories remain to affirm I was here. My life had meaning.

Nicole Eva Fraser is the author of The Hardest Thing in This World, released by Second Wind Publishing in October 2013.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “Ghosts of my past and present – by Nicole Eva Fraser

  1. Pingback: Ghosts of my past and present (reprinted from 2W blog) | Nicole Eva Fraser

  2. How fascinating! I look forward to reading your new book.

  3. Judi Pfancuff

    Thanks for sharing this, Nicole. Can’t wait to read your book.

  4. Very very interesting. I especially love the line, “Your stories matter. Your life matters. And when you’re gone, your stories remain to affirm I was here. My life had meaning.”

    Family secrets have such power. My husband, at the age of 53, “made” his mother tell him the truth about her background, which he’d long suspected but didn’t know. She did, thankfully, and then said, “We will never speak of this again.” Wow.

  5. Excellent story, Nicole. My mother often said that her grandmother was Cherokee, but my aunt (her older sister) dismissed this, and claimed that they had no “dirty indian” relatives. Your story is motivating. I am tempted to research my family history a little more and perhaps find the “life affirming” stories there. You have done a wonderful job.

    • Dear Chuck and Heidi, your good words warm my heart, and I’m especially glad that you’re newly motivated to research.your family history. Yes, here’s to our life-affirming stories!

  6. What a fascinating heritage, and after reading your writing here, I’d love to read the book. Being English, the only bits of interesting heritage I can claim are the Irish great grandmother whose husband made her change her name because he didn’t like Teresa

  7. Pingback: Shape-Changers in “I Don’t Think It’s That Simple” by Nicole Eva Fraser | Second Wind Publishing

  8. Karen

    I came across this article while googling ‘Mimac’ and thouth, “wow, she’s a natural writer, her words “fit” together, I would read a book by her,” only to read further on that you do write books, and your method appears to have been inherited! I look forward to reading your books

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