When 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.