This story was inspired by a song by Wade Hemsworth entitled “The Log Driver’s Waltz”

Firecrackers popped and bottle rockets hissed on that July 4 afternoon in 1935.   The residents who lived in the little village above the straits were feeling the strain of The Great Depression. The economic effect of that time was first seen in the Detroit auto industry, and eventually drifted northward to the lumbering, mining and shipping industries of the Upper Peninsula. Tourism almost came to a halt, although some of the wealthy vacationers from Chicago continued to find summer rest and relaxation on Mackinac Island.

The Great Depression had worn on now for six years. In 1935, people celebrated the holiday more out of a sense of obligation. One day of festivity would provide a brief respite from the pall that had descended upon the community. President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put some young, unemployed men back to work. They were paid $30.00 per month, with $25.00 of their pay sent back home to their families. These men planted trees on the land that had been laid bare by years of mismanaged logging. Some of these same young men descended upon the little village above the straits for the holiday, with some money in their pockets and amusement to be found.

Mimi was preparing a picnic dinner on that holiday afternoon. There would be fried chicken, glissants, poutine and French Canadian creton, a spicy pork pâté, with beans and bacon left over from breakfast. Nothing went to waste during these hard times. After the main meal, the family looked forward to butter tarts and “pouding au chômeur (poor man’s pudding).” Mimi used up the last of the vanilla and she gave a sigh. Every penny would have to be saved to buy another bottle.

Later in the afternoon, Mimi, Pipi, Claire-Marie, her husband Gilbert and their children Mary and little Rosanne planned on visiting the lakeshore to watch the fireworks over East Moran Bay on “Lac Huron.” Genot Elan d’Hiver and Paul André who would be assisting with the evening’s fireworks, were off making mischief. The expectation of excitement began to grow.

Little Rosanne’s sister Mary watched the ragged crews of the CCC span out into town from the railroad depot. Mary was 13 years old at the time, and she was becoming curious about boys. The afternoon sun was split on the puncheon floor by the framed windows, casting tiny spectrums of shattered light through the crystalline glass. There Mary sat, with a far-away look in her eyes; her elbow propped on the window sill, her chin on her hand. She turned away from the window and spoke to Mimi.

“Mimi,” she asked, “How did you meet Pipi?”

Little Rosanne, who was standing next to Mimi stopped what she was doing to hear what her grandmother had to say.

“Well, one day a carnival came to town. There was a baking contest and my blueberry pie came in second place. I won Pipi as a consolation prize,” said Mimi.

“What does that mean?” asked Little Rosanne.

Mimi continued kneading dumpling dough for the glissants.

“It means that I was so sad for not having come in first place, the judges gave Pipi to me to make me feel better,” answered Mimi.

Pipi, who was seated in the corner of the room reading the paper, offered a different perspective on how he met his wife to be.

“Oh, dat’s not true ‘ma petite fille (my little girl).’ Mimi, she havin’ you on. Mimi come here from Sault Ste. Marie, Canada wit tree uhdder girlz lookin’ fo’ huzbanz, in deez ‘États Unis (United States).’ She wuz dee onlee one leff widout a beau by dee en’ of dee day when she arrive. Mimi say dee uhdderz choose too fast. No mattuh, I got dee bess one of doze girls inny-way. Ain’ no one bettuh den your Mimi!’

Pipi lowered his paper, smiled and winked at Mimi.

Little Rosanne was confused.

“Don’t believe them Rosanne,” said Mary. “They’re joking with you. Tell us the truth Mimi. How did you meet Pipi?”

Mimi went on preparing the meal as she told the story.

“My two older brothers Jean and Jacques had wives and families. Your great-aunt Louise, my older sister, had just gotten married and moved to Marquette with her husband Joseph. My younger sister Claire-Marie, after whom your mother is named had a handsome beau. They were impatient to get married.”

“What were they waiting for?” asked Mary.

“Because I was Claire-Marie’s older sister, I should be married before her,” explained Mimi. “If your great aunt Claire-Marie married before me, I would have been humiliated! I’d have to ‘danse sur les bas (dance on the stockings)’ at their wedding. It’s not a pretty sight and everyone would have laughed at me dancing around in ugly colored socks. I had to find a husband!”

“Your Arrière-grands-parents (Great-grandparents) had hoped that I would marry a ‘médecin (doctor)’ or ‘avocat (lawyer)’ or a ‘marchand de bois (lumber merchant).’ They had their eyes on Antoine-Phillippe Gourmand, who was the son of a local business man.”

“Young people who didn’t know each other were introduced in the proper way; at church dances, or sometimes at family gatherings. Chaperones, mutual friends or acquaintances would make the introductions. Everyone in town knew how much I loved to dance, so a few suitors asked me to waltz, but their feet were like clay! Antoine-Phillippe was the worst.”

“I dreaded dancing with him. All he talked about was his money. His belly hung so far over his belt, his brass buttons almost popped right off his vest. He stepped on my feet and crushed my toes. I don’t think he ever cleaned his teeth. His breath was as hard as stale cheese.”

“At the table, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, Antoine-Phillippe heaped his plate until it overflowed. He used two napkins; one to tuck into his shirt and the other to wipe his sweaty face and balding head while he ate. If the man could have eaten with a fork in each hand, he would have done that too. ‘Il était vraiment dégueulasse (He was very disgusting).’” 

“If he was so terrible, why did great-grand parents want you to marry him?” asked Mary.

“Very few people in our community had money like Antoine-Phillippe’s family. My parents knew that I would always be taken care of, and that I would want for nothing. Our children would be sent to fine schools and food would always be on the table, so long as Antoine-Phillippe didn’t get to it first I suppose. To please both my parents, I tried to like Antoine-Phillippe, but it was of no use. Finally, I was so desperate, I said a Novena to St. Jude,” said Mimi.

“Why St. Jude?” asked Mary.

Mary and Little Rosanne had learned about praying the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross and Novenas, but they still had some things to learn.

“St. Jude is the ‘saint patron des causes perdues (the patron saint of lost causes), and if anyone was a lost cause, it was me! I was becoming more desperate by the day,” said Mimi shaking her head.

Pipi snickered as he read the paper. He’d been eavesdropping on the conversation.

Mimi ceased her preparations and addressed Mary directly.

“I remembered something my Mimi told me. She said ‘Compte neuf étoiles pour neuf nuits et le premier homme célibataire avec qui tu serres la main sera ton futur mari (Count nine stars for nine nights and the first unmarried man you shake hands with will be your future husband).’”

“What did I have to lose? I prayed my Novena by day and counted my stars at night, hoping I would find my future husband. Now as the stars, St. Jude or just plain luck would have it, Antoine-Phillippe invited me to attend a log driver’s festival the very day after I finished saying my Novena and counting my stars. His family owned the local saw mill and the bûcherons (lumberjacks) would be birling….”

“What’s birbling?” asked Little Rosanne, interrupting the story.

“No my sweet, it is pronounced ‘birling,’” replied Mimi. “Two lumberjacks wear spiked shoes and roll a floating log with their feet. They try to spin the log so fast, one of the lumberjacks will lose his balance and fall into the river.”

“That’s the first time I ever saw your Pipi. He was magnificent. He rolled the log so fast, no one could keep up with him. He also had a trick where he stopped spinning the log by digging his heels into the wood. The log would lock up and the other lumberjack would be sent flying into the air!

Both children looked at Pipi. He gazed up from reading his paper and said “Wut you Mimi tell you izz da trute! No one could beat you ol’ Pipi dat day.”

“The crowd cheered and laughed. Pipi smiled at the people, waved and bowed like he was an actor on a stage, all the while standing upon that log!”

Mimi stopped what she was doing and demonstrated with large, flamboyant gestures. Little Rosanne and Mary giggled at the sight.

“Right then and there, I knew I had to meet Pipi. He made me laugh, and oh that smile! A man who was that quick with his feet wouldn’t be stepping on my toes when we danced together. I asked Antoine-Phillippe if Pipi’s wife was in the crowd. He shook his head ‘no,’ as he was too busy licking a melting triple dipped ice cream cone that was dripping on his soiled white vest.”

“Finally, he wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve. He said Pipi had just arrived from a place in Quebec called ‘La Tuque.’ He didn’t have a wife and he couldn’t speak English very well, but he was a fine lumberjack, so Antoine-Phillipe hired him to work for his family’s logging business.”

“It seemed too good to be true! I could hear my Mimi’s words in my ears that very day: ‘Compte neuf étoiles pour neuf nuits et le premier homme célibataire avec qui tu serres la main sera ton futur mari (Count nine stars for nine nights and the first unmarried man you shake hands with will be your future husband).’”

“Now I was determined to shake hands with Pipi. I asked Antoine-Phillippe to introduce me to Pipi since he won the day and was the champion log driver. And so that is how I came to be introduced to Albert Maurice Trudeau,” said Mimi, pointing at Pipi. “C’était le coup de foudre (It was love at first sight)!”

“””When I got home, I told my parents that I had been introduced to Pipi. I asked them if I could introduce Pipi to our family, and they said ‘yes.’ We were married later that year, after your Pipi proposed. Your great aunt Claire-Marie was overjoyed, and she married her husband not too long after our wedding.”

“As the old saying goes, ‘Petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid (little by little, the bird makes its nest).’ We found a little cabin outside of town. Your Pipi and I saved our money and worked hard. Our friends invited us to all the veillées (social dances) and we even won some contests together. Never once has your Pipi stepped on my feet or crushed my toes when we danced.”

“What ever happened to Antoine-Phillippe?” asked Mary.

“Oh, he didn’t seem too disappointed. He went on with his life, counting his money and filling his belly. He never got married and suffered a tragic death some years later. There is an old French saying ‘Un glouton est celui qui creuse sa tombe avec ses dents (A glutton is one who digs his grave with his teeth).’ You see, all his teeth rotted and he had to have them yanked out one by one,” replied Mimi. “A dentist in Cheboygan made him some fine ‘fausses dents (false teeth).’”

“One Sunday afternoon, Antoine-Phillippe was at a church ‘pique-nique (picnic).’ He rushed to the front of the line and piled food onto two plates! That man ate his meal so fast, he ended up choking on a chicken bone when his dentures slipped. His extra-large coffin had to be lowered on and off the hearse-wagon with a block and tackle!”

Later that afternoon, the family walked down to the dock to enjoy their holiday meal. Afternoon turned to evening and the fireworks commenced. Everyone marveled at the explosions and colors with “ooos,” “ahs” and applause. But through all that excitement, Mary’s mind seemed to be far away, locked in a reverie only known to her. She lay on her back with her fingers locked together under her head, and just gazed up at the stars.

This story is dedicated to La Compagnie Musical Dance Troupe: Veronica Rose Cieri (fiddle), Sheila Graziano (dancer), Jean Marie Learman, (flute, pennywhistle, concertina), Katherine Bach Morris (bodhran) and Mark Szabo (upright bass). Please come to see and hear us perform “The Log Driver’s Waltz,” along with other tunes and songs, live at “Rendez-vous at the Soo,” July 28 & 29 and at the “Mackinaw City Rendez-vous and Trade Fair,” Conklin Park, August 4 & 5, 2018….and “Bring Yer Dancin’ Shoes!”

La Compagnie.png

How Mimi met Pipi, as told by Genot “Winter Elk” Picor, from “Stories that Mimi and Pipi Told” © Genot Picor, 2018. Printed with Permission.

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