I've been dragging a book around with me for years. It's old, falling apart; the binding has suffered and unequivocally divorced its dry yellowing pages. The poetry anthology belonged to my Aunt Marguerite, a woman I never knew because she died way too young of tuberculosis at a Sanitorium in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts.

My dad spoke of her with such fondness. They were very close in age and spirit, too close because ultimately, he was also diagnosed with TB. Dad lost two of his sisters to the dreaded scourge. He was the lucky one who survived. 

Dad and Marguerite

Nothing could really be done for Marguerite who had a terminal case of the disease. 

I feel a wistful affinity with my aunt, partly because my dad cared for her so deeply, but for another reason as well: as the pictures below confirm, at approximately the same age we are, without a doubt, genetically linked at the cheekbones.  

Aunt Marguerite Collet
Early 1930's


Pictures of my aunt and my dad at their respective sanatoriums are heartbreaking. The white plague hit our family hard.


Saranac Lake 
New York 

I am struck by how basic the surroundings are. Metal beds are plague white. Lights have no shades.

Marguerite's book, "Quand j'parl' tout seul" is by Jean Narrache (pseudonym of Émile Coderre). The alias, a play on words, means "I have a hard time making ends meet". The book has a cryptic dedication on the first page which roughly translates as 'Souvenir of my trip to the sanitorium from December 27th to the 30th, 1932.'  It is simply signed "Jean". 

Did Émile Coderre visit my aunt at the sanitorium?  The dedication suggests as much.

Coderre's poems are incredibly moving, written in a unique, vernacular style that I heard growing up in Shawinigan. A short, poignant audio tale written by Jean Narrache, presents a slice of what life was like in Québec less than a hundred years ago. 

So many associations surface as I examine the book. My aunt covered it with brown Kraft paper. It was obviously precious, of great importance to her and had to be protected.

Long ago, books were sacred objects. 

An important ritual began at the start of every elementary school year. We were taught how to cut and fold the paper that would keep our textbooks in pristine condition. They were used over and over until pages essential for learning became indecipherable. 

It was always interesting to discover secret missives that had covertly found their way inside the sacrosanct pages. Inescapable punishment ensued if we were caught mutilating the latest math bible.

I remember the thrill of getting the occasional "new" book, one without "snuck-in" scribbles or sketches, notes in the margins, fingerprints, or reckless rips. Perceptions change. Today I would hungrily flip through old books to find cloak-and-dagger doodles or time capsule messages. 

How I wish I could time travel or interact with one of Scrooge's ghosts to observe history in greater detail. It would be fascinating to meet my ancestors, hear their stories. There is much to be said for the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) where festivities happen yearly to honour those who came before.  

I am currently working on a painting that, in the spirit of the Day of the Dead, celebrates my ancestry. At present, joyful skeletons monopolize the surface. 

Cellular memories from my bloodline materialize as I contemplate past lives.

Here is a detail of the work in progress: