Acadian Chronicles: When Ancestors Look Down

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When Ancestors Look Down – A Blueprint

Violette sat up in bed. Wide awake – what a strange feeling of silence – being so alone. She could not think past what she felt. The spinning dream had stopped. Fear had tried to overtake her again. Her stomach tightened. Gasping, her breath returned in short bursts… she looked around, saw Vicky’s silhouette against a pile of pillows. Violette listened again to the stillness, her mouth open. It was passing. Without anyone’s help, somehow, it was passing. Only a momentary terror, her old enemy had returned but quickly vanished. Baring her teeth, Violette scoffed:

“Come on, is that the best you can do?”

Violette realized then and there her dreams were never nightmares, none of them. She had misunderstood. Her eyes closed, Violette replayed one scene. A tiny man was showing her a cache. He pointed to a wood knot in a panel and pressed it with two fingers. Out fell rolls of paper. He picked up one blue roll and handed it to Violette. She panicked and screamed, spinning headlong, waking up terrified, but that terror evaporated into silence. She needed now to turn her attention to her Inner Voice and listen. Why didn’t she do this before with all her dreams? Nothing bad had happened with the blue roll, but Violette needed to know the meaning.

After cracking the meaning, Violette drifts back asleep.

A faint gust of wind billows the curtains, moonlight shifts. Vicky feels a chill from the open window. Expecting to see something appear, she puts on her glasses and listens carefully:

“Daughter of the Great North, do not despair. Do you think we would send you on this mission if we could not keep our promise. We’re asking you to be brave, and we’re confident you’ll do it well. Your father, mother and brother need your help. Trust yourself. We trust you.”

“But what about Papa?” Vicky asks. “Is he all right?”

“Yes, you must be patient.”

“But I’m never patient!” Vicky turns her head, her lenses casting glimmers of moonlight.

“If you want to help them, you must be patient.”

Violette awakens with Vicky’s whisperings. Violette reaches over to remove her glasses and wipe Vicky’s tear-streaked cheeks. This act of tenderness consoles Vicky. Without glasses, how unexpectedly gorgeous Vicky’s eyes. Why hadn’t Violette noticed before? Vicky always wears glasses, blind as a bat, but Violette’s dazzled in the moonlight, even at this sad moment, Vicky slumping over. Vicky’s smallest actions, no matter what the movement, like the one just now, flicking lint off her sleeve, every gesture those of a prima ballerina on stage – but with Vicky, they’re unrehearsed, nothing phoney – a natural, innate gracefulness. Doesn’t she know how beautiful she is, both inside and out?

“I’m sorry. I’m terribly sorry. Now you’ll hate me, Violette.”

“Why should I hate you, Vicky? You’re the best sister ever? Don’t worry. You told me before, and I know it’s true – good things are going to happen at the castle. Look what I have.”

“What? Blue paper?”

“More than blue paper. It shows exactly where to hide – it’s perfect! It’s a floor plan, showing all the rooms and secret passages. Now we have a compass and a map. Not wanting to be overheard, Violette’s relieved to see Anne’s bed unoccupied. She asks, “Where’s Annie?”

“She got up early. Violette, this floor plan is great!”

Why would a loner move into a huge castle? Well, not even Mr. Payen expected to live in a mansion. In 1900, 21 years of age, Edgar Payen had come penniless to Southern California with his younger brother, Sylvain, to escape an overbearing mother in Maine and to disassociate themselves from a family quarrel. Neither brother wanted to deal with these family squabbles. The two brothers got along well and were ready for a fresh start in the Far West. Both had musical talent, Sylvain, singing and playing the spoons, and Edgar -- the fiddle. Generally, Acadian music is soulful with added percussion from tricky hand-clapping, foot-tapping and spoons. After their first audition as a “Cajun” duo, they were hired on the spot to play aboard a passenger ship that ran from San Pedro to San Francisco. They were an instant success.

Hardworking and frugal, the two brothers combined their earnings. In 1915, they invested together in an orange grove in the Santa Ana Canyon, near the Olinda and Richfield territory. They moved there to run their own business, sharing a makeshift cabin on the property, managing their investment well, hiring seasonal, itinerant pickers at harvest time.

Then in 1919 Spanish influenza hit, both brothers stricken, probably transmitted by a returning doughboy whom they had hired as a picker, a veteran of the trenches in France. Their physician suggested the hospital, but both rebelled. The same objection when a nurse was recommended. For the frugal brothers, there was no reason for so much expense. After all, they were tough Acadians, and it was just la grippe, right? Living in rural Orange County, Edgar had learned Spanish. He made arrangements with an old Mexican woman to bring them meals each day. With her home remedies and cooking, to the doctor’s surprise, Edgar recovered completely, but not Sylvain, who died. Devastated, Edgar stayed at the grove, retreating from the world. It was during this grieving period and solitude that Edgar started to have visions, neglecting the orange business, camping outside, half-naked all year, living on whatever he could gather or trap, using an open fire for his stove and heating, up all night playing haunting melodies on his fiddle.

Then a godsend! In the district of Yorba-Linda and Richfield – a whopping oil strike, gushing black gold in 1922 – Edgar receiving more than $1,500 per day from his percentage of land leases. That daily income exceeded twofold the average yearly income of an American in 1922, in an era when income taxes were negligible, when hiring a laborer cost no more than $3 a day.

However, Mr. Payen was not thinking only of himself, still grieving the loss of his brother and wanting to heal the festering feud back in Maine. He planned to build a magnificent estate, so his family could start all over with him in Lagona. Edgar hoped his offer would end the squabbles, but instead, his invitation only inflamed more jealousy and discontent – yet Edgar never gave up on reconciliation and is still trying to bring relatives together, though the stalemate calls to mind the old adage -- “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

Two relatives did “drink” the offer, Louise Payen, whom Edgar regretted to see move in, despite his best wishes for the family, and his sister, Anne, whose cheerful nature was a blessing. The invitation suited Anne too. She had recently lost her husband and wanted to enjoy sunny California. Besides, as she had proposed to Edgar in letters, she could provide healthy meals for her vegetarian brother. To seal the deal with her, Edgar promised Anne an excellent kitchen garden, but never in her life could Anne have imagined the extravaganza he would build for her!

Returning with the trolley, Anne was surprised to see both girls dressed and coiffed before having breakfast:

“Wow, you girls are up and about. That’s great.”

“Bonjour, Annie!” harmonized the girls. “Will you be able to show the rest of the castle today?” asks Vicky.

“Of course. Look what I made for breakfast – poutine râpée, the Acadian kind, not to be confused with the fries-and-gravy poutine.”

“We love New Brunswick poutine! Boiled dumplings – made with grated and mashed potato outside, seasoned pork at the center!” cheers Vicky.

“That’s right. I also prepared crêpes râpées, no buckwheat in these – instead made from grated potatoes, combined with onion, flour, egg, salt, and pepper, cooked into a golden, crispy treat.”

“With your cooking, do you think we’ll live longer lives?” jokes Violette.

“Of course! Why not?”

“Seriously, Annie, we studied Indians in Palm Springs who also lived very long lives. My teacher told stories about Cahuilla leaders.”

“Please, Vicky, tell me about them.”

“My teacher says diet and hot springs gave them longevity. One of the chiefs died in 1883 at 120 years old. He was Chief Cabezon. There’s a reservation and town named after him, but the spelling changed to Cabazon. His name was based on the Spanish word, cabeza, since he was supposed to have a big head, but isn’t cabeza really like saying chief?”

“Originally, yes, in French chef meant the head -- of the body -- or by extension someone who leads a group, but I don’t know if that works for the Spanish word.” explains Anne.

“Some holy men were also leaders. My teacher told us about one famous Cahuilla shaman or partlid who lived 120 years, as old as your brother. That’s Pedro Chino. He’s quite a character. People claim he could predict the future and perform all kinds of miracles, like changing into different animals – a crow, a mountain lion, coyote, anything living in the desert. In 1880, Pedro Chino tried his hand at something even more tricky -- real estate, when he sold a plot of land to two white men for $150 -- the first real estate transaction in Palm Springs.” Annie laughs, adding:

“Good for him!”

“But when settlers started diverting water away from Indian lands, Pedro regretted having done this transaction: ‘They took everything else away from us.’”

“How does your teacher know so much about the Cahuilla tribes of Palm Springs?”

“She says one Cahuilla chief named Francisco Patencio published a book in 1943. He was born around 1850, the fourth of 13 children. Totally unschooled, he taught himself to read and write Spanish. Before he died at 90, he had taught himself to read and write English and French, capable his whole life of speaking seven Indian dialects. In 1919 he attended a convention of the American Indian Society in Minneapolis where he delivered several speeches.”

“You have fascinating leaders in Palm Springs. Now try the dumplings, Vicky, before they’re cold.”

To feel more included in the conversation, Violette says something, almost anything, not really thinking about it:

“Annie, is your last name Payen, like your brother’s?”

“No, Violette, when I got married, my name changed. I don’t usually tell people; it’s an unusual name and sounds funny – V-I-D-O-C-Q.”

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