Every year Francophonie Week in Maine recognizes French heritage and culture with a series of films, discussions and musical performances around the state.
In one French sing along group, a 92-year-old grandmother’s passion for singing and speaking French is more than a little infectious.
Her name is Madeleine LeBlanc. She followed her father into the Androscoggin Mill in Lewiston at age 18, made parachutes during the war, went on to work as a fancy stitcher in the shoe shops and now cares for her younger brother as a home health aide.
She’ll turn 93 in June. And “La Vie en rose,” made famous by Edith Piaf, is one of her favorites to sing.
LeBlanc performs the song, translated as “Life Through Rose-Tinted Glasses,” as a member of the Lewiston-based singalong group, Les Troubadours. The ten women are all Franco Americans who grew up speaking French themselves. They regularly appear at USM’s Lewiston Auburn campus and at the Franco Center in Lewiston.
Many of the songs are in a traditional Quebecois call-and-response style passed along from generation to generation. That’s how the words were learned. And the translation for one, says Doris Bonneau, literally means “The Reasons Why We Sing Songs.”
“And it’s basically that in the bottom of our hearts, it gives us great joy and that is why we sing songs,” she says.
Pianist Jeannette Gregoire is 85 years old and says she never learned to read music. But she taught herself to play by ear.
“I’ve always tinkled on the piano since I was a little girl. And it’s just up there in my head,” she says.
Like the other members of the group, LeBlanc says she grew up singing French songs with her family. Her mother performed at music halls around Lewiston. And as she got older LeBlanc found herself traveling to Montreal and Quebec to sing at Winter Carnival and huge snowshoe club gatherings that once rivaled the popularity of ice hockey in Canada.
LeBlanc says her mother offered her some advice.
“She told me, she said, ‘When you sing you’re telling a story, so tell the story as you would like it to sound to the people.’ So that’s the way I sing,” she says.
Despite her cheerful disposition, LeBlanc says her own life hasn’t always been rosy. Her first husband died of a heart attack at the age of 35. Her second husband left her for another woman after 23 years and she outlived her third. But she has happy memories.
If you ask her to translate Edith Piaf’s famous love song, she says, “He promised me that I’d be his and he’d be mine for the rest of our lives.”
Does it have a happy ending?
“Of course,” LeBlanc says, laughing.
LeBlanc still sings in the choir, in French, at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston. French, after all she says, is her first love.