My interest in my ancestor Jeanne Chevalier and her story began over a decade ago, but it didn’t grow into an obsession and start taking over my life until relatively recently. At first, I had a mild curiosity around sorting out some conflicting information that I had found in one book and on the Internet about where she had been born. In early 2011, while visiting my niece who was working in Paris, I travelled to Coutances at the lower end of the Cotentin Peninsula in western Normandy, one of the possible sites for her birth. The archivist, with whom I had been in contact via email, had found a baptismal record for “Jeanne Chevalier” and had been able to decipher the almost illegible handwritten one-line entry. It was waiting for me when I arrived at the Coutances Visitors’ Center. The record indicated she had been baptized in St. Nicolas Church on June 8, 1643. When I asked if I could visit the church, the receptionist handed me the key and took my driver’s license in exchange. The key was bulky in my hand. I wondered if it could be the original.
I walked across the plaza opposite the imposing gothic Coutances Cathedral and turned left down the street to St. Nicolas Church. After several tries, I managed to unlock the heavy wooden door to the fifteenth century church. There was nothing inside. It was totally empty, or so I thought at the time. It was no longer a functioning church, but instead was now used as an occasional venue for musical and theatrical events. Despite the desolate interior, I wanted to wait around for a message from Jeanne or a signal from the universe that I was on the right path. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any more time, on that damp day in February. My obsession, however, with sorting this riddle out and telling Jeanne’s story was ignited.
Since that day, after several additional years of archival and library research, live interviews, a three-week long return trip to Normandy in the fall of 2013, and five weeks in Quebec in the summer of 2014, I have grown even more obsessed with her story. I often feel directed by something both inside and outside of me to continue the search. For example, while I was driving from Quebec City up to the village of l’Ange Gardien last summer, something inside me almost forced my car over the bridge to Ile d’Orleans, the large island in the St. Lawrence River. I stopped at the church in the village where I knew Jeanne’s first husband had purchased some land. After hearing my story, the woman in the church shop told me that I really needed to visit the Maison de Nos Aïeux up the road. Having never heard of this “House of Our Ancestors,” I decided to take her advice. There, 12 kilometers east, in an old church building turned museum, I was able to learn the exact address of the land Jeanne’s husband had purchased. Even more amazingly, I found a DVD of a colloquium on the Filles du Roi that I had been searching for in France, in Quebec, and over the Internet for the last 9 months.
Later that day, something or someone also made me pull into the winery located behind one of the houses abutting land that Jeanne and her first husband had owned in L’Ange Gardien. Inside, while sipping some lovely wines, I learned that the home in front of the winery was owned by a family that had lived there for centuries. Emboldened by my inner guide, and perhaps by the wine, I walked down the driveway and found three cousins sitting on the porch. In my fractured French, I repeated the story of my search for Jeanne. I discovered that they were members of the LeTarte family, the family who had been neighbors of Jeanne and her husband over three centuries ago.
Looking out over the land they owned down to the north shore of the St. Lawrence, I felt Jeanne’s presence. This must have been the same view that she had when she lived nearby 340 years ago.
As I think back on these and other experiences I have had in my search to date, I wonder what these experiences tell me about my search for Jeanne and what lessons might they have for others tracking down their ancestors. I often feel as if someone else is in charge and driving my research forward. Are these synchronous experiences all just a result of happenstance or my imagination or are they caused by something more profound, some sort of connection with the collective unconscious, as Carl Jung might say?