Last October, I helped my Uncle Bobby in Connecticut move. While clearing out his basement, I noticed a toolbox that was significantly older than the others.
“That hasn’t moved out of here for 27 years,” he told me. “It belonged to your grandfather.”
My pépère—grandfather in French—Arthur Blanchette was a soft-spoken farmer from Frenchville, Maine. Along with my Mémère Cecile, he saw the births and lives—even some deaths—of 11 children in a red house as close to Canada as you can get without actually crossing the border. Seeing his tools brought me somewhat closer to the man from whom I inherited my stocky stature.
Arthur Blanchette died on Jan. 19, 1972 at the age of 62. I never got to meet him.
However, I am now the keeper of his pocket watch.
My pépère’s spirit popped up again a few weeks ago when my mom was helping my Tante Lucille—tante is aunt in French—clean out some of her closets. They found a small jewelry box from Robert’s Jewelry in Madawaska, Maine, that was labeled “Pépère’s pocket watch.” Tante Lucille gave it to my mom who decided that I should be the one to carry and protect this Blanchette family keepsake.
“If you think there were ghosts in that toolbox, you don’t want to know about this watch!” my Uncle Bobby said to me when I started asking my family questions about the watch.
But I did want to know. An Ingraham silver pocket watch was as close to the heart and soul of my pépère as I was ever going to get, so I set out to find out everything I could about it.
No surviving members of the Blanchette clan have any specific memories of Arthur and the watch, but all agree that it was always on his person.
“I think he kept a pocket watch because he was always doing construction, painting, or working at the potato house where a wristwatch may have not been practical,” my mother says. “Or he could have just preferred a pocket watch.”
As I held it in my hand for the first time, I felt more connected to him than when my uncle and I had opened that old toolbox. He had shed sweat—and more than likely, blood—on the tools inside of it, but this pocket watch signified something more special. This watch resided in his pocket as he smoked by the window in his living room, occasionally catching the ire of my mémère when he would sweep the ashes that had missed the tray under the radiator with his hat. It was close to him when he bought my mother cotton candy at a town carnival and then sat next to her on her first ride on a Ferris wheel. This watch was with him as he flipped his cards around during a poker game to see if my drunken uncles would notice. (They didn’t.)
The Blanchette men: Roland, Arthur, Jimmy, Clifford, and Bobby in front. Arthur is probably the last Blanchette capable of pulling off that white jacket and black bowtie combo.
A quick Google search showed me that there was a Robert’s Jewelry store still in existence. I emailed the owners pictures of the watch and box to make sure that it was the same store. Robert Corey kindly replied and confirmed that it was.
Corey explained that based on the address on the box, the watch was purchased at the store’s first location. The store had changed locations twice after a couple serious fires and that many of their older records were lost. He told me that his father—who used to run the store and is now in his 80s—might have some additional information.
While I waited for his response, my mother told me that my Uncle Pat’s daughter Rolande worked for Robert’s Jewelry, but she couldn’t remember for how long.
“Rolande worked for my father for at least 20 years!” Corey told me in an email. If that doesn’t prove it’s a small world, I don’t know what does. What are the odds I ended up working for a jewelry magazine?
Robert’s Jewelry circa 1955 (photo courtesy of Robert Corey)
While Corey’s father didn’t have any recollections or receipts regarding my pépère, he did add some valuable information about the watch itself. The brand was considered a workingman’s watch because they were readily available and cheap—some of these watches were known as “dollar watches.” The fact that they don’t have an account card for Arthur indicates that he probably paid in cash. “Many items were purchased during that era with $1 down, $1 per week, which seems not to be the case with your grandfather,” Corey says.
While I didn’t get any new information about Arthur himself, the details Corey provided about the watch did project the image I have of my pépère as a hardworking, hardscrabbled potato farmer from wintery upstate Maine.
My investigation into the watch did, however, unleash a deluge of other recollections from my mother. She remembers he danced with her at a family wedding when she was 10 years old, after my mémère refused. He liked to read, helped his kids get into all sorts of trouble, and loved summertime because the whole family would get together.
She also remembers that Saturday was shopping day and he would take her and my Uncle Bobby to Madawaska—the same town that Robert’s Jewelry is in, so he could have conceivably purchased the watch on one of these trips—and he would buy my Uncle Bobby a hot dog from his favorite little hot dog stand regardless whether he had eaten already or not.
Growing up, I always identified myself with the Blanchette men since I had inherited so much of my physical and emotional being from them—I’m short, have dark hair, I’m tough as nails, and I have a quick temper (although based on some memories the family has of my mémère, it seems Arthur may not have been the one that passed down that particular trait). Investigating my pépère’s pocket watch brought me even closer to the man I never met, and made my mother’s initial email to me all the more special.
“I wish I could say it was planned because you work for a jewelry magazine and that you would research its origin, but unfortunately, though a great story, it’s not how it came to be,” she said. “I just wanted you, my dark-haired Frenchman, who has the body of my dad, to own it. Keep it safe and treasure it for me.”
I intend to do just that.