Missing “Miss Jane”

I went back to L’Ardoise this weekend to say my final “Au revoir” to someone that I mistakenly assumed would be around forever, during the 34 years that I was lucky enough to know her.

My relationship with Jane Martell, who passed away earlier this month, began as a basic student-teacher dynamic when I entered the sixth grade at Ecole L’Ardoise in the fall of 1983.

A few months later, “Miss Jane” decided to teach her sixth-grade French students several traditional Acadian songs to perform at the school’s annual Acadian Day ceremonies, which always took place on the last Friday before March Break. Sensing that I had some level of piano ability, she asked me to try accompanying the rest of the students for this presentation.

Which is why, decades later, one of my most treasured keepsakes from my elementary-school years is a cassette that includes Miss Jane somehow coaxing two dozen somewhat-unruly sixth-graders into singing the likes of “Il etait un petit navire,” “C’est l’aviron,” “Le p’tit avocat,” “Au clair de la lune,” the French and English versions of “O Canada,” and the Acadian national anthem “Ave Maris Stella.”

Spotting a handful of diamonds in the rough, Miss Jane encouraged me and eight other students to form an Acadian folk group called “Les voix de la mer” (translation: “voices of the sea”) the following year.

Inside and outside of the classroom, during what would prove to be the final academic year before her retirement in 1985, she bolstered our personal Acadian songbooks by teaching us such beloved classics as “Partons, la mer est belle,” “Tes yeux si bleus” and a then-new tribute to our province by Yarmouth County native Wendell d’Eon, “Nouvelle Ecosse.”

That summer, Jane loaned me a small organ from her home so I would become comfortable playing a similar instrument at Holy Guardian Angels Catholic Church in L’Ardoise during weekend Mass services. She added a number of songs to that cassette tape I mentioned earlier – some performed by professional Christian musicians and others sung by members of the church’s senior choir, for which Jane provided the organ accompaniment for several decades.

So, in the summer of 1985, having not yet turned 13 years old, I found myself leading the congregational singing at the L’Ardoise church. I would carry out that duty many times over the following 32 years, both in L’Ardoise and at St. Joseph’s Parish Church in Port Hawkesbury, and I have both God and Jane Martell to thank for that.

She continued to open her home to me and my friends during our teenage and young-adult years. It frequently became a rehearsal space for both “Les voix de la mer” and a five-person Celtic-Acadian band that I participated in during my Grade 10 days. But she also welcomed us for teenage parties and even small-scale grad events as we made our way through St. Peter’s District High School.

Her role with the senior choir and the various cultural events that took place in L’Ardoise, particularly during the annual Festival Acadien, made her a fixture in the community. She took particular pride in infusing French music within the senior choir’s playlist but her affection and devotion to music ministry ran even farther and deeper. On more than one occasion over the past four decades, she would have her huge boom-box plugged in near the organ, diligently filling cassette tapes with Masses and rehearsals to lovingly preserve and carefully scrutinize the choir’s efforts.

I veer back and forth between gratefulness and sadness as I contemplate Jane’s recent departure. I will definitely miss her presence and devotion to the church, to our local culture, and to those she encouraged over the years. (She was on an extremely short list of people from whom Cathy and I would accept phone calls prior to 8 a.m. Yes, Jane would make those calls, especially around festival time.)

Decades after she infused so much confidence in me with the quiet instruction “Okay, Adam” that gave me the signal to start playing my rudimentary piano chords in Grade 6, I credit Jane for the fact that I got to sing “Nouvelle-Ecosse” in front of Wendell d’Eon in Tusket in 2004 and rejoin “Les voix de la mer” for six reunion shows across Cape Breton for the World Acadian Congress later that year. Every note I sang at Le Semaine Acadienne in northern France in 2012 is directly traceable to Jane’s patience with us in the mid-to-late ‘80s.

If you are lucky enough to have a Jane Martell in your community, cherish that person and make him or her feel appreciated. Not tomorrow, not next week – right now.

Merci, Miss Jane.