Rosa Tremblay and her seven sets of twins
Doctors can't explain them and Rosa can barely cope with them. She serves meals in three shifts and it takes a week’s wages to buy food for three days — but the Tremblays are ready for more
Six thousand French Canadians recently poured into Chicoutimi, the miniature metropolis of Quebec's Saguenay Valley, for one of the most curious and colorful conventions ever held in the province. Because there weren't enough hotels and rooming houses to accommodate them all, the convention program was crammed into a single day and plans were made for an even bigger rally in Quebec City in October to satisfy fifty-nine thousand others who couldn't make it to the Saguenay.
All sixty-five thousand are bound by a single strong tie: they bear the common surname of Tremblay and are members of a proud, pious, and prolific clan that is three hundred years old this year. The xrand ralliement in Quebec City is to celebrate the marriage of Pierre Tremblay and Ozanne Action, their common ancestors. in 1657. Over ten generations, the Tremblays have increased and multiplied at such a rate that they now lay claim to having the biggest single family tree in the world.
Taking his cue from his forefather, the average Tremblay male sires at least six children, though he is trying for twelve. There are scores of Tremblays in Quebec with eighteen, and some have model families of twenty-two children. "C'est le commandement da hon Dien." they say. for the Tremblays have always felt that piety and potency go hand in hand. 1'hey are staunch Catholics, venerate family solidarity, and many of their sons and daughters give their lives to the Church.
Of the six thousand Chicoutimi delegates. 201 were priests and a thousand of them were brothers and nuns, many of them released from the silence of the cloister for the first time in years.
As one of the clan spokesmen said from the pulpit at the opening of the convention, “The Tremblay way of life doesn't conform to the black fashions of this century. The Lord wants children: we have children. The Church wants Christians: take them, call the living host! The Tremblay tree has never refused to give of its fruit."
One couple, probably a deep wellspring of clan pride, were among the fifty-nine thousand who didn’t make it to Chicoutimi. Rosa Tremblay. the plumpish, apple-cheeked wife of Paul Fmile Tremblay of Alma, Quebec, is typical in many ways of the average Tremblay mother. Rosa has achieved unique distinction by giving birth to seven sets of twins and three single babies in just over ten years—or more children in less time than any other woman in Canada. She is thirty-four, and her penchant for twin births is unprecedented in modern medical annals. It defies odds of 125 million to one. and is still a source of puzzlement to doctors who have studied the case.
Her family physician says. “She’s actually prone to twins. In the next five years she might have another ten children, giving her one of the largest families in Canada.”
While most Canadian couples would probably consider it economically hazardous to go on having children with the chances 70-30 in favor of twins, Paul Emile and Rosa are determined not to interfere with Church precepts and their family tradition. Although they battle daily against domestic and financial problems that would leave any other Canadian parents feeling drudged-out and despondent, they have learned to cope and say they like it.
The father earns $63.36 a week as an Aluminum Company worker, but the family budget is bolstered with federal and provincial aid amounting to $ 186 a month, and anonymous gifts that come at odd times from sympathetic people all over Canada. Over the past four years there have been sporadic windfalls, five and ten dollars at a time, amounting to nearly eight thousand dollars: and though the Tremblays can never be sure of making ends meet, they’ve always depended on these gifts.
More concerted and official efforts to help the family have failed so far because the provincial government is afraid of exploitation of the Tremblays and wants to avoid any comparison with the case of the Dionne quints. Municipal officials in Alma have been afraid of antagonizing local people by offering help to a family of seventeen while there are many families of twenty-two in town who are just as needy. But the nagging persistence of Dr. J. A. Bergeron. the family physician, has brought some tangible aid, and Alma’s mayor. Paul Levasseur. has plans for a small campaign to raise funds for a new house.
Most French Canadians are familiar with large families, though, and they tend to ignore the fact that Rosa’s case has made medical history. Because they are used to families of twenty children, they fail to realize that this household’s problems come in pairs, and that having eight children under the age of five is almost without precedent. The whole story of the couple’s married life, how they balance an impossible budget, feed, clothe and keep their brood in order, hardly raises an eyebrow in a province that tends to raise the largest families in the country.
The Tremblays live simply and quietly in a little box-frame house with three bedrooms and no bath, following a routine that begins at 6:30 every morning and only ends at ten at night. “Jt isn't easy,” says Paul
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Breakfast: porridge, one box; toast, 35 slices; cocoa, 3 quarts
Emile, rocking in his chair. “Rosa works fifteen hours a day to keep us going. 1 only make a small part of the twentythree dollars a day it costs us to live, but we never let the kids go without anything they need.”
“And—-and Paul Emile doesn't drink,” Rosa adds. “He smokes maybe only one bowl a night. We’re not ones for going out. I think I’ve seen four movies in ten years. We’ve got a TV. Everything we spend goes on the children, and the children are our life.”
The Tremblays have eight boys and eight girls. The first child, Raymond, died at birth. His twin, ten-year-old Raymonde, is the eldest child and the quietest and most introverted of the brood. Rosa gave birth to three sets of twins the first three years of her marriage. Ronald and Ronaldo are nine. Eight-year-old Jacques and Jacqueline were the third set of twins. Clement was born alone seven years ago. although the family doctor believes he might have had a twin who died in the foetal stage of development.
After Clement, three more sets of twins were born: Jules and Julien are six, Francine and Françoise are nearly five. Christian and Christiane are three and a half. The cycle of three twin births was again interrupted by the single birth of Guy. in 1955. A year later, Suzie and Suzanne w'ere born after a fifty-mile journey to the hospital in Chicoutimi. All the other children were delivered at home, some of them before the doctor’s arrival.
The latest addition to the family is Huguette. a seven-pound girl whose arrival this June, one hour and ten minutes after her mother was admitted into Alma’s new 250-bed hospital, surprised even Rosa. "I w-as sure it was twins again,” she said. This delivery, like all the others, w'as without complications. Only one of the sets of twins was premature, a record that startles doctors. Nearly all multiple twin births are premature, and usually there are two or three single births spacing each set of tw'ins.
With so many infants in the house, Rosa has forgotten what it’s like to have an uninterrupted night's sleep. The children are prowling around the kitchen in their matched pyjamas from six in the morning, and Rosa is usually up by six-thirty, turning on the washing machine, dressing the children, and making breakfast, a meal that calls for a whole box of porridge, thirty-five pieces of toast, half a pound of butter, and three quarts of cocoa every morning. The washing machine churns on for five hours until noon every day and a hundred-foot clothesline in the back garden is hung with washing four or five times. Once a week, w'hen the twelve beds are changed, the washing and ironing takes a full twelve hours.
“Having a washing machine doesn't really make things easy." she says. “It just gives you more time to do other work.”
Until a few months ago, two spinsters, sisters, used to come every day to help with the housework. But domestic help is hard to find even in a small town of twenty thousand, and Rosa hasn't been able to replace the sisters who complained about working a seven-day week, then quit on the Tues-
day following their first day off because the work had accumulated.
Just before dinner Ronaldo is sent across the street to the store owned by Rosa’s mother. He picks up four loaves of bread, seven quarts of milk, four pounds of hamburger or sausage, two pounds of butter, five pounds of sugar, a dozen oranges, eggs, and a bag of flour. Rosa gives him ten dollars from Paul Emile’s wages, which go into a glass jar in the cupboard for household expenses. Ronald. Jacques and Jacqueline go with him to help carry the order.
Sometimes Paul Emile will order twenty dollars worth of meat from the local slaughterhouse, and one of the merchants will keep it in a freezer for them. Many shopkeepers in Alma give them a small reduction for buying in quantity. Staple items such as potatoes are bought in 150-pound bags. They get through a bag every ten days, and in winter they stock up the cellar with a thousand pounds of potatoes and two dozen cases of canned goods.
A simple meal for seventeen
The Tremblays find it impossible to budget, “lí you run out of food, you go out and buy more.” Rosa explains. "All of Paul Emile’s money, except the price of two packages of Alouette tobacco, goes into the jar. Sometimes the jar is empty before the end of the month and I don’t know where the money’s gone. But it s gone.”
After lunch, which is a simple meal of bread and butter, bologna, mashed potatoes, tea and large French-Canadian biscuits called galettes, the children go out to play and Rosa does her baking. She makes six pies and three cakes two or three times a week. About once a month one of her brothers drives her the mile into Alma and she shops for clothes, shoes, and groceries. With the exception of Sundays, when she goes to Mass with Paul Emile and six of the school-age children, the short trip to Alma is her only excursion out of the house.
Until 4:30 every afternoon, when it’s
time to start supper, she is baking, sewing, and replacing dry clothes with wet ones out on the washing line. Paul Emile comes in an hour later, takes off his jacket and washes his hands at the sink. He sits down in the big rocking chair and watches Rosa working.
“He doesn’t give me any help around the house.” she says, “and 1 don't expect him to. After eight hours at the smelters. he’s had his cap full."
Paul Emile spends his day stripped to the waist, pushing hand trucks full of chemical separator to the rim of the bubbling smelters and dumping the contents into the molten vat. The temperature is about a hundred and fifty degrees, and after six trips with the hand cart he goes outside for air. His face has been baked to an earthen brown by the heat.
He sits down to the table with four of the youngest twins, and two-year-old Guy. They have soup, mashed potatoes and sausages, some green beans bought the previous day from a passing farmer, a huge slice of fresh plain cake, and a mug of niilk or tea. Paul Emile eats eight sausages and has a piece of apple pie after the cake. He takes a second mug of tea into the parlor and turns on the television set. The young ones join him, and five more children sit down to eat. There are three sittings. Rosa sits down to eat last, with Ronald and Ronaldo, and ten-year-old Raymonde.
After the supper dishes are done, the children are washed one by one in the kitchen sink and go off to watch television or do their homework, or both. “They like westerns,” Rosa says, “and sometimes you can’t get them back to the kitchen to finish their homework, and I wonder how they can know anything at school.” But Raymonde, who is in the fourth grade, always comes second or third in class, while the other five get just better than average marks.
Rosa irons in the kitchen from sixthirty till ten, listening to but not watching TV. Although she likes L.es Ploulfes, Le Survenant, and other French-Canadian TV serials, she is content to listen
from the ironing board. Only wrestling can lure her away from her work. At eight-thirty she starts to tell the children to go to bed, but the set is a big attraction with them and she has to call on Paul Emile for support.
"An ¡it." Paul Emile says. But television fascinates him too.
"We have to keep singing that song to them until nine o'clock," she says. ‘‘And then I have to use force.” The children troop off upstairs. The three youngest sleep in cots in their parents' bedroom. The remaining thirteen chil-
dren share seven beds in two attic rooms. One other bedroom in the house is used by Rosa’s part-time helper, her fifteen-year-old niece Gisèle Canchón.
At ten o’clock Rosa turns out the light in the kitchen and creeps into her bedroom, casting a glance at the infant Huguette and the year-old twins before undressing. Paul Emile switches off the TV set and joins her. A few minutes after ten. almost as soon as her head has touched the pillow, she is enjoying what she calls le bonheur au lit — the benison of sleep—until six the next
morning. Then one of the children will wake and begin to chante le coq. It means that she must be up in a little while to meet the demands of another day.
“There isn’t time to ask questions or be unhappy,” she says with a smile. “I like children and so docs Paul Emile. 1 had thirteen brothers and sisters, Paul Emile had sixteen. Between us all, we’ve had a hundred and forty-five children, and most of us are still young. We’re too busy with our immediate families to call on one another, but we all try to
get together at least once a year. That’s the main purpose of the Tremblay ralliements."
These rallies, an occasional trip to the shrine of Cap de la Madeleine near Three Rivers, and two short holidays in New York to appear on television, provide changes of routine for Rosa and Paul Emile.
They’ve been on two pilgrimages to Cap de la Madeleine, bringing along their children in three cars, and were greeted by and photographed with Cardinal Leger. “The Tremblays,” said one French-language daily, “are living proof of the truth of Church laws.”
Last year the couple were flown to New York to appear on a show called I’ve Got a Secret. Panel members took one look at Paul Emile’s swarthy, weather-beaten-face and suggested he'd found a gold mine in northern Canada.
“N-non,” Paul Emile grinned at the interpreter. “Not exactly a gold mine
“Could I possibly have what you’ve got?” asked Jayne Meadows.
After the laughter had subsided, Rosa replied, “Certainement, mademoiselle!”
They stumped the panel and returned to Alma with a hundred dollars in prize money.
Public reaction outside the province of Quebec has been sympathetic, and even warm. Dr. Bergeron has a file of seven hundred letters from all parts of Canada and the U. S. A few of them, like the one from Vancouver, are bluntly critical: “The real tragedy isn’t that Mr. and Mrs. Tremblay can’t support their children by themselves. It is simply that they go on producing children whom they can't hope to support.”
An American who wrote to Dr. Bergeron indignantly refused to contribute anything. “The danger is,” he said, “they might be encouraged by other people’s generosity to plan an even larger family . . . ” But he must have had second thoughts before sealing the envelope. There was a fifty-dollar bill enclosed.
Had she heard the florid rhetoric of the Chicoutimi rally, Rosa would probably have agreed heartily with Msgr. Victor Tremblay, who was elevated to the Papal Prelacy during the meeting. He took up his bishop’s staff with the challenging words: “We are not richer nor poorer, not more blessed nor more forsaken than others. We are proud, though, to be the most prolific family in the world!”
Rosa had wanted to attend the rally. She changed her mind at the last minute when her doctor advised her against it. A few days after the Tremblays wound up their pious festivities, Rosa had her seventeenth baby, a sevenpound girl. ★