By Jim Poling Sr.
My most cherished Christmas moment comes when I sit quietly and recall the Christmas Eve when I heard an angel sing.
Fresh-fallen snow protested beneath my gumboots breaking trail down the unploughed lane as I walked home that Christmas Eve. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk scrapped against too clean a blackboard.
The boots ignored the sounds. They moved on, ribbed rubber bottoms and laced high leather tops creating a meandering wake in the ankle-deep snow.
From each side of the lane, drifted snow leaned tiredly against the back- sides of the bungalows, dropped there by an impatient blizzard that just
passed through. Their crests were indistinguishable against the white stucco walls but nearly reached tufted piles of fluffy snow clinging nervously to windowsills and eavestrough lips.
The squeaks flew through the still night air, dodging fat snowflakes that fell heavily onto my cap bill, occasionally splashing into my face, flushed warm from the walk.
Faint strains of music joined the squeaking as I approached our back fence. I stopped to hear the music more clearly, now identifiable as singing voices escaping through an open window.
I shuffled forward and listened to the notes float out crisply and clearly, then mingle with smoke rising from the chimneys. Notes and smoke rose together into an icy sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars and a frosted moon.
The music was the Christmas carol O Holy Night, and the notes came from the window in my grandmother’s room. It was open to the cold be- cause most people smoked cigarettes back then and cracked a window at gatherings to thin the smoke. They sang the first verse, and, when they reached the seventh line, the other voices ceased and a single voice carried on alone:
“Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Niiii … iiight Diii… vine! …”
That’s the part where the voice rises higher and higher until the singer reaches a stratospheric note.
The solo voice belonged to Louise LaFrance, my grandmother, and I knew she was hitting that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that had been her prison for sixteen years. She was crippled with limb-twisting rheumatoid arthritis and suffered searing pain and the humiliation of being bedridden, a humiliation that included needing a bedpan to relieve herself and having her son-in-law lift her naked body in and out of the bathtub.
She had taken up smoking to help ease the pain but had trouble holding a cigarette between her gnarled fingers.
She never complained or questioned why she had to bear the pain, and despite her frailty, she was a leader in our house. We brought our problems to her. When we hurt, we ran to her and she draped her twisted arms around us and absorbed our pain because she believed it was better that she have it than us.
The others had stopped singing to listen to her. A shiver danced on my spine the second time she hit the high notes at the words “O Night Divine.”
When she finished singing O Holy Night, the other voices started up again, this time with Silent Night and other favourite carols.
I went into the house and found Christmas Eve celebrants — my mom, dad, and some neighbours — crowded into the ten-by-ten bedroom that was my grandmother’s world. They sang long into the night, mostly in French because the neighbours were the Gauthiers who seldom spoke English to my grandmother and my mother.
After the singing ended my mother served tourtière, which I slathered with mustard and devoured as only a teenager can. Then we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts.
I have long forgotten what I got, and it doesn’t matter, because my real gift was the understanding that those high notes were not solely the products of my grandmother’s lungs. They came from a strength far beyond anything that mere human flesh can produce. They were high notes driven by some- thing far stronger — an unbreakable spirit.
It was my grandmother’s last Christmas. But the memory of her high notes and unbreakable spirit brings her back every Christmas Eve.