Fresh snow squeaked protests against the weight of winter boots stomping a path through the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly scrapped against too clean a blackboard, and loud enough to echo off the two rows of houses wearing snowy mufflers on their rooflines and windowsills. The houses, all bungalows bunkered by snow banks, reflected the glow of lights announcing that their occupants were awake late into the night, celebrating, or preparing for the arrival of Santa Claus. I could hear singing.
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 the frosty moon the Chippewas called Manidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon that appears small and cold early in winter.
I held my breath to hear even better and determined that the music was O Holy Night and the notes came from the window in my grandmother's room. It was open to the bitter cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then and at gatherings cracked a window to thin the smoke. They sang the first verse and when they reached the sixth line, the other voices ceased and one voice carried on alone:
"Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices! O Night Divine! . . . ." That's the part where the notes rise higher until the singer reaches an awesome A flat.
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. The others had stopped singing to listen to her. Each time she hit the high notes at the words 'O Night Divine', a shiver danced on my spine.
My grandmother was bedridden with the disease in 1943, the year I was born. Our family moved in with her and my grandfather so my parents could care for her. The disease advanced quickly, twisting her fingers like pretzels, then deforming her ankles and knees, making it difficult for her to hobble on crutches. You could see the pain in the creases around her mouth and eyes, and from my bedroom I often heard her moaning in painful sleep, sometimes calling out crazy things like "bottle green, bottle green" when the primitive drugs she took against the pain grabbed control of her mind.
To pass the time and ease her pain, she took up smoking cigarettes. Late into the night I would hear her stir, then listen for the scrape of a wooden match against the sandpaper patch on the box of Redbird matches. When the acrid odour of sulphur drifted into my room, followed by the sweetness of smoke from a Sweet Caporal, I would get up, go to her door and see the red tip of the cigarette glow brightly as she inhaled. She would motion me in and we would talk in the smoky darkness, mostly about growing up and sorting through the conflicts between a teenager and his parents.
Occasionally she would ask me to reach down into her bedside cabinet and pull out the bottle of brandy my father placed there for when she had trouble sleeping.
She never complained or questioned why she had to bear the pain, and the humiliation of a strong, independent woman now dependent on others to fulfill many of her basic needs. She often needed a bedpan to relieve herself and relied upon her son-in-law to strip her and lift her into the bathtub. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year laying back or sitting on the edge of her bed.
None of this was in my thoughts as I leaned on the back fence and listened to the power and purity of her voice on Christmas Eve.
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. After the singing 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 came many years later.