Fresh fallen snow protested beneath the crush of my gumboots breaking trail down the unploughed lane. Dry, sharp squeaks, not unlike the cries of cheap chalk cruelly 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. To each side of the trail, drifted snow leaned tiredly against the backsides of the bungalows, dropped there to rest by an impatient Christmas Eve blizzard just passed through.
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 midnight sky illuminated by frost crystals set shimmering by thousands of stars, and the frosty moon the Chippewas called Manidoo Geezis, the little spirit moon of early winter.
I held my breath to hear better and determined that the music was the Christmas carol O Holy Night, and that the notes came from the window in my grandmother's room. It was open to the cold because most people smoked cigarettes back then, and at gatherings cracked a window to clear the air. 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 Niiii . . .iiight Diii…vine! . . . ." That's the part where the notes rise higher and higher until the singer reaches an awesome note.
The solo voice belonged to my grandmother, Louise LaFrance, and I knew she hit that high note while sitting on the edge of the bed that was her prison. 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 into the bathtub.
The others 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.
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 10-foot by 10-foot 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 mother.
The crippling arthritis had attacked my grandmother not long after my birth sixteen years before. It advanced quickly, twisting her fingers like pretzels, then deforming her ankles and knees. You could see the pain in her eyes and from my bedroom I could hear her moaning in restless sleep, sometimes calling out for relief. She took up smoking to ease the pain. Late into the night I would hear her stir, then listen for the scrape of a wooden match against the side of a box of Redbird matches. Then the acrid odour of sulphur drifted into my room, followed by the sweetness of smoke from a Sweet Caporal. Sometimes I would get up and go to her door and see the red tip of the cigarette glow brightly as she inhaled and I would go in and we would talk in the smoky darkness. Mostly the talk was about growing up and sorting through the conflicts between a teenager and his parents.
After the singing ended that night, my mother served tortiere, which I slathered with mustard. Then we gathered at the tree and opened our gifts.
I have long forgotten what I got that Christmas, and it doesn't matter. My real gift came many years later, and was an understanding of how that frail and twisted body came to produce such powerful and sweet notes. My gift was the realization that those high notes were not solely the products of the lungs. They were driven by something stronger than flesh - an unbreakable spirit. They came from strength far beyond anything that a mere body can produce. They came from the will to overcome.
Adapted from Waking Nanabijou: Uncovering a Secret Past, By Jim Poling Sr., Dundurn Press 2007