Vancouver
5 min

La belle et la bête: A Christmas story

A mostly fictional autobiographical holiday tale

My mother’s family was French-Canadian, one of many that found work in the mills of New England.

When, a generation later, part of the family moved back to Québec, some of them could speak fluent English, a rare thing for people of their class. This got the men better jobs with CN railways, although they would never be management of course; only Anglos got to be that.

But they didn’t care. The Filion brothers were proud, hard-drinking men who loved the train yards almost as much as they loved their wives.

Two of the brothers married eccentrically: the oldest, Charles, to a nervous woman who was put on a vegetarian diet to combat her incipient hysteria, and the youngest, Gérald, to a mysterious, cultivated, piano-playing beauty.

It was a grand day for the Filion clan when a piano was installed in Gérald and Rose’s home. It had taken the better part of an afternoon for the men to manoeuvre the instrument up the winding outdoor staircase to their second story apartment.

The rest of the day had been spent drinking and listening to Rose play. When they tired of her Chopin, the musical brother, Boudrias, got up and sang favourite vaudeville songs, with his brothers, their wives and children joining in for the choruses.

Then, one hot summer morning, Gérald and Rose’s happiness came to an end.

Gérald was squeezing his way past between two train cars when suddenly their great iron couplings came together, crushing him. The emergency whistle began to blow, bringing all work to a halt and the yard doctor running. Charles was sent for and told that his brother was a dead man as soon as they uncoupled the cars.

“Tell Rose that I love her” were Gérald’s last words to his brother. Charles was given the afternoon off to inform the family and to make funeral arrangements.

Charles could hear the piano from the sidewalk. Chopin, he guessed, climbing the stairs and knocking on the open screen door.

“Come in Charles,” said Rose, her busy fingers flying over the keyboard.

“Rose, I have some bad news.”

“It’s about Gérald, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“He’s had an accident, hasn’t he?”

“Yes”

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

At the final “yes” her hands came crashing down on the keyboard, and then froze. They were to remain so, two useless little claws, until her dying day.

Christmas eve, 1905: It was Charles and Gabrielle’s turn to host the family réveillon de Noel. Gabrielle had been busy cooking for the past two days. Her older children had been put to work, the girls in the kitchen, the boys running errands and such. She would take a little rest in the early evening before putting the finishing touches on the meal, which was to be eaten after midnight Mass. Afterwards, the adults and some of the hardier children would stay up playing games, drinking (gin for the men, tea or root beer for the ladies), telling stories and singing. Gifts would be exchanged at New Year’s.

Gabrielle was nervous. It was a strain to cook and receive over 40 relatives, even if they did bring some of their own dishes — meat dishes like tourtière, as everyone knew that she, poor woman, had to live off beans and greens, for heaven’s sake.

But for the first time since Gérald’s death two years earlier, his widow would be attending a family gathering. Rose had disappeared after the funeral, gently discouraging visits by her sisters-in-law. This caused the Filions great distress as they loved Rose, missed her delicate porcelain beauty and fine manners, and wished her back in the family fold.

But a week before, she had sent word that if she were still welcome then she would come. And could she bring the nice woman who shared her home and helped her with the necessaries that she could no longer manage because of her hands? They would have to miss midnight Mass, but would be there for the réveillon.

Midnight Mass had been wonderful. The night had been cold and crisp and the children quiet as they walked to church. During Mass, Gabrielle glowed as she always did when she reminisced about her husband’s bold courting of her 15 years ago at a midnight Mass, just like this one. Meeting her and her parents on the church steps, he’d told them to listen very carefully when he sang Minuit Chrétien during the service, because he was going to sing it just for their daughter. He sang his heart out that night and they were married a few months later.

But now she had 40 hungry people to deal with, and Rose and her friend.

They were just tucking into the first course when the two women finally appeared.

Rose came in first, as beautiful as ever, her cheeks flushed from the cold, her pale golden curls shining in the light, her little claws hidden in a muff. Behind her, a large black shape could be seen stamping snow off her feet before coming inside: her friend.

The woman came in through the door after Rose, and stood still as a statue as Gabrielle ran to greet them. Rose was all soft blues and pinks, but her friend wore a long black cape and a towering black hat. She had short, sleek black hair, thick black eyebrows, dark eyes heavily rimmed with mascara and pancake white skin. Her lips were a straight line. The Filions had never seen anything quite like this before, and they stared frankly.

“Rose, won’t you introduce your friend?” asked Gabrielle after kissing Rose in greeting. “Of course. Gabrielle, this is Miss Edna Mulvaney. Edna, my sister-in-law Gabrielle Filion.”

“Une anglaise,” someone hissed from the far end of the room.

The evening would be talked about for years afterwards. Those Filions who could speak English suddenly found themselves seated next to Miss Mulvaney and enjoined to make her feel at home: “It’s Christmas time, and we’re all Christians here, aren’t we?”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” someone muttered as they went into the kitchen, “she looks Protestant to me.”

They did their best by asking Miss Mulvaney about her family, about her religion. Where had she been born? How had she and Rose met? She ignored them in the politest way imaginable, having eyes only for Rose whose meat she would cut, Rose whose glass she would hold, and Rose whose lips she would wipe. Rose was as always: smiling and a bit removed.

The two women left soon after desert. “It looks like snow, and we should be getting home.”

Relief and regret followed them out the door. The Filions were besotted with Rose all over again, but they mourned that this stranger, this… woman had come between them.

From the doorway, Gabrielle watched them make their way down to the street below, Miss Mulvaney clinging to the railing and Rose clinging to Miss Mulvaney.

Gabrielle had hoped that Rose was finally coming back to them. Instead, Rose had come to say goodbye and to let them know that she was in good hands, Gabrielle could see that now.

And Gabrielle, pious Gabrielle with the bad nerves, who had five children and who was to have two more before her Charles died of a heart attack before he turned 40, wished them a shy, heartfelt Joyeux Noel and closed the door.