A Fictional Account of Family Life, set in Chartley, about a generation ago.
As she had done for the last thirty four years, Mrs. Jeannine St. Germaine stepped onto the porch of her home on South Worcester Street at precisely 11:22PM on a brisk Christmas Eve. She looked at her watch, triple checked for her folder of sheet music, her offertory envelope, and her rosary beads. She adjusted her scarf, pulled on her tight black gloves and set out on the eight minute walk to St. Mary's Church for Midnight Mass (Le Messe de Minuit to her). Her stride in the light snow possessed a dignity and grace befitting her seventy two years.
In years past, there would be more than a dozen members of the St. Germaine family making the trek but this evening only Robert, her eleven year old grandson, would be joining her.
The rest of the family would stay behind to continue preparing the Reveillon feast that would officially begin when Jeannine and Robert returned from Midnight Mass and would continue well into the morning hours. Reveillon was a Christmas Eve tradition that travelled with the St. Germaines for generations from France to Quebec to Rhode Island and now was firmly in place in Chartley. Norton did not possess a large Franco-American community so it was vital that the family work hard to maintain their cultural identity.
Jeannine was a little disappointed that the majority of the family had in recent years opted to attend mass on Christmas Day instead of Midnight Mass. She reluctantly accepted that it was almost impossible for all the work to get done to prepare the celebration properly. She was thankful that everyone was at home for Christmas in Chartley, except her late husband of course. She also cherished the one on one time with her youngest grandchild. Perhaps Robert would be the one to make sure the family traditions were preserved well into the future.
Jeannine St. Germaine was known to all in the St. Mary’s community as the longtime leader of the music program. Her voice was a gift that could have been enjoyed far beyond Norton but she never had professional aspirations. Midnight Mass was always her shining moment and that was enough for her. The full choir would be performing tomorrow on Christmas Day. Midnight Mass was simply Mrs. St. Germaine, the organ, and her magnificent voice.
Her rendition of Silent Night performed in French (Douce Nuit) without any musical accompaniment epitomized Christmas for so many in town, regardless of ethnic background. It reminded those of Irish, Portuguese, and Italian descent of their own Christmas rituals. In a sense, Jeannine St. Germaine’s Douce Nuit was Norton's very own Christmas tradition.
If truth be told, time had been catching up with Mrs. St. Germaine in recent years. She was becoming forgetful and Robert even had to gently remind her from time to time that his name was not Matthew (his father's name). Her voice no longer had the flawless pitch and tone it had when she was a younger woman. Everyone at St. Mary's still cherished her and no one dared to say aloud what their ears heard or eyes saw. To a supportive audience she still sounded perfect.
Robert loved the special privilege of being able to watch Midnight Mass with his grandmother (“Memmay”, as he called her) from up in the choir at the back of the church. It gave him a unique perspective of the service. He got to see all the fancy clothes, the Christmas decorations, and he liked to count the people who dozed off. Memmay always blamed the sleepiness on “too much eggnog before Mass”.
The small white country church was filled to capacity, overfilled actually. Father Hanrahan delivered a moving sermon, Jeannine’s voice was in good form and there was an undeniable energy about the whole service. Perhaps it was due to the light snowfall delivering a much desired White Christmas to the faithful of Norton.
At Communion, Robert headed down the narrow staircase and up the side aisle while his grandmother performed a hymn on the organ, preserving her voice and maybe even building up a little anticipation for her upcoming performance. When Robert returned, Jeannine finished the hymn, carefully descended the stairs and joined the end of the communion line, now much shorter. After receiving, she took the aisle seat reserved for her in the front row of the church and knelt quietly. Up in the choir, Robert pulled the organ bench right to the edge of the railing in anticipation of his grandmother concluding the service with her song.
The mass continued and Father Hanrahan administered the final blessing. Jeannine instinctively made the walk to the lectern as she had so many times before. She cleared her throat and she opened her folder.
Something wasn't right.
Her sheet music wasn't there. Of course she didn’t actually need it but it wasn't there and that was what mattered. She had never sung without it. It was the act of looking at those worn sheets that served as the required trigger to release all of her training and the vocal gifts that God had given her.
Suddenly Jeannine became confused. Not only did she not know how to begin she actually was losing her bearings.
Not comprehending the full extent of her plight, the congregation patiently afforded her time to get organized. They would gladly wait for a moment or two. For many, it was this specific performance that connected the religious ceremony that had just taken place with the family celebration of Christmas to follow throughout the next day.
The sheet music simply was not in the folder and Jeannine St. Germaine was essentially frozen. Seventy two years of memories tumbled through her mind. None of these thoughts provided anything that would enable her to deliver the song to a full church waiting for her to sing.
The delay was beginning to feel uncomfortable. Father Hanrahan did not want to interfere with Jeannine's moment, but he was beginning to worry about his dear friend. The altar boys began to fidget and couples glanced at one another to see if they too felt something wasn’t right.
Jeannine had all but given up. Shoulders down, hands mildly shaking, she began to turn to Father Hanrahan who was at the same time beginning rise from his seated position. The congregation had a collective realization that something was wrong and perhaps they might be witnessing a revered tradition approaching its end.
Then suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, a voice emerged. It was a sound so perfect in tone it cut through all of the accumulated anxiousness. It was a voice of hope and joy.
It did not come from Mrs. St. Germaine. It did not come from the front of the church. It was as though it did not come from within the church at all. In actuality, it lofted down upon everyone from high up in the choir.
Every head in St. Mary’s turned to see where the beautiful sound was coming from. A lone boy, eleven years old, blessed with the same gift bestowed upon his grandmother instinctively came to her aid. His voice was true and pure. His French was perfect. He himself didn’t even know where the strength was coming from. It was just happening.
Douce nuit, sainte nuit !
Dans les cieux ! L'astre luit.
Just as if her sheet music was in her folder all along, Jeannine snapped back to the present. She joined her grandson after the first two lines. Father Hanrahan relaxed his grip, allowed himself to sit deeply, closed his eyes and meditated to the song.
Separated by sixty feet and two generations, grandmother and grandson continued together in perfect harmony:
Le mystère annoncé s'accomplit.
Cet enfant sur la paille endormit,
C'est l'amour infini,
C'est l'amour infini !
Those in attendance were stunned with the beauty that was occurring around them. They all knew they were witnessing something incredibly special, a Christmas moment that could never be properly explained. Wives dabbed at moist eyes and husbands smiled warmly while squeezing the hands of the nearest loved ones.
When they concluded, the St. Germaine’s received a spontaneous ovation from the congregation that actually bordered on boisterous, atypical for this humble country house of worship.
After everyone had gone home and things were put back in order in the choir, Jeannine and Robert St. Germaine walked home together down South Worcester Street as the falling snow laid out a welcoming carpet for them.
At the Reveillon dinner table, their retelling of the story simply stated that the whole problem began when Memmay left her sheet music on the organ up in the choir. Rather than have to walk all the way down the stairs and through the church Robert decided it would be easier to sing a few notes to “give Memmay a jump start to get her going”. After she found her place, he was having so much fun singing with Memmay he just kept on singing.
All the St. Germaines regretted missing the moment and demanded an encore performance. To the delight of everyone, Robert sang his solo over the railing at the top of hallway staircase. Memmay joined in from behind the far side of dining room table singing into the gravy ladle as her microphone. For the second time in a matter of hours, the unlikely pairing brought down the house.
As it turns out, this was indeed the last Christmas that Mrs. St. Germaine performed Silent Night at St. Mary’s. The photographs in the St. Germaine family album capture an incredibly joyous celebration of their final Reveillon with the family’s matriarch in full command of her faculties. Similarly, those who attended Midnight Mass at St. Mary’s that night felt honored to have been a part of something so wonderful.
Most of all, spontaneously singing with his beloved Memmay in a place she loved so much was a memory Robert St. Germaine would cherish for the rest of his life. He honors her memory by carrying on many of her Reveillon traditions with his family to this day.
C'est le fin. (The End)
Thanks for reading this story and best wishes for a joyous holiday season. Merry Christmas.
Post Script - The indoor pictures were taken at the last Mass at the old St. Mary's.
English translation for Douce Nuit.
Sweet night, holy night! (Douce nuit, sainte nuit !)
In the heavens the star shines. (Dans les cieux ! L'astre luit.)
The foretold mystery comes true. (Le mystère annoncé s'accomplit.)
This child sleeping on the hay, (Cet enfant sur la paille endormit,)
Is infinite love, (C'est l'amour infini,)
Is infinite love! (C'est l'amour infini !)