October 29, 2009
Marie-Noelle has a feminine name for someone who only ever wears practical mens’ outerwear. She is wearing them now as the parents gather their excited children to them like so many whirling autumn leaves. The pre-school Christmas play is over and we are all wishing each other a happy festive season.
Marie-Noelle (Mary-Christmas) has a Christmasy name for someone who isn’t planning to celebrate. She has two small daughters of 3 and 1 and a St. Bernard. She is a single mother and a shepherdess. She takes pride in having sidestepped the mainstream, she treads lightly upon the earth.
Her hair is always clean but seldom cared for. Her daughters are loved and immaculate but always in 3rd or 4th hand clothes. Marie-Noelle has her flock in their winter quarters at her father’s house. Her mother died last spring and she does not get on very well with her father.
I know her father and like him. He is a larger than life man with a good education for people who are native to this part of France. A place of poor soil and hard life prior to the tsunami of tourism. His parents were peasant farmers, he was something big in export and import from the South America. Whatever he was mixed up in landed him in prison for 2 years for a crime it has since been proved he didn’t commit. I don’t know what it was – have only heard vague whisperings about merchandise stuffed with marijuana. Seems unlikely he knew about it.
What is certain is that when her mother was dying he was not there to help. Marie-Noelle has taken her own path and wishes he would just get back on his without any expectation of a family life.
I met her when she was heavily pregnant with her second child. I never saw a father present and she told me that he was a shepherd she had come to an arrangement with. He would give her children and she would let him be and ask nothing of him. He has since stepped so far off the grid that no-one has heard from him in a long while.
Marie-Noelle is a woman who seems to have few possessions but a wealth of calm. I have never seen her ruffled. Once when her second child was in daycare with my daughter she told me that people watched her and knew when her girls were not well and she could not tend her sheep. They seized the moment to steal some of her prize stock. This happened several times, each childhood illness carrying a higher cost than the one before. The chicken pox saw the loss of 4 animals she had counted on selling.
I ask if she has reported it to the police. She shrugs and says no, as if the thefts are part of some intricate plan being revealed to her.
I feel I want to help this woman but know that she has everything she feels she needs. Her children eat healthily and she is a good mother. I see her playing with her girls and she listens to them. Really listens. She has all the time in the world.
I think she is depriving them of something by not introducing them to the magic of Christmas but don’t want to intrude. I see her going to church sometimes but she is against the commercialism of the holiday season and I doubt there will be much in their stocking, or indeed, any stockings at all.
The wind carries a chill and it is time to go but I am somehow reluctant to leave. She does not have a camera so I promise to give her a few unasked-for snaps of her girls and ask her what she plans to do over the holidays. I have a half-formed idea of inviting them over. But would it be fair for the girls to see our Christmas tree and decorations and then go home to nothing?
The dilemma doesn’t arise because she tells me she will be driving up in to the Alps to speak to a farmer about her sheep grazing on his land in the summer. Every year in spring she walks her sheep up to the mountains. It takes her 3 days and 2 nights.
On Christmas day we eat too much and overindulge in every way. We decide to take the girls to the playground to get some fresh air and exercise. I do a doubletake for there on a bench is Marie-Noelle. She looks wonderful.
Her daughters come running to say hello and I notice they are dressed in beautiful clothes. Marie-Noelle is wearing a new coat and warm leather boots. I have never seen them looking so well-dressed and happy.
“Joyeux Noel!” I exclaim and she embraces me.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you, I thought you were going to the mountains?”
“We did!” she says “And the most wonderful thing happened, my van caught fire!”
I stare at her blankly wondering how this calamity could be good news.
“We were almost as high as we were going when Mathilde told me she could see fire!”
I raced through all the unthinkables that could have befallen them if she had been asleep.
“I had just enough time to jump out the car, unstrap the girls and run into a field when the whole thing went up” she continued
“It contained everything I owned”.
She says this with no regret. A statement.
“But that’s awful” I say, finally seeing a way I can rush to her aid.
“Well no” she says as if still telling herself the story.
“We walked up the track and came to a chalet. It was dark already and very cold.”
“Mathilde and I walked through the snow and I carried the baby on my back.”
“The house was a traditional wooden chalet and there were lights in all the windows.”
I could picture the scene straight off a postcard but had more difficulty imagining what kind of a reception they would receive.
“We could hear music and and an elderly couple were decorating a Christmas tree”.
“We knocked on the door and a woman opened it”.
“What did she look like?” I ask.
“Very chic looking with short-cropped gray hair. Bon-chic, bon genre from Paris”
I thought about this description used about people who wore Hermes silk and handmade shirts. Usually it is derogatory but here it was just the most economical description she could think of.
“Of course she hurried us inside after the slightest pause, as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing”.
“I told them what had happened and her husband called the pompiers to put the fire out”.
“They were so kind, those people”.
“We ate dinner with them and settled the girls down to sleep for the night.”
“What about your van?”
“Once the girls were sleeping I walked out with the man just as the pompiers were finishing up. It was just a burned out wreck. It made me cry to see it.”
I waited for her to go on, thinking of nothing I could say.
“I cried so much. More tears than the ones for my old van and all my things. They were old anyway my things. Only things.”
“The man put his arm around me and walked me back to the house. I was embarrassed but I couldn’t stop crying. The man looked at the woman with words he wasn’t saying”.
I wondered what those words could be.
“Bang goes our cosy Christmas eve!” or
“Oh My God”.
“I said I was tired and went to bed. The sheets were expensive and the bed was so comfortable. I had eaten a lovely warm meal and but I couldn’t fall asleep. I don’t like to worry but I knew I would have to call my father in the morning.”
“The next morning was Christmas morning. The snow was pristine and my puffy eyes hurt to look at it. I didn’t want to look at the people either. I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me. I was embarrassed to be there on Christmas day.”
“They seemed to be in good spirits, they laughed and played with the girls. The woman had lost the sad lines under her eyes.”
“I called my father but I couldn’t speak. I just managed to ask him to come and fetch us and then the man took over and gave directions when he saw I couldn’t speak anymore”.
“The wife looked like she was hugging a secret to her and her husband kept looking at her to tell her not to spill it.”
“My father arrived 2 hours later. It felt strange to need someone to help me and good that he was there. I didn’t say much to him though.”
“I saw him speaking to the man but don’t know what they were saying because the woman wanted to tell me the thing that she had been holding to herself.”
“We have a daughter” she said
“And two granddaughters, the same age as your girls”.
I waited for her to go on.
“They live in Australia, we don’t see much of them”.
“I told her I hoped she would see them soon”.
“That is just it” she said.
“They were supposed to arrive last night in time for Christmas today but we heard, just before you arrived, that there is a strike and they will only be arriving tomorrow night”.
I could see that this had her puzzled. Why should this have been relevant.
“We left just after that.”
“When we arrived home we went inside for Christmas lunch. My grandmother had cooked and it was just as I remembered it as a little girl.”
“We ate our meal and I missed my mother but it was ok.”
I was so pleased that she had ended up with her family for Christmas after all.
“After lunch my father went out to the car and came back with a large bag. It was full of presents.”
“The people from the chalet had sent all the presents they had bought for their daughter and granddaughters.”
“It has been my best Christmas ever” she said.