Boarding School Blues: Chapter 25
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 25: The Food Fairy
“Venez, entrez! Come on in!” Ma Tante Lucie’s squeaky voice called out to her Pied Piper husband who immediately led four smiling children into the tiny house. A description of London’s pea soup fog came to Blanche’s mind as they crossed the threshold, one from a novel she was studying in English class: “Fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.” * She thought of Charles Dickens’s picture of blanketing black haze during “November implacable weather” and the absurdity of comparing Nashua on a clear, crisp Thanksgiving afternoon to dirty, sooty London. “Why am I thinking of ‘Bleak House’ right now. What’s wrong with me? I must have a studying OD. Hope I at least aced the English lit quiz. Boy, I can’t seem to get SFA outa my mind! It’s fogging it up big time!”
A moist cloud of aromas enveloped her and immediately made her mouth water. In the now overcrowded kitchen, the air was so heavy with heady aromas that it was almost opaque. Antoine gleefully shouted. “The Food Fairy is here! She was Ma Tante Lucie’s sidekick to cook Thanksgiving dinner. Hoorah for the Food Fairy! I can see her in the smoke coming outa the oven. Look!”
“Qu’est-ce que tu racontes mon garçon? Oh oui, la Fée du Bon Manger? What are you talking about my boy? Oh yes, the Good Food Fairy? She’s been here by my side for a week. Don’t you scare her away now. She’s lurking in the corner of the oven waiting to watch us enjoy our meal and we mustn’t forget to thank her, after saying grace of course. Here, I’ll let you have a peek at her.” Tante Lucie opened the oven door to release a long plume of vapor so intoxicating that the adults joined in to cheer “Bienvenue! Welcome Food Fairy!”.
“This young man certainly has a fertile imagination. And he is so full of fun that we can’t help but go along with his stories.” Tante Lucie patted Antoine on the head, mussing the cowlicks that Maman had tried so hard to tame with Papa’s Brylcreem. Then she flashed her imperfect smile.
“You’re not wearing that bridge thing in your mouth today Ma Tante? Anyway, you look beautiful even with a couple of holes in your mouth. Did you eat too much candy when you were a kid? Maman says that if you don’t brush long enough your teeth fall out. Is that what happened to you?”
Papa took on his medical professional’s demeanour and came to the rescue. “Antoine, Tante Lucie did not neglect her dental hygiene. You know there are physical conditions which can cause bone loss and this affects teeth. That is not your concern and today is a day for gratitude and kindness so this discussion is closed. But first you must apologize to Ma Tante. Your comments were disrespectful and hurtful. Vas-y tout de suite; go ahead, right now.”
“Pardon Ma Tante. I’m sorry. I didn’t wanna be mean. You’re always beautiful no matter what and we love you and Mon Oncle Freddie beaucoup beaucoup.” Antoine threw himself towards Tante Lucie with a football tackle which almost knocked her over. Her short stout legs resisted and so did her imperfect smile. “Antoine mon grand. Pas de problème. Antoine my big boy. No problem. I also love you beaucoup beaucoup. And now, let’s eat. The Food Fairy wants to see if we’re happy with her culinary concoctions.”
Blanche watched the scene in silence. Both Byron and Maggie had taken her hand as if to protect themselves from a looming storm. But no quarrel erupted. Everyone was ready to start on the feast. Blanche noticed that Maman had inched over to a corner of the kitchen and had grown pale. She knew that her mother was on tenterhooks during these gatherings because Papa’s family was always quick to rate her maternal competence.
Two tables were set. A solid pine wedding gift for Tante Lucie, handcrafted by her husband’s cabinetmaker brother, swallowed up most of the space. The adults would squeeze into their sculpted chairs with caution to avoid rubbing against the hot stove. The kids, quite happy to be separated from the adults, had a folding card table far from the Food Fairy’s lair. Blanche remembered how, during a previous celebration, Antoine had burned his hand as he tried to grab a simmering saucepan. At least that casualty could be avoided this time.
Tante Lucie had taken out her best for the occasion, a set of white ovenware plates decorated with a sprig of dainty turquoise flowers. She liked the cups because they were bright turquoise inside. Mismatched and chipped “everyday” plates for the children would not diminish their dining pleasure. A centrepiece decorated both tables – pint-sized cornucopia baskets stuffed with tiny red, orange and gold leaves Tante Lucie had cut out of Kraft paper. A couple of dried elephant grass sprigs completed the look.
Papa’s spinster sisters, Gertrude and Albina, female equivalents of Laurel and Hardy, left the adjacent TV room to join the crew in the kitchen. “Bonjour tout le monde! Hello everybody! Aren’t you kids going to give us a big hug for Thanksgiving?” Blanche found Tante Gertrude’s voice awfully loud as she approached holding a tall glass of golden liquid. She told herself “if that’s apple cider, I’m gonna to ask Ma Tante Lucie for some. The only juice we get at SFA is watery orange at breakfast. Drew’s Farm cider is the best.” Blanche went to give Tante Gertrude a hug and discovered that whatever was in the glass sure didn’t smell like cider.
“Bonjour Ma Tante Gertrude, happy Thanksgiving” Blanche said. The hug was botched when her aunt swiveled to the side to protect the contents of her glass.
“Careful!” Tante Gertrude shouted, “you don’t want me to spill my Highball do you? Would you like a sip? How old are you now? Sixteen? That’s old enough I guess.” She turned to her brother Urbain for approval.
“Merci Gertrude, it’s nice of you to offer. Blanche is a little over thirteen and a half and is very mature for her age. That’s probably why you thought she was older. She’s the best big sister around and a sip of your cocktail wouldn’t do her any harm but I really think she prefers apple cider. Am I right Blanche?”
Blanche was convinced that mind-reading was part of her father’s medical skills. “Papa, you have ESP because I was just thinking about that. Oui s’il vous plaît, I’d love cider.”
Blanche saw that Tante Gertrude, looking a bit confused, was about to say something but took a long sip from her glass instead. Visions from the past popped into Blanche’s head – the time when Gertrude spilled hot coffee on Maman’s Brussels lace tablecloth. Unrepentant, she had brushed the incident off by explaining that displaying “fancy things” was foolhardy with four children around. Blanche remembered how her mother’s olive complexion had turned beet red. Maman had not uttered a word at the time but later, during the washing up, she had stated – “Silence is golden.” Her words echoed in Blanche’s ears. “Sometimes refraining from commenting, even if we have something reasonable to say, is more eloquent than initiating a pointless discussion.” As memories flashed through her mind, a pang grabbed Blanche’s stomach. “I guess I’m hungry” she reasoned.
Tante Gertrude’s remark removed Blanche from her rumination. “OK. No whiskey for a thirteen-year-old. You’re right, my brother the doctor. No problem. It won’t be hard for me to drink the whole thing myself and, since it’s Thanksgiving, I’ll have another. Pourquoi pas?” Tante’s eyes shone bright as she lifted the glass to her lips again.
“Ma grande soeur sure likes her Highballs” Albina explained. “Here, have mine Trudie. It’s too strong for me. I think I’ll join Blanche for a glass of cider.”
Lucie called out to her sisters “OK. Trudie et Albina, help me place this food on the countertop please? Family style today. It’ll be easier and we’re sure to eat warm. I don’t care for cold turkey. Venez, come on.”
Maman, who hadn’t left her corner since Antoine’s dental comments, offered to help. “What can I do? Everything looks so wonderful. Mon dou, oh my, I’ve forgotten my French apple tarte. And Antoine, I had asked you to hold a package for Ma Tante Lucie. What did you do with it? Left it in the car?” Antoine’s shrug indicated a “yes” and Maman headed out. She came back with a small box in one hand and the pie firmly placed in the palm of the other.
“Pour toi Lucie.” Maman handed the hostess her gift.
“Oh merci Estelle. I love talcum powder after my bath and Jean Naté is my favorite. But the pie looks pretty skimpy for ten people doesn’t it? No matter. Sweets are my specialty. We’ll have plenty to eat. If we don’t settle down, the food will be icy. OK kids – all of you are my kids today – let’s say grace. Urbain, you’re the doctor and you’re the head of the Rejean family so go ahead.
Papa turned to Oncle Freddie, “Fred, you’re the king of 21 Linwood and the Food Fairy is your tenant so it’s only normal for you to start.”
Oncle Freddie stretched his six-foot five-inch frame and solemnly initiated a traditional French-Canadian prayer. “Bénissez-nous, oh mon Dieu, ainsi que la nourriture que nous allons prendre. Bless us O God, as well as the food which we are about to take.” He turned to Papa who continued, “et donnez-en à ceux qui n’en ont pas. And give some to those who have none. And now would anyone like to add something to the Thanksgiving prayer? Gertrude, you’re the eldest here; you start.”
Tante Gertrude cleared her throat as if to wake up from a daze. “Merci pour cette journée d’Action de Grâce. hanks for this day of Thanksgiving. That’s all I have to say.”
Tante Albina added, “Merci that we are all gathered here today and special thoughts for those who are far away – our beloved father Pépère Rejean, our brother and sisters Maurice, Claudine and Clara.”
Tante Lucie continued, “Merci Gertrude and Albina for helping me set this lovely table and merci Freddie for getting the biggest turkey at the local farm.”
All eyes turned to Maman back in the corner. “Merci to our gracious hosts, Lucie and Freddie, to Gertrude and Albina, to mon mari, my husband Urbain. Merci also to the children for their good behavior and hard work at school, especially Blanche who is away from home. And perhaps the children have something to add?”
Tante Gertrude snapped. “The children are just that – children. They have nothing to say. It’s very dangerous to start putting them in the limelight Estelle. If I were their mother, I wouldn’t do anything to swell their heads. They must remember who has authority. These new-fangled ways of letting children put in their two cents will come to no good!”
Blanche noticed Tante Gertrude’s flushed face. No riposte came from Maman as Papa gently placed his hand on her shoulder and lead her to a seat. With his soothing baritone he added “Le Bon Dieu knows everything and He sees that we are all very thankful to be together today. I’m sure He doesn’t want us to have a cold meal. So let’s sit down.”
Everyone’s eyes turned to the Roman banquet of a spread. Covering every inch of countertop were buttery whipped potatoes, pureed squash, mashed turnip and carrots, green beans with bacon bits, herbed bread stuffing, oyster stuffing, French-Canadian-style ground pork stuffing, warm Parker rolls, pecan swirls, cornbread.
“Did you make corn fritters with maple syrup Ma Tante?” Antoine’s eyes were as large as his appetite. “Last time we all went to Green Ridge Turkey Farm you said you would ask the waitress for the recipe and make some for us, remember?”
“Oui mon garçon, comin’ right up!” chirped Lucie. “Here you go.”
Gertrude, whose face had turned a darker shade of crimson, added “It’s not very polite to ask the hostess for more food especially when there’s so much already mon garçon.”
Maman grew so pale that Blanche thought her friend Andy would call her PF Mom if she saw her. Evidently, the “silence is golden” technique didn’t prevent physical reactions.
Oncle Freddie broke the tension as he hoisted a golden, glistening turkey from the oven to the stovetop. The task made the red and blue tatoos on his biceps bulge. “Hey everyone, take a look at the Food Fairy dancing around this big bird. The adults will take their plates and help themselves with the veggies and bread as Urbain carves the meat. You’re an artist with a scalpel I hear, Doctor, so this should be a cinch, right?”
Maggie, unusually still since she set foot into the house, asked “What’s a scalpel? May I have a corn fritter and a pecan roll and potatoes but no green beans and a little white meat with gravy on top of everything please?”
“You and your siblings will wait until the adults have been served” snapped Gertrude.
Albina looked a bit nervous as she said “Here Trudie, give me your plate. I know what you like and I’ll serve you, OK? How about a nice drumstick?”
“Merci Albina. I want to sample everything. This Highball has sharpened my appetite.” Gertrude plopped down into a chair and waited for her plate to be filled.
Papa served his big sister. “Here Trudie, a nice slice of drumstick. The gravy is on the table.” Gertrude immediately dug in without asking for another cocktail.
“Oh my! Where is my head?” blurted Lucie. “I’ve forgotten the egg nog. It’s not homemade but I know you kids like the Hoods kind, right? Would you like a glass, mes enfants, or do you prefer cider?
“Oh oui! Merci Ma Tante Lucie!” the four children shouted in unison.
“And I want both” Antoine added.
Few words were spoken besides “c’est très bon” as the ten diners cleaned their heaping plates.
* Chapter one of Oxford World’s Classics edition of “Bleak House”.
* * * * *
Read Chapter 3: Readying
Read Chapter 4: Au revoir!
Read Chapter 5: Arrival
Read Chapter 6: Settling In
Read Chapter 7: Beginning to Belong
Read Chapter 8: Quick Showers
Read Chapter 9: Inside & Outside Study Hall
Read Chapter 10: Math Manoeuvres
Read Chapter 11: Cinephiles
Read Chapter 12: Camera, Action, Lights
Read Chapter 13: Reconnecting
Read Chapter 14: Back to the Fold
Read Chapter 15: In the Night
Read Chapter 16: Parlez-vous?
Read Chapter 17: On the Agenda
Read Chapter 18: Dress up, sit up, chin up
Read Chapter 19: Post Conference Assessment
Read Chapter 20: Orderliness
Read Chapter 21: Inspection
Read Chapter 22: The Inner Sanctum
Read Chapter 23: Going Home
Read Chapter 24: Merci Mon Oncle