Boarding School Blues: Chapter 51
By Louise Peloquin
Ch. 51: We all fall down
The next couple of days slipped by without any holiday fuss. Papa’s convalescence deterred most family members from dropping by at Christmas, despite the invitation to sample home-made egg nog. Ready for holiday-treat-craving tummies, gallons of Maman’s delightfully-rich concoction sat waiting outside on the porch, chilling in a lobster pot.
Antoine didn’t grumble when he guzzled the creamy nectar, topped with a generous dollop of whipped heavy cream. Besides, since becoming Maman’s Messe de Minuit escort, he had retracted the “half-of-a-celebration” crack. Furthermore, the blue fiberglass fishing pole, waiting for him under the tree, made any holiday fault-finding impossible.
“This is the best Christmas ever! Now I have a real fishing pole and I never have to use that lousy plastic thing with a fake hook for stupid kibbies (1). Now I’ll catch bass and barbottes (2). I can’t wait to use it and I’m gonna tell Mon Oncle Freddie to bring me ice fishing. We’ll pack a fluffernutter and hot chocolate picnic so we don’t get cold.”
Blanche tried to temper her brother’s enthusiasm. “I think that pole is for warm-weather use. Remember how you caught three big barbottes last summer and Maman fried them in butter? So good! How about going outside to make a snowman. That’s a lot of fun too.”
Antoine’s creased brow indicated displeasure but he didn’t contradict his sister. “OK, OK. I guess we can’t go ice fishing today. Yeah, I remember when Maman fixed those barbottes. She didn’t even get grossed out when she ripped out the guts and cut the heads off. Boy, is she tough. She coulda been a Pennacook, don’t you think Blanche? Yeah, let’s go outside. I bet I can beat you in a snowball fight. I never miss my target, hardly never anyway.”
Taking advantage of Antoine’s good mood and of her younger siblings’ eagerness to try out le Père Noël’s gift of little red plastic toboggans, Blanche headed to the dining room where her parents were enjoying the egg nog with Mon Oncle Laurent, Maman’s brother, and his wife Ma Tante Dora.
“We’re going outside for a while, OK?” Blanche announced. “Les petits want to try out their toboggans and we’ll build a snowman.”
“Oui, ça va; yes, that’s all right” Maman replied. “But no snowball fights. They always end up with someone hurt. Remember how Mitch across the street got an ice ball in the face last year and ended up with an eye patch? We don’t want that. Quite enough visits to the hospital for awhile.”
Blanche nodded in agreement. “Merci Maman. Merci Papa. Enjoy your egg nog Ma Tante et Mon Oncle.”
Blanche was leaving the room when her uncle addressed her. “It’s supposed to snow tonight, just enough to add a fresh layer to the ground. I was thinking, Skyfields in Groton has a pretty nice hill and a new rope tow. Would you and Antoine like to try skiing? Byron and Marguerite can toboggan. Your cousins Aimée and Maurice will come too, of course. We’ll bring snacks and hot chocolate and make a day of it. How does that sound?”
Blanche was always open to new experiences. “That’s sounds great Mon Oncle. It’d be wonderful to spend time with Aimée and Maurice especially since we haven’t seen them in awhile. We don’t have any ski equipment though.”
Laurent always had an answer. “I thought of everything ma Blanche. I’ve got wooden skis for you and Antoine to strap to your boots, just fine for testing the sport. As for getting up the hill, the tow is very simple. All you have to do is grab on and the rope pulls you up. Pas de problème; no sweat. Easy as pie, easy as taking a gulp of this delicious egg nog. Tu vas voir; you’ll see.”
Blanche had nothing to say but “merci Mon Oncle” and the ski outing was on the agenda.
The next morning, a couple of inches of poudrerie, light powdery snow, blanketed Lowell and its vicinity. At ten o’clock, Mon Oncle Laurent, Ma Tante Dora and their two children arrived in their black Chevy to collect Antoine and Blanche.
Maman decided to keep the little ones home because both had developed the sniffles, probably from all the snowballs stuffed into their snowsuits the previous day. Their grumpiness about missing the outing disappeared when Ma Tante Dora gave them their very own thermos of hot chocolate. Although she maintained that it was “just milk and a splash of cream heated with a few spoonfuls of cocoa”, no one else managed to whip up the same dark brown, syrupy nectar. Even Maman admitted that Dora’s chocolat chaud (3) was fit for “le Paradis d’hiver des anges.” (4)
Blanche and Antoine hopped into the back seat of the Chevy, happy to see cousins Aimée and Maurice and eager to spend the day outside. It was one of those cloudless New England winter days when the sun’s bright rays make one forget the sub-zero temperatures.
“Il fait ben ben frette mais on a le sang épais et on est capable d’endurer ça, pareil comme nos ancêtres canayens, hein les enfants?” (5) affirmed Mon Oncle Laurent as he drove out of town.
Blanche was sitting next to Aimée, her favorite cousin. A unique bond linked the two girls. Aimée was only two years older and both were April babies. So, each year, Ma Tante Dora organized their special birthday feast – spaghetti with home-made sauce and meatballs, freshly-squeezed lemonade followed by a light-as-a-cloud, angel food cake topped with its crown of tiny multicolored candles. Ma Tante Dora thrived in her old Victorian Mammoth Road home, always expertly juggling her multiple jobs as spouse, mother, housekeeper, aunt, friend and hostess to the neighborhood’s youngsters.
Antoine and Maurice, aka “Momo”, were constant rivals who never missed an opportunity to compete. Summer lakeside rock-skipping contests or winter backyard snowball fights were epic. With that in mind, Blanche hoped the day’s initiation to skiing wouldn’t turn sour.
As soon as the Chevy pulled into the Skyfields parking lot, already half full of snow-dusted cars and pickup trucks, the cousins hurried out. Evaluating the challenges ahead, a cocky-looking Momo affirmed “That hill? No sweat. Not very steep. I don’t even need that stupid rope tow. I can just walk up.”
“Yeah but doesn’t the rope get us up faster? Besides, we can slide down the hill more times. Didn’t think of that, did ya Momo?” Antoine observed.
Knowing her brother’s penchant for verbal jousting, Blanche decided to nip any discussion in the bud by interjecting “guys, we can do whatever we want; no big deal.”
Aimée laughed as she helped her father remove the skis from the trunk. Blanche noticed the proper bindings on two of the pairs while the others had nailed-on leather straps. She asked her cousin “Have you and Momo already skied? Those skis have real equipment. And you have special boots, right? That’s cool. So you’ve been here before? How come you didn’t tell us? Anyway, that’s great. You can teach us the right moves. I’m so excited! This’ll be as much fun as swimming at the lake and going on adventures in the woods, like we’re Pennacooks. I wonder how they got around in deep snow? Did they have skis or something?”
Aimée guessed. “I think they had their own snow shoe things to walk in the woods. That makes sense, right? But here, help me get the poles out of the car, will ya Blanche?”
The girls laid the skis and poles on the icy gravel while Ma Tante Dora filled paper cups with hot chocolate while announcing “you need energy before tackling the challenges ahead, a little bit of warm sweetness before sliding away into the winter wonderland.”
“A-Ha! A-Ha! Ho! Ho! A-Ha! Yes Dora, they’ll need all the energy they can get.” Laurent had that kind of belly laugh which made even the grumpiest of curmudgeons smile. In a split second, everyone’s giggles and hoo-has echoed in the crisp air.
Antoine, first to down his cup, let out a hoot which sprinkled the nearby snowbank with a mouthful of hot chocolate. The liquid left a trail of vapor in its wake before hitting the ground.
Mon Oncle Laurent, still chuckling, announced “OK les jeunes (6), let’s get the show on the road. Blanche and Antoine, strap your boots to the skis like so.”
The clear demonstration was followed by a quick execution. Both Antoine and Blanche stood straight on their skis while their cousins were effortlessly heading towards the rope tow.
Laurent’s instructions continued. “See how Aimée and Momo are moving along? It’s like skating except you don’t lift your feet. Just let your skis slip along. Small slides to start. Be sure to feel the ground below. Don’t try to go too fast right away. Keep your back straight. Don’t look down. If necessary, use your poles for balance. If you think you’re about to tumble, fall on your bottom and not towards the front. The padding back there will prevent you from hurting yourself. Off you go.”
Aimée and Maurice, waiting at the foot of the rope tow, watched as their inexperienced cousins inched closer and closer. Blanche concentrated on her posture. Several successful short slides gave her enough confidence to attempt longer ones. “Yup, Mon Oncle Laurent is right” she told herself. “This is like skating. I’m not gonna fall.” She waved to her cousins and turned to check on her brother.
Ignoring Mon Oncle’s advice, Antoine was using his own method of propulsion, planting the poles into the ground to thrust forward. The technique worked. However, just as he reached his sister, a patch of sharp pebbles halted his impetus. Forgetting previous instructions, he leaned forward. His bare hands broke the fall. An inch lower and he would have kissed the ground. Unable to react quickly enough to help, Blanche recognized her brother’s stoicism when he refrained from crying out in pain.
“Are you all right Antoine? Did you hurt yourself? Here, let me help you up.”
She managed to slide backwards and reached out to heave him up, ignoring the thin patch of ice under her skis. “Here, take my hands and I’ll lift you. Try to stand up. One, two, three, go!”
A Buddha-faced Antoine did as he was told. Blanche grabbed him and was immediately pulled down.
Momo hollered “What are you up to? We’re not out here to do push-ups in the snow! Boy, if you guys can’t even get outa the parkin’ lot we’re not gonna get much skiing done today.”
Blanche saw her brother’s eyes flash and whispered “forget about him, we’re gonna get up and do this.”
Laurent immediately reprimanded his provocative son. “C’est assez Maurice; That’s enough! The exact same thing happened the first time you put on a pair of skis so no comments from the peanut gallery, t’as compris, understood?”
He went to Antoine and Blanche, lifted them and, with arms locked, lead them to the base of the hill. “Keep in mind. It’s like skating. Back straight, eyes ahead, stay flexible, not stiff. Move your legs. Don’t just push with the poles. Feel the ground underneath. Where are your gloves Antoine. Without them, your fingers will turn into icicles.”
Antoine’s blank stare indicated that he had forgotten his mittens at home. Laurent let out a vibrant shout. “Dora!” Before he could continue, his wife waved a pair of gloves in the frigid air. “Coming right up. Once a scout, always a scout, always prepared.”
Antoine and his sister reached the rope tow without further mishap. In the meantime, Aimée and Maurice had decided to enjoy a first run. Blanche watched them gently slide, through the poudrerie, in large circles down the hill, with skis pointed v-shape. She turned to her brother “that’ll be us by the end of the day, Antoine. Momo and Aimée had a head start because they’ve done this before but we’ll catch up, you’ll see. I’ll bet they fell a few times too, a lotta times even. Falling is no big deal. We just get up and try again. You and me Antoine, we get up and try again.”
Maurice glided towards his rattled cousins and apologized. “I didn’t wanna hurt your feelings guys. My Papa didn’t tell you about the only bad part of skiing – all the times you wipe out at first. It don’t matter. We all fall down.” He broke out in song.
Ring-a-round the Rosie.
A pocket full of posies.
We all fall down!
“Falling can be part of the fun” Momo added. “You’re right Antoine, takes too long to walk up the hill and you get less skiing in so, rope tow, here we come!”
The experienced cousins spent the day coaching the perseverant neophytes. After a series of slips, falls, collisions, knocks, impacts and pile-ups, hot-chocolate-fueled Blanche and Antoine managed to vanquish the dreaded snake of a rope tow and conquer the Skyfields Everest. Their first uninterrupted run down the little hill was an enchantment.
When the resplendent rays of the setting orange sun painted the hill in shades of muted peach, red-cheeked Antoine pleaded between chattering teeth “Can you bring us skiing again Mon Oncle, s’il vous plaît? This is the best Christmas vacation ever!”
3) Hot chocolate.
4) The angels’ winter paradise.
5) It’s very very cold but we have thick blood and we can take it, just like our Canadian ancestors, right kids?
6) Young people.
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
Read Chapter 25: The Food Fairy
Read Chapter 26: Bon appetit!
Read Chapter 27: Friends
Read Chapter 28: A Grocery Stop
Read Chapter 29: Tempus Fugit
Read Chapter 30: The Chapel
Read Chapter 31: A Nice Kind of Weird
Read Chapter 32: Mnemonic Device
Read Chapter 33: Cuisses de grenouille
Read Chapter 34: Run along now
Read Chapter 35: Consequences of playing hooky
Read Chapter 36: Good Vibes
Read Chapter 37: Never too many, never too much
Read chapter 38: Dust Bunnies
Read Chapter 39: I’m into something good
Read Chapter 40: Wistful and Admiring
Read Chapter 41: “Anywhere Out of the World”
Read Chapter 42: “If you really want to hear about it”
Read Chapter 43: “Why don’t they go and create something”
Read Chapter 44: Squiggles, snowmen and angels
Read Chapter 45: A Measure of Mirth
Read Chapter 46: Advienne que pourra
Read Chapter 47: Smile upon our joys
Read Chapter 48: “Venez, venez, venez!”
Read Chapter 49: “C’est si bon”
Read Chapter 50: Naughty or nice