Cécile and Thérèse Ferland had just returned from taking their mother, Laurette, on her annual pilgrimage to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. The mystery of countless miracle healings wrought by the intercession of Brother André to Saint Joseph on behalf of petitioners from all over North America had long since faded for the two sisters after eleven years of escorting their mother to the basilica looming over Côte des neiges. The resplendent city of Montreal, however, with its endless shops and boulangeries filled with exotic pastries made the trip a continuing source of pleasure for the two sisters. The annual pilgrimage included a brief shopping foray for the girls on Boul. Ste Cath. and lunch at Ruby Foo’s Chinese restaurant on Avenue Décarie in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce or “NDG” as the locals called the neighborhood.
Though it embarrassed them acutely, the sisters would watch distractedly as their mother climbed the 283 carpeted stone steps from the parking lot to the basilica high up Mount Royal on her swollen knees. With breaks, the whole ascent took about two hours and most of the time she was lost in a crowd of other pilgrims making the same painful ascent. Her age and periodic “spells” made Cécile and Thérèse uncomfortable leaving her alone to go off and browse through the bins of devotional trinkets offered in the gift shop.
Over the years, Thérèse remained intrigued by what she called the “crutch room,” where the crutches, wheelchairs, and prostheses of healed pilgrims hung by the hundreds from the walls and ceiling. Thousands of devotional candles filled the shadowy room with a paraffin haze and one could often hear the distant strains of an organ in the basilica above. Cécile thought the room was “creepy” and preferred to remain outdoors.
Laurette’s mumbled petitions, either to Brother André who founded the Oratory, or to St Joseph, its patron saint, remained a secret all her long life, although both Cécile and Thérèse suspected that it had to do with the palsy that had wracked their Tante Lucienne’s frail body from early in middle age and the congenital baldness that had embarrassed her as a young girl and ruled out a propitious marriage.
Each year their mother’s ascent made a deeper incursion into their fun time. On this visit, she arrived at the summit well into the lunch hour and, with the help of her daughters, stood up stiffly, regaining her composure. She daubed at her craggy face with a tissue and promptly descended to the parking lot in an elevator to go have lunch at Ruby Foo’s.
Having learned only to “drive tractor,” Laurette repaid her daughters’ indulgence in making the trip by letting them choose, and buying for each, some needed addition to their modest wardrobes, one year a sweater, another year a skirt, a purse, or a particularly well-fashioned blouse. For her daughters, it was the fun part of the trip, along with the endless array of unrecognizable, sugary meat dishes, alien seafood, and exotic vegetables at Ruby Foo’s lunchtime buffet.
After lunch they went straight to Boul. Ste. Cath. where they paused to look in the window of the sprawling Centre de cuir with its cheap mannequins scantily clad with blue- and red-dyed leather mini-skirts, faux buckskins, and rhinestone-festooned motorcycle jackets. Thérèse moved on to the window of a small pet shop next door. It was filled with open-topped pens. One contained three double-toed, angora tiger kittens nestled in fresh wood chips. Another held an over-coiffed, café au lait toy poodle eager to escape. The pen on the far right housed what looked like a black piglet.
Cécile and Thérèse knew pigs. Their father, Laurent, after failing to extract enough milk from his dwindling herd of Guernseys and Jerseys to make his bank payments, had negotiated a six-month truce with Adrian Morris, the president of the Union Savings Bank and Trust Company in Morrisville who had a well known soft spot for farmers, borrowed a hundred dollars from his brother, and gone into pig farming with a renewed sense of purpose. He made enough in his first year to pay Maurice back in full and catch up on all but two of his delinquent bank payments. The key, he soon learned, was to sell litter runts locally as piglets, while he raised the choicer ones to market weight, slaughtering and selling them as finished cuts nicely wrapped with hand-lettered labeling to people in Stowe as “farm-raised pork.” The term “organic” was several decades away in Vermont, although the Ferland Farm of necessity was organic.
The “pig” in the window did not conform to Cécile and Thérèse’s image of a piglet. It was immaculate. Its skin was a dark charcoal gray rather than pinkish and it had little or no bristle, but rather sported a sparse, cosmopolitan down. Its snout was shorter than that of a Yorkshire piglet and its rounded abdomen explained the “pot belly’ on its name card. It was without doubt a pig, though the girls had never imagined pigs as household pets.
Thérèse entered the store and inquired in French of the clerk the price of the pig in the window. The clerk answered as he distractedly dumped an overdose of tropical fish food into a tank of neon tetras. She came back out and gasped, “85 dollars Canadian for that piglet. That’s more than Dad would get for a litter of ten and the sow.”
“If Dad got that for his pigs,” observed Cécile. “We could spend the night in town and shop again tomorrow.”