Cécile, or Cece as her family and friends called her, was five and a half years old. Although her parents had been trying for some time, Cece was still an only child.
Like many people of Quebecois descent, her dad, Denis, felt strongly that a larger family boded well for the raising of resilient, independent children and also provided a continuum of farm labor in one’s old age. Denis, however, had been raised on a farm and the workday that started at 4:30 in the morning with milking and ended fourteen hours later after a sedative meal of pork, gravy, biscuits and a pipeful of Prince Albert had led him to prefer the ten-hour day his farm equipment-repair business offered.
Cece loved hanging out in her dad’s shop and watching him take apart the massive machines, tinker with their parts and reassemble them to fire up the tractor or haylift, side rake, tedder, or cutter bar and return it to its owner. The problem-plagued hay baler would debut a few years later.
Cece also liked working with her mom, Thérèse, in the compact kitchen with its cast-iron sink and toasty wood cook stove, or “poule” as her mom called it, but only on days when she baked. The more mundane chores of preparing meals, setting and clearing tables, washing, drying and putting away dishes held no appeal.
Thérèse had taught her daughter to read, and Cece loved to paw through the trunk of children’s books that her Tante Laurette, an Ursuline nun from Quebec, had left her when she died. Cece looked forward to starting school the next year so she could get her library card and find more books.
Carefully ironed and folded in the very bottom of the leather trunk was Tante Laurette’s black nun’s habit, veil and white wimple. It had never been moved from its place in the trunk and all Cece’s books smelled of the mothballs that lay around the habit. Cece had seen old photos of Tante Laurette but had never met her, as she had died the year before Cece was born.
In late September, the repair business slowed as the nearby farmers were all in their fields gathering second cuttings and getting them in the barn before October rain and early snow began.
Since Cece’s birth, a few months after their marriage at the local Catholic Church, Denis and Thérèse had never had a honeymoon or vacation other than the occasional trip to Burlington to see shops and marvel at all they displayed.
On the table next to the door for as long as Cece could remember there lay a leaflet about the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. The imposing size of the massive hotel with its countless spires looked to Cece like the medieval castles that often appeared in her books.
One night at dinner Denis suggested to Thérèse that they drive up to Quebec City for a few days rest before the winter set in and his business resumed its hectic pace.
Thérèse smiled at the idea, but said they could ill afford to stay in such luxury. Denis surprised her and said he had found a small auberge near the river that was much less expensive and had reserved a room for them for three nights.
Cece was delighted with the news and rushed over and gave her dad a hug.
“I am sorry Cece, but we can’t take you this time. It’s too expensive and you’re really too young to fully enjoy the city. Perhaps in a few years we can all go. This time it will be just your mom and me and we’ll be gone for four days. You’ll stay with Mémère and Pépère in Elmore until we get home. You’ll be starting school shortly after. They miss you and you’ll have a good time with them on the old farm. Remember Chalante, their old Percheron. You can ride her while you’re there. You’ll have a good time.
“No.” yelled Cece, “I’m not staying here. I’m going with you!”
“Not this time,” Denis answered gently, used to his daughter’s assertiveness, “Mom and I will get away for a bit and you’ll have a good time with Mémère and Pépère. I know you will.”
“No,” sobbed Cece and ran up the stairs to her room.
Denis and Thérèse heard her door slam and her fists beating the feather mattress on her plank bed.
“She’ll get over it,” Thérèse said, though with little conviction.
“She’ll have to,” said Denis under his breath between draws on his pipe.
* * *
Cece was dropped off at her grandparents’ farm and, like her Tante Laurette, had sworn herself to silence. Still seething inside, she wasn’t giving anyone the opportunity to try and make her feel better about the injustice that her parents had done to her. Her Pépère knew of her affection for Chalante and took her riding in the pasture but Cece maintained a disciplined silence as her grandfather pointed out early signs of winter in the landscape. On their return to the stable, he bent over and picked up a woolly bear caterpillar.
“Looks like it’s going to be a hellaceous winter from the looks of this little critter,” Pépère said to his granddaughter, knowing that curiosity about the small critter would overwhelm her moody silence. Usually, she was a fountain of questions whenever they went into the pasture together looking for a lost or confused heifer in the evening after the others had all returned for milking.
“How can you tell?” Cece asked.
“See the small patch of orange in the middle of his coat? That’s a warning that we’ll see a hard winter. If there’s more orange and less black, it’ll be a mild winter. All that black on his coat don’t bode well for this winter.”
As Pépère lifted off the saddle and led Chalante into her generous box stall, Cece picked up the small caterpillar and looked carefully at it, turning it over and then placing it carefully back on the ground out of the way of footfalls.
Expecting the usual pouting silence that night at dinner, Mémère asked Cece what had led her parents to decide to go to Quebec City. To her surprise, Cece answered immediately without looking up from her food.
“They’re breaking up and wanted to get away from me so they could talk about it.”
Both her grandparents looked up from their plates in surprise at Cece’s blunt response.
“What do you mean?” answered Mémère, surprised.
“Just what I said,” answered Cece. “Mom and Dad are going to separate and leave me alone. I suppose that’s why they brought me here.”
“That’s nonsense,” said Pépère. “They love each other, and they love you. They’ve never talked about any trouble in their marriage before. Where did you hear this?”
“I hear them arguing at night in the parlor. Mom came home early one afternoon when she’d been visiting her friend Flora and caught Dad in front of the mirror all dressed up in Tante Laurette’s nun’s dress. She screamed and Dad hurried into the bathroom and slammed the door. She said he’d rouged his cheeks and put lipstick on.”
“Foolishness… my daughter never uses makeup. I raised her and I outta know,” huffed Mémère.
“I don’t know where he got it, but I heard her clear. Maybe he was hiding it,” Cece insisted.
“You’re making this up!”
“No,” shouted Cece, “I heard ʼem clear as day. Ma was crying and Dad was silent.”
“The next morning, no one said anything at breakfast. Mom looked angry and dad left early for work. I could still see the rouge on his cheeks. I looked in their closet and Tante Laurette’s nun’s clothes were hanging there. I’d seen it was gone from my book trunk for a long time. Look for yourself!”
With this outburst, Cece left the table and went to her room leaving her grandparents in stunned silence.
“We’ve gotta get to the bottom of this,” Cece’s grandmother said, breaking the long silence. “Denis has always seemed like a normal young man, always treated our daughter with respect; never anything weird like that. You don’t suppose this is why they haven’t had another child? They’re certainly capable of it. Cece proves that! You think he’s like that? My uncle used to know an old fiddler who used to dress up in women’s clothes and parade around town… shameless he was. We need to know what in God’s name is going on in that family. This is not good for Cece or for any of us.”
Cece’s grandfather puffed quietly on his pipe; his wrinkled face drawn up in evident concern.
“When they gettin’ home again?”
“Next Tuesday. Stayin’ for the long weekend and driving home Tuesday. It’s about five hours, should be home by midafternoon. For Cece’s sake and for the whole family we need to get to the bottom of this. Check with Cece when I go to work and make sure what she heard is accurate. I doubt she coulda made up something as strange as that. Denis seemed normal to me when he came to ask us for Thérèse’s hand in marriage six years ago, hard worker and good provider. This will be the end of him and his business if word gets out.”
* * *
Tuesday at noon, Pépère, Mémère’s sister Claudette, Denis’ father Emile, and the local parish priest, Père Omer, were gathered quietly in the sitting room at Denis and Thérèse’s home. Cece had been told that the conversation they were going to have when her parents came home was a “grownup conversation” and that she was to stay in her room. Cece picked out her favorite book about horses and lay down on the floor to read with her head near the cast-iron register grate that billowed heat into her room in the winter when the woodstove was going in the living room below. She could hear the whispers of people below and soon heard the familiar pale green Rambler American sedan pull up in the driveway, the front door open, and her parents come in.
“What a lovely surprise!” her mother said. “So kind of you all to welcome us home. We’ve only been gone a few days. Where’s Cece? Something didn’t happen did it?”
There was a long silence and then Père Omer coughed and said, “Well not exactly. Cece’s fine. She’s up in her room reading. This didn’t seem like the kind of conversation she should hear.”
Denis and Thérèse looked confused. “Did someone die?” asked Denis.
“No, we just thought it best if we all talked this through together as a family with Père Omer,” said Pépère solemnly.
“What?” asked Thérèse. “Why is everyone being so strange? What in God’s name is wrong?”
Pépère finally spoke up.
“Cece told us why you went to Quebec City and we’re here to help, to save the family. No need to explain, Cece told us what happened and why you went away. If we all just work together, we can keep the family together and get beyond this. We know about your habit…er I mean…that you sometimes dress up in Tante Laurette’s habit. It just has to stop for the sake of the family and especially for Cece. It can’t go on.”
“It’s a sin to abuse the sacred garments, you know,” added Père Omer.
“What are you talking about!” yelled Denis. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. You mean Laurette’s old habit in Cece’s book trunk with the mothballs?”
“We saw it hanging in your closet. It’s clearly been worn recently,” whispered Claudette. “You don’t have to explain. You just have to stop, for the sake of all of us, for family.”
There followed a long silence. Nobody looked up. Père Omer asked Denis if he wanted to explain.
“I’ve nothing to explain. This makes no sense. Where did you hear all this?”
“Did Cece tell you this?” Thérèse asked.
“She did,” answered Mémère. “She was so sad, she told us the whole reason for your going to Quebec, that you were going to split up and she told us why.”
“Cece, come down here now,” yelled Thérèse into the grate.
“I know you’re there. Come down here this minute and explain yourself… now.”
Cece appeared, unrepentant, in the narrow staircase leading into the parlor.
“What?” she said defiantly.
“Did you tell Pépère and Mémère all this nonsense. What were you thinking?”
“You should’ve taken me with you!” Cece said with a defiant look.
A smile broke out on Claudette’s warm face; then Pépère began to chuckle. Père Omer’s face broke out into a broad smile. Only Denis was not laughing.
By the time the sun began to lower in the sky, everyone was holding a glass of Denis’ sap beer and Cece was sitting on the floor quietly looking through her book about horses.
In the spring the following year, Cece’s sister Michelle was born.