Our community was buzzing with the news. Gerald, one of our hometown boys, had met and married a girl I’ll call Gloria while he was on extended leave in England during the SecondWorld War. They were both in their early 30s, and their wedding picture showed Gerald still in uniform, his bride wearing a simple afternoon dress and pillbox hat tipped slightly to the side. She carried a small white Bible overlaid with lilies of the valley. She looked pleasant enough, and the community was anticipating her arrival with typical small town curiosity.
Intent upon seeing what she was like, none of us on the platform of the CNR train station thought to look at the scene from Gloria’s perspective the day she arrived. The village was not much more than a scattering of frame houses and a general store huddled on the north side of the railway track. Anticipating a shipment of block salt and groceries, the storekeeper had pushed his wheelbarrow across the cinder pathway to the railway station and parked it on the loading platform beside the self-appointed welcoming committee.
Women in print housedresses and gingham aprons stood in little groups bearing gifts of cream and eggs and baked goods. Grizzled farmers in plaid shirts peered down the train track. Impatient to get back to their farms, they anxiously consulted the pocket watches carried in the bib pockets of their blue denim coveralls.
A team of horses, intimidated by the whistle of the approaching train, jerked and strained at their hitching post in front of the general store. As the steam locomotive hissed to a stop, pupils who had slipped away from the nearby school grounds during lunch hour stared wide-eyed as the baggage men unloaded three trunks and two leather suitcases.
And then at the far end of the platform we caught sight of the conductor. Emerging from the end coach, he positioned the little step stool and turned to assist the first passenger.
As Gloria stepped down with her baby in her arms, Gerald wrapped his arms around them both in a self-conscious embrace. As he turned to introduce her, the motley little crowd surged forward to greet her and then hesitated. She was meticulously dressed in a red wool suit and hat, her son in white satin rompers. Most of us had never, in all our lives, seen such fine clothing, and at the last moment, the calloused hands and gnarled fingers that had been stretched out to offer hearty greetings were self-consciously withdrawn. Gerald tried his best to smooth over the awkwardness of the situation, but Gloria posed a problem never before encountered by these plain farm folk. She was, in their words, “too classy.” Her three trunks and two suitcases contained more beautiful clothes and china than most rural women ever dreamed of owning. She dressed her baby in silks and satins, crooned him to sleep with strange melodies, refused visitors if it was inconvenient and seemed offended by homemade tokens of love.
People concluded that Gerald had married rich.
The autumn ebbed away into winter and undaunted by Gloria’s chilly attitude, community women tried to break down the barriers one by one.
And then it was Christmas, and Gerald and Gloria were invited to attend the annual Christmas Eve party at our house. People arrived by horse and cutter, bringing with them their molasses cakes and egg sandwiches, their guitars and fiddles and mouth organs. As I watched Gloria play with young son, her blue velvet dress was a luxurious contrast to the faded denims and mail-order plaids around her.
Did she miss her family across the sea? How did they celebrate Christmas? My youthful imagination was stoked by Christmas card paintings of elegant English carolers singing near a crackling fire in the hearth. Just the mental picture of it warmed me. Sitting here in a drafty farm house on the Canadian prairies, was Gloria lonesome for Christmas in her homeland?
As if in answer to my thoughts, Gloria announced that she would like to sing a carol, but first she wanted a cup of tea with lemon to clear her throat. Lemons in December? We hardly ever saw one in July! There was a titter of laughter at such an unusual request, followed by an awkward silence while she sipped her plain black tea.
And then, as high and clear as an angel, she began to sing “0 holy night, the stars are brightly shining; it is the night of our dear saviour’s birth . . .”
As naive and culturally deprived as we were, we did not recognize a colouratura soprano when we heard one, and we heard one that night. But when the last note faded, instead of the customary ovation to which she had been accustomed in the concert halls of England, there was only limp applause, and that was all but drowned by the twang of guitars and fiddles tuning up for Turkey in the Straw.
I think I knew even at that moment that Gloria would never sing in public again. She had dared to make her debut in an adopted land, and to our everlasting shame, we did not recognize her gift.
I think of her every year at Christmas time, a talented woman of English opera thrust into the culturally impoverished Canadian prairies. Mocked, misunderstood, rejected, she could not hide the pain and sorrow reflected by her tears that Christmas Eve so long ago.
Little did I realize the impact her song would have on my life, for whenever I hear O Holy Night, I realize anew the magnificent message proclaimed by the angels that very first Christmas, and to humankind’s everlasting shame, the awful ignorance with which the Gift is so often rejected. And yet in God’s mercy, “to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God” (Jn 1: 11,12).
Barkman is a freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg (almabarkman.com)