A Christmas visitor

Henri receives a surprise visit from his … sister?!

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Henri was rather discombobulated by a recent e-mail:

Dear Henri,

Colette is devastated. Crushed. I’ve left R. This time for good. I’ll be arriving in Chico on the 22nd. Can you meet me at the train station?

Au revoir,

Ta soeur aînée, Colette

Quelle? Henri has a sister? Oui, mes amis. Quelle surprise, non?

So why, in nearly three years of writing about food and wine and company and … his family, has he never even mentioned her name?

Because of the pain.

Some history: Colette, eight years older than Henri, was always, well, the sheep noir of our little Midwestern famille. I have vivid memories of late Saturday nights in the Bourride home as my parents waited for her long overdue return, mon père pacing the living-room floor and my mother weeping softly on the couch, until, sometimes well after dawn, a car would pull up to the curb outside, Colette would step out and walk up the front-porch steps and inside, letting the broken screen door slap shut, and then, without a word, go upstairs to her room as if nothing was the matter.

Nor was she a healthy adolescent. In fact, she had to have her tonsils taken out twice—once when she was a junior and then again about a year later. I’m still not sure why she was gone over three months both times.

She finally left home for good just before she turned 18, and though it was very difficult for my parents, things were much calmer and saner at home afterward.

I’d hear from her from time to time over the years, usually just after she got married. She’d drop me a note, or I’d get a phone call from out of the blue, and she’d swear that this time it was really, truly going to work out. R. was husband No. 5, I believe, perhaps 6. They’d been living somewhere in Vermont. I hadn’t seen her in more than 20 years.

And now she was coming to Chico for Christmas.

The night of the 22nd, I bundled up in my new Burberry overcoat and red Tommy Hilfiger scarf and drove, rather nervously, down to the train station.

But my hesitations were totally unfounded. She stepped off the train, dabbed at her eye with a tissue, then reached into her purse and pulled out a bottle of Château Latour Bordeaux and two wine glasses, which she waved in my direction. We hugged awkwardly and I walked her to the car.

She had only two luggage items—a suitcase, which fit perfectly into the trunk of my Renault as long I as I didn’t shut the lid, and a small crate, which she set on the back seat. I poured the wine—naturally, I had a corkscrew—and she introduced me to the contents of the crate, a darling little Bichon Frisé called Mr. Theo, so sedated that his eyes had rolled back into his head and his pink little tongue dangled from the side of his mouth. We finished up the wine when we got home, and Colette, exhausted, fell asleep on my couch. I set Mr. Theo on the rug by the fire, Miss Marilyn clearly annoyed by the flaccid little intrusion.

Colette and I spent the next two days getting reacquainted, eating, drinking, watching movies and taking occasional walks in Lower Park or downtown. She’s quite smitten by Chico.

Christmas day we spent listening to holiday music and cooking—red cabbage, sweet potatoes, stuffed mushrooms, Brussels sprouts and a beautiful Butcher Shop prime rib that I prepared with Dijon mustard and a black-pepper-and-ground-coffee rub. As night fell, I put on my favorite Johnny Mathis Christmas CD and poured two glasses of Dom Perignon. Then we sat down to a table that Colette had set with candles and twinkling lights and interlacing bits of greenery, and I made a toast—to our parents, to our little Midwestern home with the broken screen door, to loss, and to our own childhoods, troubled but forever indivisible from our own small lives now here in Chico.

Miss Marilyn and Mr. Theo dozed side by side next to the fireplace.