“The Black Eye,” New Era, Dec. 1986, 17
There is no dinner like a Christmas dinner in France. The food comes in courses, at least seven of them. And we had feasted on each course, from hors d’oeuvres to entrées to pièces de résistance. And to top it all off, dessert. Not some ordinary cake, pie, or pudding. Not even flaky pastry from the local patisserie. Sister Gournillon had made a bûche de Nöel.
To say a bûche de Nöel is a Christmas cake is to say the Eiffel Tower is some building in Paris. A bûche is the culinary crown of a French Christmas. It is composed of layers of butter frosting, cream custard, and light, white cake swirled together in the shape of a Yule log, from which it gets its name. Sister Gournillon had made hers herself and had even pushed a tiny plastic hatchet into the chocolate frosting.
“Nobody is going to say the branch president’s wife didn’t feed the missionaries well on Christmas,” she said. Nobody would.
It was thanks to the bûche, I guess, that I fell asleep on the couch. We had told President Gournillon that we could only stay a short time for Christmas dinner, and he understood. But when I sat down after such a huge meal, I must have dozed for a minute.
It didn’t take me long to wake up. The kids, all seven of them, were playing soldiers. Stephan, age 6, was the commandant. He was chasing Natalie, age 5, around the couch when she tripped and fell. Her forehead popped against my cheekbone just below my eye, hard. She was so startled she didn’t even cry. I was amazed at how fast my ruptured blood vessel produced swelling.
We left for home a few minutes later. By then, my eye was swollen so much I felt like a prize fighter.
“Oooh, Frère Romney, cette beurre noir va vous fair du mal,” Sister Gournillon said. (“This black eye’s going to hurt.”)
“I’ll live,” I said.
President Gournillon held Natalie up next to me so she could kiss it better. “Je suis triste (I’m sorry),” she said.
“Ca va, ça va (that’s okay),” I smiled. “Next time pick on someone your own size.”
When we got out to our bikes, I gathered up some snow and held it to my cheek. It felt better.
How does a missionary with a black eye go tracting? I wondered. The same as any other missionary: one door at a time. Some people gave me funny looks, as if they wondered who would punch a foreigner and why. One man even asked me if I had hit the other guy first. But the embarrassment really deepened when the zone leaders arrived for their visit.
“You know, Elder Romney, for a brand-new missionary you’ve really come out swinging,” Elder Zoelfelt said, grinning. “Just don’t think you’ve got to fight your way to the top.”
“I’d rather fight than switch,” I joked back. By now my black eye was purple and yellow—and all over the side of my face.
Elder Zoelfelt and I were assigned to go tracting together that day. I was a little intimidated to be out alone with a zone leader, but I wanted to do my best.
“You decide where we’ll go,” he told me following a word of prayer.
“Let’s head for the Z. U. P. de la Cité (government housing area),” I said. “It’s not far and we only did about half of it the last time we were there.”
We pedaled the half mile, climbed off our bikes, locked them to a tree, and took out the flip-charts. As we approached the nearest building, I suddenly realized that I had no idea where Elder Norton (my regular companion) and I had left off. It had been about two weeks. There hadn’t been many people home, and we hadn’t made any teaching appointments. The only thing I remembered about the cold, gray complex was that in one building one lady hadn’t liked us at all. When we had told her we were Mormon missionaries, she hadn’t just said, “Non, merci.” She had said, “Non! Non! Non!” at the top of her voice and chased us down the stairs. Everyone in the building must have heard her yell at us.
I picked out an entrance to one of the nearest stairwells (they all looked alike).
“I feel good about starting here,” I said.
“Always follow your feelings,” Elder Zoelfelt said.
We walked up the five flights to the top floor and started our way down. Nobody home. Nobody home. Come back later. Nobody home.
“It’s your turn, elder,” the zone leader reminded me.
I rang the bell. We could hear someone inside.
“Un instant! (just a minute),” a voice said.
I looked around me. The potted plant. The light switch. The color of the door. How had I picked that door? It was the door of the lady who had chased us down the stairs! Maybe if I ran for it I could get out before she charged us. What would a zone leader think of a missionary who flees from battle?
She opened the door.
“Bonjour,” I said. “I think we’ve met before.”
“Yes, we have,” she said. “But last time you were with someone else. And … you didn’t have that black eye.”
“Well … ,” I stammered, “Would you like to know how I got it?”
“Sure,” she laughed. “Come on in.”
Her name was Madame Barnet.
“I was quite rude to you the other day,” she apologized. “But you see, I’m the local catechism teacher. The priest told us the Mormons were in the area and that we should not make it pleasant for you.”
“All we want is to tell people about Christ,” Elder Zoelfelt said.
“But we already know about him.”
The silence was deadening, the kind of silence that happens when everyone knows the next word could set off sparks.
“Well … ,” I said. “Let me tell you about my black eye.” I started with the bûche de Nöel. Then we talked about the branch president’s family. Then I told her how Natalie had tripped and bumped me on the cheekbone.
“I thought someone must have hit you,” Madame Barnet said. “But I didn’t dream it would have been a little girl.”
We talked about Christmas in France and Christmas in Ohio. We talked about turkeys and roast chestnuts and caroling and sleigh rides. We talked about families and Christmas cards and being away from home. She told us about the children in the neighborhood and how she loved them. Since her divorce, teaching them about Jesus had been a great comfort to her.
“Would you like to tell them how Jesus came to America?” Elder Zoelfelt asked.
“Come on,” she said. “No fairy tales here.”
“Seriously,” he said. “That’s something we know about Christ that you may not know. Look at this picture.”
He showed her the picture of Christ appearing to the Nephites and bore his testimony that it had actually happened. I could feel the Spirit.
“That is something that I never heard before,” she admitted. “Et vous en êtes si convaincus (and you are so sure it’s true).”
We talked a few minutes more, and then she sent us on our way. She wouldn’t let us make an appointment to teach her, but she at least smiled and shook our hands.
When we got outside, Elder Zoelfelt looked at me and smiled.
“Elder Romney,” he said, “that was one of the most original door approaches I’ve ever seen. I wonder what you’d do with a broken leg.”
I couldn’t help laughing.
“I wish she would have invited us back to teach her more,” I said. “I bet she’d really like to see ‘Christ in America.’”
“Maybe someday she will,” Elder Zoelfelt said. “Maybe she will. For right now, you’ve helped her understand us a little better. She might even consider us friends. At least you didn’t give the Church a black eye.”
I groaned. I had to. But at least I felt like I’d helped someone know a little bit more about the Church. Maybe that bump on the cheek had been worth it after all.