Peter Strain


A sweet story about finding the magic in everyday moments    

By Debbie Rigaud
From the April 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to explain how an idea is developed in a work of fiction

Lexile: 760L (story), 840L (interview)
Other Key Skills: figurative language, text structure, tone, author’s craft, character

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When I was little, my great-aunt Ma Tante used to feed me breakfast. That was when she had a straight back—so long ago, I wasn’t wearing glasses yet, if you can imagine. I must have been about 3. My parents were at work and my big sister, Anne, was at school, so it was just Ma Tante and me.

As she dipped bread in her coffee, I got distracted by tiny particles floating in the beam of light entering the window above the kitchen sink. Ma Tante, ever vigilant of my feelings, asked what I was staring at. The peanut-butter-slathered bread I had been chewing stalled in the crook of my cheek. I pointed to the snowfall of particles. It seemed like the most magical thing I’d ever seen.

Ma Tante smiled. “Magical, non?” she asked. “Things are always floating around us. But just like that sunbeam, it takes the light in our hearts to see magic that is invisible to most people.” From then on, wherever I went, I searched for magic around me.

“Voilà,” Ma Tante would say to alert me to the tiny, everyday miracles in progress.

It was our secret.

I liked it better back when Tara and Tina were ignorant. Ever since the earthquake in Haiti, this office’s two medical assistants (or, as Ma Tante playfully refers to them, the “look-alikes”) think they know everything about me. We’ve been here five minutes, and I’m already annoyed.

A sympathetic expression stretches the corners of Tara’s eyes as she waits for my reply. She’s taller and older than her sister.

“Yup—I’m 14 now.” I nod, squeezing the last bit of polite from my reserves. “And yes—both my parents are from Haiti.”

“Oh, you see, TiTi?” Tara says. “I told you!”

I shrug.  People have assumed this before, that I’m only half Haitian. Or at least, those who can’t understand how a person with longer hair or lighter skin could come from Haiti.    

My great-aunt is positioning her metal cane below her seat as she settles into her chair, getting acquainted with its contours in preparation for the long wait. The doctor’s office is filling up quickly. Over the past few years, as Ma Tante’s painfully curved back has pulled her closer to the earth, the matching-scrubs sisters have started jumping her nearer to the top of the waiting list. But it’s still going to take time. A lot of it.

“Go sit down, baby,” Tara says, taking pity on me. “We’ll call your auntie when the doctor is ready.”

I harrumph to myself on my way to the empty seat next to Ma Tante. When the doctor is ready. I bet he isn’t even in. It never fails—halfway through our wait, the top of the good doctor’s ample-sized dome can be seen bobbing past the driveway-facing window. He thinks he’s sneaking in, but his conspicuously big head always gives him away.

Maybe it’s because he serves the elderly. Or perhaps he’s really Superman in disguise and there are always too many emergencies at the local hospital. Whatever his story, Dr. Bighead’s rarely in his office. Patients crowd the first floor of the converted old-time mansion that’s rotting in the East Ward of our fair city. Waiting.

The one TV hanging precariously high in the corner is the waiting room’s only timekeeper. Each program’s theme song chimes the passing of yet another 30 minutes. From daytime talk shows to the evening news, the patients wait.

Judge Judy’s on,” the woman spread out over two chairs mutters to no one in particular. “Been here since Good Morning America.”

Ma Tante’s done her share of waiting. She’s been Dr. Bighead’s patient—right word for sure—for a decade. Some of my cousins are physicians, and I’ve heard them ask Ma Tante to switch doctors.   But she thinks he can do no wrong.      

From where I sit, all he does is prescribe her more pills. And make her wait hours to be seen. Ma Tante doesn’t speak English, so one of us waits with her. That is, until my sister learned to drive. The past few times, we’ve dropped Ma Tante off and popped in five hours later in time to translate her consultation. Not today, though. Anne dropped us off, saying she had to go straight to some study session. Yeah, right.

“Sal’ di?” Ma Tante asks me in Creole. She wants to know what the discussion with the look-alikes was about.

“Rien,” I respond respectfully— in French, as I was raised to do when addressing an adult. I protect Ma Tante from the truth. It would hurt her to find out that, after all these years, the look-alikes have no clue that she is Haitian. Besides, Ma Tante thinks everyone adores her. And what’s not to love? Most folks see this charming old lady with a peaceful gaze and a curved back, and they have to restrain themselves from hugging her.

Ma Tante likes to flash her toothy smile and give away the only English offerings in her cherished possession. “Tank hyu,” she answers, no matter what people say. Plus, Ma Tante treats Dr. Bighead’s office like a nightclub. She dresses to the nines for her monthly appointments. Besides church, it’s the only time she gets to go out these days. Today her flowery peach dress matches her hat, and she pulls an ornately embroidered handkerchief from her clutch purse.

“They probably want to know where I’ve been,” she says proudly, patting her forehead with the hankie. “They haven’t seen me in a while.”

“Everybody misses you when you’re not around,” I say.

She knows I’m teasing. “That’s because they like how they feel about themselves when they see me,” she says.

“Vraiment?” I ask, a bit surprised that she’s in the mood to talk. Ma Tante’s obviously glad for my company—which makes me feel bad for sulking. Usually in public, she likes to keep the appearance of being a quiet, sweet old lady—not the hilarious, observant woman I enjoy being around. “Really? And why’s that?”

“One look at my wrinkles, and they’re excited they’re not as shriveled up as me.”

We tumble into a silent giggle. Me shaking my head no and Ma Tante gesturing oui. But as messed up as it sounds, Ma Tante’s right.

Most people don’t recognize the gems in front of them. And to me, Ma Tante is the most precious kind. 

“That’s not true,” I say, and rub her forearm, enjoying the easy movement of her loose chocolate skin. “You’re a beautiful queen.”    

“Aaah, Simone.” Ma Tante sings out my name in a delight that shows she knew what I was thinking. 

“Simone?” This time my name rings out from a deeper voice. “Simone Thibodeaux?”

The first thing that catches my eye is his T-shirt. It’s blue with bright-orange letters that read CARE-A-VAN, and under that, Transporting Seniors to Caregivers. I recognize the name of the volunteer group kids at school sign up for in a frenzy to reach their community service quota. A millisecond later, my eyes dart up to the shirt wearer’s face. What’s Louis Milton doing in this part of town? He’s from the West Ward.

“You’re a volunteer here too?” Louis asks.

“Um, no,” I mutter, suddenly self-conscious. Why did Anne have to dump me here today?

“Oh,” he says, and I can see he understands. You’re from the East Ward. Before I can busy myself with a fake text, he continues. “Nice running into you, though.”

I recognize that look. I see it every time I turn down my friends because my parents won’t let me go all the way to the West Ward at night. I hate that he feels sorry for me.

“Louis, help me out here,” a girl calls from the front door. Oh, great. It’s Waverly Webber. She’s struggling to get an elderly man’s wheelchair through the narrow entrance.

“Excuse me,” Louis says to me before jogging over and pinning the heavy door wide open.

“Gotchya here in one piece, Mr. P.,” Waverly announces proudly.

Perhaps it’s the piercing voice or the shift in the air brought on by Waverly’s mere presence, but Ma Tante opens her heavy eyes wide and looks my classmate up and down. Funny how Ma Tante picks up in Waverly what I do. Waverly’s actually never been mean to me or anyone else I know.  It’s just that her “Me first!” vibe can be off-putting. 

The office never looked terribly low-budget to me before. But now, seeing Waverly here—her velvet red ballet flats stepping on peeling linoleum floors—it’s hard not to view things through her eyes. I suddenly feel exposed, as if  Waverly had walked in on me getting my hair braided.

Good thing she doesn’t notice me. She busies herself rearranging chairs to make room for her elderly companion’s wheelchair. As she jams it into a narrow spot, the rush of the empty row of chairs slams Ma Tante’s seat into mine.

Ma Tante reacts quietly. “Oh-oh?”

Mr. P. checks his neck for whiplash.

“There you go,” Waverly tells him, smiling. She reports to the front desk in three quick strides. “I’ve brought Charles Pemberton for his 3 p.m. appointment.”

If only Waverly knew that to Dr. Bighead, 3 p.m. means 8 p.m.

“Oh, here’s a list of medications Mr. P. is currently taking,” she says, not missing a beat.

“OK, baby,” Tara, the younger look-alike, says. “When the doctor comes in, we’ll give this list to him.”

The astonished look that takes hold of  Waverly’s face is priceless. “You mean he isn’t here yet?”

Ma Tante chuckles quietly.

“He’ll be here soon enough,” Tina says dismissively before heading toward the break room.

Perplexed, Waverly stops short of scratching her head when she spots me. “What’re you doing here, Simone?”

“Hey, Waverly.” I don’t answer her question. This is my second chance to introduce Ma Tante, but I don’t take it. My embarrassment at being seen in the ghetto doctor’s office outweighs my guilt.

But Waverly can’t be shaken off the trail that easily. “Is this your grandmother?” she asks. Then to Ma Tante: “Hello, I’m Waverly—I go to school with your granddaughter.”

“Mm-hmm. Tank hyu.” Ma Tante smiles politely.

“She speaks Haitian?” Waverly asks, tickled by Ma Tante’s accent.

“Creole,” I correct. “And French.”

Waverly finally asks her burning question. “So you’re here . . . even though you don’t get school credit?”

I nod. “I think they have new-patient forms for the man you came in with,” I say, counting on the fact that Waverly hates to miss a step.

It works. Her lips form an O, and she pads over to grab a clipboard.    

Louis comes back, escorting a woman who walks with a cane. He looks so gentlemanly with his elbow extended for her to hold. A star football player at school, Louis is taller and bigger than the average guy his age. I’m mesmerized by how much he outsizes his companion.

The elderly woman lets go of Louis’s arm and excitedly waves at Ma Tante. “Koman ou ye?

Ma Tante sits up as best she can. “Madame Bertrand, koman ou ye?

Louis seems touched by the women’s gleeful greetings. His round face lights up like a stadium scoreboard at a home game. Despite his bulk, Louis is delicate with Madame Bertrand as he helps her into the seat next to Ma Tante’s.

I get up to kiss Ma Tante’s friend on the cheek. Even though I’ve never met her, doing so is customary. I stay standing. Here’s my chance to redeem myself.

“Uh, Louis, this is my great-aunt, Ma Tante,” I say.

Louis respectfully takes off his baseball cap and shakes Ma Tante’s hand. He doesn’t know about the cheek kiss custom, so he gets a pass.

Janti ti gason.” Ma Tante is impressed with him.

“Eh-heh.” Madame Bertrand accepts the compliment as if Louis is her grandson.

“He would make a nice friend for my Simone,” Ma Tante continues in Creole.

“I think so too,” replies Madame Bertrand.

“It’s cute how they steal glances at each other, non?

“What are they saying?” Louis asks me.

“Uh.” I pause. “Just that . . . you’re a well-mannered young man.”

“Did he just ask you on a date?” Ma Tante is really trying to mess with me now.

“I’m going to have to separate you two,” I answer, sassy in Creole.

The women giggle.

“I think they’re saying more than that,” Louis laughs. “C’mon, Simone, you’re holding back.”

“Are you translating?” Waverly’s finished Mr. P.’s paperwork and is drawn in by our laughter.

“Something like that,” I answer, blushing.

Waverly has an epiphany. “You can totally get credit for translating for CARE-A-VAN,” she says earnestly. “Some Haitian seniors in the program need translators.”

You know what? That would be cool. “That would be cool,” I say.

“I’ll introduce you to the program director,” Waverly offers.

Funny that her persistence feels more bearable when it benefits me.

“April Johnson?” Tara calls.

Finally. The woman using two seats gets up, sighs heavily, and shuffles to the exam room.

Just then, Mr. P. rises effortlessly from the wheelchair and strides to nab the now-vacant best seat in the house for TV viewing. We all look on in stunned silence.

“I told that chile I ain’t need to be wheeled in,” Mr. P. grumbles.

Ma Tante and I look at each other and burst out laughing. Louis, Madame Bertrand, and eventually even Waverly and Mr. P., cackle heartily with us.

  “Voilà.” Ma Tante winks at me. I wink back. 

Copyright @2013 by Debbie Rigaud. First published in Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, edited by Mitali Perkins. Reprinted by permission of Laura Dail Literary Agency, on behalf of proprietor.

The Story Behind "Voilà!"    

We love “Voilà!” so much that we had to talk to author Debbie Rigaud about her story. Here is what she told us.

Photos courtes of Debbie Rigaud    

Author Debbie Rigaud today and in 6th grade (inset)

Where did the inspiration for “Voilà!” come from?
At Simone’s age, I too could be found in a doctor’s office purgatory with an elderly relative. Part of my inspiration was driven by my frustration over sitting for hours in a packed waiting room filled with, in my view, victimized patients. I’d wonder, Why is this happening? The sun would go down and we’d still be waiting. I had the strong sense that this type of thing didn’t happen in more affluent communities. It bothered me to see seniors and people of limited means treated that way. Telling this story is my way of acknowledging those quietly suffering people, bringing them out of the shadows.

In the beginning of the story, there is a reference to the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Why did you include this?
The 2010 earthquake not only shook Haiti and the Haitian American community, but it also created a fissure in time. You’re thrown into this post-earthquake era, where you’re approached by well-meaning people who suddenly feel, thanks to constant news coverage, like they know something about you and where you’re from. You go from being overlooked as a people to being a curiosity. I wanted to convey that in a small way.

Like Simone, you are Haitian American. How much did your own experiences influence this story?
My experiences as a Haitian American influenced this story quite a bit. There are hints that Simone has over-protective parents. I also didn’t have the social freedoms my friends had (#notbitter). Also, I wanted to explore the dynamics of Ma Tante and Simone’s friendship because my close relationship with elderly people is something I love about my upbringing. Ma Tante is fun to be around, just like the elders in my family (#jokesfordays).

Can you talk about Simone’s role as a translator?
Like Simone, many kids serve as informal translators for relatives—be it at school, in conversation with teachers, or at the doctor’s office. I used to translate for my elderly great-aunt Madone. In Simone’s case, the story becomes an examination of personal service crossing paths with community service. Obligation crossing paths with choice.

Both Simone and Ma Tante look for magic in everyday moments. How can we all do that?
Lead with love, and watch the magic unfold. The cool thing about this exercise is that the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll notice those tiny, everyday miracles. I’ve had crummy things happen to me in life, but my inner light stubbornly refuses to dim. That light is love, and it illuminates the magic that’s happening all around us. I just have to pay close enough attention to notice it. 

This article was originally published in the April 2019 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building





Differentiated Writing Prompts
For Struggling Readers

On page 23, Simone refers to “everyday miracles” and the magic that is all around us. What do you think she means? Answer this question in a well-organized paragraph. Use text evidence to support your answer.

For Advanced Readers

Consider the title of the story. What idea does it convey? How is that idea developed in the story? Answer both questions in a well-organized essay. Use text evidence to support your ideas.

For Artists

Retell the story of “Voilà!” in a visual way. This can be as a graphic novel, drawing, or painting.

For Fiction Writers

Choose a character from the story to “interview” about the events of that day in the doctor’s office. Your interview may be in the form of a written Q&A, modeled on the interview with Debbie Rigaud. Or you may perform the interview as a podcast or video, casting people as the interviewer and the character from the story.

Literature Connection: Novels featuring intergenerational relationships

Becoming Naomi Leon
by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Walk Two Moons
by Sharon Creech

Millicent Min
by Lisa Yee