From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1947 –
Christmas, Or a Reasonable Facsimile
Ella raised her head with a slight start as she heard her niece’s voice in the next booth. She knew that Janet was an old patron at the salon – that was why she had come herself – so there was not too much cause for surprise.
“I guess you’ll want something extra swish this time,” the operator said. “You’ll be going to the dance at the Country Club on Christmas night, of course.”
“No,” answered Janet in a flat tone. “On Christmas night I’ll be going, as usual, to my aunt’s place to gorge on an old fashioned, homey dinner, sit around a tree with a hoary angel on top, and sing carols with all my relatives. I tried to get out of it last year, but Father says that we can’t let her down, that she starts planning for one Christmas the day after the other is over. You can’t tell me that he wouldn’t like to go to the club himself.”
“But, why do you have to go?” asked the operator.
“No special reason,” Janet replied, “only that she helped bring the family up, and everybody is afraid of hurting her feelings. Oh, I guess the folks don’t mind so frightfully, but I hate to lose out on a holiday dance.”
Ella shot a quick glance at the operator to see if she had understood, but there was no change in the girl’s expression as she slipped on the hair net and arranged the dryer. She turned on the heat and left Ella to the turmoil of her own thoughts.
There had been other times when she had experienced this same feeling of complete desolation, but then she had been younger and more hopeful. What a silly old thing she had been, anyway, to suppose that the rest of the family had as much joy as she in coming back for Christmas. They all had their own families and nice, modern apartments.
When her hair was dry and Maizie was taking pains to put in the pins just so, Ella wanted to stop her and cry out, “It doesn’t matter. Nobody is going to see my hair, anyway.” But she kept very still and even refrained from jamming her hat down over it.
The jostling crowds on the street seemed different than when she had gone into the beauty shop. They were no longer gay but merely intent on pushing a way through. The Salvation Army Santa Claus shifted his weight from one foot to another in an attempt to warm his feet, and the little bell sounded dismal and ineffectual.
At home she dropped her bundles and sat down at once to telephone each of her relatives. She decided to start with Nancy, her sister-in-law, who would probably be the only one to mind having the dinner called off because she hated to cook one herself.
It was easier than she had hoped.
“Hello, Nan,” Ella spoke cheerfully, “I know it’s dreadful of me to call you so late, but would you mind too much if I don’t have you for dinner this year? I have some friends coming” – she had a moment of panic, that wasn’t what she had intended to say at all – “and I’ll be glad to have you some other time, perhaps later in the week.”
“No, we won’t mind,” answered Nancy, obviously taken very much by surprise. “We’ll miss your lovely party, of course, but there’s no reason why you should go on doing all this work for us indefinitely. I would have cut it out long ago had it been I.”
Ella was quite sure that she would. She couldn’t imagine Nancy doing all that work for a family gathering or for anyone else.
When she called her sister, June promptly said, “I think that there’s too much fuss made over Christmas, anyway. Emery and I will probably go to a movie and have a snack at the hotel.”
She put the phone back and walked absently into the living room. The tree stood tall and moody, its green arms hungering for the bright baubles that would bring it to charmed life.
I might just as well trim it, she thought. I can’t just let it stand there like that. Besides, some of the folks may be dropping in and they’ll think it queer if I don’t.
When it was all trimmed, even to the last of the icicles placed carefully on the boughs, she sat back to look at it.
It’s beautiful, she thought, really beautiful. It almost makes a Christmas, or at least a reasonable facsimile. Somebody ought to have a chance to enjoy it. She wondered if there was possibly anybody she might ask in. She had told Nancy she was having friends and with her inquisitive nature she wouldn’t rest until she found out who.
Perhaps if she tried real hard she could think of someone who wasn’t tied up with a family. She started to go down the street, house by house. The Clowards, no, they always had their children come. The Arthurs went home to her mother. Who was it that lived in their basement apartment? She remembered now, the Giffords, the young man and the German girl he had married while he was overseas in the army. The girl probably didn’t know a soul in town. She might ask them. They couldn’t do more than turn her down.
There should be someone else, perhaps that fellow Munsey who lived alone in the stucco house. He hadn’t been there very long and nobody but Keats, the mailman, seemed to know anything about him. Keats said that he got a lot of mail. He could be a secret agent for all she knew.
There just wasn’t another soul in town unless she asked the Adams sisters, and folks thought them a little queer. Well, maybe people thought that she was queer, too, and just hadn’t said so to her face. She’d ask them all.
She started out just after breakfast the next morning, while her resolve was still high.
Young Mrs. Gifford was dusting her living room, her blond hair tied up in a blue kerchief that made a pretty contrast with her pink cheeks. Ella was surprised that the girl spoke such good English. Of course, she had a heavy accent but at least she knew all the words.
“I’m Ella Mathews, the music teacher,” she explained. “I live two blocks down the street in the big red house. I wondered if I could persuade you to come to dinner on Christmas night. I’ve known your husband for years.”
Her throat grew tight at the expression which came over the young woman’s face, and she knew that the girl had been hungering for a little show of friendliness.
“It is so very kind of you,” she answered, “and I am sure that Robert and I will be most happy. And you are a musician,” she went on eagerly. “I like music, too. I sing. But I have not sung much since I came to America.”
For more reasons than one, thought Ella. Aloud she said, “Then perhaps you will sing for us. I shall look for you at seven.”
Heartened by this first success, she rushed on to Mr. Munsey’s house. When she reached his door, however, her courage wilted and she felt an overwhelming urge to turn back without knocking. She might have done so if he had not come out just then to put some letters in the mailbox. He was rather tall, or perhaps he just appeared so because he was thin and stooped just a trifle, but he had the nicest eyes Ella could ever remember seeing, and when he smiled she thought he was almost good looking.
He was so much more startled and confused than she that her own shyness vanished and she said pleasantly, “I’m Ella Mathews. I hope you won’t think it too odd, but I’m inviting a few newcomers to dinner Christmas night. I happen to live all alone, and this is one of the times I don’t like it. Will you come?”
She had obviously taken him so unawares that she wasn’t at all sure whether he really wanted to accept or just couldn’t think of an excuse. At any rate he said, “Why, thank you very much, Miss Mathews. It’s very good of you to take pity on us lone ducks. I’ll be very glad to come.”
Quite elated now, she hurried the remaining block to the Adams house. The “girls” seemed more than glad to have her come.
“I was just telling Ethel the other day,” chirped Henrietta, “that we ought to call on you. It’s dreadful how we let old friendships go by.”
Ella might have found their little airs amusing if it had not been for the worn rug and the old-fashioned stove which failed to keep the room very warm. When she gave her invitation she saw the glad light flash into their eyes and Henrietta said, “I think it would be lovely to come to your affair, don’t you, Ethel?”
Ethel beamed in agreement, and Ella walked out into the crisp air with a heart that was almost light.
She never would have dreamed of asking Roberta Hubbard if she hadn’t run into her on the way home so that they walked a couple of blocks together. Roberta was the widow of Hoyt Hubbard who had made a lot of money in automobiles. For over thirty years Ella had never said more than a greeting, but now they began chatting like the old friends they used to be.
“And you’re alone, too,” Roberta merely stated an unpleasant fact that included them both. “It’s worse at Christmas time, isn’t it?”
Ella looked up in amazement. It hadn’t occurred to her that anyone as rich as Roberta could also be lonely. “Yes,” she answered. “It’s a great deal worse. That’s one reason why I’m having a small dinner party. Will you come?”
“I’ll be glad to,” said Roberta, frankly. Evidently it hadn’t occurred to anyone else either that the rich Mrs. Hubbard could be lonely.
Ella opened her gifts half-heartedly on Christmas morning. They were all nice, useful things, quite suitable for a maiden sister who didn’t dress up much to go places, didn’t entertain, didn’t do a thing more exciting than teach the chromatic scale to the neighborhood children. Then she waited until the time finally dragged around to when she could put the turkey in the oven.
She had just started to set the table when Clay phoned. “I’m in a bit of a tight spot, Sis,” he began. “It looks as if you might have to ask us to dinner, after all. That is, if you can possibly manage.”
Ella hesitated. Except for Mrs. Hubbard, her guests were definitely not Clay’s idea of the “right people.”
“It’s like this,” he went on. “Mrs. Hubbard just called and asked us to pick her up. She took it for granted we’d be coming. I hardly know how to explain and, besides, I’m trying to keep in touch with her right now. I’m struggling to sell her a big annuity.”
“That’s all right,” Ella said, anxious to get on with her dinner. “Shall I set for all three of you?”
“No, just Evelyn and me. Janet is going to the Country Club.”
She hurriedly put another leaf in the table and made up place cards. There would be eight, just the number she had counted on in the first place for the family. She surveyed the table with pleasure. It looked better this way. More like a party. She started back to the kitchen when the phone rang again. This time it was Nancy who spoke plaintively, “Ella, could you possibly squeeze us in? Ted absolutely refuses to go down town to dinner. He says the last time he ate turkey at the hotel he got ptomaine poisoning. I know it’s just an excuse – and the boys aren’t even speaking to me. They think it was all my idea.”
“I can manage,” said Ella shortly. “Dinner is at seven.”
She cleared off one end of the table and put in another leaf. Might as well put in two while I’m at it, she thought. it will save time when June calls. For that matter, I might just as well call her myself. That will save time, too, and explanations.
She had to take off all the place cards now because there weren’t enough to go around, but that didn’t matter too much. There was plenty of turkey and trimmings.
The Adams sisters were the first of her guests to arrive. In fact, they came half an hour early, and Henrietta said, “We couldn’t remember whether you said six-thirty or seven. I hope it’s all right?”
“Of course. I’m glad you came early,” said Ella heartily.
The Giffords arrived just before seven, Erna Gifford looking very lovely in a blue velvet dress. “My Christmas present from Robert,” she confided when Ella complimented her upon it. “It is so wonderful to have nice clothes again.”
The introductions were barely over when Mr. Munsey arrived, looking almost distinguished, thought Ella in surprise, with a snowy silk muffler inside his blue topcoat.
Clay and Evelyn ushered in Mrs. Hubbard with exactly the same deference they would have shown to the First Lady. The rest of the family, a bit breathless, arrived just in time for dinner.
Ella could never remember of being so happy. When dinner was over and they had returned to the living room, Mrs. Gifford suggested shyly, “Won’t you play for us, please?”
“I’ll play for you to sing,” answered Ella promptly and brought out her book of Christmas carols. Erna Gifford didn’t have to be coaxed. She seemed eager to sing again. Quite naturally she went to the piano and sang “Holy Night, Silent Night.”
They were all amazed at the beauty of her voice. “Why, you’re a real professional, aren’t you?” exclaimed Ella.
“Oh, no,” she smiled and then added, “Do you mind very much if I sing it in German?”
“We’d love to hear you,” answered Ella, without even glancing at Clay.
Erna sang, “Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht” with such feeling and nostalgia for something that was gone forever that Ella felt her throat tighten, and Mrs. Hubbard exclaimed with genuine warmth. ‘You really are an artist!”
A minute later Ted, who had been talking to Mr. Munsey, boomed out, “By Jove! Then you must be the J.B. Munsey who writes the mystery stories.” Scarcely waiting for Munsey’s nod, he called out to Ella, “Why didn’t you let us know you were entertaining a celebrity? I haven’t missed one of his stories in years.”
She was not too much surprised when Janet dropped in about ten o’clock, followed by two gangling youths. The girl made no apologies beyond, “there wasn’t a thing but punch and wafers and we’re starved. I knew you’d have oodles of food. May we have just a few slivers of turkey?”
“About three inches per sliver?” added one of the boys.
She set food on the table and, as she went back into the living room, she heard Mrs. Hubbard say, “Yes, there’s a stability about our old homes and families that one seldom finds in these days.”
“Indeed you are right,” answered Clay, as heartily as if he had been president of the “Love the Old Home” society. “That’s our idea exactly.”
It was after midnight when they left, with Nancy saying, “I had no idea you knew so many interesting people,” and Ted adding in an undertone, “But I don’t think it was quite fair for you to ditch your family for them.”
“I never shall again,” promised Ella.
In the rush of goodbyes Mr. Munsey managed to say, “Thank you for a most delightful evening. I do hope that I may come again.”
“Of course,” smiled Ella. “I hope that you will.”
She closed the door and began in a sort of happy trance to clear up the dining room table. She believed that the next time she went to the beauty salon she’d try that new hairdo with the swirls!