From the Relief Society Magazine, 1957 –
Merry Christmas, Mother!
Rosa Lee Lloyd
“Now listen, honey,” Joe said, smiling at Shirley over his newspaper. “I think it’s a great idea for your mother to come for Christmas. We can afford to show her a good time on her first visit.”
Shirley felt her nerves tighten. All the lazy, lovely months of living here alone with Joe since their marriage last June faded away like sunshine before a thunderstorm.
“Oh, Joe,” she breathed, “if you knew what Christmas means to Mother, you’d run for the nearest desert!”
Joe’s mild blue eyes crinkled as he folded the paper and put it beside his breakfast plate.
“You’re making mountains,” he teased. “Your mother loves Christmas. Why shouldn’t she come down to California and spend it with her only daughter? Perfectly natural, I’d say. Be a good girl,” Joe coaxed. “Write back and tell her we’d love to have her for Christmas. We won’t make a lot of work about it. We can eat out or we can buy a turkey ready-cooked at Hammond’s. They deliver them, stuffing ‘n’ everything. Even gravy!”
“Gravy!” Shirley scoffed. “Imagine Mother eating restaurant turkey and gravy on Christmas. Imagine!” She began to laugh, a shaky kind of laugh that made Joe’s brows worry together.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded. “You should be mighty glad your husband wants your mother to come.”
Shirley bit her lip.
“It’s because you don’t realize,” she told him. “You were a bachelor, living with other bachelors, when you met me at that office party. And you went to a boys’ school before that because your parents were dead, and you didn’t have a real home. And then you married me, and I’m glad to live free and easy without a schedule of any kind. I like to eat out or have chili and sandwiches while we watch TV. Any old hit or miss way you want to live suits me. But Joe, Mother doesn’t live this way. She wants order and planned gracious living, as she calls it. And Christmas! If she had a slipshod Christmas, she’d feel that she was a failure.”
“So it’s that bad! Well, she’s still your mother, and I like her. I only met her when she met us in Salt Lake City for our wedding. How did she ever have a pixie-faced daughter, with red hair and wicked little glints in her eyes?”
“I’m like my Dad,” Shirley answered, trying to force a smile. “No sense of order or responsibility; get up with the sun one morning or sleep till noon the next. You can guess what Mother’s life was like with Dad and me, before he was killed in an accident in South America.”
The clock on the little shelf above the breakfast table chimed the half hour. Joe stood up and reached for his coat.
“Tell her to come down,” he concluded. “We can have her kind of Christmas this year.”
Shirley sighed. Joe couldn’t realize what it meant, she thought, dismally.
“Okay,” she managed, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
After Joe had kissed her and gone out to the garage, whistling, Shirley wrote a letter to her mother. They would make a real Christmas, she told her, the kind she was used to, and they wanted her to take the plane at their expense, and arrive next Saturday, Christmas Eve.
Shirley felt happy when she gave the mailman the letter. It was nice to have a generous husband who wanted to make her mother happy.
The telephone was ringing when she went back into the house, and she sat down lazily to answer it. Kit Brown always called early every morning. Kit was bubbling with an idea.
“Look, hon,” she raced on. “Let’s go to Las Vegas for Christmas. You and Joe, Leone and Steve, Phil and me. We can have fun, there’s a big, new holiday show. I can’t bear the thought of trimming a tree or cooking a turkey. And Phil doesn’t care. He’s still a bachelor in his ways. I’ll bet Joe is, too. They lived together so long.”
Shirley caught her breath. The plan would suit her to a T. But they just couldn’t go. Not now.
“We can’t go,” she almost cried. “Mother’s coming on Christmas Eve!”
“Can’t you make an excuse or something?” Kit asked.
“Not now. We are painting the extra room tonight so it will be ready for mother by Christmas Eve.”
Kit sighed. “Sorry, hon. We’ll miss you.”
Shirley put the receiver back in its cradle, thinking how she’d like to go to Las Vegas. But she might as well forget it and start planning Christmas. There wasn’t a minute to lose.
She reached for the pad and pencil and wrote rapidly. Monday, paint the spare room; Tuesday, buy the ingredients for mother’s fruit bread and mince pies. They should be baked by Thursday. She would make her favorite lemon-rind candy on that day, too, while the bread and pies were baking. That left Friday to get the house cleaned, order the turkey and groceries, and remember to leave the bread out so it would be dry for stuffing. She must write for those recipes her mother always used for oyster sauce, creamed onions, and toasted almond rings. And she had to shop for curtains for the spare room!
There was so much to do she couldn’t think straight. She went reluctantly to the spare room and began the tedious job of packing the things they had thrown in there for the last six months.
On Thursday the answering letter came from her mother. Shirley was in the spare room hanging the new curtains when she saw the mailman at the door. Mother wrote that a real Christmas with Shirley and Joe was her dearest wish. And wouldn’t it be fun, she suggested in her sweet, persuasive way, to be Santa Claus for some unfortunate family the way they had always done every Christmas Eve?
Shirley felt despair mounting in her. Here she was swamped with work, and her mother expected her to take care of another family, too!
She strode to the telephone and dialed Joe’s number. He must come home at once, she told his office girl. She needed him.
By the time Joe’s green sports car had swung into the driveway and he bounded up the front steps, Shirley had calmed down somewhat.
Joe flipped into a chair. “What’s emergency about that?” he demanded. “I thought you’d broken your neck or something!”
“Oh, Joe,” she cried against his shoulder. “Can’t you see what it means? We’ll have to shop for toys and groceries and soap. They always need soap. It takes dozens of bars of soap!”
“We can afford a little soap,” Joe soothed her.
“A lot of soap,” she corrected.
“Okay, then. A lot of soap. I got my bonus check this morning, more than I thought it would be. Enough extra to buy toys and stuff for some family of kids. So don’t worry. I’ll make arrangements. You can forget about the whole thing. Your mother and I will go out there after she gets here on Christmas Eve.”
He pushed her gently to her feet and stood up. His eyes brightened as he looked down the hall toward the spare room.
“Say!” he beamed. “I like those curtains. They dress up the whole place. And that paint job turned out fine, didn’t it? Of course it’s not the pink we thought it would be.”
Shirley smiled. “Mother will like it,” she said, “because it’s sort of a heather color; I thought the pale blue curtains set it off.”
“They sure do! I’m real proud of it,” Joe agreed. “We should’ve fixed that room months ago. It’s been a black spot to me.”
“Why, Joe!” Shirley gasped. “I thought you liked it for a catch-all!”
“I like it this way,” he said, starting toward the door. “I’ll be home early and help you.”
After Joe drove away, Shirley sat down with a thoughtful air. The blue curtains were pretty, but she hadn’t known until this moment that Joe was the kind of fellow who would pay attention to a pair of new curtains. Maybe there were a lot of little things she didn’t know about Joe.
He came home an hour earlier than usual. Shirley was in the kitchen mixing the diced citrus peel for the fruit bread.
“Ummm! Smells good in here,” he said, as he tossed his hat on the table and pulled her onto his lap. “Nice to find you home, honey,” he whispered against her cheek. “Real nice.”
Shirley sat quietly in his arms wondering why he hadn’t told her before that it mattered whether she was here when he got home.
She and Kit and Leone had been in the habit of meeting for lunch nearly every day, and visiting until time for their husbands to be home. No, she hadn’t thought it made any difference to Joe.
“Guess what?” he laughed. “The boss gave us our choice of a five-pound box of candy or a fifteen-pound turkey. I took the turkey. I dashed right out to the warehouse and had my first pick. It is a beauty, clean as a whistle, and not a pin feather!”
Shirley kept her face hidden on Joe’s shoulder. She really didn’t understand him at all. This Joe who was helping her get ready for her mother wasn’t the foot-loose bachelor she had thought she married.
Joe must have secretly despised the way they had been living, snatching meals any old place at any old time. He must have thought she didn’t know how to cook or make things attractive. But she did know how, she thought, defensively, because her mother had taught her before she came to California to work. But Joe had told her he liked canned stew and tamales, and those frozen pies they advertised on television.
She got to her feet with a little bounce. She’d really show him a thing or two that he didn’t know about her.
“Would you like a nice steak?” she suggested, twinkling at him. “And a baked potato?”
“Baked potatoes take time,” he argued. “I’m a starving man.”
Shirley shook her head. “I put them in the oven when I baked the pies. They’re nearly done. And I made popovers, too. Mother’s recipe. never fails.”
Joe gave her a strange look.
“Sounds good,” he said. “And then after dinner, let’s go shopping for that family.”
Shirley swung around.
“But, Joe! We don’t know about them yet. How many or anything.”
He took a slip of paper from his wallet.
“Yes, we do. Mrs. Lucy Groves, a widow with six little kids. Oldest boy eight. How about slacks and a sweater for him?”
“And a space helmet?” Shirley suggested.
“Why, sure! A space helmet. Why didn’t I think of that? And there’s another boy, six, and four little girls. We’ll have to go doll hunting, too. Maybe you can make some extra doll clothes.”
Shirley threw her hands up. “Now listen, Mr. Joe Markham,” she said flatly. “I’m knee-deep already. I haven’t time for doll clothes.”
A flashy, yellow convertible whizzed into the driveway, and a horn honked as though the owner felt very chipper.
“What the blazes!” Joe grumbled, looking out of the window. “Here’s Kit and Phil. We haven’t time for company!”
But they stayed for dinner. Shirley had enough potatoes and she cut the big sirloin steak into four pieces. There were plenty of string beans and a green salad and the popovers were delicious with apricot jam.
Phil leaned back in his chair with a quizzical grin.
“Say, Shirley, I didn’t know you could cook. I thought you’d starve if you lost the can opener. Just like us.”
“Hidden talent,” Shirley tossed back.
Joe ate as though he had been starving for weeks. Once he glanced at Shirley wonderingly, but there was a flash of pride in it, too.
“Who’s fighting on TV tonight?” Phil asked.
Joe answered quickly, “We can’t watch TV tonight, Phil. Or the rest of the week. We’ve got a family to care for.”
“A family!” Phil repeated.
“A bunch of little kids who need a Santa Claus,” Joe explained.
Phil took a drink of water, then put his glass down thoughtfully. “So you’re playing Santa Claus,” he mused. “You’re the last guy in the world I expected to see in a red suit and long white whiskers!”
Joe’s head jerked up.
“Say, that’s an idea. White whiskers and a red suit. Thanks, Phil. Shirley’s mother will like that. We want everything right for her.”
Shirley couldn’t swallow. Joe meant it, she thought, the wonder of it swelling in her heart. He is going to dress up for those kids!
“I don’t get it, Joe,” Phil went on. “You need relaxation after that grind at the office. A trip to Las Vegas would be just the medicine.”
Joe shook his head.
“Not for us, Phil. We have a job to do. That’s why we have to shop tonight. Want to go along?”
Phil looked across the table at Kit.
She nodded. “Let’s go along. We might find something cute for my sister’s kids instead of giving them a check.”
The next afternoon Kit and Leone came over while Shirley was baking the fruit bread.
“I had a brainstorm after we got home last night,” Kit explained. “I told Leone about those dolls you bought. So we rummaged through our stuff!”
She dumped a sackful of bright ribbons, laces, and fluffy bits of fur on the glass-topped table before the fireplace.
Shirley stared at them. There were enough to make fancy doll clothes for a dozen dolls; little hats, too, and velvet coats trimmed with fur.
Leone and Kit began to sort them over, chatting about a piece of light blue taffeta that would make an adorable dress for a yellow-haired doll.
Shirley couldn’t believe it! Leone and Kit making doll clothes! They had worked in the same office with her, and since they married last August they had lived as they pleased.
That is, Shirley thought, they had been like that until this moment. Now they were natural young women, bent over a table of doll clothes. It was as though flowers had blossomed through the snow.
Shirley’s throat was suddenly dry and aching. She was terribly afraid she was going to cry, so she made an excuse and went back to the kitchen. She sliced a loaf of fresh fruit bread, poured three glasses of milk, and put them on a tray with a plate of nippy cheese.
If Mother were preparing this, she thought, she would have a flower in a vase to set it off, and she would carry the tray as though it were loaded with precious jewels. Every woman is a queen in her own home, she had told Shirley many times.
All at once, and for the first time since she had left home a year ago, Shirley was very lonesome for her mother. Why hadn’t she appreciated the countless little things she had done to make their home a place of comfort, harmony, and loveliness, during those unsettled years when Shirley was growing up?
Even when their finances were low and Daddy was away on some project, still her mother had been able, somehow, to make things attractive.
Shirley stood very still remembering turnip greens topped with sliced hard-boiled eggs and bran muffins fresh from the oven.
And she could see again the red geraniums encircled with sprigs of homegrown holly in the center of their Christmas table the lean year that her Daddy didn’t send a check.
With her eyes misty she reached for the African violet on the window ledge and placed it in the middle of the tray; then she lifted her head and carried it proudly into the living room as though it were loaded with something precious.
Joe brought the tree home on Saturday morning. They decided to decorate it before her mother arrived at six o’clock.
The Christmas Eve dinner was in the oven ready to be served when they returned from the airport. Shirley had planned one of her mother’s special dinners: a Boston butt roast of pork, baked apples, a casserole of navy beans flavored with molasses and mustard, brown bread, and a tossed green salad.
The tree was twice as large as Shirley had expected, but Joe was so pleased with it she didn’t have the heart to suggest that they exchange it for a smaller one, even though they would have to move the piano or the television out of the living room to make a place for it.
After they moved the television set and put the big tree in front of the picture window, Shirley sat down on the settee to rest a bit. She took a long, deep breath, thinking how everything smelled like Christmas. The pungent odor of pine, the oranges and apples on the buffet; the spicy fragrance from the plum pudding she had decided to make at the last minute, and the dinner baking in the oven.
She watched Joe sprinkle the tree with sparkling snow. It was their very first tree together, and all the ornaments were brand new. When he touched them his eyes were eager and bright, as though it were the first tree he had ever really owned. Maybe it is, she thought, remembering that he had lived in a boys’ school until he was sixteen.
Her heart tightened and she closed her eyes. If it hadn’t been for her mother, Joe wouldn’t be trimming a tree; there wouldn’t be a huge box in the back of their car loaded with dolls and toys and good things to eat, and nice warm sweaters and slacks and – she swallowed hard – and pretty little doll clothes that Kit and Leone had made, all ready for Lucy Groves’ children. And their own home would be a shining miracle with Christmas in every corner!
Shirley got to her feet quickly and began to unwind the tinsel for Joe to drape on the branches.
“Pretty stuff,” he smiled. but she didn’t answer. She was too choked up.
It was a busy afternoon, but by five o’clock everything was ready. Joe stood I the center of the living room with a big, satisfied smile.
“Think she’ll like it?” he asked Shirley. “Have we forgotten anything?”
“She’ll love it, Joe. And we haven’t forgotten a thing.”
The doorbell rang.
“Merry Christmas,” Phil called. “We’re in a hurry, but we stopped by anyway.”
“Good!” Joe said. “Come in.”
They trailed in with their gaily colored packages.
“Sure wish you two were going along!”
Phil slapped Joe on the back.
“We’ll miss you,” Steve said in his jolly way.
“Same here,” Joe answered.
Kit and Leone were strangely quiet as they put their packages under the big, sparkling tree and took the packages Shirley handed to them in return.
“Ummm! Sure smells good in here!” Phil clicked his tongue.
“It sure does,” Steve echoed. “Smells like Christmas when I was a kid.”
Leone pulled her fur stole close around her as though she was shivering.
“Let’s go,” she said.
The telephone rang sharply, and Shirley hurried to answer it. Maybe the plane had arrived ahead of time, she thought.
But it was a telegram. A crisp voice read the message:
Sorry I cannot be with you. Neighbor very ill in hospital. Her children need me. Please forgive me, my darlings. I love you. Mother.
Shirley couldn’t breathe. Silently she handed the receiver to Joe who asked the girl to repeat the message.
Everyone crowded around them, but Shirley bent her head and covered her face with her hands. The house seemed suddenly dark and empty. All their work and planning had crumbled to nothing.
“Oh, Joe,” she said bleakly as his arms went around her.
“What a shame!” Kit murmured. “You’ve worked night and day. And now she can’t be here!”
“Tough break,” Phil consoled them.
“Let’s make the best of it,” Steve joined in. “Now you can go to Las Vegas with us.”
Las Vegas, Shirley repeated to herself. She looked at Joe. He drew a long breath and wet his lips.
“It’s up to Shirley,” he said slowly. “But somehow her mother seems right here with us – because – well, because everything she loves about Christmas is right here. If we chase off to Las Vegas, I’d feel we were letting her down and letting ourselves down, too. But it’s up to Shirley.”
A little pulse began to beat in Shirley’s throat. She and Joe were free now to go to Las Vegas. They could have Christmas a la carte or any old way they wanted it. Her eyes moved to the big tree shimmering in the window, and back again to Joe’s face. He loved that tree and all it meant to him and everything else they had done for Christmas: all the work and plans.
She met Joe’s eyes and a sort of magic brushed between them.
“Why don’t you all stay right here with us?” she offered, smiling. “We’ll have such fun out there with those children – then we’ll come back for dinner and open our gifts and sing carols …”
Her voice trailed off wistfully, as she saw Kit’s surprised face. Then she noticed Leone was biting her lip and pulling on her gloves. Steve and Phil looked as though someone had asked them to go up in a balloon.
At last Steve said, “That’s a swell idea, but we promised our wives a trip to Las Vegas.”
“That’s right,” Phil agreed. “We promised.”
Leone bent her head and started to cry.
“Why, baby!” Steve said, “don’t cry. We’re going.”
“But – I – don’t want – to go!” her voice broke into pieces. ‘I want to watch those little girls play with the doll clothes we made!”
“So do I,” Kit chimed in, “but I was afraid to say so.”
Phil tossed his hat up in the air and danced her around the room. “Hurray!” he yelled. “Merry Christmas!”
Steve grinned like a kid who had just found a dime in his pocket.
Joe winked at Shirley and his smile had wonder in it. All the wonder of Christmas.