From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1958 –
Christmas Is Where the Heart Is
Rosa Lee Lloyd
Kitsy Hardwick kicked off her soft leather flats and flopped down on the bed beside her roommate Marcia Sloan.
“Whew!” she breathed. “Only two more days until Christmas. I leave for home tomorrow. I can hardly wait!”
Marcia raised herself to her elbows, opened her brown eyes with their tentative twinkle, sizing her up.
“You’re the silliest!” she said. “Here we are at State Hill College and all you do is brag about going home for Christmas. Why don’t you grow up?”
Kitsy’s blue eyes deepened, sensitively, but she hung on to her smile. She couldn’t let Marcia know she had hit her weak spot. Being grown-up seemed to be the most important thing to Marcia. You had to be emancipated, as she called it, and think for yourself. You couldn’t mope around because you were homesick for your mother and your dad nor talk about how wonderful everything had been at home. That was strictly juvenile, according to Marcia, who was going on eighteen, a year older than Kitsy.
“I like your new flats,” Marcia said irrelevantly, sliding to the side of the bed and stepping into them. “Look, they just fit. I thought they’d be too small because you’re such a little twerp.”
“I’m five feet two!” Kitsy defended herself. “And I’m one hundred and five pounds. Even my brother Bill says that’s okay.”
“I guess it’s just your attitude,” Marcia said slowly, tipping her dark head sideways, sizing her up again. “You’re the baby doll type. But you’ll learn,” she added, hopefully. “Give you another year here at State Hill and you’ll be real fun for Christmas. Look at me. I have a date with Cliff Hyland. Howie Grant will be with us, too, because they aren’t going way up home to Montana for Christmas.”
Kitsy wondered how Marcia could possibly endure a Christmas like that. Then she remembered that Marcia’s mother was away traveling. But Marcia never talked about it. She was too busy having fun.
“Cliff has told me about turkey newberg at Harvey’s Place,” Marcia was saying. “Howie might get a job singing there Christmas Eve.”
“Howie has forgotten Christmas,” Kitsy said flatly.
Marcia’s eyes narrowed.
“I don’t know why he likes you so well, Kitsy,” she said tightly. “But he does. You know that. That’s why you try to whittle him down all the time.”
“He likes me?” Kitsy sat upright. “All he can talk about is football. I tried to help him with his English I, and where did I get? He made fun of all the poets.”
Marcia nodded. “I know,” she conceded. “Howie is strictly commercial. That’s because he has to earn his way through school.”
“He doesn’t seem to have a heart,” Kitsy said. “He’s always clowning and pulling faces. I don’t believe he ever really thinks about life and things, or even Christmas!”
“Look who’s talking big!” Marcia said. Her eyes were very bright as she walked to the door. “I’m going down to dinner. Hope they have something sweet,” she said as she went out.
Kitsy lay back on the bed and turned her face to the wall.
She couldn’t live through Christmas if she and her brother Bill weren’t going home to Orchardville. She had to be with her family in their big, two story white frame house on Poppy Street.
Closing her eyes, Kitsy pretended to sleep, even though it was nearly dinner time. Dinner, Mom and Dad would be having dinner in the dining room with the long French windows that opened out to the garden. Now the trees and bushes would be fluffy white with snow; even the big tall pine by the front porch would have drippy little ice crystals that would glimmer in the moonlight and in the sunlight, too. it was the prettiest tree on Poppy Street. They decorated it every Christmas with gaily colored lights clear up to the tiptop branches.
Uncle Sid and Aunt Peg flew up from Los Angeles, because they thought Christmas at the Hardwicks was just perfect.
Thinking of Aunt Peg made Kitsy feel warm inside. She was Mom’s sister, five years younger, and she was very gay and cute, even if she was nearly forty.
“We’re one big family,” Dad often said to them in his hearty way. “Our home is your home.”
Home, Kitsy whispered to herself, her throat pinching in. Home. It was the most beautiful word in the world, even if Marcia didn’t seem to care about it or wouldn’t talk about her parents.
Kitsy’s eyes went to the clock as she swung her feet to the floor. She had to eat because she had skipped luncheon and had eaten a candy bar instead.
The telephone rang sharply. At the sound of Bill’s voice her heart quickened. It was good to have a brother here at school, even if he was pinned to Barbara Edwards, who acted as though she owned him.
Sometimes Bill had a sort of upper-classman attitude toward her, but tonight his voice was different, solicitous and gentle, trying to tell her something without hurting her.
Fear tightened her throat. Their father had just telephoned, Bill told her. Mom had been working too hard and she was so tired this morning that she couldn’t get out of bed. Dad had called Dr. Wilkins.
“A heart attack!” Kitsy moaned. “Oh, Bill, please say she’s all right.”
“But she is,” he went on. “It wasn’t a heart attack, just tension and overwork getting ready for Christmas the way she does. Dr. Wilkins put a stop to it right off. He had Dad bring her up to the hospital here in Center City so she can have proper care and rest. They’ve closed the house up for a while.”
Kitsy couldn’t breathe. Her world was crumbling into little pieces. “Bill,” she choked brokenly, “please – take me to her.”
“Dad’s on his way to pick you up,” he said, consolingly. Then he added in his usual, big brother way, “Now don’t make a scene, Kit. Dad wants us to let Mom think that we like the idea of having Christmas here in Center City. He had a hard time getting her away from home. So it’s up to us to convince her it’s a great idea. Meet dad out in front in ten minutes. I’ll follow you to the hospital.”
Kitsy put the telephone back in its cradle with a little sob. Mom was sick. Her precious, lovely, queenly mother, who was the best hostess in Orchardville, taking care of others with ease and grace and never complaining that the big house was too much work, was suddenly unable to do it any more. Now the house was dark and locked up, and Christmas had disappeared like a song blown away on a frost wind.
Shouldering into her coat, Kitsy ran from the room. She was halfway down the stairs when she met Marcia. Brokenly she repeated what Bill had told her.
“Dad will be waiting,” she said, trying to edge past her. But Marcia stood resolutely in the middle of the stairway.
“Now, listen,” she said. Her eyes had steely little glints. “Don’t go out to meet your Dad until you can smile. He needs you to make him feel okay about all this.”
Anger flared in Kitsy. What made Marcia think she knew so much about the way to handle parents?
“Look who’s talking! You don’t know what it’s like to love a home the way I do – or to have your mother so sick you can’t have Christmas. So let me go, Marcia.”
Blinking her eyes, Marcia turned her head, but not before Kitsy had seen her lips tremble.
“Oh, Marcia – I didn’t mean …” Kitsy reached toward her.
“You did!” Marcia moved so Kitsy could get by.
The hospital room was very white and still and Mom looked rested and almost happy.
“Isn’t this ridiculous?” she laughed as she held Kitsy close. “I feel so well! But your father insists that I stay here.”
“He certainly does!” Dad laughed back. “She’s going to take it easy from now on.”
“But what about Christmas?” Mom questioned anxiously, holding to Kitsy’s hands.
Kitsy swallowed hard, hoping her smile looked real and not like a dummy’s grin.
“We’ll get along fine,” she managed. “So please don’t worry, Mom.”
“Peg and Sid will be leaving California in the morning,” Mom went on. “Why don’t you and Bill convince your Dad that the best thing for you all is to go home and have a real Christmas.”
Dad shook his head.
“Without you, Kathryn? Oh, no. We’re all staying here in Center City for Christmas. I can have dinner here with you, the nurse says. Peg and Sid will be with Kitsy and Bill. So don’t worry, darling. Let someone else take the responsibility for a change.”
“But, Richard!” Mom protested weakly. “I want Christmas to be the way it’s always been for us.”
Bill came in then and gave Mom a big kiss.
“That’s for you!” he said grinning.
A starchy white nurse followed him in. She gave Dad a telegram. They all watched excitedly as he opened it. His lips quirked the way they did when he was very amused.
“Well – tell us!” Mom demanded.
“It’s a big surprise,” he laughed. “Peg expects a baby any day now. They were planning to come here hoping the baby might be born at our house around Christmas. But now, since they heard you were in the hospital, they’ll stay home, of course.”
“A baby!” Mom said tearfully. “How wonderful. We could’ve had the baby for Christmas – if I hadn’t been sick!”
“Now, Kathryn,” Dad soothed her. “I think it’s high time Peg and Sid made a Christmas for themselves.”
“Yeah,” Bill agreed. “Better late than never. I’ll bet Uncle Sid is sitting on the moon.”
Kitsy felt sick all over as she kissed Mom gently, and tried desperately not to break down when she left the room with Dad and Bill.
“I’m counting on you, Bill,” Dad said. “See that your sister is taken care of on Christmas. I’ll give you a check to cover meals at a nice place. Your gifts are at my hotel.”
His heavy dark brows drew together anxiously as he looked down at them.
“We must let your mother think that this is fun for you both. That is her chief worry – that she is letting you down.”
Bill touched his shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” he reassured him. “We’ll be okay. Won’t we, Kit? We’ll have a big time. Tell Mom that.”
Riding back to the dorm in his old car, Kitsy noticed Bill had slumped down in a sulky pout.
“I’m in a spot,” he said, avoiding her eyes. “Barbara wants me to go to Lakeridge to meet her folks now that I’m not going home for Christmas. After all, I am pinned to Barbara.”
Kitsy drew a long, quivering breath. Yes, Bill was pinned to Barbara; but did he have to go to her folks for Christmas, now, when she needed him so terribly?
She turned her head, squeezing her eyes shut to hold the tears back, and watched the car lights on the slippery wet pavement. Bill was having a hard time steering. How would he ever take Barbara to Lakeridge in this shaking wreck?
“You need a car, Bill,” she said, impulsively. “Dad should give you his car and get a new one. I’ll ask him for you.”
He gave her a quick glance.
“Are you kidding?” he asked.
‘No – I’m not kidding,” she answered. “This old thing is dangerous. Dad hasn’t noticed it. That’s all.”
His eyes were puzzled.
“Why should you ask him for me?” he demanded.
“Because I want you to look respectable when you go to Barbara’s folks for Christmas.”
There! She had said it in one breath. And she had been very grown-up about it, too. Even Marcia with all her wise talk couldn’t have done any better than that.
Bill was very quiet and his eyes were worried. Kitsy knew he wanted to keep his promise to Dad, too. He will have to work it out in his own way, she thought sadly.
“Where will you have Christmas?” he asked, abruptly.
“Oh, here and there.” She forced a carefree laugh as Bill stopped the car in front of the dorm. “Maybe at Harvey’s Place,” she added as she got out.
“Harvey’s Place!” he gasped. “You can’t go there. No sister of mine is going to spend Christmas like that. Where is your friend Marcia going?”
“Any place where there’s fun!” she answered.
“But Christmas!” he exploded. “I won’t let you.”
Kitsy spun around on her toes. “I’m on my own this Christmas, Bill,” she said.
“Is that so!” he muttered. “Don’t forget you’re just a little freshman up here.”
“I’ll learn,” she called back as she hurried up the pathway. Bill must not know how awful she felt, how deserted. She reached a dark corner of the big porch before she began to cry.
She lifted her head as the door opened. Marcia came out in her wool skirt and sweater. Kitsy could see her plainly in the shaft of light from the hallway.
“Hi!” she called. “That you, Kit?”
Kitsy dabbed at her eyes. She wouldn’t let Marcia see her cry for a million dollars.
Howie and Bart were lounging in big chairs in the living room, but they unwound their long legs and got to their feet, lifting their hands greeting her. Howie took her coat.
“Hello, Kitsy,” he said, almost gently. “We thought you might be hungry. Even little frosh should eat now and then.”
Gazing up at him, Kitsy thought he looked like a gentleman in that white shirt and black tie. And his brown hair was newly clipped to a shiny stubble. He’s really good looking. Why hadn’t she noticed before that his eyes were a nice steady gray?
“I’m starving!” she admitted.
“We thought you would be,” Marcia said. “So I asked Mrs. McBride if we could use the kitchen to fix you some dinner.”
Kitsy tried to smile. They all knew her trouble. Marcia must have told them. But they weren’t going to mention it or notice that she had been crying. They knew better than that.
They went out to the kitchen and Howie pushed her into a chair. Then he draped a towel over his arm pretending to be a waiter.
“Would Madame like ze hot dog in ze bun or on ze plate?” he questioned, striking a pose.
“She’ll take it fried,” Bart said, pouring grease in a pan.
“Boil it,” Marcia ordered. “Fry these potatoes in that grease. And there’s plenty of jello for all of us, with whipped cream.”
Sitting there at the kitchen table, Kitsy looked at each of them wonderingly. They were being good to her. She was sure they had planned to go to the party at the gym tonight. That was why Howie and Bart were dressed up. But, instead, they had stayed here to help her when she came from the hospital. She would always love them for this.
“I like whipped cream,” Howie said, smacking his lips. “I even like it on fruit cake and mince pie or Swedish short bread like my mother makes. Boy, can she cook and does she always spread it on for Christmas …”
His voice trailed off, wistfully.
No one spoke. They all pretended to be very busy, eating. That was the first time Howie had ever sounded homesick.
Kitsy looked at him sideways. He was looking at her.
“It’s like this,” he said, leaning toward her. “My mother sent me a big fruit cake. That’s my favorite. We can have it with whipped cream any time you say. We want you to have a good Christmas, Kit, with all the shiny things like stars and music.”
There was a big hot lump in her throat. Howie was trying to make her happy; it was in his eyes and his voice and his nice manners. He wasn’t just someone who made fun of life and all the poets. He liked everything sacred about Christmas. He had been homesick, too, so he had acted crazy and cut-up all the time to hide his real feelings. So had Bart and Marcia. Kitsy hadn’t realized before that all the other students had problems, too. Especially at Christmas. Howie and Bart had to work their way through school, and they couldn’t afford to go home, but Marcia had it hardest of all because her parents would not be home. She never mentioned how heartsick she was.
I’ve been selfish, Kitsy thought, as her heart reached out to them, wanting to do something wonderful for them.
“Now, look,” she said, in a catchy little voice as she got a brave idea. “I’d like to fix a Christmas dinner for us all. Right here. If Mrs. McBride will let us.”
Howie dropped his spoon with a little clang. Bart took a long drink of water, and Marcia wet her lips before she answered.
“We can ask her,” she said. “This place is deserted on Christmas. I think she’ll let us.”
“Sounds super!” Bart said.
Howie had bent over to pick up his spoon. When he raised his head his eyes were beaming.
“I’ll stuff a turkey!” Kitsy offered. “I’ve watched Mom do it for years. I know how!”
“How many years!” Howie scoffed.
Marcia’s eyes met Kitsy’s for a long, understanding moment. They both knew she was grown-up now, but, of course, you couldn’t let boys know everything. They had to believe they were the greatest.
Howie stood up and pulled a long solemn face to hide how glad he was. “I’ve got an extra job for tomorrow singing at Gazett’s Toyland. And Bart here is their Santa Claus. So we’ll be rich. Now Christmas is for sure!”
Christmas is for sure, Kitsy repeated to herself. She knew now that Christmas can never be lost. People might go away and situations change, but Christmas is always a shining, beautiful time of loving and giving and helping others to have fun, too. You have to hold on to Christmas and once you are sure of this, you never let go of it again.
She smiled up at Howie.
“Do me a favor?” she asked him.
“Kitsy,” he said, “You are now looking at a man who will get you the moon if you ask him for it.”
“A song will do,” she answered. “For Mom. On Christmas Eve. I think she’d like that.”
“Sure,” he said, his eyes crinkling. “It’s a date. I’ll be proud to do it, Kit.”
Howie does have a heart, Kitsy thought, as her heart lifted and sang. He really does!