From the Relief Society Magazine, 1933 –
Aunt Cheer’s “White Elephant” Party
By Elsie Chamberlain Carroll
As I looked up from the patch I was putting on Junior’s coveralls, I saw Aunt Cheer coming briskly up the walk. She had been gone all summer and I suddenly realized how much we needed her. Instantly my worries over the tonsil operation Dr. Rayner said Millie needed and the shabbiness of Fred’s overcoat and even the overdue taxes slipped from my mind in anticipation of a visit with Aunt Cheer who had made her personality the reflection of her name.
I opened the door as she came panting up the steps.
“It’s so good to have you back,” I said, leading her into the living room and taking her little old fashioned lace bonnet and black plush cape.
“Well, it’s good to be back,” she said, settling herself in the rocker I had pushed near the fire. “I’m not going to ask how you are, Kate. I’m sick and tired of hearing about the depression and all the calamities that have happened to everybody since I left last spring. I’m surprised at the lack of backbone this town seems to have. Hard times! My sakes alive, Kate, folks living now don’t know the A.B.C.’s of hard times. The idea of letting a few bank failures and the loss of a few jobs and cuts in wages make folks afraid to live – afraid to get married, to have babies, afraid even to die. Why, there didn’t used to be any banks in Chester, and wages consisted of a share in farm products or a few head of sheep or cattle – and we were happy in those days.”
I sat down and took up my patching again, wondering how people had ever been able to live without money to buy things they had to have.
“Afraid to live,” Aunt Cheer repeated her own words, “that’s it exactly. And afraid to die. I just came from Hannah Warner’s. You know how she’s been praying to die for years – ever since George went and her rheumatism got bad. Well, it seems that the money she had put away for her funeral was in the South End bank and now she’s worrying about dying and not having as nice a funeral as Nancy Edwards had. You know how Hannah and Nancy were always trying to outdo each other in the whiteness of their washings, the richness of their plum puddings and the number of ruffles on their petticoats.”
Aunt Cheer sniffed disgustedly and reached for her little velvet bag in which she always carried her knitting. Fads in hand work had come and gone in Aunt Cheer’s day – from netting to tatting, from tatting to crocheting and so on. But Aunt Cheer had remained true to her ball of grey yarn and four steel needles. “There’s always someone glad of a pair of nice wool socks,” she would say, “even if they’re not in fashion.”
“Before I went to Hannah’s,” the old lady went on, “I called in at Ella Drake’s. She’s so down in the dumps that you’d think she’d lost Jim or one of the children. And all in the world that’s the matter is that she’s going to have another baby. She’s worrying because they can’t afford for her to go to the maternity home or have a registered nurse. … ‘Land sakes, Ella,’ I told her, ‘when you was born your ma didn’t even have a private bedroom to go to. Her bed was right out in the front room which happened to be the kitchen and dining room and bath and pantry as well. And I was the midwife and your pa helped with the nursing. And all the layette she had was a few little clothes she’d made out of a couple of sheets and some flour sacks. But sakes alive, Ella,’ I told her, ‘she was tickled to death when she knew you were coming, and she kept you as sweet and clean as any baby you ever had, with all your fancy flummadiddles.’”
I knew how discouraged Ella had been the last few months and was glad Aunt Cheer had been to see her.
“Then after I left Ella’s,” the old lady went on, “I went in to see Lucy Peters and found her Grace who used to be so bright and sunny moping around like a funeral because she and Ken Ray are afraid to get married this fall as they had planned. She said Ken has lost his job so now they’ll have to wait. Well, I told her, she needs some of her Grandma Peters’ spirit. You’ve heard the story I guess about how Sam Peters used to freight in the early days and how when he and Mary were engaged and planned to get married after he’d made one more freighting trip, some Indians stole his mules on that very trip and he came home discouraged and went up to see Mary and tell her they’d have to call the wedding off. ‘We can’t get married, Mary,’ he told her. ‘The Indians stole my mules and I had to hire someone else to bring my load in.’
“‘Do you know what your Grandma Peters did then?’ I asked Grace. ‘Well, she went up to your grandpa and put her arms around him and said, ‘Why, Sam, it wasn’t your mules I wanted to marry.’ And they were married the very next day and lived for two years in a dug-out. That’s where Grace’s Pa was born, and I told her I have yet to see a happier young couple than her Grandpa and Grandma were.”
Aunt Cheer rocked back and forth for a few moments in silence, her shining needles clicking off the stitches on the grey socks. Presently she put her knitting down on her narrow lap and looked at me.
“Kate,” she said earnestly, “the reason folks are afraid to live, as I was saying a few minutes ago, is that they’ve got so they think too much about things, and about having just the same kind of things that everybody else has. It’s like I read somewhere, we spend our lives living in quotation marks. We’re afraid to be our natural selves and enjoy the things that really count in living a simple, wholesome life. Maybe it takes something like a depression to bring us back to our senses once in a while and show us real values. Money isn’t essential to happiness as most folks have got to thinking it is.” She took up her knitting again.
I protested that money seemed to be essential for a lot of things, and I held up Junior’s be-patched coveralls and I mentioned Fred’s four-year-old overcoat and Millie’s needed operation.
For a few seconds Aunt Cheer’s needles clicked furiously. Then she suddenly reached for her ball and thrust her needles into it and slipped it inside the old velvet bag.
“Kate,” she said with a little tremor of excitement in her voice, “I can see I’ve got to take a hand in this depression business and show the folks of this town something about the simple life. We all need a little fun. I’m going home and plan a party.”
It wasn’t many days before people for the first time in months were talking over back fences and at street corners about something beside the depression.
“What’s Aunt Cheer up to now?” Minnie Fletcher asked me one morning when she came to bring back a bowl of sugar she had borrowed. “She had all the boy scouts in town out to her place this morning and they’re taking notes to everybody in town. Here’s one Teddy was to bring over to you but I told him I’d bring it.”
The note was on brown paper and said:
Dear Fred and Kate,
Have you a ‘white elephant’ you’d like to get rid of? I mean something you don’t need anymore, like those glass cases, Kate, you used to use in your millinery store, or one of those five steers you weren’t able to sell last spring, Fred. Bring your white elephant, or a description of it, to the white elephant party to be given in the town hall next Friday afternoon. Maybe the children have some little white elephants, too – books or toys they have out-grown or become tired of.
I’m counting on you.
We had grown so used through the years of doing whatever Aunt Cheer suggested that everyone in town fell into line now. Fred said he’d be darned glad to have one less steer to feed and I had certainly wished for years that I could get rid of those glass cases that were cluttering up the attic, without downright destroying them. The children were excited over being invited to a “big folks’” party and began to hunt up books and toys.
Minnie Fletcher was asked to send her baby carriage and crib that had been stowed away since little Benny died. At first she felt that she couldn’t do it, but finally decided that keeping them to brood over wasn’t doing anybody any good; and she fixed up little Benny’s clothes and toys to send along too.
Lucy Peters was asked to bring the phonograph she hadn’t used since they’d got their radio. Maude Barrows was asked if she wouldn’t like to give a few hours of the leisure time she didn’t know what to do with, to help out with the kindergarten that was about to be discontinued. Ella Drake was asked if the room over her wash house wasn’t a white elephant she’d like to fix up for old man Potter and his little grandson to live in until spring, and Dr. Raynor was invited to contribute a few white elephants in the form of operations, he now had plenty of time for. Tony Damigo was reminded that he might have some time for shoe-mending he’d like to offer and Paul Black that perhaps he’d like to dispose of some of the huge wood pile he’d hauled hoping to sell it to the laundry that had closed down.
Aunt Cheer didn’t miss anyone. Everyone was invited to the party and everyone was asked to bring a tangible or intangible “white elephant” to exchange for the elephant of someone else.
The pall of inaction and gloom which had hovered over the community for months was miraculously lifted. Everybody was laughing and talking about Aunt Cheer’s party.
A second note brought around by the scouts asked each family to contribute something for the community picnic to be a part of the party.
Early Friday morning the white elephants began to arrive at the town hall. By noon the rooms leading off from the assembly room were overflowing with furniture, clothing, bedding, food. Outside were boxes of chickens, bales of hay, lumber, shingles – even a wagon and a span of horses. Besides these Aunt Cheer held a great sheaf of notes describing white elephants in the form of music lessons, false teeth, lodgings, baby-tending, laundry work.
By four o’clock the hall was filled with a laughing, joking throng of people. As Fred and the children and I were going to the party we saw Grace Peters and Ken Ray coming out of the Peters’ gate. Grace called to us to wait.
“Ken and I are going to be married next week,” she said. “We want you to come to the wedding. Mother is fixing up the two back bedrooms for us and we’re going to be awfully cozy. I think it will be more fun than in the Randall apartments we used to talk about.”
When we reached the hall we found a happy hubbub. There was no trace of the gloom we had grown accustomed to during the last year.
When Aunt Cheer mounted the steps to the stage we all became quiet.
“Well, folks,” she began. “I guess it’s time to begin our party. I believe we’ve all had a good time getting ready for it. I haven’t heard anyone mention the depression for nearly a week. If we’ve got rid of that old bug-a-boo for that long, why can’t we keep him away permanently?
“Now if you’ll all sit down and be comfortable we’ll see what we can do about exchanging our white elephants.”
The first thing she offered for exchange was an old rocking chair Clair Beebee’s grandpa had made when he first came to the Valley. Mamie Lovelace, whose Aunt in the city is crazy about old relics, offered ten days’ sewing – making old or new clothes – for it, and Clair with all that brood she can hardly keep dressed, was as pleased as she could be. When Dr. Rankin’s order for a set of false teeth was read, old Pap Ipson offered his over-supply of apples and potatoes. Minnie Fletcher’s cradle and baby buggy and Benny’s little clothes went to the Taggert twins exchanged for so many hours of snow shoveling and ash-hauling by the twins’ father.
I had no idea anyone would want my old glass millinery cases, but John Haddock, the president of the school board, said the High School needed them for the domestic art department and he offered a thirty dollar warrant – good for taxes. One of the tonsil operations offered by Dr. Raynor was taken by Sally Parks in exchange for a bushel of rare bulbs from her garden that always takes the first prize at the annual flower shows, and we got the other operation for Millie for a quarter of the steer Fred couldn’t afford to feed.
One after another amid shouts of merriment, the white elephants exchanged owners. The children’s exchange was conducted in one of the anterooms and produced as much happiness as a real Christmas morning.
“The final offerings,” Aunt Cheer explained when everything else was disposed of, “are not really white elephants; maybe they’re pink ones,” she added with a little chuckle. “They’ll at least help us to keep the depression in the background. They are some splendid entertainments to be given at various times during the winter: a play by the dramatic art department of the high school, a concert by the church choir, a carnival dance by the men’s clubs and a community dinner by the ladies’ clubs, and a jamboree by the boy scouts.
“Now there is just one more before we enjoy the picnic part of our party. It is a plan for an exchange of books and magazines. I’ve appointed myself circulating manager and I’ll call on all of you to co-operate so we can all enjoy the books and magazines our friends have as well as our own. You’ll hear more about this later. Thanks for coming to my party and making it a success. I hope it has helped to show you that money isn’t such an important thing as we have imagined, and that sometimes if we lose one job we can make others for ourselves. If we can do these things we’ll force this old man depression from our midst and the first thing we know Prosperity will come rushing around the corner.”