from the Relief Society Magazine, January 1937
A Manger and a Barn
By Eva Willes Wangsgard
Mrs. Brown was singing as she took the cookies from the oven. It was a long time since she had felt so happy. For the first time in weeks she was free from worry over how her family would be sheltered during the winter. They had always lived from hand to mouth and now her husband had been out of work for some time. It had always taken every cent Mr. Brown could possibly make for the necessities of life, for the Browns had six children and the parents were now just twenty-eight years old. Responsibilities had descended upon these two young things with such weight that they were all but submerged.
When they had had just twenty dollars left to face the winter her husband had asked, “Shall we take this last twenty dollars and pay for one more month’s rent? maybe something will show up in a month.”
A sudden thought had occurred to Mrs. Brown. “No,” she answered. “You know that old barn that father moved up by the foothills for housing his cattle when he brought them to town to sell? Well, he lined it with bricks and divided it into rooms so that he could stop there himself sometimes and save hotel bills while he was in the city. He even plastered some of the rooms. We could go up there, clean it out, and use that twenty dollars to make the necessary repairs. Then we would be sure of a house of some sort as long as living like this is necessary.”
They walked up to look the prospects over that evening. The old barn looked so ugly and impossible that Mr. brown exclaimed, “We can’t live here!”
“We not only can, but we will,” said Mrs. Brown, and so they had. They were sure of shelter and warmth for the winter and Mrs. Brown was almost happy. The “almost” was because Peggy, their little ten-year-old daughter, was so miserable. Naturally Peggy was a cheerful, happy child. She had blond hair that curled in tight little ringlets all over her head and her eyes were as blue as violets in the spring woods, but ever since she entered the new school she had been unhappy. The rings under her eyes were almost as violet as her eyes and rested like rain clouds on her pale face.
While her mother baked cookies and smiled, Peggy was walking home from school with two girls from her class, Evelyn Higganbotham and Mary Lee. Evelyn was talking animatedly to Mary Lee in a tone and manner that effectively shut Peggy out as though it were beneath her station to have Peggy even listen. Evelyn’s hair was a rich chestnut brown and waved in precise little waves that were nearly as proud and just as rigid as Evelyn’s attitude. It was quite plain that her life had been patterned in the same regular little ridges down which a child should walk, safe and sure.
“I shall ask mother as soon as I get home what story she thinks would be best for the contest. Then I shall begin right away to study it. I am sure I can win again, and mother will be so proud of me.” Evelyn tossed her head in assurance. She was a good student and had won many contests such as this re-told Christmas story contest which the teacher had announced that afternoon.
“I should like to enter, too,” ventured Peggy. “O, what we could do with ten dollars! That’s a grand prize. How I would work and if I won mother could get some of us some shoes!”
Evelyn punched Mary and giggled, “O, go lay an egg. You ought to be able to do that better than telling stories since you live in a barn. Why don’t you ask the hens to each you how?” Then she giggled again.
Peggy, crimson-faced, hurried ahead and burst into the kitchen. At sight of her mother’s face free from worry she suddenly stopped and then ducked into the bedroom. When she felt better she came out. Her mother noticed that something was wrong but she, too, decided on silence.
After supper the children of the neighborhood gathered to play “run, sheep, run” and “red apples” in the hollow. Peggy ran with the rest of them. The disagreeable events of the afternoon were but faint shadows in the background of this happy play. all went well until Evelyn was caught and had to be “it.” She was trained to win and could not stand defeat. She sulked and would not play.
While it is true that children have an instinctive sense of fairy play it is equally true that they have just as strong a mob spirit and can be converted into the most brutal little savages when under able leadership. Evelyn was a born leader and soon had the group around her ready to follow her whims. Suddenly, she jumped upon a rock and crowed as realistically as a cock. The children picked up the new game quickly. Someone mooed like a cow, another brayed, some bleated like sheep, and some cackled and quacked. Peggy enjoyed the antics of the children until the significance of what they were doing dawned on her. Then she rushed off home blinded by tears and followed by the gang of barnyard mimics shouting singly and in unison their chosen barnyard calls.
She rushed into the house and dropped on her knees beside her mother who held her baby brother all fragrant and pink from his evening bath and looking like a bunny in his fuzzy white gown. Peggy was too heartbroken to notice the baby and sobbed hysterically. Gently her mother moved her aside while she rose and tucked the baby into his warm bed; then, returning, she gathered her into her sympathetic arms. Pitifully Peggy sobbed out her grief. Every word cut Mrs. Brown like a scythe. Conquering her own voice, she undressed Peggy and talked quietly to her all the while. Then she tucked her into bed and lay beside her until the little body began to respond to her love and sympathy. Finally she asked, “Can you listen to a story now, Peggy dear?”
Peggy nodded her head and Mrs. Brown began:
“Once, long ago, in a far away land, a great and good people had been conquered by a powerful nation. Their conquerors were the Romans who collected taxes from their captives as all nations do. One day, the governor of the land sent out an edict that each person in this land of Judea should gather at once in the town of his birth that a census might be taken and all names registered so that an accurate record could be made and kept and the proper taxes levied and collected.
“Now there were, in the city of Jerusalem, a man and his new wife who like many of their fellow countrymen had wandered far from the city of their birth and therefore faced a long journey. They were poor and could travel only by donkey and they must travel many miles to the city of David, known as Bethlehem.
“They traveled slowly and arrived late at night. So many travelers had arrived ahead of time and the town was so little used to such crowds that the young couple could find no house to shelter them and no room in the inn, as they were already overcrowded. Finally, one innkeeper offered to let them spend the night in his stable. Many animals and numerous travelers were bedded there, but the young husband was glad for any place that offered his wife shelter and a resting place for she was not well. he made her as comfortable as he could in a manger and prepared for the night himself.
“Now there were in the same country,” recited Peggy’s mother, “shepherds abiding in the fields, watching over their flocks by night:
“When lo, an angel of the Lord came upon them and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
“But the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy.
“‘For unto you is born this day in the City of David a saviour which is Christ, the Lord.
“‘And this shall be a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.’
“And suddenly, there were with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and singing,
“‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.’
“And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger.”
“So, Peggy dear, if the King of Kings was born in a manger, we can certainly live in a barn and also be thankful for its shelter as they were that night. He was a shepherd of men, when he grew up, and loved the sheep and all animals of the field. He loved little children. His chief mission was to teach people the virtues of a plain and humble life. Your little playmates just haven’t learned His lessons very well yet. That is all.” Her gentle voice stopped as she listened for Peggy’s sobs. They also had ceased and with a long sigh Peggy fell asleep. Her mother lay quietly beside her for a moment fearing to waken her, and then silently left the room.
During the following weeks Peggy was especially quiet and studious. She did her little household tasks in such a preoccupied way that her mother’s patience was taxed to the breaking point, but Mrs. Brown sensed that her daughter was working out her own problems and left her to solve them in her own way, since in that way they were most likely to be permanently solved.
Peggy spent much time by herself apparently thinking, and often Mrs. Brown thought she saw her lips move as she washed dishes or swept the floor. She had entered the retold story contest at school and it was that which took so much of her energy and attention, but she had not told anyone for she did not want to reveal the subject of her story.
When the great day arrived, the contest was held in the school auditorium and the large hall was crowded with parents and visitors. The contestants drew numbers for position and Peggy’s was number five. She was sorry about that for she knew that she would be too nervous to hear the other children’s stories and she wanted to, very much.
Mary had drawn the coveted first place and Jack Hoyt, second. Evelyn was third and was cross about it. Another boy came between Evelyn and Peggy, who was last of all.
The children were well prepared and teachers and parents radiated pride as each well trained child stood before the large audience and told the Christmas story of his or her choice. Evelyn did especially well. She was a beautiful girl, tastefully dressed, and a brilliant student. She had a pleasant voice, poise, and clear enunciation. All through her carefully chosen and well prepared story, Mrs. Higganbotham beamed with pride. everybody was sure that the prize was again hers. They scarcely had ears for the story told by the little boy who followed her.
Then came Peggy’s turn. The faces swam before her eyes. She caught a flee4ting glimpse of Evelyn’s face in the front row and then her clearing vision caught her mother’s face and the great audience sank away until to her they were no longer there. She saw herself weeping at her mother’s knee. Before she was quite aware of it, herself, her story was well begun, just as she had said it over and over so many times as she washed dishes or walked to and from school.
She told them the story that I am telling you, only she told it so much better than I can because it was a page of life torn from Peggy’s own heart. The great audience swat very still. They were listening against their volition as once, not so long ago, an audience was won over by a gauche country lawyer in the Virginia assembly and went away converted to his views.
Bravely on to the end the little heart poured out its message of humility and love until every eye was moist and handkerchiefs hid every face and the prize was undoubtedly won. Those who heard her declare that the light of heaven shone from her eyes and made a halo of the fringe of golden curls about her face, while the angels’ “Peace on earth” sang in her voice.