Aunt Coralee breezed into the household, bringing change and — she never questioned — improvement to everything, much to the distress of her little niece Cora.
From the Relief Society Magazine, February 1946 –
Ring Out the Old
By Estelle Webb Thomas
Thinking things over on the front steps that afternoon, Cora decided she had better hide Miss Johnson until Aunt Coralee’s visit was over. But even as she mused, a car stopped in the street, the gate clicked, and Aunt Coralee came up the walk. Cora experienced her usual sensations at sight of her. First, amazed admiration at so much beauty, then an unconscious bracing of herself for the familiar, “Hi, Speckles!” which was her aunt’s inevitable greeting. Today, however, Aunt Coralee seemed different. She said soberly, “Hello, Cora!” but her quick eye took in Miss Johnson, whom Cora had hastily thrust behind her and she added, “Still playing with that disreputable old camel? We’ve simply got to get rid of that thing!”
Disreputable was a new word, but Cora supposed it meant the same thing as hideous and disgraceful. She wondered, irritably, why Aunt Coralee had come again so soon. They had hardly got settled into their old comfortable routine since her last visit. And she wondered what there was about this visit that made Granny’s eyes red when she read the letter. She could say she had been peeling onions if she wanted to, but Cora felt it an insult to her going-on-seven intelligence that she was supposed to be fooled so easily. Well, she would probably find out sometime. They had no idea how many things she found out that she was supposed not to know. Granny’s habit of talking aloud to herself in moments of excitement and the fact that Granddad had to be yelled at, both contributed to the sum total of her knowledge. And when people mentioned Little Pitchers in a significant tone she had learned to prick up her ears. It all helped to make life more interesting for a rather solitary little girl.
She gathered Miss Johnson in her arms and gave her a fiercely protective kiss on her long cotton-flannel nose. Then she noticed that the young man coming up the walk with Aunt Coralee’s two large suitcases was not Uncle Guy and also that he had a very unpleasant-looking little dog tucked under his arm. He smiled engagingly at Cora, but she was busy glaring at the dog, who glared as steadily back. It was a case of dislike at first sight and Cora mentally bestowed on him all the epithets with which Aunt Coralee used to designate Miss Johnson.
She waited until Aunt Coralee had admitted the strange young man and then slipped silently around the corner to the little summerhouse at the end of the grape arbor. This spot, delightful in summer, was rather forlorn in the pale winter light, with dead leaves rustling in its walls and drifted onto its floor, but it fitted Cora’s mood and provided a refuge for Miss Johnson during her period of unpopularity.
She knew why Aunt Coralee disliked Miss Johnson, Cora thought morosely, huddled on a bench with that unlovely lady in her arms. It was because of Gloria. Gloria had been Aunt Coralee’s gift last Christmas and a more gorgeous doll it would be hard to imagine. Aunt Coralee had said maybe Cora would be willing to throw away that frightful old camel. But, while worshiping her beauty, Cora had never been able to feel very familiar with Gloria. The doll’s exquisite perfection made her conscious of her often mentioned freckles and straight dark hair and the plain little dresses which Granny made and which were somehow subtly different from the other little girls’ clothes. So, though she played with Gloria dutifully when little friends came and glowed at their squeals of admiration, she placed her carefully in her box and turned with relief to Miss Johnson for companionship when they were gone.
When, almost three years before, a sad-faced camel had been among her Christmas gifts she had seized it with cries of joy, completely ignoring all the other toys, and shouting that it looked ‘zactly like Miss Johnson, a well-loved and now departed kindergarten teacher. Miss Johnson it had been from that time forth. In vain Aunt Coralee coaxed and ridiculed and presented beautiful rivals, but Miss Johnson continued to hold first place in Cora’s perverse little heart.
Though in some subtle way this visit of Aunt Coralee’s was different, she was even worse than usual about changing things. For Aunt Coralee was never happy unless she was changing something. Granddad said it was a disease. He said that after she had moved his easy chair from the chimney where it had sat for fifteen years, to where he could get a better light from the window for his reading, that he had come into the shadowy room and sat down plunk on the floor. He said tommy-rot, too. Tommy-rot was a good round word and Cora liked it, especially when granddad said it, looking like a ruffled Santa Claus with his round, shining, red cheeks, his snapping blue eyes and his fringe of white hair standing irritably on end.
He said tommy-rot several times when Aunt Coralee changed Granny’s sewing table to a less conspicuous position beneath the book shelves, and Granny, blindly hunting her glasses, fell over it and almost broke her leg. Coralee took down the chaste muslin curtains from Granny’s bedroom windows and put up pink taffeta, thereby causing Granny to feel slightly wicked and to steal out surreptitiously to see if they showed very plainly from the street.
But all the changes and upheavals she could institute in her mother’s home failed to use up Aunt Coralee’s restless energy. It was not long before she was up to her ears in preparation for the program to be given in the church on Christmas Eve. Only a few years had passed since Coralee had been the prettiest and most popular girl in the village and the committee was flattered that, as the beautiful Mrs. Carter, she was still willing to help.
Between times she worked at a costume for Cora to wear in the Christmas pageant. She was to be one of a group of angels and sing “Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New,” at the end of the program.
“I wish I’d insisted on them making her one of the carol singers,” Coralee complained to Mr. Dick, the young man with whom she had arrived and who had “happened by and dropped in,” several times.
“I don’t’ believe there are any freckle-nosed, straight-haired angels. What do you think, Speckles?” Mr. Dick laughed, and Cora squirmed. She wished Aunt Coralee wasn’t always calling attention to her looks, some people might not notice.
“Where’s Shep, Aunt Coralee?” she asked, hastily, to change the subject.
“He was too large for a city apartment,” Aunt Coralee answered, carelessly, holding the costume at arm’s length to inspect it, “I got rid of him and got dear little Jiggs instead.”
“Got rid of him! The big, friendly collie Uncle guy loved so!” Cora eyed dear little Jiggs with secret dislike. He returned her regard from bilious protuberant eyes. Cora heartily resented the fact that this sleek, overfed little autocrat was always underfoot, while poor, faithful Miss Johnson lurked in the dismantled summerhouse, with only stolen visits from her mistress to cheer her exile.
Granddad, it seemed, also cherished a secret dislike for Jiggs, but that night, having tripped over him and wrenched his rheumatic knee and been bitten sharply in the calf by the ill-natured and affronted dog, it was a secret no longer.
And Cora, awake in her little bed, with the door open a crack so she could see the light, learned the meaning of Uncle Guy’s mysterious absence, of Aunt Coralee’s unseasonable visit and why granny’s eyes were red.
“House is no place for a dog!” roared Granddad, limping to his chair, which he had dragged indignantly back to its original corner with the muttered remark that if he wanted to ruin his eyes he guessed he was old enough to be allowed the privilege.
“But he’s a house dog, Father,” said Aunt Coralee, apropos of his comment on her pet, in the sweetly patient tone one uses to a dull-witted child.
“A house dog, is he?” repeated Granddad, very much ruffled and rubbing his injured knee. “I s’pose this Dick fellow is, too, isn’t he? Seems to be underfoot a good deal of the time. What’s he mean, hanging around a married woman, and what does Guy mean, letting him? Eh?”
“Now, Father,” Coralee’s tone was still carefully patient, “You know, I wrote you and Mother before I came all about everything. I told you I’d decided to leave Guy.”
Cora, propped on her elbow listening, gasped. Did she mean leave dear Uncle Guy and never go back? Did it mean he would not even come for Christmas? And, awful thought, did it mean she could never have Miss Johnson in the house any more?
“Why?” Granddad was demanding, flatly.
“Now, Henry,” Granny quavered, but Aunt Coralee cut in clearly.
“He makes me unhappy, Father. He doesn’t understand me.”
“Tommy-rot!” Granddad could make tommy-rot sound threatening, Cora thought admiringly.
“What is there to understand? I guess he understands you well enough. I guess he understands if he has hard luck and can’t furnish you all the doodads you crave you’ll come running back to Dad and Mother and they’ll be fools enough to take you in and keep right on spoiling you!”
Cora shivered ecstatically. My, Granddad was brave! he was talking right back to Aunt Coralee and using all those terrible words.
“Now, Henry,” Granny said with spirit, “Coralee knows she’s always welcome in her own home, and if she’s spoiled, why I guess you –”
“Sure, she’ welcome and she knows it!” admitted Granddad, grudgingly, limping off to bed, ‘but when it comes to house dogs – human or canine – that’s different!”
The weeks dragged by with their usual pre-Christmas deliberation, and now but one remained before the eventful day. Every day Cora and Aunt Coralee repaired to the church and with the other youthful villagers went through the pageant which was becoming wearily familiar. More or less tunefully, Cora helped shout, “Ring Out the Old,” and tried hopelessly to look as angelic as she felt was necessary.
Between rehearsals, Aunt Coralee was going over the house from cellar to attic, though Granny always cleaned it in the fall within an inch of its life. Granny was already preparing rich and fragrant fruit cake. Cora, coming suddenly into the kitchen, heard her saying to herself, vigorously beating batter in time to her words, “I don’t like it a bit, not a bit, and I’ll tell her so, too! Why, the very idea, inviting that Mr. Dick to Christmas dinner and poor Guy –” She jumped guiltily when she heard Cora’s step and looked relieved when she saw who it was.
Cora, fortified with an apple and a cookie, wandered out into the back yard. Aunt Coralee, in a baggy old sweater of Granddad’s, was burning trash in the still snowless garden. Jiggs, usually so moribund, was romping about, worrying something quite playfully.
“Look, Speckles,” called Aunt Coralee gayly, as she drew near, “See what Jiggs has! That horrid old camel you used to play with! I found it in the summerhouse. I’m glad you finally threw it away, Honey, Christmas is coming and you’ll have a lot of clean, lovely new toys!”
Cora, speechless with horror, now suddenly came to live and made a wild dive for the playful Jiggs.
“No, no, Cora! Let him have it, please do!” cried Aunt Coralee, “I’ll give you Jiggs, himself, when I go away, if you will!”
Cora, choking with anger, threw herself bodily on Jiggs and rescued Miss Johnson, Emitting a wild yelp of anguish, Jiggs fled, but his vicious little teeth had torn a final three-cornered wound in Miss Johnson’s side, through which her cotton innards protruded.
“I don’t want that f-frightful old dog!” sobbed Cora, clutching poor Miss Johnson close. “I-I wouldn’t ha-have him for a million dollars, no, not even a thousand! Ch-changed sweet old Shep for that – that – hideous thing!” She had heard an awful word at school and saved it to use on Jiggs sometime, but in her excitement could not remember it, but some mental dam seemed to have broken and she rushed on, quite as much to her own surprise and horror as to Aunt Coralee’s. “Always ch-changing something! Granddad says it’s a disease you got! Al-ways trying to change my darling Miss Johnson for some l-lovely toy! I’m not going to sing your old song, so there! I’m not going to ring out the old things – I like my old things! And now –” A fresh burst of sobs shook the slender little body and almost cut off the violent rush of words, “Now you’re going to get rid of my dear good Uncle Guy and change to that – that disrepabul old Dick!”
Blindly she turned and started to stumble away, but as another awful possibility struck her, she turned back and leveling a shaking finger at her aunt shouted, “And if you ever dare to try and change Granddad and Granny for somebody you – you think is nicer, you – you just watch out – I – I’ll get the law on you!”
Aunt Coralee, silently and with a strangely stricken face, watched the sobbing little figure until the house had swallowed it. Then, absently, she raked the embers together and in the same stricken silence, walked slowly through the back garden gate and down the river path, a favorite walk of her girlhood – in whose leafy lane she and Guy had spent many a magic hour. But today she did not enjoy it, although it was lovely even in winter and the pleasant tang in the air brought the bright color into her cheeks.
She had been accustomed to think of her visits to the old home as gleams of sunshine in the drag existence of her parents and little niece. It was disturbing to learn that they were something to be lived through with what patience they could muster.
When she turned homeward in the early winter dusk her meditations had resulted in the decision to wait until after the holidays before precipitating a personal crisis. She would telephone Guy to come as usual and Dick that his invitation was off. Smiling at the pleasant picture of herself thus moving her human pawns about at will, she ran briskly up the walk.
“Where’s Cora?” demanded Granny, peering down the dim path behind her. “Didn’t she go with you?”
* * *
It was a long way to Centerville, it seemed, much longer than Cora had imagined. But she had no intention of letting Uncle Guy spend Christmas all alone, without even Shep for company. However, she had stopped hiding when she heard a car and wished with all her terrified little heart that one of the neighbors would happen along. perhaps she could persuade them to take her on to Uncle Guy instead of back home, which meant only Aunt Coralee and the hateful Jiggs to her now. As the cold dusk began closing in around her, she even began praying in little gasping sobbing breaths that God would send someone, even – even Mr. Dick, she pleaded desperately, before it got any colder and darker.
So she was not at all surprised when presently a large automobile stopped suddenly beside her and an amazed voice said, “Why, it’s – yes, it’s Speckles!”
But if she was not surprised, Mr. Dick certainly was, and as soon as she had climbed, quite willingly, into the seat beside him, he demanded an explanation.
“You better be going on toward Centerville while I tell it, ‘cause I’m not going back home,” said Cora, as firmly as Aunt Coralee herself might have done. But she started crying again when he insisted she must be taken back at once and so, through sobs and tears and puzzled questions from Mr. Dick the whole story finally came out.
“And so I just had to get Miss Johnson away from there, ‘cause her life wasn’t even safe,” she finished, hugging that battered camel closer as she spoke, “but what made me maddest of all is Aunt Coralee wanting to trade off good old Uncle Guy for a” (miraculously the bad word she had heard at school came back) “for a lousy” – she glanced up into Mr. Dick’s startled face – “for you, just ‘cause she’s always changing something! But maybe he’s too big for a city apartment,” she muttered, placatingly, as her head drooped drowsily against his shoulder.
“Well, to tell you the truth, Cora, I was beginning to feel a little lousy about it, myself, as you so elegantly put it. For instance, I came right past your place tonight without dropping in. that was better, wasn’t it?”
No answer. Cora and Miss Johnson were fast asleep.
* * *
“So you see,” Dick concluded his embarrassed confession to Guy, across the sleeping form of Cora on Guy’s big davenport, “I thought my best bet was to bring her on to you, as she wanted me to, and make my explanation at the same time. And I assure you, I had been feeling like a louse quite a while before Speckles called my attention to the fact. And I’ve suspected all along that restlessness was all that caused Coralee’s feeling for me. So, if you’ll just take these ladies home, I’ll fade out of the picture and I hope,” he added diffidently, “you’ll find it possible to forgive me sometime.”
* * *
“Honey,” said Aunt Coralee next evening when Cora was trimming the Christmas tree entirely according to her own ideas of the artistic, without a single criticism or suggestion, “maybe it was a disease. if it was, I think you’ve cured me. Anyway, I’ve decided not to ring out the old, after all. You’ll be glad to hear that I am not planning to change Uncle Guy for anyone at present.”
Here she and Uncle Guy exchanged a look that made Cora think of all the lovely stories of knights and ladies she had ever heard. And Aunt Coralee was certainly beautiful when she smiled like that and said, “I’ll mend and clean Miss Johnson till she won’t know herself and we’ll give her the place of honor, right next to the angel, on the Christmas tree!”