From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1942 –
Christmas at Aunt Sally’s
By Jeanette McKay Morrell
Sarah Rowland was sitting in her comfortable, old-fashioned library with an open letter in her hand and two on the table beside her. They were from her three children, and all contained the same message: “So sorry I cannot be with you for Christmas.” Her daughter, Rose, had explained that she was sure Bill would be with her; Mary was certain that rose could spend at least Christmas day in the old home; and bill knew that one or both of the girls would see her; and the sum of the three letters added up to the fact that she was to be alone again this year for Christmas.
The colored cook came into the room to get the order for luncheon and, noticing her mistress’s dejected air, ventured, “No bad news, I hope, Mis’ Rowlan’.”
“Yes, Fanny, I have three letters full of bad news. I am to be alone for Christmas.”
“Not one of ‘em comin’, Mis’ Rowlan’?” Then, bristling slightly, she continued, ‘I should think one of ‘em might take the time to spen’ Christmas with you when they know you are all alone, but that’s chillun for you! They doan seem to re’lize no mo’ that they owe sumpin’ to the mothah that brot ‘em into this worl’!”
The sympathy of the faithful old servant added to her disappointment, but instinctive she felt she must defend her own, so she replied, “You see, Fanny, they all have their own homes and families now, and I suppose I shouldn’t expect them to come to me any more.” Then she added, half-heartedly, “It is all right; we can have a good time by ourselves, so don’t worry about me.”
“Yes, Ah remembah well the good time you all had las’ yeah! why don’ you go to one of them? They all done ax you to spen’ Christmas with ‘em, every yeah.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that now, Fanny, with each of them living in different cities as they do. If I went to one, the other two would feel hurt. No, I shall remain at home.” Fanny looked the sympathy she could not express, and the indignation she dared not mention again.
Alone once more, the mother allowed her mind to go back over the happy times she had known with her family when they were all in this beautiful old home. Even after the children married, it was not so bad while her husband, William, was still with her. For even if they did not come home, she always had him, and the two of them could have a good time anywhere so long as they were together. Since his death, however, conditions were different, and she wondered if it would not have been better if she had given up the large home and gone to one of her children. William had been so insistent that she hold the home, though, that she could not disregard his wishes. She recalled the very words, which were almost his last, “Sally, dear, don’t give up the home. I am sure you will be happiest here. Fanny and Mose will take good care of you, and the children will not forget you.”
It was then that her musings were interrupted by the voice on the radio. She had entirely forgotten that she had come in to hear one of her favorite daily broadcasts, and even now she listened disinterestedly to the speaker’s talk on the significance of the holiday season approaching. But she turned the instrument louder and gave her entire attention as he concluded with the words, “You mothers and grandmothers, too, have you no share of responsibility this year? It is such an easy thing to sit in your own homes and depend upon loved ones to bring Christmas cheer to you, and feel that it is only their duty. Well, probably it is, but suppose conditions prevent their coming? Are you still to sit in your lovely homes dressed in sombre black, and give no thought to the more unfortunate ones around you? Emerge from your dark cloud of despondency and self-pity, and lose yourself in service for someone else. You will be surprised what real joy Christmas may still hold for you.” The deep voice continued, “There are thousands of young soldiers away from their homes this year. Can’t you do something for one or a group of them?”
This man, to whose messages she looked forward with so much pleasure each morning, was now speaking directly to her, and she could not consistently disregard his advice. Here she sat surrounded by plenty, with every convenience for making a happy Christmas for others, and she was feeling sorry for herself.
She decided at once to act on the radio suggestion, and she would go at it wholeheartedly, though just now she could think of no one in her whole town who would not be well cared for by the various charities to which she had contributed liberally. She would love to have a group of young men from the Army post on Christmas Day, but they would not care to come to her lonely home. They would be happier with other young people.
Then she recalled the last house party she had given for her son Bill and a group of his college friends who could not go home for Christmas. She had invited daughters of some of her friends in the village, and the party had been a glorious success. Among the Christmas messages already received were several cards from those very boys – men now – scattered throughout the country.
Returning to her morning mail, she opened a letter from her old school friend, Mamie Marsden, now living in San Francisco, who wrote that her son, Jack, was at Camp Lincoln, the one nearest her home, and as his furlough would not be sufficiently long for him to spend Christmas at home, would she please try to see him on that day as she knew how lonely and homesick he would be. This was certainly the solution to her dilemma – she would invite Jack and some of his friends for Christmas. She could easily take care of six, and if she could find as many girls to come in, they all might forget their loneliness.
Before inviting Jack Marsden, Mrs. Rowland called an old friend whose son was in the diplomatic corps, and whose three granddaughter spent holidays with her unless their parents happened to be at home – which was seldom. The three – Helen, Genevieve, and Gwen – had already arrived, and almost shouted over the telephone, “Aunt Sally, you have saved our lives! We were preparing for a manless holiday, and now it will be perfect.”
To her inquiry about three other young ladies to make the party an even dozen, they were sure they could produce them without difficulty.
With this assurance, an invitation which included Jack and five of his friends was wired to Camp Lincoln, and just as dinner was being served, a delighted acceptance was received; and thus a Christmas party was arranged with almost breathtaking rapidity.
By appointment, the three girls came over next day to assist in planning details, but they brought the disappointing news that they could discover only two other young ladies who had not gone to their own homes for Christmas.
Gwen said, “But why worry? Aunt Sally, you can be the sixth, and I am sure the rest of us will have to look to our laurels.”
Before their hostess could demur, Helen added, “We are all to have new party gowns, so you must have one, too.”
Simultaneously came the final suggestion from Genevieve, “Please, Aunt Sally, don’t wear black; you will be so lovely in something bright for Christmas!”
Poor Aunt Sally! There was nothing in her wardrobe except black, and she knew Mary’s gift, which had already arrived from the most exclusive shop in her town, would contain a beautiful black silk gown, just as she was sure that another parcel from Rose’s favorite department store would reveal a pair of lovely black slippers, hose, and gloves. The small package from her son was the only one that ever held a surprise. Dear Bill! He knew that she was not too old to enjoy a bright scarf or a novelty bag, and how she loved him and his gift!
After the girls had gone, she quickly removed the wrappings from the boxes, and beheld the very articles she had anticipated – all black. Over Bill’s present, she hesitated. She would like to leave it unopened until Christmas morning, because it would be her only surprise, her only thrill, but since it might contain a suggestion of color upon which to arrange a Christmas costume, it too must be opened. And it proved even more than she had dreamed. An amethyst necklace and earrings!
As she gazed upon the lovely sparkling things, her eyes filled with tears. It must be because Bill was her youngest that the tendrils of love for him seemed so freshly entwined round her heart, and as she stood before the mirror, she could hear him saying, “Oh, Mumsie, you look so beautiful in them!” she wondered if her daughters might think them extreme for one of her age, but the girls were not coming, and neither was Bill, so for once she would do as she pleased.
And so it happened that rooms that had not been used for years were made ready for occupancy, and the lovely old house took on a holiday atmosphere that gladdened the hearts of those within its walls, and extended its warmth to those who merely passed by. And not the least among these festive preparations were those that affected Aunt Sally personally. The heavy black silk was returned in exchange for an orchid-flowered chiffon, and Rose’s gift became pumps with French heels, and the sheerest possible hose.
Two days before Christmas, old Fanny, with a red bandana on her head, black face shining, and arms akimbo, said to her mistress, “Mis’ Rolan’, dis all makes me feel jes’ lak de good ole days befo’ de young folks lef’ us. I sutanly hopes I hasn’t fo’got how to roas’ dat elegan’ turkey out on de back po’ch. I’se sho’ my plum puddin’ an’ mince pies is all dey use’ to be. An’ dese young people sho’ has sweet voices ringin’ through dese big halls.”
Even old Mose, after the leisure of these many years, tolerated being “bossed” again by Fanny. He shuffled through the house fetching things for his mistress and the girls with an occasional smile, as though he almost enjoyed it. Gwen and Helen were decorating the tree, while their elder sister was arranging the holly and mistletoe. Great boxes of ornaments and lights had been brought from the attic and supplemented by purchases in which the four had taken part. But it was about the older tinseled things the girls were most enthusiastic. Helen exclaimed, “Aunt Sally, these are the most charming things! You must have had them a long, long time, because we never see any half so pretty nowadays.”
“They have been in the attic since Bill had his last Christmas tree, the year he brought a whole house party of his companions from college.”
“Were they all boys?” asked Gwen.
“Yes, dear, and such fine fellows. I hear from many of them still. Some of the cards in the basket there are from Bill’s friends.”
Then Genevieve chimed in, “I hope soldiers are as nice as the crowd you had then.”
And her sisters shouted together, “Of course, why shouldn’t they be? One is the son of Aunt Sally’s classmate and the others are his friends.”
“Oh, Aunt Sally,” cried Helen, struck with a sudden idea, “may we please have a Christmas ball? It would be such fun!”
“Certainly, that must be the climax of the whole party. We shall have it on Christmas Eve.”
“But where can we dance?” asked Gwen.
“Just where Bill and his friends danced. They rolled up the rugs in the library and hall, and someone played the piano, but you will have the radio.”
Gwen asked, “Where did they get the girls, Aunt Sally?”
“They were friends of Bill’s here in town, and I think, your mother was one of them.”
“I can’t think of anything lovelier than that,” said Gwen, and commenced looking for new places in the library and hall for her mistletoe.
The house was a glorious tribute to the enthusiasm and artistry of the three girls, when Aunt Sally said, “Now we must wrap the gifts for the soldiers and then have a good rest.” That night was the first time that Sarah Rowland had had for meditation, and she wondered if being so happy was disloyalty to her own. Her heart was so warm, and she loved to think of her home so beautifully lighted, with every room open as she had kept it always when her family was with her. She felt a guilty thrill when she thought of wearing her new gown and slippers while they were not here to see her.
Next day when Jack and his five friends came, Aunt Sally felt that she had never seen such a handsome group. They were all tall and straight and showed the result of their months of training, regular hours of rest, and excellent food. She understood, also, how much a uniform adds to the attractiveness of even an ordinarily plain young man. The boys were shown to their respective rooms, and after an early dinner they were dispatched for the three girls, and their two friends who had arrived during the day.
A little later, Aunt Sally heard Fanny’s greeting at the door, followed by shouts of laughter, and her heart thrilled to the sound. The young people were dancing when she came slowly down the stairs, and, as they saw her, there was an awed hush, then three voices together, “Oh, Aunt Sally! How beautiful you look! We have never seen you before in anything but black.” She knew, now, what she had heard over the radio was true, and her joy in the happiness of these lovely young people was beyond her power to express.
She was actually waltzing with Jack when someone burst through the front door, shaking the snow from his great coat, and in a moment she was in the arms of her Bill. Her dream had come true, for he was saying, “Little mother, you are as exquisite as a Paris fashion plate! How did the girls know I was sending you amethysts?”
She was about to say, “They did not …” then she caught herself and decided to allow him to think these were from his sisters. “But Bill, I thought you were not coming.”
“And I thought I couldn’t until I received word from Mary and then from Rose that they were not to be here; and, of course, I couldn’t think of your being alone again, so I left everything and came.” Then looking around, he added, “But it seems you are getting along very nicely without any of us.”
Introductions followed, and Bill soon found himself under the spell of this rehabilitated fairy home. If his mother had thought herself happy before, she was in ecstasy now with her own Bill here for Christmas Eve and staying for dinner tomorrow. She knew she could not sleep that night, but how heavenly to lie awake and dream in this palace of her youth!
Late next morning, they were opening parcels around the tree, when Rose arrived looking much as though she were seeing a ghost, with Bill and her mother returning the look in kind. “But, Bill, I had your letter and Mary’s saying you could not make it this year!”
And Bill replied, “And I had yours and Mary’s saying you could not come; so, of course, I left immediately so Mumsie would not be alone, and I actually found her dancing with a handsome young lieutenant.”
Bill and the girls insisted that Aunt Sally dress for dinner, so Rose could see how beautiful she was in her new Christmas costume. And to Rose’s comment upon the lovely dress Mary had selected, Aunt Sally made no reply, hoping Rose and Mary would not be together soon to compare notes.
Rose, too, entered into the spirit of Christmas as delighted as the guests, and as Fanny proudly announced dinner, there was another surprise, for Mary’s taxi was drawing up at the gate.
Then followed a third explanation of the letters, before they were seated around the candle-lighted table and Fanny’s supreme attempt was rewarded by unanimity as to the perfection of her dinner.
As her three children were leaving that evening, each for a different city, Bill said, “Mother, I had forgotten what a beautiful old place this is!”
Rose added, “Won’t you please invite us all out next Christmas? I am sure our young people would adore it!”
And Mary’s parting words with her good-by kiss were, “I haven’t seen you look so young and happy for years.”