From the Improvement Era, December 1940 –
Remember the Day
By Rosa Lee Lloyd
“Bill Holling! Do you mean that you don’t believe in Christmas?” Sue demanded, looking at me across the counter of her father’s grocery store.
“No, Sue,” I began, “please don’t get me wrong. I said that I had no relatives, so I don’t have to shop for presents, stand in line to mail them, wonder who will remember me, and did I forget anyone!”
“But you give to your friends, don’t you?” she persisted.
“Of course I do, but most of my friends will be at Bingo Karns’ Christmas Eve party. That reminds me – are you going with me?”
I was watching Sue. There was an expression in her brown eyes that seemed to shrink me from my six-feet-one to the size of a midget. Usually the girls I know liked to go with me. Take Phyllis, for instance. But Sue was different right from the start.
“I’m sorry, Bill,” she answered slowly and her brown eyes began to glow like candlelight. “Try to understand. You know I always save Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for my family. You see, it’s like this, Bill,” she went on polishing the show case where they kept the penny candy. “I’d like you to come down to our house on Christmas Eve. Mom and Dad are chummy with all my friends. My older sister Martha and her husband George and the twins, Bertie and Betty, always come over – ”
I reached for my hat. “No, thanks,” I said in that brusque manner I reserved for hard customers when there was no sale. “When I have a holiday I want to celebrate it. I want music and dancing and bright lights. I want a good time – I don’t want to fill stockings and play with kids!”
Sue quit polishing the counter and leveled her brown eyes on mine. There was a hurt look in them. “Bill,” her voice was just as level as her eyes, “you don’t even know the meaning of Christmas! Not even why we remember the day!” Sue’s voice was hardly more than a whisper.
Before I could answer, the front door was pushed open, and a brisk December gale ushered in a man with a boy and girl about three years old hanging on to each hand.
Sue whisked around the counter and had the children in her arms before I could twist around on my stool. They were rosy youngsters with hair the color of ripe wheat.
“I’m taking them to Pond City to see Santa Claus,” the man said proudly. He had a ruddy, good-natured face and eyes that were kind. His voice was tender when he spoke. “Martha isn’t feeling so well today, Sue.”
“Oh, George, I’m sorry,” she was warmly sympathetic. “I’ll run over there soon as Dad comes. Oh, I forgot –” she turned back to me. “Bill, this is my brother-in-law, George Aims, and the twins, Bertie and Betty.” We shook hands and George went on talking.
“Figured I’d take the two o’clock bus to Pond City – think I’ll leave the car home in case Martha needs it.”
Sue was wiping Bertie’s nose. “Maybe Bill will give you a lift – he’s going to Pond City.”
I wondered if she realized that she was telling me to go!
“I’m leaving for Pond City right away, Mr. Aims,” I said briskly, in my best manner. “I’ll be glad to take you and the children.”
So we left Sue standing in the doorway. The wind was whipping her soft brown waves into tangled ringlets and whirling snow was falling, soft as featherdown on her upturned face. I glanced back after we all wedged in my roadster and Sue waved, but her eyes were focused on the children. She hadn’t said goodbye to me. Funny how a thing like that can upset a fellow!
George and the kids kept up a chatter all the way in – trains and dolls and Santa Claus – all the time I was trying to get a clear picture of Sue. The hurt look I had seen in her eyes kept flashing up before me. I tried to convince myself that I hadn’t said anything to hurt her. Why, most of the girls I knew didn’t care much about children. And parents! I couldn’t remember my own parents, and the small insurance they had left for me was really only a memory that had paid my way to school and boarding houses. But Sue – well, Sue was just different.
George broke in through my reverie.
“Sue’s a fine girl – a lot like Martha –” he stopped talking, and a worried line appeared between his kind gray eyes. “I don’t like to leave Martha – even for a few hours – although we don’t expect the baby until next week.”
Great Scott! another baby! I gulped and looked straight ahead down the snow-covered highway.
“Three children – that will be quite a family,” I said, trying to make my voice sound ordinary.
“Oh, that’s a good start,” said George with a proud hand on each of the twins. “Means work and sacrifice, but they’re worth everything to Martha and me.” His eyes were lifted to the snow-capped mountains in the distance. His sigh was one of deep content.
My mind drifted back to Sue’s refusal to go to the party with me. I determined to ask Phyllis Haily. She played the piano in the sheet music department of the Pond City Mercantile. George said that was as good as any place for him to stop, so with a hearty “Thank you” he left me and started through the Christmas throngs with the twins. The ride had made them a bit sleepy, so he decided to carry Betty.
There was a crowd around Phyllis when I reached her department. There was always a crowd around Phyllis. I came right to the point soon as I could get through the crowd.
“Hello, Bill,” she said, bright lights dancing in her eyes. “What’s new? All ready for Christmas?” She laughed up at me and all the time her fingers were drumming out a snappy tune.
“Everything is all set but the date with you for Christmas Eve.”
“That’s easy,” she answered. “I’ve been saving up waiting for that party.”
So she had been expecting me to ask her! I didn’t like that, it made me feel cornered. She went on drumming. I stood back and watched the people. Christmas shoppers! Everyone was excited and thrilled. Once I saw George struggling through the crowd with the twins – he was still carrying Betty, and Bertie was holding on to his pant leg. I felt like a heel letting him crash those crowds with both children!
The Christmas crowd was packed in the store like figs in a cellophane wrapper. I found myself wedged up against the jewelry counter. A bracelet with glittering brilliants reminded me that we always had to have a gift for the girl friend at the party on Christmas Eve – no sentiment attached to it – the girls probably suggested it in the first place. Beside the bracelet there was a blue velvet box with an old-fashioned gold locket in it. I couldn’t take my eyes from the locket – something about it made me homesick for the things I had never known, a sweet-faced mother mending socks – a dad who raised Cain when you stayed out late – maybe a brother to scrap with – a kid sister to tease, all the things that go with a real home instead of boys’ schools and boarding houses.
“May I help you, sir?” the business-like saleslady interrupted my thoughts.
“I’ll take the bracelet,” I answered. “Wrap it for a gift.” But my eyes were still riveted on the locket. I could picture it on Sue’s throat. The saleslady had followed my eyes.
“Let me show you the locket, sir; it’s gold-plated, we initial it free – there are places for pictures – any girl will love it. It makes the ideal gift for mother, wife, or sweetheart.”
“I’ll take it,” I said, wondering vaguely what a fellow would do with it when he didn’t have a mother, wife or sweetheart. Maybe in ten years George’s little Betty would be big enough to wear it!
“You’ll never regret it,” she rambled on, smoothing a chamois over its golden surface. “What would you like engraved on it?”
“Nothing,” I snapped, feeling as lonesome as the forgotten man.
I shoved the bracelet in one overcoat pocket and the locket in the other. I was strangely despondent.
I watched the faces of the busy shoppers. They were happy and joyous. An old couple with a little boy between them joggled past me. Their old eyes were eager and full of purpose. “No wonder,” I thought, enviously, “they have someone to give to – someone who really cares!”
I thought of George again steering his sleepy children through the Christmas rush. Maybe they had gone to the toy department. I found them there watching the electric trains. Both children were wide awake now and George’s round face was beaming with joy. He grinned when he saw me. He pulled me to one side and whispered, “We have to catch the bus in a few minutes. After we’re gone, will you order a train for Bertie and one of those big dolls over there for Betty – the one that says ‘mama’ and has the brown eyes? This will cover it.” He passed me the money. “Have them delivered in the morning. I’ll sure appreciate it – Bill.”
I felt a warm feeling down inside of me. He had called me by my first name and that means something from a fellow like George. I would have driven them all back to Poplarville, but I had to report at the company before six. A few minutes later, after I had helped him and the twins on the bus, I was listening to the saleslady tell me that the last delivery before Christmas had left for Poplarville!
“But can’t we make this a special delivery?” I insisted. “I’ll pay extra – ”
“I’m sorry, sir, but those are instructions.”
“Wrap them up,” I said. “I’ll take them with me.”
Now what? I asked myself when she handed me the huge cartons. I could hardly get into the elevator with them. I was carrying enough for the quintuplets instead of twins!
I was busy at the office all the next day making final reports, and it was seven o’clock when I dashed back to my hotel room. the telephone was ringing when I went in.
“Merry Christmas,” said Phyllis.
“What time do we start?”
“Soon as I can change – maybe thirty minutes – say, I nearly forgot – I’ll have to leave you at the party and make a call down at George Aims’. He only lives a mill from the Inn straight down the highway.”
“Well – don’t stay away too long. Bingo’s going out with us – the more the merrier, I told him.”
“Okay,” I answered and hung up.
It was a snowy Christmas Eve, but my little roadster slushed along the highway at forty miles an hour.
“Bill, I love it – I simply love it,” Phyllis caressed the brilliant bracelet on her arm. “I’ll bet it tops all the other gifts.” There were hard glints in her eyes that matched the brilliance of the bracelet.
The box with the locket in it was still in my overcoat pocket. She and Bingo kept up a chatter all the way to the Inn. We could hear the music a block away.
“What a night for a party!” Bingo’s enthusiasm was contagious.
“And the moon,” echoed Phyllis in the same tone, “and the stars – how bright they are! Maybe we’ll have a moonlight waltz!”
“Um-m,” said Bingo and gave Phyllis a wink.
“Hurry back, Bill,” Phyllis said gaily when I let her out of the car with Bingo. The rhythm of the music was inviting. I wanted to go in. I could hear the crowd inside.
“What’s important enough to make you miss this party?” asked Bingo.
I hesitated. I could take the doll and the train to the twins tomorrow. It wasn’t my fault because Santa Claus came on Christmas Eve! I decided to stay put with Phyllis. I had planned on this party for weeks. As I put my gloves into my overcoat pocket, I felt the box with the locket in it.
“Come on, Bill,” Phyllis tugged at my elbow! “let’s dance.”
I looked at her. Her gold sandal was impatiently tapping out the music and her mouth was a sulky pout. My eyes took in the rest of the crowd in a quick glance – glamorous girls, who glittered and sparkled in their colored evening gowns like gems in a jeweler’s window; the boys in their black and white tuxedos offered a fitting background for their bright colors. A hum of excitement permeated the gaily decorated dance hall. The beat and throb of the music was reflected in the sparkling excitement in their eyes. A gay party!
For a second I stood there with my hand closed around the velvet box. Sue’s face flashed before me – the hurt look in her eyes and her words: “You don’t know the meaning of Christmas – not even why we remember the day. Christmas isn’t just having a gay party!”
“Come on, Bill,” Phyllis tugged at me again. “We’re wasting music!”
“I can’t stay,” I said impulsively, putting on my overcoat. “I have an errand. You dance with Bingo.” I left her and went out into the crisp winter night.
There was a light in the living room of George Aims’ house when I knocked at the door twenty minutes later. Then a patter of feet rushed toward the door and a child’s voice said, “Oh, Grandpa, maybe it’s Santa Claus!”
Heber Dixon, Sue’s father, opened the door for me. He had Betty in his arms and Bertie was in back peering between his legs. He squinted at me through his spectacles as I stood in the shaft of light from the hallway.
“Bill Holling! Come in, my boy, come in. Aren’t you lost out here?”
“I’ve brought some things out for George,” I confided with a knowing wink. “Too late for the delivery.”
Heber grinned. “Oh, I see. Mighty nice of you, Bill. Come on in by the fire – I’m getting the children ready to take over to my house for Christmas Eve. Here, Bert, you take Betty and play in the kitchen a minute while I talk to Bill.”
Heber and I stood by the fireplace in the big living room. His voice grew serious. “George took Martha up to the hospital this afternoon – haven’t heard a word since. But then she’s all right – Martha’s a brave girl and she wanted this baby for Christmas. Sue and her Ma are over home decoratin’ the tree for the twins. But,” Heber stopped and looked up at me,”we haven’t got a Santa Claus now George has gone. He’s played Santa every year since we had ’em. I’ve tried for a half hour to squeeze into this,” he lifted a red suit trimmed with white cotton from the chest by the window, “but I can’t get it over my shoulders in back nor across my stomach in front!”
I met his kindly old eyes. I knew that he was asking me to play Santa Claus for the kids. What a laugh! I wanted to turn and dash back to the party. But Heber was talking again.
“Mother and Sue will be mighty disappointed. I’d sure like to do it – might make things a little easier for George and Martha if they knew the twins were having a nice Christmas. How about it, Bill? Will you do it? It will only take about an hour.”
I don’t know why I said yes. Maybe because I kept seeing Sue’s brown eyes, maybe because I wanted to make someone happy, maybe because I kept thinking of Martha and George up at the hospital –
I told some of this to Heber while he helped me into the red suit and fastened the false beard across my smooth chin.
“Yes, Bill,” he said with a fatherly pat on my young shoulder. “Christmas makes us feel that way. Sometimes it’s a new birth, a fresh start, sometimes for us older folks it’s helping young ones find the right road, but over and above all it’s a feeling of love and kindness that comes with Christmas – but here I am preaching to you, Bill, when I don’t mean it that way at all. Now, do you think there’s enough stuffin’ in the front of the suit?”
A few minutes later Heber took the twins and left in his car. I was to follow in my roadster.
The old Dixon home was on a hill. The snow made it look like a sugar-coated castle; holly wreaths tied with huge red bows were in the lighted windows. I saw Sue open the door for her father and the twins, and I had a glad, warm feeling down inside of me. I was a part of Christmas and it shook me clear down to my heels when I realized I was able to spread a little love and happiness on Christmas Eve. I felt like a living, breathing part of everything.
Then it was my turn to go in; I stomped on the porch and made the bells around my shoulders jingle and I could hear the patter of little feet and Sue’s rippling laugh, and her mother said, “Land sakes, it’s Santa Claus!”
The door opened and I ran into the warm room. The twins grabbed my legs with shouts of “Santa, Santa,” and we scrambled over to the big Christmas tree. I put the huge cardboard cartons on the floor and took the pack off my back and dumped it by the tree. There had been presents for all in it and I ran around to everyone with a gift – Mrs. Dixon, with a sweet face like an old cameo, looked at me with whimsical eyes, and Heber’s face was crinkled with smiles. The twins ran with me holding on to my legs. I stopped in front of Sue. Her hands were clasped and her brown eyes were soft like candlelight. I handed her the velvet box with the locket in it. “From Santa to Sue – with love,” I said in a husky voice.
“It’s perfect,” she answered softly, putting the locket around her neck. Her smile was like starlight.
“Everything is perfect – now,” I said.
Then the door bell rang, and a second later George breezed in. His eyes were beaming and he was whistling like a kid.
“It’s a boy,” he said, rocking back on his heels. “Martha sends Merry Christmas to all of you …” He stopped in surprise when he saw me in the Santa Claus suit. “Well, Santa!” he roared for the twins’ benefit, “I am glad you got here.”
“So am I,” I said with a tender glance for Sue. “I hope I don’t get lost again …”
“Not a chance,” he grinned, “with a girl like Sue.”