From the Improvement Era, December 1942 –
No Present for Ann
By Blanche Kendall McKey
When the three committee ladies had rung the bell, Ann had been still asleep and Avery and his mother were counting his Christmas money. He had been aglow with anticipation and radiant in the security of her complete attention.
“Ten cents for Gra’ma, fifteen cents for Dad,” he had chanted; “ten cents for – somebody – ”
Mother had blinked her eyes rapidly, laughing at him out of the corners.
“Five cents for Ann Elizabeth – ”
And then the bell had sounded. The committee ladies had made a great stir and Ann had set up a protest. In the shelter of Mother’s arms she had stared at the visitors with big round eyes from which every hint of sleep had suddenly vanished. Avery had stood alone at the side window listening disgustedly to their “Oh’s” and “Ah’s” and baby talk until they began disclosing the purpose of their call: They wanted Mother and Ann to form the climax of the Christmas pageant, a tableau of motherhood set in painted clouds with little angels looking up from behind a lot of tissue paper boxes. The idea was decidedly appealing, for Avery was endowed with imagination and something unruly and ugly arose within him, impelling him to cross the room and slap his little sister. But if he did, no one would understand and he would just be called a wicked boy. It was queer how everyone had forgotten that last Christmas he had been little Samuel in the temple for the Primary pageant ladies. With a new objective in mind he began recounting his money. He would buy what he pleased and save what he pleased. He wasn’t obliged to have a present for everybody.
“But why?” asked Avery’s mother, after the ladies had gone. “Why should you set out now to buy your Christmas presents?”
Although her eyes were softly questioning, she shifted Ann Elizabeth higher on her shoulder, one pale hand pressing the little black head to her cheek, and Avery felt that she gave him only part of her attention.
“Because I want to buy my presents alone,” he explained stubbornly.
“You are too little,” Mother argued. He looked at her dubiously. It was very bewildering; he had become “Dad’s little man” and “Sister’s big brother,” but was constantly being drawn back from the freedom those titles implied.
“You can’t wander all over Main Street by yourself,” Mother persisted patiently.
She lowered Ann into her lap, turning her toward Avery, and the baby stretched chubby hands to his face, uttering queer unintelligible salutes. Almost ready to make an inner compromise, Avery had thrust his wavy forelocks near the tiny fingers, when Mother impulsively swooped Ann to her bosom and kissed the back of her neck. “Such a baby,” she murmured playfully.
Avery turned away brusquely, and drawing a small purse from his pocket, he emptied its contents on the table below the window. For the hundredth time, it seemed, he counted and apportioned the coins: Fifteen cents for Dad, ten fro Grandma, ten for Mother. He hesitated for a moment, reluctant to give Mother less than her due; but her silly cooing baby talk stiffened his resolution; ten cents for Mother; five for – ”
Replacing the money in its receptacle, he advanced again to his mother’s knee.
“I won’t go up into the traffic,” he maintained stoutly, “I’ll only go as far as Aunt Mildred’s little store.”
Mother stopped goo-gooing long enough to brush the wiry locks back from his sullen forehead. Almost resentfully he drew away from the light caress. She was puzzled.
“Why don’t you wait until Daddy can take you – when the lights are on?” she suggested alluringly.
“I want to buy my Christmas presents alone,” he retorted obstinately. His gaze rested for a second on Ann Elizabeth, who was absorbed in studying her plump hands. “Even a baby,” he said with biting emphasis, “even a baby could do all I’m going to do.”
Mother half-heartedly yielded and followed her son to the outside entrance, holding Ann away from the thin current of cold air that squeezed through the narrow opening. “Watch the lights,” she called anxiously as Avery neared the gate. He rounded a handful of snow into a soft ball and tossing it in her direction watched it spatter on the cement walk a foot or two from the door. Mother stared in amazement, which slowly gave place to bewilderment. Avery had sadly changed since the baby had come. Perhaps Grandma was right! For the sake of her eldest, it would have been better if Ann had come two or three years ago. She watched Avery’s bundled figure march determinedly up the street without one backward glance, his red scarf waving belatedly from the rear.
Reaching Aunt Mildred’s crockery shop, Avery Quin McMasters, Junior, apprized the dishes, ornaments, and small china dolls displayed in the window, then opening the door pushed his way into the crowded interior. Slowly he progressed from table to table laden with breakfast, luncheon, or dinner sets until he reached the miscellaneous counter with its bargains of odd pieces, and there he found a fat-looking cup and saucer for Dad, a dainty violet-trimmed bowl for Mother, and a thimble for Grandma, who was always misplacing the one she started out to use. He chose an extremely large thimble, thinking that even Grandma would have a hard time losing so heavy an article. Fifteen cents for Daddy, ten cents for Mama, ten cents for – everything was working out beautifully. He counted the change, his eye, in spite of himself, roving to a Little Boy Blue doll marked “5c”; but he crowded forward and handed Aunt Mildred his three chosen articles. As she leaned over the array of bric-a-brac to return him his purchases, now bulging with protecting tissue paper, she urged him to be careful to not slip on the icy walk. Then her tired eyes gleamed suddenly: “How is Ann Elizabeth?” she asked eagerly.
At mention of that name, the women near bent and recognized Avery’s round face, which was almost hidden by his leather helmet and his thick woolen scarf.
“Why, Avery, how is little sister?”
“Buying a present for Ann, I bet!”
“How do you like being big brother?”
Their patronizing manner appeared silly to Avery; they seemed to have forgotten that he had already turned eight. By way of retort, the women felt that his serious regard was over stolid; but he was merely enjoying, absent-0mindedly, a comforting wave of self-justification in not buying his over-rated sister a Christmas present.
A younger woman, her arms filled with bundles, joined the group.
“Why, Avery,” she repeated enthusiastically, “I haven’t seen you since the baby was born. But I’ve seen her,” she hastened to add glowingly. “Isn’t she simply adorable?”
Her fervor demanded some kind of answer. His small features became more set and he removed his glance to an impersonal lavender vase standing solitary on a bracket.
“Oh, she’ll do, I guess,” he retorted laconically, his nerves under strained control. But he wasn’t prepared for the gurgles and even shouts of laughter that greeted his reply; feeling the blood begin to burn in his cheeks he made a dash for the door, scarcely heeding his aunt’s admonition to be careful of his parcel. As he ran down the street, cold breezes brushed his face consolingly, but when he had almost reached home, the derisive notes were still stinging his ears, and he felt that in some manner foolish little Ann was responsible for this nagging sense of shame. Opening the front door, he slipped upstairs noiselessly and placed his treasures carefully in the back of his drawer, covering the padded bundle with his folded underwear. Dad would be proud of the big cup and saucer; Mama would say, “Oh, how pretty!” when she saw the bowl; Grandma would be truly grateful. And he had five cents left for himself! It would be a great Christmas! But as he slowly climbed down the stairway, he had an unpleasant feeling that his purse was heavily sagging his overcoat pocket.
No one was in the living room, nor in the kitchen. Reaching the bedroom door he stopped in surprise. Ann Elizabeth was whimpering in Mother’s arms, and Dad was standing over her with a bottle and spoon. She was all right an hour ago, thought Avery rebelliously.
“Don’t come in,” called Mother warningly; “Father is going to take you to Grandma’s for the night.” Attempting to soothe the fretful baby, she scarcely looked at him.
“But I don’t want to go to Grandma’s,” he protested after watching the pantomime in silence for a moment. “I want my supper, and I want to stay home.”
Dad interpreted the misery in his voice, and crossing to the entrance, stared down compassionately at his young son.
“It’s better for you to go,” he explained at last with finality. Having pulled on his own overcoat, he took Avery’s unwilling hand, and silently they crunched through the vacant lot to Grandma’s lighted door, where he bade his firstborn a sympathetic, though hurried good night.
Grandma comforted Avery with steaming vegetable soup and fluffy dumplings, afterwards replacing the lid carefully to keep the contents hot until Aunt Mildred should come home. Then together they looked at some magazines filled with Christmas advertisements, pictures of Santa Claus, and lighted trees; but when Aunt Mildred came, pulled off her shoes, and threw herself on the couch too weary to even eat, Grandma left him to his own resources in order to fuss over her daughter, and he went up to bed by his own choice. There, his face buried in sheets that smelled like the mountains in summer, he began to cry. This was a terrible Christmas time! He remembered the fun Mother and Dad had made last year, could see the three stockings they had hung from the mantle on Christmas Eve; Dad’s under one candlestick, Mama’s under the other, and his own tucked under the clock between them. He didn’t want to be a “baby,” but he simply had to cry a little. After what seemed a great while Grandma came in, drew off her slippers and crept under the covers, and for a moment or two he allowed his head to rest on her shoulder. Out of the black pit of despair he sobbed:
“Mother sent me away so she could give all her time to Ann.”
Grandma smoothed his unruly, damp locks. Understandingly she quietly explained: A week ago, without anyone’s knowing it at the time, Ann Elizabeth had been exposed to whooping cough. In town a number of cases had suddenly developed. Mother had sent Avery away so that, if Ann should comedown with the disease, he might escape.
Motionless, Avery thought for a long time. He remembered the nickel in his leather purse and the little blue china doll on Aunt Mildred’s counter. The card with “5c” printed in black stared at him accusingly. Moreover, he could almost hear the violent coughing of a boy who had lived next door last winter. He didn’t want little Ann to cough like that! But later, his mind returning to his own injuries, he protested unsteadily:
“Mother has been too busy with the baby to even hear my piece, and I have to say it in school tomorrow.”
Sympathetically Grandma arose, searched through his coat pockets, produced the rumpled paper, and patiently prompted until she thought Avery could recite the lines under any circumstance.
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Amid thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by,
Yet in thy dark street shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
Feeling confident of his success before the class on the morrow, Avery allowed himself to become enveloped in a gentle peace, which gradually deepened into slumber. Grandma kissed his forehead and laid her cheek against his for a moment. Such a little pilgrim to be already grappling with “hopes and fears”! his childish voice repeating the unchildish words filled her heart, and it seemed that even little Ann was not quite so dear as this, her eight-year-old!
In a day or two, the doctor having decided that Ann’s cold, severe as it was, would not develop into whooping cough, Avery was allowed to return home. He threw open the back door joyously and in his eagerness almost forgot to close it quietly. Hearing voices, he advanced softly to the living room archway and peered in. Mother, in a pink negligee, was seated limply in a large rocker talking to the committee ladies, who were grouped solicitously around her.
“I think you should at least rehearse someone else,” she was pleading in a tense voice, although her hands continued to lie wearily inactive.
“But Baby is so much better,” argued one visitor, and Avery’s wary eyes saw the bow topping her hat vibrate with her earnestness. “By Sunday night she will be entirely well.”
“Every other baby is either too young or too old,” flatly declared another. “And Ann Elizabeth is so dear! You are both just right for that final tableau – oh, we need you so badly!”
Mother had scarcely moved. She looked at her callers with large, woeful eyes.”I feel dreadfully earthly,” she replied in a queer, shaky voice. “Especially this morning –”
“You’re tired out, my dear,” said the oldest member, rising and going to the door. “And we are just making matters worse. Go in and rest while your baby’s sleeping. We’ll look around for an understudy, but I think both you and Ann will be perfectly well by Sunday night.”
It was not until after the ladies had gone that Mother saw Avery. She held out her arms and gathered him to her, kissing his forehead and cheeks. “Oh, Avery, Avery,” she half sobbed, and he clung to her, shaken. But in a few moments she dropped down upon an ottoman, bowing her head upon her knees. “Oh, Avery, Ann has been really ill, but she’s going to be all right now.”
With trembling lips, Avery stared at the limp figure. Her mopish gown drooped on the rug and her face was hidden in a cascade of fair hair. “You better go to bed,” he managed; and as she made no reply his mouth tightened, and soon he didn’t even want to comfort her. Let her cry. It was always Ann!
The Sunday night of the pageant, Christmas Eve, proved unexpectedly mild. As Father had charge of the cyclorama, the lights, and the curtain he left home early, taking Avery with him so as to leave Mother a free hand with Baby. The recreation hall being close by, she could dress Ann and herself at home, and Dad would return to fetch them just before the performance began.
As Father held the gate for Avery, they paused for a moment to drink deep of the soft, still air. Beneath arc lamps, downy flakes fluttered leisurely. Trees and fences were being gently packed. From the other end of town came the faint peal of a church bell. Dad stretched his hand to clasp his son’s small palm, and for a few paces Avery was content to be led. Dad was worth following!
Having reached the hall, the boy found plenty to engage his interest. The committee ladies, in their best dresses, were rushing about with flushed cheeks. A young girl was practicing at the organ below the platform, and two high school boys with violins were waiting their turn. The painted flame of the red cardboard candles on each side of the curtain gleamed pallidly in the dim light. Holly wreaths hung from the wall lamps which encircled the auditorium.
But it was “back stage” that held Avery in attentive fascination. Wandering about, in the main obeying Father’s injunction “not to touch,” he gazed in wonderment at a cloth manger, at the painted flat roofs of the Little town of Bethlehem far in the distance, at a star-like slit in the purple sky above, with a flood light perched behind it. An alluring world of make-believe!
Avery helped Father hang the cyclorama and change the white “foots” to yellow and red; but it was while Dad was gone to fetch Mother and Ann that the boy found his greatest delight. In a littered corner he discovered Hank Jones, the town’s best carpenter and handy man, on his knees covering with an old brown velvet rug a reclining humped concoction of canvas and paper. Glancing up and seeing Avery’s wide-eyed absorption, he asked: “What does that look like, kid?”
“A camel,” Avery replied with enthusiasm.
From keen, close-set eyes, Hank cast him an amused glance.
“Does it now?” he ejaculated. “Well, let’s hope the audience will be as smart.”
“What’s this for?” inquired Avery, pointing to a diminutive cardboard stable enclosing painted figures of the Holy Family.
“Oh, we used that as a setting,” explained Hank, his mouth filled with thumb tacks, while his long square-tipped fingers punched the rug in one spot and smoothed it in another. At that moment Avery espied a tiny yellow camel lying among tools and bits of wood near Hank’s feet.
“What’s this?” he interrogated, charmed by the arched neck and high hump in so small a reproduction.
Hank threw him another quick look and chuckled. “That? Why, that is what is left of my son’s last Christmas Noah’s Ark.”
“What’s it for?” persisted Avery, enchanted.
“It was my model,” explained the carpenter, rising and brushing his baggy knees. Then, as Avery stared at him blankly, he added:
“I made this from that.”
Avery examined the rounded haunch and then swung his attention again to the tiny carved and painted prototype. For a second he forgot “not to touch” and impulsively picked up the intriguing toy; then, remembering his father’s admonition, reluctantly he laid it on a near-by cluttered table.
There was no doubt about the success of the Christmas pageant. The hall was packed beyond standing room by people who had gathered in a worshipful mood, and their emotions swept across the footlights to find an echo in the performers’ hearts. Avery, close beside his father in the proscenium near the switchboard, watched him flash, dim, and change the lights as the scenes progressed and even helped him open and close the slow-moving curtains. Near the end came the number “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and Avery stood spellbound as lights gleamed here and there from the painted dwellings and the star shone down upon flattened roofs. The girls’ chorus was crowded in the wings beyond him and his father, and out of sight of the audience, but Avery could see how serious the faces of the “big girls” were.
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie –
Silently he repeated the words with them, now understanding at least a part of the verse he had recited on the last day of school.
Mother’s tableau was in every way the climax of the evening. her son held his breath as she slowly ascended the tall platform set behind the painted clouds, her long white robe clinging to everything it touched, and silly little Ann asleep in her arms, missing all the fun. As Father was about to flash the yellow lights, Mother’s blue head drapery fell over her shoulder, covering her hair and profile, and she called to Avery to come and adjust it. Pleased to be noticed at such a dramatic moment, he darted to the center of the stage, climbed the boxes which served as steps and drew back the long, soft fold.
“Tuck the end into the back of my chair, dear,” she admonished with smothered excitement.
The music changed to “Silent Night,” which was Father’s cue and accordingly he pulled a switch, flooding the dim stage suddenly with golden rays that focused on the two performers. Ann’s eyes popped open. For a startled second she stared at the unfamiliar surroundings, blinked her disapproval and made ready to wail.
“Oh, dear,” cried Mother in a small shaking voice, as with trembling hands she pressed the baby closer. “Hush, deary,” she crooned.
But Avery was taking over the situation.
“Boo,” he whispered playfully, shaking his forelocks close to the small, contorted face. “Boo, Ann, boo.”
Her fear began to vanish and she reached for his shining hair. He nodded his head from side to side, jauntily. “Boo, boo,” he grinned as she gave him a broad smile.
“Come back now, Son,” Father called softly and Avery retreated on tip-toe, still peek-a-booing when in range of his sister’s vision. He heard Mother continue his sing-song under her breath. In a moment he was back at Father’s side, and the curtains began to part.
Everyone felt the hush of the audience. It crept back stage with increasing intensity until even the gangling, amateur stage hands were still. Hank Jones stepped noiselessly to the proscenium, where he stood motionless, looking upwards across the haze of lights. Mother’s clear-cut features were delicately shaded and Ann’s blue gaze was lifted. She stretched up one chubby hand and poked with tapering, incredibly tiny fingers at Mother’s smiling mouth. Fresh young voices fell in with the refrain of the violins:
Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright –
Avery felt Dad’s caress on his shoulder, and looking up the boy saw that his father’s eyes were wet and glittering in the yellow reflection.
“You saved the tableau, Son,” he whispered. “I’m proud of you.”
And suddenly Avery lost all his resentment against Ann. With Father’s clasp warm on his arm he gazed at the Mother and Child, stirred to the depths of his small being. The beautiful tableau was partly his! And he admitted to himself that his sister’s black head looked cute coming out of the pink clouds.
When the curtains finally closed and the music had died to silence, Avery unexpectedly found himself the man of the hour. The committee ladies fluttered around him, patting his head, and the chorus girls told him that he had been “perfectly wonderful.” In order to embrace her son, Mother handed Ann to Dad.
“You saved the day, Avery,” she beamed. “The whole pageant would have been ruined if Ann Elizabeth had cried.”
He shot a glance at his sister. She was sucking her stiff little thumb and blinking heavy eyelids. A tiny white sock had made its way through shawls and blankets and so downward to the floor. He stooped and picked it up, and while it seemed small it didn’t seem silly any more. Without a word he tucked it into Father’s palm.
Then swiftly a realization stiffened him and made him feel cold. Tomorrow was Christmas, the stores were all closed, and he – by his own choice – had no present for Ann. In a panic he pulled on his overcoat and felt for his purse. Thank goodness he hadn’t spent the nickel! But what was the good of a nickel late on Sunday night? then he thought of Hank Jones.
The carpenter was alone, packing his tools and whistling “Silent Night.”
“Your big camel looked fine,” began Avery, cordially.
“Thanks,” came the amused reply.
Avery took up the small yellow toy. “Would you sell this?” he asked.
Hank was arrested by the boy’s eagerness and paused with a saw in his hand. “Oh, I guess you can have that.”
“I can’t take it,” explained Avery, looking directly into the man’s attentive face. He pulled out his purse. “I have to buy it; it’s for a present.”
“How much money have you got?”
“Well, that’s exactly the price of this camel,” Hank responded and he studied quizzically the dull coin which Avery laid carefully in his palm. “Thanks, old man. Merry Christmas!”
But as Avery neared the stage entrance he turned, anxiety stamped on his features. “Do babies like camels?” he inquired.
Hank’s expression was a mixture of humor and tenderness. “Do they?” he grinned. “They eat ‘em alive.”
Satisfied, Avery picked up a stray scrap of tissue paper, wrapped the camel carefully, tucked it deep in his pocket with his empty purse, and said good night. Coming to the proscenium, he looked across, and there was Father with Ann rolled up, head and all, like a bundle of laundry. It was queer how babies breathed! And now Mother was there, too, looking for him, as he knew by the way she smiled when she saw him. Her arms were full of draperies and a white scarf was tied around her loose hair. She held out her hand, and Avery didn’t feel his feet – he seemed to fly across the bare boards and scattered boxes. Still he held down securely the flap of his overcoat pocket.
What had seemed impossible had happened. It wasn’t just the last-minute buying of the tiny camel; it was something warmer and deeper than that – something that he couldn’t have explained, but that made him wildly happy. The night seemed to be singing … tomorrow was Christmas! Tomorrow was Christmas – and he had a present for everybody!