From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1942 –
Christmas Is Just Another Day
By Beatrice Rordame Parsons
“Good grief!” Lonnie’s young voice was a little too loud. He looked at the grocery list in his mother’s hand and pushed his chair away from the breakfast table. His five-feet-ten unfolded with all the grace of an accordion, and there was a queer, impatient wrinkle at the corner of his nose. “Why all the fuss, Mom? Christmas is just another day. What’s the good of a tree? Or a big dinner? I won’t be home. I’ve got a date with the gang. We’re going skating in the morning and to a movie at night.”
“The exuberance of youth,” groaned his father from behind his newspaper. He laid it down, and the edges of his lips looked a little pale. Weariness crept into the usually broad line of his shoulders. He said abruptly: “The boy’s right, Nina. Why wear yourself out? I’ve got to go down to the office. I’ll catch a snack of lunch in the café downstairs.”
Nina’s eyes held tenderness. When she got up to make more toast, her hand touched his shoulder in sudden gentleness.
“It’s been hard for you, Lawrence – this past year. You need more rest. If only you could have the whole day at home.” Wistfulness had crept into her voice, but she shut it out as she set a plate of golden toast at his elbow. “I know how it is. Everything’s changed – everything.”
“I’ll say it’s changed,” cried Sue, coming into the room with a little rush. she wasn’t quite dressed, and much to her father’s annoyance she zipped things and buttoned them while she waited for her bacon and eggs. “The store is a madhouse!”
Sue worked at Carter’s, the largest store in town, in the glove department, and she was always carrying home little anecdotes about her work. Now her pretty face was filled with fretfulness.
“You’d think they’d skip Christmas this year, the way things are! There’s only about half enough clerks. We are worked to death.”
There was the same pale weariness etched against her eyes that had faded Lawrence’s. Nina saw it with a pang. Sue was going out too much – with a young man named Jerry. The family had never met him; and because Lonnie was so given to teasing, they knew little more than that he worked for the Government.
Nina’s hand touched a little golden-brown curl that had escaped across Due’s white forehead. Her eyes held concern.
“Never mind, darling,” she said consolingly, “perhaps the day won’t be so bad.”
“The day before Christmas,” said Sue with a strange bitterness, “is terrible. People pushing and shoving, yelling and biting our heads off! People go a little crazy about this time of year. I don’t see what there is in Christmas to get so excited about. I say, give me Christmas morning to lie in bed. I intend to stay there till noon. If I don’t, I’ll be too dead to have a good time at Kirma’s party.” A tiny flush dyed her cheeks, and there was a tinge of defiance in her tone as she added: “Jerry’s calling for me at eight. I expect the family to be nice to him.”
Lonnie snorted. “She’s nuts about the guy.”
Lawrence looked up in sudden anxiety. “Who is this fellow Jerry? What does he do?”
Before Sue could answer, Lonnie said wickedly, “He kisses her. I saw ‘em the other night out in his car.”
Sue jumped from the table, her face red, her eyes hysterical. Everybody was looking at her, and she raised her head defiantly. “I’m old enough to choose my friends,” she cried, and went rushing out of the room, her breakfast growing cold on her plate.
Nina’s worried eyes followed her. She had a tugging desire to follow her. But it was useless. There would be no time for a long, close, heart-to-heart talk between them, anyway. She was already putting on her hat, drawing the zippers of her galoshes close about her feet against the December snow.
Later, washing up the dishes in her bright kitchen with the windows that looked out over the sleeping garden, the brittle, gray trees, Nina found herself wondering just how long it had been since she and Sue, or any of her family for that matter, had had a heart-to-heart talk.
“This war has changed them,” she said to herself, rinsing the dishpan and hanging it on its hook under the sink. “It’s changed everybody. Everything.”
It had changed the house. Last Christmas there had been hustle and hurrying, with presents hidden in the most unexpected places and Bob coming in all covered with snow.
Now Bob was at camp!
Nina felt a sudden tightening of the heartstrings, a sudden flurry of scalding tears against her lashes. But she did not let them fall. During the year she had taught herself control.
She picked up the grocery list and studied it, her mind busy with the things she could cross off.
“Not the turkey,” she decided as she reached for the telephone and dialed a number. “We’ll have it for dinner another night.”
The grocer’s voice as it answered her ring was big and hearty.
“Good morning, Mrs. Burton,” and immediately he began praising his new stock of oranges and cranberries. “And yams, ma’am! I remember how you always have yams for Christmas dinner.”
She ordered the yams, and a pound of cranberries. When she left the telephone and began to dust, she found her mind busy with her thoughts.
Tomorrow would be Bob’s birthday. She remembered the day he was born. It had been very early, and when Lawrence came tiptoeing into the room to kiss her, she gave him a proud little smile.
“Your son, darling. A Christmas baby.”
His face had been a mixture of pride and fear as he bent over the small, white bundle and found the tiny fingers curling about his big hand.
Bob was twenty-one, now, and far away, with only a vague promise of a furlough sometime within the month. His birthday presents had been mailed several weeks before in order that they might not be delayed among the rush of Christmas packages.
“I wish I could see how much he liked them,” she thought tenderly. She had put an extra handful of raisins into the cake. “He’s always been so crazy about raisins,” she had told Mattie who was helping her in the kitchen.
Mattie was a tall, thin girl from a large family nearby. They lived in a run-down sort of house, and Mattie needed to work. Mattie was rather homely, and Nina had rather marveled when she had announced that she was being married.
“To George, ma’am. He’s goin’ to camp.”
Mattie had been so proud, marrying her soldier boy, so happy in the brief honeymoon they had shared. She had come back to wash dishes, to scour pots and pans with a certain aura of glory about her. When she told Nina about the coming baby her face was transfused with a light that made Nina want to cry.
“I’m so glad, ma’am. If you’ll only let me go on workin’ …”
Nina nodded. “Certainly, Mattie.” Mattie would need extra pennies. “Having a baby takes a lot of money,” she added, and said swiftly, “Do sit down. You can peel the vegetables there at the table.”
Nina put her duster away and felt a sense of loss now that she had nothing else to do. The house was in apple-pie order, the living room shiny and clean.
“I’ll go down town,” she promised herself, beginning to know again the dreadful emptiness of the house. “I’ll get something for Mattie’s baby.”
She went to Carter’s in the hope that she would catch a glimpse of Sue. But Sue was busy and did not look up when she passed the counter.
In the infants’ department she selected Mattie’s gift, a tiny, pink sacque. She had had just such a bit of soft wool for Bob; and the other two, arriving in rapid succession, had finished it off.
Her eyes were soft as the clerk wrapped it in tissue and ribbon. Lon had been such a boys’ boy. Everything he did, he did with a rattle and bang. Bob had been different. Quieter, Closer.
Ever since he was little they had had a sort of wireless telegraph with their minds. She felt at the moment that he was thinking of her.
“As though he’s coming closer and closer,” she thought with a little tingle of excitement. If only he could have his furlough soon.
She walked on air as she passed the glove counter again. This time Sue was not busy, and she looked into Nina’s eyes with an odd glance.
“Darling, you look sort of … well, sort of lost!” Sue’s voice was suddenly sweet and clear. “I’m glad Jerry’s coming to the house tomorrow night to call for me, Mom. He … he’s nice. You’ll like him, no matter what Lon says.”
Nina laughed. She put a gentle hand on Sue’s arm, and her face was filled with the look only mothers know.
“I wouldn’t worry about Lonnie, dear. It’s just that he hasn’t approved of any boy since you were five. He has his standards about the man you might … might want to … to marry.”
There, it was out! The thing she had been trying not to think. Sue getting married! Sue a war bride. Sue, her soft, pink and golden baby.
Yet she had not been able to close her eyes to the fact that Sue was a woman and falling in love with a young man she had never even met.
Sue’s blue eyes sparkled with happiness. Her soft, red lips trembled a little over the words.
“I do want to marry him, Mother. But the way things are …” She spread her hands in a hopeless little gesture.
Nina patted one of them. “Everything will work out,” she said with a confidence she did not really feel. “I’ll be waiting to meet your nice young man.”
They had no time for further conversation. A customer was fingering a bit of black kid and Sue moved toward her.
Nina’s heart was so filled with worry and confusion that she did not know just where she was going until she found herself in the men’s department. Then she saw Lonnie’s brown head. He was wrinkling his brows over two pairs of shamelessly brilliant pajamas. His face broke up into a relieved smile as he caught sight of her.
“Gee, Mom, I’m glad you happened by. I don’t know a thing about what Dad likes. Help me pick out a present for him, that’s a good girl.”
She fingered the cotton and remembered Lonnie’s graveness years ago when she had helped him decide if a certain packet of modeling clay held just the right texture.
“I think this one,” she said, selecting the one with the most red. Lawrence had always loved red though he had never worn it.
They walked together toward the door, and she felt Lonnie’s eyes on her. There was something odd in his face and voice.
“Say, what were you doing in the men’s department? Just sort of wandering around like a little lost pup?” He had said it teasingly, but there was an underlying concern in his tone.
“I’m doing some last-minute shopping,” she explained, and he pulled out his wallet.
His look was owlish: “Look, Mom! Will you get Sis a … well, you know, a sort of petticoat,” he added desperately. “I … I don’t dare go into one of those stores.”
She took the bill he handed her, and promised. “Silk,” he insisted, “and plenty of lace. She’s got to have things nice.”
Her eyes burned as she selected a dainty thing of lace and peach-colored satin. Then she went back into the slushy streets where a light snow was beginning to fall and Christmas anthems were beginning to come over the loud-speakers. It was getting dusk, and the red and green street lights burned brightly.
She stopped at her husband’s office and tried to carry him off home for a nice little supper. But his worried, tired eyes told of several hours work yet to be done.
He got his hat, however, and gave her a one-sided smile as he led her toward the elevators.
“Let’s duck into the lunchroom and have a sandwich, Mrs. Burton”; and to the girl who came to their place at the counter, he said, “A turkey sandwich.”
He ate slowly and insisted on hearing everything about her day. When she was through, his glance was tender.
“Not much fun for you, Nina, wandering around all alone. I wish I could help celebrate …” He hunched his shoulders in a hopeless little gesture, and picked up the check.
Nina felt low as she rode home on the bus. The house was so still and quiet that it might have been any evening but Christmas Eve.
She shook herself and scolded roundly: “What are you, Mrs. Nina May Burton? Are you a little girl that you want to play Christmas? Why, there are plenty of people in this world who haven’t half what you have.” She slipped her feet back into her galoshes. “Now put on your hat and take that little sacque to Mattie.”
It was better out here, walking in the crisp, white snow. People were hurrying toward their homes. She could peep through lighted windows and see children at their play, light burning brightly against the branches of evergreen.
Even Mattie’s shabby old home seemed cheerful to Nina. The numerous brothers and sisters were chattering excitedly over a slim, little tree. Mattie hugged the pink sacque tenderly to her breast.
“It’s so lovely! I can just see him in it.” Her eyes were shiny, and far away. She said simply, “George will be so proud.” Then she put it back into its tissue-paper nest and made Nina sit down for a little while. “I baked a cake today,” she said shyly, offering a square, waxed paper package. “One of your favorites – with dates.”
Nina’s eyes were shining as she let herself back into the wintery night. Everybody was so kind. She wondered why she had ever found Mattie homely. Even now, her thin body distorted with her child, she had a beauty of soul that made her lovely.
All at once Nina found herself thinking: “That’s how it is with Christmas. It is just a day. An ordinary day. But there’s beauty in it, promise.”
For the first time in a long time her heart felt light and happy. Things weren’t as wrong as she had thought them. After all, nothing could really change her family. They were part of her. She was part of them.
“Even if they don’t think Christmas is worthy of the fuss,” she thought gently.
The thought broke abruptly. There was something the matter at her home. Halfway down the street she could see that the lights were blazing from the attic to the basement.
A delivery van stood at the door, and as it drew away, a tall soldierly figure jumped from a taxi. Nina was running as they reached the gate. She cried his name.
“Bob! Oh, Bobbie!”
Then she was gathered into a great, big hug which pushed the breath from her body and made her warm and glad to the bottoms of her feet.
“I got that furlough, Mom,” he told her, and as they walked arm in arm toward the porch, Nina remembered the lights.
“I hope nothing’s happened,” she said breathlessly, “I hope …”
Something had happened. From the front door to the living room pine needles littered the floor. A cyclone seemed to have broken in the midst of the living room. Bits of string and tissue paper were scattered about.
A tall, broad-limbed Christmas tree stood in one corner, while Lawrence climbed a stepladder to place a sparkling tinsel star on the top.
Nina sank into a chair and for a moment her head felt dizzy listening to all the talking and explaining.
Bob was hugging Sue, shaking hands with Lon, and gripping the fingers of a tall, strange young man who came shyly from the shadows. Sue caught his arm.
“Jerry, this is my mother.”
The boy’s eyes were clear and fine, and the hand he gave her was firm and brown. Her eyes met Sue’s, and there passed between them a look such as only women know who love with every fiber.
“Hello, Jerry,” said Nina, and her fingers tightened. It was like having another son!
Bob’s voice was teasing. “But the tree, Lon, fellow. Why a tree? I thought we were all grown up.”
Lon’s eyes were touched with embarrassment, and his voice was husky.
“We got it for Mom,” he said, and they all shouted with laughter. To her, he made explanation in a little aside. “We thought you might be … a little lonely,” he said, then drew her up and made her stand in front. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he said proudly.
Nina felt her mind whirling. She didn’t quite understand. Were these the people who just that morning had declared that Christmas was a bother? And now they were turning things upside down and inside out to prove that it wasn’t.
“We decided to have dinner at home,” offered Sue brightly. “I saw the turkey in the refrigerator.”
“The gang’s coming, too,” cried Lonnie, smacking his lips over the turkey.
It was their father who protested: “All that work for your mother! I thought I’d take her down town and buy her a really swell meal at the best cafe.”
Nina’s eyes were shining. “What work?” she asked, her mind busy planning. Mattie could do the yams and the cranberries. They wouldn’t be hard. She’d make the dressing herself, and Sue and Jerry could set the table. There was even a cake. A date cake! her voice was excited: “We’ll have a delicious dinner. Just wait and see.”
Then she was bustling about, picking up paper and string, whisking bits of pine needles from the carpet. She felt busy and needed again, as though she had suddenly become important. Shyly she inserted a bit of unselfishness.
“You children will have to find something to do for the evening. Dad and I will want to sit by the fire like a pair of old cronies and sink our bones in rest and more rest.”
She wished she might ask Bob, just as a special favor, to stay at home with them. He had so little time. But days at camp are dull. He’d want to do a little rug-cutting of his own. After all, she’d have him a little while, and that was all she asked.
She’d enjoy them while she could, she told herself, and would not let her mind go past tomorrow. Loneliness had vanished, and in its place burned a glad, sweet joy.
“Christmas is just another day,” she said unexpectedly, and added, as their eyes turned toward her with quick, loving glances, Bbut, as Lonnie would say – ‘What another day!’”