From the Improvement Era, December 1937 –
By Christie Lund
Christmas was a lovely time – oh a lovely, lovely time! The words sang themselves over in Lola Heath’s heart as she looked about the gaily decorated living room which seemed to take on new dignity and beauty from the red and green trimmings hung about and the large Christmas tree standing proudly in one corner.
True, she wasn’t a child this year. The thrilling mystery of Christmas was gone. No longer did she lie awake in feverish anticipation. Yet there was a thrill in feeling herself a young woman in sharing in the plans for her younger sisters and brother. There was a thrill in knowing that this year she would go to her first real Christmas party. And with whom!
Gerald Richey, star halfback at South High, and basketball captain, had asked her to a Christmas Eve party at one of the nicest homes in town. Perhaps it would be the beginning of a young romance, the beginning of many lovely things …
She arose from the overstuffed sofa and walked to the mantle near the tree. Gazing at her reflection in the mirror she asked herself: “why did he ask me?”
Any girl would have been proud to go with him. Why, then, had she been asked? She who was so quiet, so plainly dressed? True, she was pretty. her hair, as she saw it now, was a oft brown with just a touch of gold in it, and her eyes were blue … very, very blue. While her skin – few girls, even at sixteen, had the naturally pink, glowing skin she possessed. And yet, the other girls were so much more flashily pretty with their paint and powder, their robin-red nails, their smart clothes and smarter talk.
But he had asked her! Strange little shivers of excitement went up and down her spine each time she thought of it.
They had met at the pencil-sharpener in the school library. He had offered to sharpen her pencil, and afterward, they had stood talking. Quite unexpectedly, he had looked at her with his extremely dark straight-forward eyes and asked: “Are you going to be busy Christmas Eve?”
She had hesitated, then murmured, “No, I don’t think so.”
“This is pretty early to be asking for a date, but – well, I thought I’d better get lined up for June Watkins’s party. Would you like to go?”
“Why, of course I would,” she had assured him, flushing, while he stood smiling at her almost as though she were a child. Just then the librarian gave them an ominous glance, so he winked and whispered: “I’ll call you later.”
For three weeks she had lived with the memory of that moment close to her heart. For three weeks her whole being had thrilled in happy anticipation. Only one thing had marred her happiness, made the thought of the party less perfect.
She was not going to have a new dress!
Mom and Dad had wanted to give her one, but, with the expense of Christmas, they just couldn’t afford it. She had asked that it might be her only present until they had explained that they could only afford to spend two dollars on each of the four children. That seemed a pitifully small sum, but there was going to be turkey with dressing for dinner, and plum pudding. And each of the children had to have a little money to buy one another presents, and of course they had the tree which they hadn’t been able to afford last year.
But Mom and Kathie, her older sister, were going to make one of Kathie’s dresses over for her; and she was sure it would be nice. It had been such a pretty dress, pale blue taffeta, with a full skirt held out on each side by tiny hoops over the hips, with a basque waist. Of course it was out of style now, with its skirt that was several inches shorter on the one side. But they could fix it, she was sure they could.
Mrs. Heath held the blue taffeta dress up to the light, looked at it carefully, then turning to her two daughters said, hesitantly, “It’s practically thread-bare in places. I’m afraid we can’t take it apart; we’ll have to leave it the way it is.”
“But mother,” Kathie protested, “we can’t have it like that – shorter on one side, and with this basque waist …”
“They are wearing basques again.”
“Yes, but not like this, not this long, or loose.”
They were all thoughtful for a moment, thinking of some way to make the old dress new and glamorous, worthy of the occasion. Suddenly Kathie rose and went into the bedroom. when she returned, she carried over her arm another taffeta dress, pink, and of even older origin.
“Look,” she said. “There’s enough good in this to make a cute little jacket. That would hide the waist, then we could cut some of the fulness out of the skirt, here where it goes under, and sew a piece on the side here to lengthen it.”
“That sounds possible,” the others agreed, then after a moment her mother repeated, ‘Yes, it sounds very possible. I think that would be nice.”
Christmas Eve, Lois was breathless with excitement and eagerness. Kathie and her mother were tired but happy as they slipped the little pink jacket over her slim, young shoulders, touched her hair here and there, brought from small, hidden boxes the nicest handkerchief in the house, and Kathie’s compact, a gift from the lost days of the taffeta dresses, and kissed her cheek as they murmured: ‘You’ll be the loveliest girl of them all. You do look so sweet.”
Lois saw her reflection in the glass, saw the approval in her family’s eyes, saw her own loveliness, and felt radiant with a happiness she had never known before. This was the grandest thing in the world, this love of life, this youth, this anticipation, this consciousness of one’s self, this happiness.
Gerald Richey did not disappoint the family that was expectantly waiting his approval of their “party girl.”
“You look plenty sweet,” he told her as he watched her pin his corsage of sweet peas and roses to her dress, “Shall we go?”
Lois felt a slight chill of misgiving as they climbed their impressive steps to the Watkins’s home. She slipped her hand through the arm Jerry offered and clasped it tightly. he laid his hand over hers for a moment reassuringly and she smiled up into his dark eyes, lifted her head, walking proudly into the large house.
She had never been in such a house before. It was like something from a story book with its wide rooms opening into one another, with its gleaming floors, its huge vases of flowers set about the rooms, its potted palms, its perfectly enormous Christmas tree lavishly decorated in one corner of the room, its log fires burning, its servants moving about quietly as they did in the movies. She gasped involuntarily at the beauty of it all and at the beauty of the girls who were coming in in velvet evening wraps and fur coats, in long evening dresses of velvet, satin, and, yes, taffeta. Several of them wore little jackets with their dresses, and as Lois looked at them she remembered the vision of loveliness she had seen in her own mirror, lifted the ruffled collar of the pink jacket, and assured herself, “My dress isn’t as new, but it is just as pretty. I look as good as any of them.”
Boys were greeting Jerry on all sides, “Hi’ya.” some of them who knew her slightly spoke to her, and Jerry introduced her to many that she did not know, many she had seen at school, had known by sight because they were football stars or student body leaders, and it was a thrill for her to be here with them, one of them. and she was one of them, for they were putting their names on her program; they wanted to dance with her … not all of them, but quite a few. Enough. For she really only cared about dancing with Jerry who had asked her, out of all the girls in the world, to be his partner. Surely Cinderella, in all her borrowed finery, had been no happier than she was at this moment.
Yet somehow, she felt that the other girls resented her being there, for whenever she turned around unexpectedly, she saw some of them watching her, a strange expression in their eyes. and when she came up to a group of them they seemed suddenly to grow silent and restrained, or to seem patronizingly kind to her. But it could not spoil her happiness, nor could the fact that she was cut-in on less than the other girls. The only thing that mattered was that Jerry was very attentive. And she could have danced on with him forever.
At intermission he left her with a group while he went to get some refreshments. But the group seemed unaware of her presence after he had gone or else were consciously ignoring her, for she was quite left out of the conversation. She knew she would feel less awkward alone, so she walked away and sat down at a far end of the room where she felt she would be less conspicuous.
She was quite unconscious of voices outside the window on the veranda until she heard a young man say, “Who’s the girl friend, Jerry?” And heard Jerry’s voice saying, “Lois Heath, haven’t you met her?”
“No, but she’s sure a dud.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Jerry said evenly, too evenly, though his friend seemed not to notice, for he went on: “Whose dress she got on? Her grandmother’s?”
There was a horrible moment of silence, a moment during which Lois waited as one must wait the day of doom, a moment during which life seemed to stop as she waited, her heart hammering in her throat, her breath coming fast, her mind unable to think. She wanted to get up and run, but she seemed glued to the spot; she wanted to cry out, but she seemed too stricken. then out of what seemed an interminable moment, she heard a loud sock, a groan, and a heavy thud on the porch, then quick footsteps, while she realized that she must get away from here before Jerry came and found her, before he realized that she had heard.
She walked swiftly to the room where she had taken her wraps, and once inside its door she stood trembling, her eyes closed, her hands clutched tightly together. After a moment she walked slowly over to the long mirror and looked at herself … saw herself, saw herself as these others must have seen her. “A dud.” “Her grandmother’s dress.” She saw the lengthened skirt, she saw the worn taffeta in the jacket, saw the blue shoulder showing beneath it. Hot, hurt tears drenched her eyes. She whispered hoarsely, “No wonder they looked at me, no wonder the boys didn’t cut in. I look, oh, I look a mess.”
Finally, she dried her eyes, powdered her nose, turned slowly but resolutely, and walked back into the room, feeling that she would give anything in the world to be away from here, for now she was sure everyone was staring at her, laughing at her, and Jerry knew they were laughing at her, and that was why he had been so kind. He was stuck with her, stuck with a dud, a frump. And she had thought she looked pretty. Oh, why had her mother and Kathie made her believe she looked pretty? Why, she was as homely and uninteresting as a – as a pan of skimmed milk. Desperately she fought to swallow the lump in her throat, to keep the tears from her eyes as Jerry came toward her, two glasses of punch in her hands, smiling as kindly as ever. She succeeded only because he talked so rapidly, saying, “Say, where’d you disappear to? I thought you’d done a sleight of hand on me,” but did not trust herself to speak. He continued, “Let’s find a corner where we can talk, shall we? Just the two of us?”
“Yes, let’s,” she agreed, just as though she didn’t know why he wanted to find a corner, as though she still thought he wasn’t ashamed of her.
They talked several moments, and then they saw a young man coming toward them, a tall, fair-haired youth whose one cheek looked dark and slightly swollen. At the sight of him Jerry’s face grew crimson to the roots of his hair, he spilled some of his punch on his tuxedo. But she sat stoically calm; she was prepared for anything. it was as if she had died and now nothing could matter, nothing could hurt.
Or did it matter? Yes, yes, it mattered suddenly for Jerry’s sake. She had humiliated him in front of his friends, had made him a laughing-stock, had made him fight with his friend, and all because he had been good to her. She had wanted to make a good impression for his sake, had wanted his friends to like her. She looked up at the blond boy and would have begged him not to make a scene, begged him not to shame Jerry more, but before she could speak, before she could move, she heard him say:
“Jerry, I’m afraid you missed giving me an introduction.” There was no sarcasm, no irony in his words. He was very serious, and Jerry arose. “I’m sorry, Wen. Miss Heath, let me present Mr. Smyth, Senior class president. Wendel, this is Lois.”
Wendell Smyth reached out and took her hand. “Jerry always has good taste. Is your program filled?”
he wrote his name on her program, talked a few moments, bowed a little, and left them. he was being kind now, too. they were gentlemen and they were sorry for her. That was harder to bear than if they had laughed and ridiculed her. she couldn’t bear it, she couldn’t. She couldn’t stand being here. And she hated herself, hated her mother and her sister, hated Jerry, everyone who had been responsible for her being here.
“I’m tired,” she said quietly. “Will you take me home?”
How relieved he must be at that. With what eagerness he must hear those words, must escort her home. But, still the gentleman, he said, “Not this soon? I thought we were just getting acquainted. Maybe you’re not having much fun.”
She wanted to say, “No, I’m not having fun, but I hope I’ve given you and your friends a good time.” but she said nothing, and he went on, “Just one more dance?”
She couldn’t refuse. She wasn’t really tired. She was only sixteen, this was her first party; it had been such fun until she had heard – oh, why had she heard. Better to have believed she was a Cinderella, better never to have known.
They danced. It was her favorite tune they were playing, “I Love You Truly,” and as Jerry leaned over her and sang the words softly, she tried to recapture her lost happiness, tried to pretend he was singing them to her, but she couldn’t. She wanted to tell him she knew so that he wouldn’t need pretend any longer.
“Haven’t you enjoyed this?” he asked abruptly, looking into her eyes. Her chin quivered but she said, “Yes, I really have.”
“Then what is it?”
“Nothing. I’m just tired.”
He smiled. “I’m glad there are girls in the world who get tired sometime. You’re a lot of nice things in a girl … did you know? You’re fresh and … Don’t make me break down and weep.”
She laughed. He was being too nice. And it was so foolish because it was too late. Cinderella had lost her slipper, all her party finery, and moreover she knew she had lost them, knew she had lost a beautiful illusion she would never find again. tonight was to have been the beginning of so much, and what had it been? The beginning of a lifetime of life disappointments, of not having nice clothes, or being laughed at by the people who mattered, of never having any of the things that mattered.
They drove home through the gaily decorated city that was being gently covered beneath a blanket of jeweled snow. It could be a white Christmas. It could have been such a lovely Christmas.
“I’ll call you soon,” Jerry assured her as he left her at the door, and his voice sounded sincere even though she assured herself it was his final gallant gesture. “Thanks,’ she murmured, and went into the house.
She was surprised and chagrined to find her mother and Kathie still up. They told her they had stayed up to trim the tree. But Lois knew they had stayed up to hear her tell of the fine party she had attended, to hear her tell how she had been the belle of the ball. She smiled at the irony of it all. She looked at them as she thought, angrily, “Well, I’ll tell them,” and as she saw their eager, hungry eyes, their eyes that had seen so little loveliness and had visioned it for her, all the bitterness melted in her, all thought she had of cruelly telling them the truth, of hurting them as she had been hurt, faded. She lifted her head, forced herself to smile, to say, naturally, “Hello.”
Her mother, her tired little mother, came over to her and helped her with her coat, insisting that she come over to the fire and “Tell us all about it.”
Lois bent her head backward, closed her eyes as though to catch again the glamor and the beauty of it all, but in reality to shut out the tears to quiet the throbbing ache in her heart, the ache that was of a sudden not for herself but for these people who loved her, who wanted to share her happiness. She breathed deeply, began, “Oh, it was glorious. The house was just like those you see in pictures. A real orchestra … And you should have seen the Christmas tree. Everyone was so nice. Jerry was grand …”
They glowed. They seemed radiant with happiness. Finally one of them questioned, “And your dress, was your dress all right?” She patted the little collar into place, whirled around before them, said, “I’ll say it was. It was as pretty as any of them – prettier.” They went to bed then, happy. And she turned out the lights, sat by the window, sat in the room with the tree that had been trimmed with silver icicles, little red and green baskets her mother had had since she was a child in Denmark, golden oranges; the tree that was somehow symbolic of the love and service of this humble home, and suddenly she wasn’t unhappy any longer.
She watched the snow, looked up at the stars. She felt vaguely that tonight had been the beginning of something wonderful after all – a gentle, genuine joy deep in her being, a selfless love she had never known before. For the first time, having forgotten herself in her love of someone else, she understood the meaning of Christmas, the love of Jesus for a world for which he could lose even His life. This was the grandest thing of all, the truest happiness. It was indeed a lovely Christmas!
And maybe, maybe, Jerry would call after all!