From the Improvement Era, December 1949 –
The Teakwood Chest
By Mary Ek Knowles
After the delivery man had wished them a Merry Christmas and driven away under the archway of glistening, snow-covered sycamore trees. Kathy, with Linda’s help, carried the teakwood chest into the living room and set it before the fireplace. The children cried, “Open it, Mommie!” And Kathy was conscious of the pounding of her heart.
She knelt before the chest. She inserted the key in the lock, and then hesitated, suddenly afraid to open Uncle Nickolas’ chest. For her whole future, and that of her children, depended on what the chest contained.
When the letter had come from the lawyer a week ago informing her that Uncle Nickolas had died at the venerable age of ninety-three, and that he had left her a legacy, it had been like a gift from heaven, and for the first time in her life it had mattered a great deal that Uncle Nick had been fabulously wealthy. Mark’s untimely death of pneumonia the month before had left her with only enough insurance to cover funeral costs, make another payment on the old house on Sycamore Road, and pay expenses until the first of the year.
In those first grief-stricken days she had hunted a job, spurred on by Aunt Beulah’s words, “You’re my dead sister’s child, and I feel it my duty to advise you. For once in your life be practical, Kathy! Mark’s dead, and you have three children to support, and there’s none of us who can afford to keep you!” And then two weeks ago Dr. Woodley had told her she was going to have a baby in June, and she had retreated to the beloved old house to pray for a miracle.
Now the miracle had arrived.
“Come on, Mother!” Linda cried; and little Paul and Barry said, “Open, Mommie!”
“First let me tell you something about this chest.” The chest was heavily carved with Chinese figures, and she ran her fingers over them.
“When I was a little girl, once a year, on Christmas day, all the families gathered at Uncle Nick’s big house on the hill.” Her family had been the “poor relations,” and she could see herself, small and pathetically eager for the day at Uncle Nick’s. “After dinner he would say to the children – he sounded very cross – ‘Into the library with you and I’ll bring you something to keep you quiet!’ And then he would carry in this chest.”
“What was in it?” Barry asked.
“Three bags of gold and silver coins and a copy of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, some big sea shells, and a book of pressed leaves and flowers.” Her cousins had played with the money, stacking it in pyramids, but she had liked the other items. Oh, the sea shells! When she held one to her ear, she had heard the pound of the sea. And the fragile delicacy of the pressed leaves and flowers! But A Christmas Carol with its beautiful painted illustrations had been her favorite. Curled up in the window seat she would read through it again and again. She had thought, a bit guiltily, that Uncle Nick was the image of Scrooge, with his long face, his scowl, his thin, stooped form.
Uncle Nick had never given them presents. “You’d think he could loosen up once a year,” Aunt Beulah had said. His only gift had been candy. Always Kathy had passed up the soft candy for the hardtack, and Uncle Nick would say, “You like the common kind best, eh?” And she would say, “Oh, yes, Uncle Nick. Better than any kind. It lasts a long time!” And then he would pat her head and smile and say, “It’s my favorite kind too.” And then he did look exactly like Scrooge – after Scrooge’s reformation!
That last Christmas just before her family moved east – she had been ten – after everyone had said good-bye and walked down the hill, she had run back and told Uncle Nick, “Oh, thank you for all the happy Christmases!” And then impulsively she had stood on tiptoe and kissed him, said, “I love you, Uncle Nick,” and then at the look on his face run pell-mell back to her father and mother. That was the last time she had seen Uncle Nick.
Now Kathy looked at the circle of faces about her, at Linda, eight, her thick blonde braids hanging over her shoulders; at Barry, dark-eyed and so like Mark; at little Paul, like a blonde cherub in corduroy overalls. And she could feel the warmth of the fire on her face, hear the soft strains of Christmas carols coming from the radio, “Oh, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie …,” and behind it all, like a backdrop, feathery snowflakes falling outside the big window, and it was a tableau of everything she held dear.
With a trembling hand she turned the key in the lock and lifted the lid, and then a little moan escaped her lips, and she was cold with a chill of hopelessness, for the teakwood chest contained no great fortune. It was filled with candy—hardtack Christmas mix!
She heard the children’s laughter. “Oh, Mother, a whole chest full of candy!” And she wanted to cry: don’t laugh! It isn’t funny. This was my last, my very last hope. What shall we do now? Uncle Nick had so much. If only he could have left me enough to finish paying for the house! Then, some way I could manage. I could take in boarders – do something. Oh, I wish I weren’t going to have this baby! And then, instantly, she took back the wish. She was glad about the baby. Each child brought with it its own special love and blessing.
“But, Mother! Why should he leave you all this candy?”
Her heart softened, remembering Uncle Nick’s almost childish delight because she had liked his kind of candy. He was ninety-three when he died, she thought – an eccentric old man. “He remembered that I liked this kind of candy best, Linda. He thought he was leaving me something extra special.”
“But, Mother,” Linda persisted. “Cousin Betty says he was a millionaire.”
“He was a lonely old man who lived in a gloomy house that smelled of dust and cobwebs.” And he must have known that people were nice to him only because they hoped to be remembered in his will. She was suddenly glad that she had run back that night and kissed him.
She got up and wearily pushed back her blonde hair. Her impulse was to burst into tears and to cry: Oh, children, we’re in desperate trouble! But she fought back the tears. Since their daddy’s death the children had been sensitive, quick to feel her mood. Even now they were watching her.
This above all Christmases must be happy, she thought.
“Well, come on,” she cried, “let’s trim the tree!” They had been trimming it when the delivery man came. She walked over to the tree, and Barry and Paul scampered after her.
She draped tinsel on the green branches, and her temples throbbed the tom-tom beat of her worried heart … no money … can’t work … the house is mine only until the first of the year….
“This is good candy, Mother,” Linda spoke with her mouth full. “It’s the kind Jane likes.”
“Jane who, dear?” Barry handed a shiny blue ornament to her and she hooked it on the tree, her heart crying, Oh, Mark, Mark, there’s no way out …
“Jane Bryan, the girl who lives at Green Gables Orphanage. You remember.”
Yes, now she remembered Jane, the shy little girl in the blue denim uniform who had come to play with Linda. Yes, Jane would like candy that lasted a long time.
“May I take her a bag?”
“Why, of course, dear.” Why not give the whole chestful of candy to the orphanage, she thought. The exultant strains of “Joy to the World” filled the room, and despite her worry Kathy felt a joyous quickening of her heart. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come …” This was the season when the world paused to pay homage to the King, the season when self was forgotten in the divinity of giving.
She thought: why not invite the orphan children here for a Christmas Eve party? It was a beautiful, an impossible idea, and she could almost hear Aunt Beulah say, “A party indeed! When you don’t even know what’s going to become of you and the children!”
But the idea was a bright flame that grew, warming her. She continued to dress the tree, and each ornament reflected the big homey room with its graceful white stairway, the old piano that gave such sweet clear notes, the crackling fire in the fireplace. Look, it’s such a perfect place for a party, and it would cost practically nothing, her heart told her. A few cookies and some punch. We could dance and sing and play games, and as they left, we could give them each a red stocking filled with Uncle Nick’s candy. The bunch of red tinsel bells hanging in the window seemed to tinkle, “Oh yes … give … give …” and the voices sang, “Joy to the world. …”
Kathy swung around, her cheeks bright. “Oh, children,” she cried, “let’s give a party! Let’s …” she poured out the plans that were in her heart, and the children cried, “Oh, yes, yes!”
“Come then; we’ll telephone the orphanage. Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve. There isn’t much time. You’ll all have to help!” The children took hold of her hands and danced, and hearing their laughter she thought, “I’ll forget my worries until Christmas is over.”
But worries thrust themselves upon her like vengeful gnomes. Early next morning the telephone rang. It was Mr. Wadsworth, the real estate man. “I have a buyer who wants to look at your house, Mrs. Holmes.”
Her hand tightened on the receiver. “Yes?”
“Will you be home today?”
The children love this old house so, she thought. If people come to look at it, they will know something is wrong. Nothing must spoil their Christmas. “I’d rather they came the day after Christmas,” she told Mr. Wadsworth.
There was a pause. “I think you are making a mistake, Mrs. Holmes. These people have enough money to buy your equity.”
Be practical, Kathy, her mind warned. The equity would pay your hospital bill. You could rent an apartment. But her heart wept. Sell the house? She looked about her. Mark with his skilled workman’s hands had painted the woodwork satiny white, papered the high-ceilinged rooms, made the large window that overlooked the orchard and the brook and the winding road into town. Let me have my house in peace, only these last two days, she thought.
“The day after Christmas,” she said. “Please!” And Mr. Wadsworth said, “Well, okay.” She hung up just as the children came running down the stairs. They were washed and combed and fully dressed.
“When do we start, Mother?”
“Now, dears. Come into the sewing room.” She led them into the sunny room off the kitchen. “We must make stockings for thirty-six.” She spread out red tarlatan on the table. “Here, Linda. You cut them out from this pattern. I’ll sew them, and then the boys can fill them with candy. Then I’ll make cookies. The children from the orphanage will be here at seven.”
Mrs. Bloomquist, the orphanage matron, had been delighted. She’d said, “Oh, indeed, they’ll come, Mrs. Holmes. It’s very kind of you.”
It was just before noon when she saw Aunt Beulah’s tall, thin figure coming up the walk. She had a feeling of panic, and she wanted to swoop up candy and stockings and hide them in a drawer, and then she thought, but why should I? I’m not doing anything wrong.
She went to the door and opened it wide. “Merry Christmas, Aunt Beulah!”
Aunt Beulah did not return the greeting. She stepped across the threshold and said, “Hello, Kathy,” and her disapproving green eyes reminded Kathy that Aunt Beulah did not approve the mother of three children wearing “blujeans” and a flannel shirt, of letting her hair tumble down around her shoulders. “Where are the children?”
I’ve never in my life seen Aunt Beulah smile, Kathy thought. Maybe she can’t. Maybe her face is frozen that way. “In the sewing room. They –” She was instantly sorry she had told her, but it was too late. Aunt Beulah was already in the sewing room, and the children were crying, “We’re making Christmas stockings for the orphans!”
“Isn’t that Nickolas’ teakwood chest, Kathy? What’s all that candy doing in there?”
“That’s Uncle Nick’s legacy to me. He – he knew that was my favorite kind of candy.”
Aunt Beulah sniffed. “He was childish in his old age. But at least,” she said with bitterness, “he did remember you. Cut the rest of us off without even so much as a gumdrop. Turned every cent of his fortune over to charity!”
Barry held up a stocking filled with candy. “We’re going to have a party tonight.”
“A party!” Aunt Beulah turned to her. “What nonsense now, Kathy?”
Kathy saw the apprehensive look on her children’s faces. “Come into the living room, Aunt Beulah. You go ahead, children, and then you can help Mother cut the cookies out. How’s that?”
In the living room, Kathy sank down on the couch, and Aunt Beulah sat on a straight-backed chair facing her. “Giving a party! That’s just the sort of romantic silly thing you’d do! Wasting your good time making Christmas stockings when you should be hunting a job.”
Kathy wet her lips. “I – if I got a job I couldn’t keep it. I’m going to have a baby in June.”
Aunt Beulah’s mouth fell open and then clamped shut, biting off the words. “Well, if that isn’t a fine mess. Of all the impractical things!”
You don’t call a baby an impractical thing, Aunt Beulah, she thought wildly.
“You’ve always let your heart rule your head. You married Mark instead of John Cardon. John would never have left you penniless!”
John Cardon was old enough to be my father, she thought. And I loved Mark, Aunt Beulah. And the years I had with him were full, happy years. Nothing, not even death, can take them from me. She looked at Aunt Beulah, sitting there, grim, unsmiling, and she thought of what her mother had said. “Aunt Beulah was so terribly practical that she wouldn’t say as much as ‘how-do’ to a man unless he had a house to offer her, a good paying business, and $5,000 in the bank.”
Poor, lonely Aunt Beulah, she thought. She’s never known any real happiness.
“But now this is once you’ve got to be sensible. Last night the family had a meeting.” Kathy stiffened. “And we decided that I would take Linda. Grace said she’d take Barry. You could keep Paul. But now –”
“Take my children away from me and separate them?” Kathy stood up, and the thought was pain, more intense than she had known when Mark died. “Oh, no!”
“Well, just what else can you do? None of us has enough money to give you!”
Kathy walked over to the window; she had a feeling of being trapped. “I think we’re all being pretty generous,” she heard Aunt Beulah say. She thought, Linda with Aunt Beulah? Oh, no, not sensitive Linda who needed warmth and affection. And Grace hated boys. She’d said so in so many words. And yet what could she do!
“Well, Kathy, what do you say? You can’t keep the house.”
Kathy turned around, her hands held tight behind her back. “I haven’t lost it yet. I have until the first of the year.” She clung desperately to the thought. There was enough food in the house to last that long, too.
Aunt Beulah stood up. “And maybe by that time the family will have changed its mind. Then you can see them land in an orphanage!”
After Aunt Beulah had gone, Kathy went into the sewing room. She gathered the children in her arms and kissed them. She held them tight as if they might be snatched from her arms.
“Mother, what’s the matter?” Linda’s voice had tears in it.
“Matter? Why, nothing, darling!” She swallowed her tears and made her voice gay. “I’m just happy that we have each other. Come on, let’s get busy.”
She went through the rest of the day in a sort of daze, mixing the cookies, rolling them out, watching while Barry and Paul cut out stars and brownies.
Linda came in to the kitchen and held up a plump red stocking. “That’s the last one.”
“Is the candy all gone, dear?”
“No. There’s still a little bit left.”
Enough to fill their stockings tonight, Kathy thought!
It was six-thirty, and Kathy went upstairs. She bathed, put on a black dress. And then she looked at herself in the full-length mirror. She looked pale, worried, sad. I mustn’t look like that tonight, she thought. She opened the closet door and took down her white hostess gown. It was a lovely thing of white velvet and frothy lace.
Mark had bought it for her in a burst of extravagance after Barry was born. She had said, “Oh, Mark, you shouldn’t have!” And he had smiled, “But, sweetheart, it isn’t every day I’m presented with a son!” And she’d put the gown on, paraded before him, and he’d said, “You look like a fairy princess – no, by golly, you look like Snow White!”
Now she put the gown on and stood before the mirror again. She brushed her hair until it was spun gold. There now, she thought, that’s better. Now I look like a gay hostess.
She heard the chime of the front door and Linda called, “Oh, Mother, here they are!”
“Yes, dear. Let them in. I’m coming.”
She walked down the curved stairway. The little girls from the orphanage were standing in a group around Mrs. Bloomquist’s substantial form, so shy and quiet that one would not have known they were there. As one, they lifted their faces to watch her and she heard their murmur of, “Oh, pretty … pretty …” and she prayed, please, let it be a happy party.
And it was. She went to the piano and played gay, happy songs, and as the children sang, she could see their shyness disappear. There were games, musical chairs, and a Virginia reel; after that, punch in sparkling glasses, and plates of cookies, and paper napkins trimmed with fat Santa Clauses. But the napkins they did not use. These were folded, oh, so carefully, like some priceless possession, and put away in pockets.
All too soon it was time to go. Linda carried the candy-filled stockings from the kitchen, and Kathy gave one to each child as they cried, “Oh, thank you, thank you!” Mrs. Bloomquist herded them out, hesitating a moment, her eyes glistening. “You’ve given them something they’ll never forget,” she said. “May God bless you, Mrs. Holmes.”
Kathy walked to the door. “Merry Christmas, children!” she called.
They turned towards her, and their faces in the moonlight were happy, and their voices rang out like bells on the still, cold night. “Merry Christmas to you!”
She thought, poor motherless children! And then – where will my children be next year? Again alone in the house, the children clustered around her. “Oh, Mother,” Linda said. “I’m so glad they came. I’ve never been so happy.”
Kathy kissed her. “That’s because you feel the true spirit of Christmas, dear. We had no expensive gifts to give them, but we gave of our hearts.” She kissed the small boys. “Now, off to bed so that Santa Claus can come!”
She stood at the foot of the stairs and watched them run up to bed, and she knew a feeling of letdown. She covered her face with her hands, and an indescribable feeling of loneliness filled her.
When all was quiet and the children were asleep, she placed their toys around the tree, and tears stung her eyelids. Oh, Mark … how happy he had been selecting the electric train for Barry, the red dump truck for Paul, the doll and warm robe for Linda.
And now he was gone, and she was alone. Worry swept over her again. She’d have to sell the house. You had to be practical. But separate the children … oh, no, please, no …
She took a bowl into the sewing room. There was only a thin layer of Uncle Nick’s candy left in the chest. Your legacy brought happiness to many, Uncle Nick, she thought. Because of it we gave them an evening they will treasure forever.
She scooped up a handful of candy, and on the bottom of the chest she saw a long, official-looking envelope. She put down the bowl, and wondering, picked up the envelope. It was addressed in a shaky handwriting, “To my niece, Katherine.” She opened the envelope and took out a letter. She read:
My dear niece:
Having lived too long and seen too much of the greed and selfishness of humanity, I am taking this unorthodox way of remembering you in my will.
If you are the same gentle child who preferred A Christmas Carol, some shells, and a book of pressed leaves and flowers to bags of tainted coins, you will find this letter. And if you do, will you, out of the kindness of your heart, forgive the whimsy of an old man?
If you are still that dear person who preferred common Christmas candy to chocolates, you will thrust aside your own disappointment in your desire to share with someone the gift I have given you.
Then and only then can I with a clear conscience pass on to you a legacy of material value. My lawyers have been instructed to hold for you until January 1 the sum of $10,000.
This is not a great fortune. I could give you many times that. But I love that little Kathy who ran back one winter night to kiss and thank an old man far too much to corrupt her or her children with great wealth. I know of your desperate need, and this sum will be only enough to give you a breathing spell, to provide for you until your children can help support themselves.
And now, my dear, a Merry Christmas to you,
A bright tear slid down Kathy’s cheek and splattered on the paper. “And a Merry Christmas to you, Uncle Nickolas,” she whispered.