From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1944 –
This story relates another episode in the lives of the appealing orphans, Janet and Stevie.
It Isn’t the Gifts
By Olive W. Burt
Janet, packing her few, small belongings into the battered suitcase she’d found in the basement, tried to hide the bitter disappointment that was burning like tears behind her eyes. She put a bright, false smile on her lips and looked at her small brother, Stevie, who was slamming his own pajamas and clean shirts and socks into another small suitcase.
Janet couldn’t blame Stevie for being unhappy; she was desperately unhappy herself – and she was old enough to understand things.
Stevie, looking up and seeing Janet watching him, said, “It’s just like sending us back to the – home!” and tears he’d been holding back began to fall.
Janet went and put her arms around him. She understood that he was referring – not to their own going away from this little house where they had been so happy and had so much fun – but to sending Spot to a “dog’s boarding house” for the next week or two.
“Now, Stevie!” she begged. “Spot’s going to have lots of fun – he’ll be with a lot of little dogs and they’ll have everything nice. Remember when Daddy and Mommy took us to Denver and we stayed in a hotel? It was fun, wasn’t it? Well, Spot’s going to have fun.”
“Will they have a Christmas tree for him?” Steve asked haltingly.
“I wouldn’t be surprised!” Janet said. “And maybe it’ll be loaded with big bones and packages of dog candy!”
Stevie smiled, forgetting his trouble for a moment. He and Janet had come across small packages labeled “dog candy” in the five-and-ten-cent store, and had been delightfully surprised to learn that dogs were taken care of in this essential matter. The little boy looked happier as he went on with his packing.
But Janet wasn’t happier. She looked ahead to the two weeks of Christmas vacation with dread. It was going to be the worst Christmas – the very worst – she had ever had. And she had thought it was going to be so lovely, with the new baby and all!
Early last summer, Mrs. Allen, who had taken Janet and Stevie from the orphans’ home and made them very happy by loving them, had told Janet that she was expecting to have a new baby of her very own. Janet had been scared, right at first, thinking it would make a difference in the Allens’ feeling toward her and her small brother. But she had found out that it made the Allens love their little adopted children even more than before.
Janet and her “mother” had had great fun planning for the new baby – making tiny clothes, lining a bassinet, getting together all the doll-sized things necessary. then, suddenly, Mr. Allen had to go to war, and a good deal of the joy had left the little house. Mrs. Allen had tried to be gay and cheerful as always, but Janet could see she was worried. Stevie, who had been a pal to his daddy, was lonesome. And Janet, who adored the tall, good-natured man with a special adoration, felt an emptiness that it seemed nothing would ever fill.
She had hoped the baby would come and liven things up a bit. Then she had come home from school on this last day before Christmas vacation to find Mrs. Peterson, a neighbor, waiting for her.
“Your mother’s gone to the hospital,” Mrs. Peterson said bluntly, “and you and Steve are to stay with me until she can come home again.”
Alarm gripped Janet. “Is she going to be all right? Has the baby come?” she asked.
“She’ll be all right, I guess,” Mrs. Peterson said casually. “But your mother isn’t as young as she might be, and it’s not so easy to have your first baby at her age.”
“The baby hasn’t come, then?” Janet was watching the neighbor, trying to read in her face the things she wasn’t saying.
“No. And it may be several days yet. No one can tell. Your mother got sick this afternoon, and Dr. Small said she’d better go to the hospital, even if they were so crowded they didn’t want to take anyone in that could stay out.”
Janet was still more frightened. She and her mother had talked about that, and Janet was sure Dr. Small would never have ordered her mother to the hospital unless she was pretty sick.
“Daddy!” she cried, “Does Daddy know?”
“Your mother had me send a telegram to him, but there’s been no answer as yet. But you’d better get some things into a bag – just your nightclothes and toothbrush and comb – you can run back here for clean clothes as you need them. For Steve, too. but I won’t have that dog in my house. Tippy would hate it.”
“But what can we do? We can’t leave Spot here all alone!”
“I told your mother I’d take care of you children, but not the dog, and she told me to call the dog boarding house and have them come and get him for a couple of weeks.”
“Dog boarding house?” Janet had never heard of such a thing. It struck her funny and she started to smile. Then she remembered Stevie and the smile died. Stevie had planned on this Christmas with Spot as much as she had planned on it with the new baby, whom they had expected to be here for the big day.
Now all this was changed. She and Stevie would be at Mrs. Peterson’s for Christmas – and Mrs. Peterson did not like children very well, and she didn’t like dogs at all. It wasn’t going to be Christmas – it was going to be a lonely and sad time for all of them.
Stevie had come running up the path just then, and Janet had pulled herself together, stuck a smile on her face, and tried to make her news sound exciting and gay. But Stevie was no fool. He caught the implication of the announcement as completely as Janet had done. And now he was packing his bag with little grace.
“If her old cat Tippy doesn’t like Spot,” he said ferociously, “I won’t like Tippy. I guess I can make Tippy pretty sorry that she doesn’t like Spot. I bet – ”
Janet had visions of her beloved brother turning into a monster that pulled cats’ tails, kicked over saucers of milk, and made life miserable for everyone, including himself.
The bell rang, and Mrs. Peterson called, “Janet, better get that dog. Here’s the man for him!”
Janet thought fiercely, “If she had any sense at all she would not do it like that!” But Stevie had dashed past her out of the room. He threw his arms about the dog and clutched him close.
“Listen, Stevie,” Janet said firmly, “Daddy told you to be the man of the house, and you’re acting like a baby. Did Daddy bawl and hug us when he had to leave us? You bet he didn’t. He kissed us goodby and marched away like a soldier. Well –”
Stevie swallowed hard. He hugged Spot convulsively, kissed his funny face and said, choking, “Go along, Spot. Be a good dog!”
The man who’d come for Spot said, “That’s a big fellow. We’ll take good care of him,” snapped a leash on Spot’s collar and led him down the path to a waiting car. Stevie stood by the window, waving, till the car was out of sight.
“Come along, now,” Mrs. Peterson said, not unkindly. “We’d better be getting over to my place and settled for the night.”
They locked up the little house and followed Mrs. Peterson down the walk. Janet knew that Stevie felt as she did – that they were locking the door on Christmas.
Just at bedtime the hone rang, and Mrs. Peterson called to Janet, “Your mother wants to talk to you.”
Janet flew to the phone, Stevie at her heels.
“Mommy! Mommy!” she cried, relief making her voice shrill. “You’re well enough to talk! Has the baby come?”
Her mother’s laugh was reassuring.
“I’m feeling pretty fine, Janet. No, the baby hasn’t come yet. Isn’t that naughty – to keep us waiting like this? How are you and Stevie?”
They talked. Janet was amazed that her mother’s voice sounded perfectly well. It reassured her somewhat, even though Mrs. Allen explained that she would have to stay in the hospital till the baby came, and for sometime afterward.
“Can we come and see you?” Janet asked hopefully, but her mother explained that children weren’t allowed in that part of the hospital, and they’d just have to wait till she could come home.
“I’ll phone you every morning and evening to say good morning and goodnight,” she promised, “and I’ll have the nurse phone the minute the baby comes. And if Daddy – ” Only then did her mother’s voice falter, and Janet’s heart jerked to attention. After a very brief pause, her mother went on. “If Daddy phones or writes or telegraphs you, phone me. Or if anything else happens and you need me, Janet, be sure to call. I won’t tell you to be good and mind Mrs. Peterson because I know you will – and we’re going to have a mighty good time afterward to make up for being separated like this at Christmas. Now let me talk to Stevie a minute.”
Janet gave her mother a “telephone kiss” for goodnight and handed the receiver to Stevie, who was jumping up and down in his impatience to hear his mother’s voice.
Well, Janet thought, it’s up to me. She’d have to help Stevie make the best of this strange Christmas in a strange house. Maybe the baby would get here before Christmas, after all. And if it hurried real fast, maybe Mother could get home for Christmas. But there wasn’t much hope of that.
The days passed slowly. Janet helped Mrs. Peterson all she could, but it took most of her time to keep Stevie out of mischief. There were no playthings and no place to play such as he had at home. Mrs. Peterson hated clutter and noise and all the things Stevie adored. So, though Stevie generally got along famously with women – they adored his dark, burnished curls, and his shy, friendly smile – Mrs. Peterson and the little boy were always at outs.
And not only was Janet continually on the alert to keep Stevie out of trouble, but she was continuously worried over her father and mother. Her daddy hadn’t written or telephoned or telegraphed – and that meant only one thing to Janet. He’d been sent overseas and was being exposed to all those fearful things she’d seen in the movies. Every time she thought of her father she said a little, breathless prayer with out words – just her heart calling to God and reminding him that her daddy needed a little special care right now.
And then there was anxiety over her mother and the baby, and the disappointment over Christmas. Janet felt, sometimes, as if her thin little shoulders would break under their load of worry.
Every time the phone rang, she tensed and waited, longing to fly to it, to hear Daddy’s gentle, deep voice or her mother’s reassuring promises. So when, on the second day of their stay with Mrs. Peterson, she heard a strange woman’s voice, her first feeling was disappointment. But excitement welled up at the words, “Janet, your mother asked me to call and tell you that you have a new baby sister!”
“Oh!” cried Janet. “A sister! Oh, Daddy will be glad! Can I come and see her now? How’s Mommy?”
“Your mommy’s just fine. And the baby is lovely. But I’m sorry, Janet. They just won’t let little girls come to the hospital to see the new babies. You’ll have to wait till your mommy brings it home.”
“But when will she come home?”
The nurse laughed a little. “Not for a few days.”
“How many?” Janet insisted, calculating swiftly that Christmas was still five whole days away.
“Well,” the nurse hesitated, “we’ve been sending mothers home on the fourth or fifth day if they had someone there to take care of them, because we’re so crowded. But in this case – I’m afraid your mother will have to stay ten days, or maybe two weeks.”
Janet’s last hope died. Her mother couldn’t possibly get home for Christmas, then. Tears filled her eyes, and she knew that she had been counting on that, counting on their all being together with the new baby for the special day that was meant to be kept by families held close in love and companionship.
She managed to say goodbye and turned from the phone, unable to keep back her tears any longer.
Janet hated to cry. She had known little girls at the Home who cried over the smallest things – cried and sniffed and did nothing about their troubles, so Janet had no patience with them. She had always found it better to think a way out of her difficulties and not waste tears on them. But today, even the joy of having a tiny new baby sister was not enough to keep the tears away.
Janet ran to the little bedroom Mrs. Peterson was letting her use, threw herself across the bed, and sobbed.
But she wasn’t allowed to have her cry out in peace. She had no sooner abandoned herself to disappointment than she heard a loud and startled yowl from Tippy, followed by a scream from Mrs. Peterson, and a stream of angry shouts. Janet’s tears dried as she jumped from the bed and ran out. She knew instinctively that Stevie was in trouble, and, without a thought, she flew to rescue him.
She did. She caught his flying figure as Mrs. Peterson reached for it. Above Stevie’s head, Janet’s eyes pleaded with the woman.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Maybe Stevie didn’t mean to hurt Tippy. Oh, Mrs. Peterson, let’s put him in the bedroom a minute and talk about what we should do.”
It took all Janet’s tact and persuasive powers to save the day from tragedy, but she knew that she couldn’t go on mollifying Mrs. Peterson. She also knew that she would just die if the woman ever struck Stevie.
That night she lay straight and still on her bed and thought. The nurse had said they could send mothers home in four days if they had someone to care for them. four days – that would be Christmas Eve. If only they had someone to take care of Mommy! There ought to be someone, some place. Surely there were nurses to be hired? But you’d need money. Well, she had money.
Janet got up and went to her little suitcase. She rummaged under the clothes and found the little box that held her Christmas money. Seven dollars and twenty cents! It was a great deal of money. Janet had saved it to buy special presents for those she loved: a football for Stevie; a rose bowl for her mother; a wallet for Daddy; a rattle for the new baby.
Now, as she looked at her little board, Janet thought, But Christmas isn’t just presents! It’s something else – something inside you. If you haven’t got that, all the presents in the world won’t make you happy. And if you have got it, you don’t need gifts. We can’t ever have that something if Stevie gets bad, or if we’re all scattered and unhappy. She looked at her money again, and made up her mind. The very first thing the next morning she called the hospital, and, in the most grown-up voice she could assume, she asked if they had nurses to rent, and how much they cost. The girl at the hospital explained carefully – there were no nurses to go to homes. So many had gone to war and to hospitals where wounded soldiers were. There just weren’t any left. And she didn’t know where Janet could find one.
Janet hung up the phone. Her plan hadn’t been any good after all. Then she set her jaw stubbornly, and went into action again.
The city newspaper had an information department that would answer any question you asked. Daddy had often called for baseball scores and Mommy had asked for recipes. Janet dialed the number and asked, “Where can a person rent a nurse?”
The girl who answered questions thought a minute.
“Have you tried the Visiting Nurse Association?” she asked.
“What’s that?” Janet wanted to know.
The girl explained. Then she went on, “If you can’t get anyone there, why don’t you call the Relief Society of the Latter-day Saint Church? I understand they have good, practical nurses who will go into a home to help in case of emergency, at a very reasonable price.”
“Oh, thanks!” Janet almost yelled. “I didn’t know that.”
She hung up and her fingers were trembling as she dialed the number of Mrs. Gilmore. Mrs. Gilmore was a friend of Mommy’s and she was president of the ward Relief Society.
Janet breathlessly told her problem. “And I’ve got money to pay,” she said, “seven dollars and twenty cents!”
Mrs. Gilmore’s voice was gentle as she answered, “Why, of course, Janet. I think I can get someone to come. I’ll see what I can do.”
The next morning Mrs. Gilmore called Janet, and it was all arranged. A woman would help Janet get the house ready, and then she’d come in and take care of Mrs. Allen as long as she was needed. Mrs. Gilmore had called the hospital and they said Mommy was well enough to come home in an ambulance on the next day – Christmas Eve!
Janet ran to Mrs. Peterson.
“You’ve been awfully good to Stevie and me,” she said, “and it was kind of you to take us in and take all this trouble with us. But Mommy wanted to be home for Christmas – and she can come home – the doctor said. So do you mind if I go over to get the house fixed up? Mrs. Gilmore is sending a lady to help.”
Mrs. Peterson smiled down at Janet, and Janet was surprised to see how kind looking she was.
“I’ll help, too, Janet,” she said.
Between them they got the little house all spick and span, the front rooms decorated with Christmas greens and paper chains that Stevie worked so hard to make he didn’t have any time to get into mischief. They got Mommy’s bedroom ready, with the bassinet on two chairs near the big bed.
Stevie and Janet stayed that night at Mrs. Peterson’s, but they were over home again bright and early the next day, working and planning. Whenever Janet thought of the gifts she had meant to buy, she felt a funny little pang. But it wasn’t regret. No, she was keeping the seven dollars and twenty cents to pay for the nurse. And that was all she could give the family.
Mrs. Peterson phoned for Spot, and he got home early in the afternoon. The reunion between Stevie and the dog was something to see, and Janet felt that her money was well spent if only this one happiness came from it.
A little later the ambulance backed up to the curb and Mommy was brought into the house on a stretcher. She was a little pale, but smiling, and oh, so happy to be home, and oh, so proud of the tiny bundle she held carefully against her breast.
As soon as Mrs. Glenn, the woman who had come to nurse Mommy, allowed it, Janet and Stevie went into the bedroom and stood looking at their mother and baby sister. They climbed up onto the big bed and watched the tiny newcomer take her dinner. Watching, Janet felt something swell in her throat. It was just like the picture of Mary with the baby Jesus. She had never dreamed anything so lovely would ever come into her life – so near that she could reach out and touch it.
Without knowing she was singing, Janet began, “Silent Night, Holy Night,” and Stevie joined in. Janet saw her mother look at her with bright, happy eyes, and then she, too, began to sing.
None of them heard the door open or saw someone enter and stand looking at them. They finished their song and the silence that followed was broken by the deep voice they all loved so well, familiar and hearty, but with a strange catch in it. “Beautiful, beautiful Christmas!”
And there was Daddy! Bigger and handsomer than ever in his beautiful uniform. No one knew how it happened, but there he was, beside the bed, with Mommy and Stevie and Janet and tiny Carol in his arms all at once – and he was crying – their daddy was crying! Janet buried her face against the rough, nice smelling jacket and let her own tears fall.
But only for a moment. Then Daddy had them all laughing. He was looking at the baby and his face was comical.
“Is that what we’ve made all the fuss about?” he asked, and winked at Janet. Then he said to Stevie, “We men folks will have to watch out around here, now the women have outnumbered us – if you think that scrap will ever be a woman!”
It was Christmas Eve and they were all together once more – just as Janet had dreamed they would be some day, just as she had secretly prayed they might be this very Christmas. She didn’t have any presents for them – she didn’t believe there was a present in the whole house. But what did that matter? She could explain about her money tomorrow, and Daddy could explain why he hadn’t telephoned, and Mommy could explain why she had been rushed to the hospital, and Stevie could explain what he’d done to Tippy – if they wanted explanations. Janet didn’t.
I don’t want a single thing more, she thought happily. This is the real Christmas. It was lovely!