From the Improvement Era, December 1945 –
A Gift from Paul
By Eva Willes Wangsgaard
Luella Layton lay abed on Christmas morning listening to familiar household sounds. That ring of metal against metal meant that Hal, her husband, was fishing clinkers out of the furnace. In the living room, the twelve-year-old twins, Mary and Joseph, were exploring their Christmas stockings. The stockings were a concession which Luella made to fill in the time between arising and the family’s assembling around the fire in the grate for the gift-unwrapping ceremony. They were always very long and filled with some necessary and some nonsensical things – oranges, apples, mechanical toys, trick boxes, gloves – anything to take up space and time and to bring a laugh.
The radio was playing Christmas carols. “Silent Night. Holy Night.” A quick turn of the dial and the strains were gone. That would be Mary; darling, thoughtful child. She knew how that song would hurt today. Every Christmas morning for years, Paul had waked the household playing that tune on the piano. There would be gifts from each of the children except Paul this year. No present, no word, nothing! How could she ever get used to this nothingness?
A squeal of delight, and rapid steps in the hall. Mary had found the lapel pin. Luella got up and slipped on a robe as Mary ran into her bedroom.
“Oh! Mother! Mother! How wonderful!” Luella looked at the absurd pin in Mary’s outstretched hand. Funny how important it was to have what the gang had. A face of shining porcelain, hair of blue yarn, who could think the pin pretty? But apparently it was not only beautiful, but marvelous. Mary spouted exclamation points!
Luella caught her in her arms and received and returned her kiss. Then she held her off and looked into her face. She couldn’t understand how she and Hal could have been blessed with so exquisite a daughter. A face of finer porcelain than the lapel pin’s, blue eyes, and hair a heavy cloud of dark curls. Her heart ached with delight in such loveliness.
She laughed softly and gave Mary a little spank. “Run along out of here, young lady, and let your mother get dressed. Scat.”
Mary dashed back into the living room and the unfinished stocking fun.
Luella stepped to the window and pulled the cord on the Venetian blind, flooding the room with soft light, part pale winter sunshine and part reflected snow light, which brought out the restrained suffering in her gray eyes and the sag in her tall, almost gaunt, figure. She stood a moment looking out. The sun was low and golden above Mount Ogden, and the peak, shawled in snow, was radiant amber. Between the window and the mountain, the orchard stretched on and on, fairy trees frosted with snow and coppered with sunlight. The blessed orchard! it, and the labor it had brought, had made life endurable during the awful months after the receipt of the telegram, “… missing in action.”
Cherries, cherries, until her back ached at the thought of them; and those scarcely harvested until the apricots were on, tons and tons, perishable gold, and help never so hard to hire. How they had all worked, until exhaustion had made sleep imperative, and there had been no time nor strength for mourning! There had been a spell of relief from the fruit during August, but the Victory garden had claimed their time. And then the peaches. Had there ever been so many, or so few hands to gather them?
The season had ended at last and the canning and the crowded hours of getting the twins properly clothed for school’s opening; and they had managed both the mental and the physical strain. God seems always ready to give people strength to bear what they must.
Hal’s steps were ascending the basement stairs, and breakfast not started. Hal must not find her too still. He couldn’t bear depression. He never brought defeat into the room. She hurried to the closet for a dress. Thank goodness for the gray plaid seersucker coat frock.
She stopped a moment by the dresser mirror to run a comb through her waves and re-pin her special Christmas curls. The comb had been Paul’s Christmas present to her last year. But today –
It wasn’t that she loved Paul more than the others, but he had been a home boy. She missed him more. His interests and his pleasures had always been at home – music, chemistry, a whole room of equipment and supplies in the basement, which had been locked now for six months. He had chosen few friends but had loved them well and had been well-loved in return. But he had lived so quietly. She had scolded him for being unsocial, and he had said, “But, Mother, life is a trade. See how much I would have to give up to gain the social interests you think I need. I am happy. Do we all have to be extroverts?”
No, they needn’t.
Paul had lent his watch to his friend, Sgt. Davis, who had been hospitalized shortly after they had sailed. Hal had wanted so much to get hold of Paul’s watch. He had said, “If I just had something that Paul had had with him, something I could touch and think of as coming from him to us! His watch or pocketknife.”
How like Paul it was when he had heard of Sgt. Davis’ need to have said, “Here. Take mine!”
A friend’s letter had said that Sgt. Davis had hardly reached the deck before the torpedo struck, and he had never seen Paul again. The sergeant had been in hospitals ever since. he would probably take care of returning the watch when he could. Luella dropped on her knees for a quick prayer:
“Father in heaven, help me to bring happiness to my family on this day of rejoicing, the birthday of thy Son and our Savior. Grant that the day shall not pass without leaving with me some message of hope to lift the weight of futility and loss from my heart. Amen.”
“Mother! Mother!” that was Mary and Joseph calling now. The pressure, always the pressure of the twins’ wants and Hal’s needs, till there was never time to get her thoughts untangled. If she could once find something to rid her mind of the conviction of futility; twenty-two years, boyhood, college years, and now nothing – nothing.
“Coming, dear,” and she hurried into the kitchen. Soon the electric beater was humming in the hot cake batter, and the savory smell of sausage and eggs caused a stir in the living room. Mary came running to set the table. Joseph passed by the door on his way to the bathroom to wash for breakfast, and Hal rattled the paper, contentedly waiting.
She looked at her dwindled family seated at the breakfast table. Hal, tall and robust in spite of his fifty years and his fine dark hair scarcely tinged with white; lovely Mary, and Joseph with his eager, little boyishly round, freckled face under sandy hair, still wet from his crude attempt at combing it. Today must be a happy day. Christmas was for children and happiness.
After breakfast, Mary and Joseph cleared the table and did the dishes while Luella attended to the chores of getting the turkey into the oven and other dinner fixings prepared. A few minutes of slicking-up the bedrooms, and they were ready for the real Christmas.
The fire was bright beside their little semicircle. Their thoughts, much oftener than their words, were with the absent one.
Hal turned to the task of helping Mary sort the parcels, and soon each person sat in front of a little stack of his, or her, gaily wrapped presents.
There they were, the gifts that had lain within the paper: the warm, brushed rayon robe for Luella for which the twins had sacrificed so many movies; the down comforter that Hal had tried so awkwardly to hide; the usual array of neckties, mufflers, gloves, and shirts.
Now there was the miscellaneous mail. Paul had given his friends his parents’ address, knowing that his own whereabouts was never certain, and in case a pal needed to reach him the folks would always be in touch.
That long, flat parcel like a photograph, from Sgt. Fred Talbott, somebody whom Paul had met at camp. She handed it to Mary while she reached for another.
“Ah! How darling! Mother, see. A baby. A charming baby boy. And a letter. Mother, it’s for you.” Mary’s excitement was contagious.
Luella studied the smiling baby features, and read the inscription: “From Paul Layton Talbott to Pfc. Paul Layton for distinguished service.”
Luella swallowed rapidly and turned to the letter with its notation: “Dear Mrs. Layton, please forward this picture. This is our way of thanking Paul for the night’s sleep he lost to take care of this young man’s daddy when he was too distracted to take care of himself. I’ve told Elsie, my wife, how Paul saved me from making a fool of myself. But it made me so mad to get tied up in red tape when Elsie needed me, and it didn’t seem wrong to me then to go AWOL. But Paul saw, as he always did, and persuaded me to wait and then watched all night to make sure that his persuasion stuck. The telegram next morning showed how right he was – Elsie and young Paul safe and everything okay! We hope that we can rear him to be half the man that his namesake is. All our love, Fred and Elsie Talbott.”
Luella handed both letter and photograph to Hal and watched pride fight with grief in his bowed face.
“Please, forward …” She hoped Paul knew.
The unwrapping was finished. Rosalee, Mary’s pal, had come to show Mary her new coat. Joseph had slipped out with his new skis and a companion. Hal was deep in a book. Luella went into the kitchen to check on dinner and to prepare the salad. There was the doorbell again. Mary could take it. It was probably the third of her trio, Virginia. But, no, that was a male voice, a strange voice, quick steps. And Mary in the doorway, “Mother, it’s for you.”
Luella slipped off her apron, hurriedly wiped her hands, wet from freshening the lettuce, and went into the living room. there stood a blond soldier as bashful as he was tall behind a large bouquet in florist’s green paper.
She went to him quickly to make him feel at ease. He held out the green parcel and stammered, “Are you Paul’s mother?” At her nod, “these are for you.”
Hal had stood up when the soldier had come in and now moved to shake his hand.
“You knew Paul?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. My name is Houghton, Ray Houghton. We met in camp in New England.”
Hal introduced the girls and led the young man to the davenport and seated himself beside him.
Luella loosened the clasps on the bouquet. Roses, red ones, a whole dozen. She gasped and buried her face in their crimson fragrance. She turned to Private Houghton. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for so much loveliness.”
“Thank you, for giving me a friend like Paul. He is a right guy. Have you heard from him lately?”
Hal’s head jerked up, and his lips parted. Mary turned from Rosalee’s extravagant appreciation of the lapel pin. Luella placed long thin fingers over her lips and looked with quiet eyes into Hal’s brown and Mary’s blue ones. They understood and were silent. Ray need not know. This was Christmas, a time for happiness. Knowledge that would bring sadness would come sometime, but not today.
“Not recently,” she said, “but his latest letter told that he was so glad because he was going to be able to use his training, at last, and to do something constructive. Of course, he couldn’t tell us what it was.” For the first time since that letter had come, just twelve hours before the telegram, she was able to think those words without a pain in her throat. They came almost easily.
The family each in turn spoke to him of Paul and he told them of amusing camp incidents. As he talked, he relaxed and was soon at ease. His eyes strayed around the room taking in the gay fire, the festive tree, the spirit of home and the feeling of a room where love, understanding, and joy were not merely guests but permanent inmates. He smiled and became as an old friend.
“Where is your home?” Mary asked.
“I have never had one. I lived where boys came in wholesale lots, an orphanage.” He grinned, but there was loneliness behind the grin.
“Can you stay for dinner?” Hal inquired.
“I had a three-hour stopover. What time have you?”
That was settled. There was time but little to spare.
He asked about Paul’s chemistry room. He seemed to want to absorb as much of Paul and his home as three hours could hold. Mary took him down, and Luella followed with the key, and Hal trailed behind. They watched while Ray touched the beakers, the tubes, the lamp, everything he had time for, as though in that way he would come closer to his friend.
Luella was amazed that she could stand there in the room she had locked against painful memories so many months ago, and still feel no pain. She sought Hal’s eyes. There was peace there, and pride. He talked freely of Paul’s experiments, accidents, and achievements as he had talked during Paul’s absent, college years.
Mary set the table in the family’s best: linens, porcelain, silver. She arranged the crimson roses in a long blue bowl. The family bent its attention to Paul’s friend as they ate, to his conversation, to his needs. The dinner which Luella had most dreaded was going off smoothly and well, without Paul. The table and food were all she could ask. It was Christmas, a Christmas dinner, despite absence and death.
Joseph was enjoying the excitement of eating dinner with a soldier, and kept his round, freckled face bright with eagerness turned to Ray, like a morning-glory drinking in the sun.
After dinner they drove Private Houghton to the station. Mary and Joseph sat beside him in the back seat. A closeness deeper than liking had developed between the twins and their brother’s friend. It was as though in trying to help Ray enjoy the home Paul had loved they had Paul back.
“Good-bye,” Ray said. “When I see Paul I’ll tell him how swell you all were to me. I’ll tell him that I see now what he meant about a home to fight for. I’m coming back after my release, if you’ll let me. Thanks, thanks for everything.”
“Do. Do. Thank you for coming,” chorused the Laytons – and Ray was gone.
Back home, Hal sat on the couch and leaned his dark head against the crocheted tidy on the deep blue pile. “Nice kid,” he said. “I hope we see him again.” He paused. “Well, Mother,” he said, “the day is almost over. We got through it fine. You were splendid. and you were right about not letting on to Ray.”
He reached out and turned on the radio. “Silent Night, Holy Night.” He moved to switch it off, but Luella stayed his hand. The carol continued. They leaned back and listened.
Mary and Joseph had gone off with friends as soon as they had returned from the station. There was quiet in the room except for the song nearing its end. Suddenly, the doorbell pealed.
Hal rose and answered it.
“Special delivery for Mr. Hal Layton. That you, Mister?”
Hal received the small parcel. “First class,” he read and tore at the seals. The postman dashed away toward the sound of his purring motor.
Hal closed the door and sat again beside Luella. They opened the package and found a letter: “Dear Mr. Layton, I hope that this reaches you for Christmas day. Paul would have liked that. I couldn’t get it off sooner because I have just landed. I am home on convalescent leave and mailed it as soon as possible. I suppose you have heard how Paul’s watch came into my hands. Thank you for its use and for your patience in waiting so long for it. I hope it serves as a comfort to you. Paul was a son to be proud of. None better. I loved him, too. Good luck, and God bless you. Sgt. E.T. Davis.”
Hal slipped the watch on his arm, but his fingers were sticks and he couldn’t make the clasp hold. Luella fastened the band for him. They sat hand in hand.
Hal’s fingers played round and round the face of the watch as though they could trace Paul’s features there.
Luella smiled at him. he returned the smile in spite of wet eyes, and there was peace in his face.
The scent of deep red roses pervading the room brought back the memory of the visitor of the afternoon and his appreciation of the spirit of home which they had shared with him, and for the first time since that awful night when she had been called out of church to receive the telegram, she felt as if Paul were near. She realized that she had shut him out and in letting him in for Ray Houghton, she had received him back for all of them. Paul’s friends had brought him home again, and she had thought that she had nothing to show for those twenty-two years.
She arose, went to the console, selected Paul’s favorite record, started the machine and his loved music flowed into the room: “Unto us a Child is born. Unto us a Son is given …”
Paul’s gift was the most precious that the day had brought. She leaned against her husband and his arm curved to receive her and tightened around her. Her head rested on his shoulder.