From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1961 –
Oh, Little Town …
by Beatrice R. Parsons
As she opened the office door marked REAL ESTATE, RALPH EWING, the mid-December snowflakes buffeted the gray hair beneath Emma Lorimer’s perky blue hat.
She brushed them away, smiled at the pretty young girl behind the desk, and asked, “How are you, Alma?”
Alma’s large brown eyes were shadowed. “Homesick,” she confessed wistfully. “I won’t be going home for Christmas. Too much work.”
There was a boom in real estate. The city was growing like a brush fire, spilling over into rural communities. A large manufacturing plant was being built. Young couples and their small families were crowded into trailer parks and motels.
An inner door opened, and Ralph Ewing came out to shake Emma’s hand firmly. He was a youthful forty-five with the habit of raising his right shoulder as though forever shouldering aside anything that got in his way.
“You’re lucky, Mrs. Lorimer,” he said briskly. “I have a buyer for your old house. The location in Laytonia, there on that rise of land, is perfect for a super-market.” He was smug.”You can’t stand in the way of progress, can you? In a few years, Laytonia will be a bustling little city.”
Emma couldn’t imagine it. As long as she could remember, Laytonia had been a peaceful little town filled with growing children and elderly people who had owned their homes since they were young.
“Now that your husband is … gone …” said Ralph sympathetically, “the house is too big for you. So much work. Right now you can sell and make a very nice profit. It would be foolish to wait. You might be the loser.” He caught her elbow, ushered her into the snowy street, and into his sleek, red car at the curb.
He was so enterprising, so sure of himself, that Emma had to smile. Yet she had to agree. It was only sensible to sell her house while there was a demand for it.
The red car slid to a slushy stop before a tall, slim building with a dignified plaque: The Plaza Arms. They entered the lobby of the modern apartment building into a sea of pale-blond tile. There was a haughty white Christmas tree near the self-help elevator. They moved silently to the ninth floor. Mr. Ewing fitted a key in a door.
Emma found herself quite carried away by the thick, wall-to-wall carpeting, the handsome copper-toned drapes. The furniture, Danish modern, was, she found, more comfortable than she had expected.
Mr. Ewing waved an expansive hand. “Everything at your fingertips, Mrs. Lorimer. “He mentioned the compactness of the tiny kitchen, the restfulness of hidden lights, the dainty loveliness of the small bedroom.
“I’m sure you will enjoy living here,” said Mr. Ewing with finality, as he led her to the elevator, and assisted her into his car. It swung out into hurrying traffic, past lighted shop windows and strands of colored lights. Huge, shining stars hung between tall buildings. A group of children stood at one window, their eyes glowing over the display of toys.
“My husband Bob and I,” said Emma reminiscently, “used to bring our little ones into the city for shopping.”
Mr. Ewing stopped on a red light. “I don’t have time to take my kids. My wife complains of all the people pushing and shoving.” He started again on the green light. “Sometimes I think Christmas is just a time of worry, worry, worry!”
He seemed so pleased with himself at his diagnosis that Emma wanted to say: “Rob and I found a lot of joy and pleasure in it.” But she was silent, lost in warm memories.
The car glided out into the highway, leaving the city lights behind. It passed several small communities where snow-touched skeletons of new buildings raised unfamiliar frames among the small homes.
It mounted the rise towards Emma’s home, and she could see the neat streets and cozy houses stretching away beneath them. Mr. Ewing stopped in the ankle-deep snow of her driveway. He glanced deprecatingly at the outline of the old, square house.
“You’ll be glad you made the deal, Mrs. Lorimer. It must be lonely, rattling around in those big rooms alone.” He got back in the car, started it, and leaned forward to say: “I’ll draw up the papers. You can come in, in the morning, and sign them.” Then his car disappeared down the rise.
Conscious of s now gathering chillingly about her galoshes, Emma moved up the steps to the front porch. She was remembering how proud Rob had been when they bought the house.
“It’s a place for living, Emma. It’s going to be one of the family. It will see children born. Watch them grow. It will ring with laughter, keep warm with love. It will be our home. Laytonia will be our town.” He had kissed her, then, and letting herself inside the darkened hall, Emma seemed to feel his lips warm against her own. Her finger trembled as she pushed a switch, flooding the rooms with light.
The house had been built when substantial family homes, with bedrooms upstairs and living rooms down, had been the fashion. It was sadly out of date, compared with that apartment at the Plaza Arms!
Instinctively, Emma glanced at the tall staircase, as though expecting a child to come hurtling down the banister to greet her.
But the house was silent. So silent it hurt her ears. It swept over her that the house had been mute, waiting, for five years, ever since Rob had left it. His big chair still stood by the fireplace. There was Susan’s little rocker in the corner. Susan had grown up to work the needlepoint on its seat. On the book case stood the little music box that Bill had wound so tightly that it had never played again. Inside was a row of Jenny Marie’s favorite books. Familiar things reminded her of Walter and Lea.
She glanced at the high ceilings that had sheltered all of them. But there was no one to shelter, now, except Emma. Her family was gone, faraway in distant cities, married, settled with families of their own. Their laughter had vanished. There was nothing left. This was only an old house. Old like Emma was old.
She would be glad to be rid of it. Rid of the pictures it kept painting in her mind. Rid of memories that made the lump in her throat, the tears in her eyes.
She flicked them away with a stern finger, mentally scolding herself. “Emma Lorimer! You’d think you were the first person to dispose of an old house. There’s no reason to be so … so … drippy!” Another tear disappeared with an angry finger.”You’re sixty-eight. You’ve had a wonderful life. You’ve always known it couldn’t go on forever.”
It struck her, that because she had known it so long, she, herself, had muted the old house. How long since she had had young folks around her? How long since she had smiled and laughed with teenagers? Yet the house was big enough to hold a great many people. If she had looked around, she might have found someone – a girl from the university, an older woman, to share the empty bedrooms. She thought of the work, and shrugged. The apartment offered rest and quiet. She was ready for that, now, at sixty-eight!
She went into the hall to pick up the mail which the postman had pushed through the slot. She carried it into the living room and sat under a lamp. Cards and more cards! She opened them carefully. There were notes from some old friends – Carrie, Ethel, and Laura. She detected a note of loneliness in their words.
She read and re-read the letters from far away sons and daughters: “Mom, fly out to us for Christmas…” Fly! Why, she’d be scared to pieces! Besides, she could not be with all of them at the same time.
There were cards from her grandchildren, down to the smallest, who had managed to print in wobbly letters: Merry Chrismus, Grama.
She took one of the cards to the piano and picked out the printed notes of music, “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem…” How the children had crowded about the piano to sing that one!
She put the cards and letters back into their envelopes, studying them over again, the red, shining holly berries, the flickering flames of candles spreading a cheery brightness, the glittering stars – all the age-old signs of a merry Christmas.
She went to the bay window which had always held the tree, and looked out into the snowy night. Below, the lights of the town shone gently over the snow. Blue, red, and green globes spread color over the porches. The winking lights of distant Christmas trees cast stars against window glass. To the east, tall, sentinel mountains guarded the town. In the west, a huge, blue star – Venus, she knew – sent its rays across a cobalt sky. She had seen this view so many times she had lost count. Yet it still had the power to stir her with its serenity, its peace.
Peace! If only the peoples of the world could see such beauty! If only all people could know such peace! Emma wanted others to see it, love it, know its calmness. This was her town. The words of the carol she had played at the piano lingered in her mind. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee, tonight.”
Yes, hopes and fears had crowded the old house while the family grew up. But the hopes had pushed away the fears, joy had followed sorrow! The things that Emma had known, had loved, were not mute and still. They were bright and glowing, alive in her heart, in the big rooms of the old house.
It was all here in this house, in this town. It crowded about her, and, suddenly, she knew that here was where she belonged, would always belong.
She laughed a little as she told herself gaily: “Let progress find some other space for a supermarket. The old house and I are here to stay!”
She heard the shock in Mr. Ewing’s voice when she called and told him. He tried to shoulder the matter away, saying that she would change her mind in the morning. She hung up the phone, and wished she could make Mr. Ewing understand.
But there was something else she had to do. Her finger was steady as she dialed Alma at home. The young woman’s voice answered eagerly. “Oh, Mrs. Lorimer, I’m glad you called. I wanted to talk to you. Thought I’d tell you tomorrow at the office. Several of the girls I know, who can’t go home for Christmas, are going to have dinner at the hotel. We know you’re alone. We’d love to have you join us.”
Emma’s words were a torrent of excitement. “I’ll accept that invitation in reverse, Alma.” At the girl’s gasp, she explained, “I’ll have dinner, here,”
“Too much work…” Alma tried to say.
“Oh, I’ll have plenty of help,” said Emma happily. She was thinking of Carrie, Ethel, and Laura. They’d be delighted, busying themselves in the big old kitchen. She said: “Bring all the girls. I’ll have Mr. Ewing give me the names of some couples crowded into trailer courts. There’s plenty of room for those who can, to stay over on Christmas Eve. We’ll have plenty of gifts for the children…” Her voice ran out.
Alma cried happily: “It will be almost like going home for Christmas!” she added: “I’ll make a list. We’ll need some holly. A wreath for the door…”
“I have all the tree decorations,” declared Emma, “except, perhaps, the tree-top angel. One of the grand children tried eating the tinsel…”
She put down the receiver. Then she wondered if Alma had said: “We already have an angel, Mrs. Lorimer.” Well, it didn’t matter, she’d ask her when she saw her.
Emma had her own list to make: turkey, cranberries, oranges for the tips of the children’s stockings. She’d buy a tree first thing before they were all picked over. A green one, she decided, remembering the cold, haughty white tree in the lobby at the Plaza Arms. She could almost smell the crisp scent of the forest sweeping through the rooms.
There was plenty of time to get everything ready. She’d call those of her neighbors who would be alone on Christmas and invite them, too. She could almost hear the laughter and happiness stirring through the rooms. The old house was waking up!
Well, now it was late. Time to go to bed. As she mounted the stairs her hand rested lightly, agelessly, against the polished banister.
She imagined the shrieks of delight that would greet the Christmas dawn, as child after child among her visitors, would come flying down that banister. How they would stare in wide-eyed wonder at the magic of the shining tree, the toys piled about it.
She felt warmed through and through, in spite of the chilled air that came through the window as she opened it a little. The lights, the friendliness of the town below, swept up to greet her.
She had been too long alone! She had tried to shut out memories. Tried to shut out love. It had been a long time since she had shared these precious things.
Emma knew, clearly, happily, as she knelt for her prayers, that life must be shared, that people, things that are truly loved are never lost. That peace on earth and good will among people were, and would always be, the real and lasting assurance of the Christmas season. …