From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1946 –
Prelude to Christmas
By Frances C. Yost
King Winter laid his ermine carpet of snow in readiness for the coming yuletide. Strings of gay, colored lights winked from every shrub and pine. Festive wreaths hung on the doors. Every house on Oak Street seemed ready to greet the eve of Christmas – except one.
Even inside that house, however, a pudding bubbled on the kitchen coal range, permeating the air with its fragrance and steaming the windows to invisibility. Granny Crockett stood at her work table, stuffing the last morsel of dressing into the fat rooster, but her heart was heavy.
It was mighty hard rearing Mary and Bill, her two grandchildren, in this fast age, when she herself was nearing seventy. It had been a struggle for Granny both financially and physically, since her son Ronald and his wife Vie and two of their children had been killed in an automobile accident. Granny well remembered the day.
She had been tending Mary, the tiny baby, for them and Bill, who was eight, had been left with her to help out. That span of eight gapping years between them had somehow made the job of rearing them even more of a problem, and now Bill was in college, studying law.
Granny thought of the problems at hand. Bill had come home from college the week before, but he seemed changed. He never stayed at home. And he hung around Sue Rankin’s far too much. Girlfriends meant added problems, Granny knew only too well.
Then, too, there was something wrong with Mary. Granny had given the child every chance to pour out her troubles on Granny’s shoulder, but to no avail. A child of twelve should have been bubbling over with the Christmas spirit, but Mary seemed quiet and solemn.
“Mary dear, bring Granny a threaded needle to sew up this fowl.” Granny’s face wrinkled into a smile made of many tiny crow’s-feet.
“Yes, Granny.” Mary’s face flushed.
“Land sakes, child, you don’t mind havin’ chicken ’stead of turkey this Christmas, do ya?”
“Oh, no, Granny. Turkey couldn’t be half as good as you cook chicken.”
“Is it cause of not havin’ a tree this year?”
“No, Granny, I don’t mind going without a tree, honest. We can save that much toward Bill’s fare back to school.”
Mary brought the thread to Granny. She glanced at the clock. It was almost six. She caught a sob before it did any damage. It was hard keeping things from Granny. She was wise as two, maybe three, owls.
The clock itself somehow brought back everything to Mary. The remembrance of the night Bill had come home from college to spend the holidays moved before her, as a motion picture run too rapidly, and blurred a little.
* * * * *
It had been a Friday evening. Mary had been sitting on her bed counting out her Christmas money. Three dollars and ninety-eight cents altogether. Mary had seen a lovely, lavender, hand-knit shawl of wool, with tiny flowers embroidered on it, had had decided it was the very present for Granny. Mary could imagine her with the shawl wrapped about her shoulders, her eyes shining kind of moist, and her soft gray hair falling in waves over her ears. The shawl had been marked two dollars, and it was a real bargain, so Mary had set aside two dollars in a separate pile, for the shawl.
In another store, Mary had seen the cleverest perfume sets. Five tiny bottles, each holding a different scent, dressed like quintuplets. On the lids of each bottle had been painted a face, and each perfume doll had worn a different colored ribbon dress. Mary knew Carma and Reah, her best friends, would simply adore such a gift, so she had set aside another dollar for two sets of perfume.
That had left ninety-seven cents for stationery for Bill, and wrapping paper and ribbon. Yes, there would be just enough money, and, as tomorrow was Saturday, she would do her shopping then.
Just then a tap had been heard on her door. Mary had quickly gathered up the money, and tucked it in its hiding place, and gone to open the door.
“Can I come in, Sis?” Bill had almost whispered.
“Sure!” Mary had closed the door behind him.
Bill was tall and bronzed, a living reminder of the summer that was past. He had sat on the edge of Mary’s bed.
“Got any money?” The muscles in his cheeks twitched.
“Say, Mary, I got roped in on a theater party with Sue and the gang tonight, and I haven’t a red cent.” Their eyes had met in the mirror above Mary’s dresser, and Bill had rushed on to explain: “I just can’t ask Granny for spending money. Could you make me a loan?” Then he had added coyly, “ Mary, old pal.”
Marty had visualized her money. She could spare maybe a dollar and a half. She guessed she could give Carma and Reah hankies instead of the perfume sets. She could buy cheaper stationery for Bill. But Granny must have that very shawl! Mary had gone to the dresser drawer and fished down under the hankie pile. She had brought out an old watch box and opened it.
“How much do you need?”
“How much you got?”
Mary had poured the contents on the dresser scarf. Each coin seemed like an old friend with its own life story. This paper dollar was for cleaning wallpaper all day at the Sorensons’ one Saturday. The other dollar told about the dirty Parker basement Mary had set in order. Each quarter told of a show she had passed up, and the nickels and dimes were gum and candy Mary had denied herself.
“There’s three dollars and ninety-eight cents altogether.”
“I’ll take it all. Thanks, Sis.” Bill had gathered up the money in a scoop and put it loose in his pocket and had gone, giving Mary a quick pat on the back.
Despair had closed Mary’s throat. She just couldn’t make her vocal cords explain to Bill that that was her Christmas money, that he just couldn’t have all of it! Mary had looked at the calendar. She had been crossing off the days until Christmas. There were just six left!
That night, Mary couldn’t face Granny the way she felt. Automatically she had brushed her teeth, jerked open the window, and crept shivering between the sheets. “Our Father…” Hours later she had awakened shaking, had sat up in bed and felt the chill of December through her flannel pajamas. She had shaken her brown curls. No – it hadn’t been a dream. Bill really had borrowed her Christmas money …!
Each afternoon after that, Mary had walked downtown after school to make certain the shawl for Granny hadn’t been sold. Once she had almost asked the clerk to put the shawl away for her, but had decided there wasn’t any use. She wouldn’t be able to earn two dollars before Christmas.
Now it was Christmas Eve. Bill had never mentioned the money. Mary wished for the thousandth time that she had told Bill it was Christmas money and had just not let him have it! She found herself almost wishing Bill hadn’t even come home for Christmas, just stayed at the school. She could have sent him a present then. Now, who would give Granny a present? Mary knew Bill didn’t have anything, because he always showed her his present for Granny. Poor old Granny – she dotes on Christmas so much, thought Mary. If her stocking were empty on Christmas morning… Mary couldn’t bear the thought. She hid behind the curtain so Granny wouldn’t see, as she dried her moist eyes.
Tiny snowflakes, like down feathers, fluttered to the ground, each flake intent on building a fresh white path for Santa’s sleigh before the eventide. Suddenly, Mary noticed Reah and Carma coming up the walk. They were each carrying gifts wrapped in tissue. Mary turned from the window quickly.
“Granny, Carma and Reah are coming. Please tell them I’m not home. Please, Granny.” Mary started to run up the stairs.
“Wait, child. You wouldn’t make your old Granny tell a lie, would you?”
“All right, Granny, but I wish I really wasn’t home. I … I wish I were dead!”
“There, there, child. Go to the door, and greet your friends with a cheery Christmas wish.” Then she thought: When these girls are gone I’ll have a talk with Mary. She’s evaded me long enough. That child’s in some sort of trouble, and I mean to get to the bottom of it.
Mary opened the door as the girls knocked.
“Hello, Granny Crockett, and Mary,” Carma bubbled, “we brought over a little gift to put under your tree.”
“Why! Why, we haven’t decorated our tree yet,” Mary stammered.
“Well, we’ll just put them here on the table then, for now,” Reah smiled. The cutting cold had stung her ears to redness.
“I… I haven’t wrapped your presents yet, kids. We’re late this year.” Mary wore an expression of bewilderment.
“Mary, the whole gang is going caroling tonight. They’re going to meet at my place about nine o’clock. Please come, your alto is so good,” Carma invited.
“I’m afraid I can’t go. You see, … Granny isn’t feeling well.”Mary stopped short. Granny had said never to lie, and she seemed to be telling one right after another. Mary felt ill at ease and signed with relief when her friends finally left.
Mary turned to Granny. She could see that she would have to make an explanation of some kind for her actions. She would tell just one more lie. Granny must never know about Bill’s having taken the money.
Just then the back door opened. It was Bill, for he always entered like a gust of wind. He had Sue Rankin with him.
“Hello, Mary and Gran. I’m home.” Bill favored them with a grade “A”grin.”Say, Granny, I want to let you in on a secret. Sue’s promised to wait for me ’till I get my shingle up. And she even wants to wear my frat pin ’stead of a sparkler. Imagine that! I brought her over to help decorate this tree. It’s the prettiest one in town.” Bill displayed a well-shaped evergreen, its branches shimmering with fresh snowflakes beneath the kitchen light.
“Why, hello, Sue,” Granny welcomed Bill’s friend warmly.
Bill pulled out his purse. It was bulging. He started to say something, but Granny, with a wide-eyed glance at the sight of so much money, stopped him.
“Where on earth did you get that much money this time of year, young man?” Granny spoke firmly. It was her job to check up on such things and she intended to do it even in front of Sue, if necessary.
“Why, Granny, I’ve worked all week at Tyler’s delivering orders,” Bill stated proudly. Then turning to Mary, “Here’s five dollars, Mary. A dollar and two cents interest. I’d have paid you back sooner, but they just this minute paid me off.”
“But Bill … five dollars!” Mary started to protest.
“That’s okay, Sis. Banks charge more interest when they don’t require security.”
A hard, painful little kernel in the center of Mary’s being seemed to be melting out of existence.
At sight of her, Bill’s heart was swelled to bursting. He caught Mary in his arms and held her hard. “I thought you knew I’d pay in time for Christmas. Look at the clock. There are still two more hours before the stores close.”
Mary’s face was shining as she looked up.
“Granny, may I go down town?” Then in a whisper for Granny’s ears alone, “I’m going to buy some mistletoe for Sue and Bill.”
She hurried for her wraps. “Granny, I think I’ll go caroling with the gang before I come home.”
Granny left Sue and Bill to decorate the tree. From the kitchen window she watched Mary as she hurried up Oak Street toward the brilliant lights of the city. Granny was wise as two, maybe three, owls, for she knew that since the Wise Men had presented their gifts to the Infant in the manger that first Christmas, many, many years ago, the making and buying of presents was the prelude to Christmas.