From the Improvement Era, December 1934 –
The White Wings of Christmas
By Anna W. McNeil
Grandma Westlin had often heard and used the expression: “a square peg in a round hole,” or “a round peg in a square hole,” little dreaming that these descriptions would ever apply to herself. Then, one day, things happened with terrible suddenness and her well-ordered little world dissolved into chaos. Grandma, sitting dazed and numb, did not know how to cope with the new state of affairs. Grandpa had seemed so strong and well in spite of his years, that the thought of an all-alone future had never occurred to her.
“Grandma had better make her home with us,” suggested prosperous John Westlin to his wife. “She wouldn’t be a bit of trouble — you would hardly know she was in the house. Nobody else in the family is in a position to take her, and I owe her a debt that can’t be repaid for all that she did for me as a boy.”
“If only she won’t sit and brood all day; I couldn’t stand that,” anticipated Mrs. Westlin, dismally. “And about the housework — she simply mustn’t be underfoot.”
“She won’t be underfoot — she isn’t that kind; and I’ll guarantee that she won’t brood,” promised he. “Grandma is naturally a cheerful soul and she won’t be like this after the shock wears off. She can’t go on living all by herself at her age.”
“No, of course not,” agreed Mrs. Westlin, with some show of heartiness. She too had memories of Grandma’s kindness.
So the arrangements were made before Grandma realized what they were all about and the next few days found her transplanted from the peaceful Southern village where she had spent her seventy-five useful years to a strictly modern city apartment. Grandma had often grieved over a tree that had been uprooted by a storm; its boughs still clinging tenaciously to a thread of life and its leaves bravely putting forth their green. How like to her own experience, she reflected; but then, she mustn’t be gloomy. How good John and his wife were to provide a home for her and how appreciative she must be. There was so much she could still do for them — her sight was good and her fingers nimble.
“This is your room, Grandma,” announced Mrs. Westlin, ushering her into a beautifully appointed chamber. “Now, you are not expected to do a thing, you know, only to make yourself comfortable and be as happy as you can, under the circumstances.”
Grandma looked about a little fearfully. It wasn’t the cheery coziness she had been accustomed to, and from the sixth-floor window the street below yawned like a chasm. But she faced her tall grand-daughter-in-law with a gallant spirit.
“It’s good of you, Winifred, to do all this for me and you mustn’t spoil me by letting me set around. I want to earn my board and keep,” she ventured.
Mrs. Westlin, thinking of her husband’s five-figure income, registered determined protest. “Oh, no, Grandma! If you care for your own room that is quite all you can do. We have all kinds of electrical appliances, so that the housework is no drudgery, and our maid is very competent. No — really — !” She lifted a deprecating hand as she closed the door, warding off further speech on Grandma’s part and leaving her to her own devices.
Nevertheless, the first meal over, Grandma produced a crisp, gingham apron and stepped gingerly over the waxed floors towards the kitchen.
“I’m all ready to do the dishes, dearie,” she said, brightly. “Now, just tell me where you keep the dishpan and the wipers and then I’ll always know.” She peered about in vain.
“We have no dishpan. We have an electrical dishwasher.” Mrs. Westlin indicated the device. “You might just as well take your apron off, Grandma, for there’s absolutely nothing you can do.”
No one was in the habit of disputing that particular tone in Mrs. Westlin’s voice, but Grandma was intent upon being useful. “There’s the darning!” she exclaimed. “Now you find me all your stockings and all of John’s socks, and let me look them over. I’ll mend them so you will surely think they are brand new.”
“We never wear mended hose. Grandma, if you think you can’t be comfortable and contented here, there’s the Old Ladies’ Home!”
At the threat of an institution, the place above all that Grandma dreaded, the “appleblow” as Grandpa had fondly called it, faded from her cheeks and she suddenly felt weak and tired and old. Mrs. Westlin, seeing the effect, repented her remark. “Come, Grandma,” she suggested, trying to make amends. “You want to take a nap, don’t you? Here’s flower for you to take up to your room.” She chose a huge, feathery chrysanthemum from a cluster in a tall vase.
Grandma accepted it thankfully. She was too tactful to say that she never took a nap in the daytime. She untied her apron, folded it carefully and laid it away. Then she went to the window, seemingly gazing at the activities in the street but in reality, seeing nothing. There had been chrysanthemums in her garden every fall — not like this gorgeous one to be sure, but little brave lavender and white blooms that year by year defied the frost because Grandma protected them at night so carefully. Somehow they seemed more friendly than this and she liked them better. But now — “Why, I’m a prisoner, just as much a prisoner as if I was in jail, and who will take care of my flowers!” she exclaimed aloud.
After that, Grandma did not offer to assist with the housework. She appeared at meals her bright, pleasant self — and then went to her lonely room where she invented a diversion that consisted of thinking what would be going on every hour of the day if she were back in her old home. She knew which of the neighbors would be running in at different times; who would want to borrow; who would ask for a recipe; who was working for some of the church interests and needed her help; who had a ticket to sell; who would call out, “Want anything at the store, today, Grandma?” — who would stop with the mail; and how the children homeward bound from school, would congregate about the porch while she generously handed out freshly made cookies and doughnuts. At last, even this palled, because Grandma became frankly homesick. Yet, what to do, she didn’t know. A family had taken possession of the house. She could not reconcile herself to boarding elsewhere in the village, because the thought of home meant doing the things she liked.
“I know what!” Inspiration came to her. “I’ll sew!” But sew what? Then she was seized with a happy idea. Back in the village days, Grandma had clothed dozens of dolls, not only for her little friends, but for the various “Barrels” which from time to time were packed by the church workers for missionary centers at home and abroad. She had a bag of “pieces” which represented many an odd and end of dress materials and trimmings, and this she had brought with her.
“The women all seem to be so busy in this city,” mused Grandma, judging by what she had seen and heard in the Westlin household, “that I don’t believe they think of such a thing as making doll dresses for their children. The flimsy clothes that the boughten dolls wear can’t last long, the way children handle them; and when I was a little girl, I wanted my dolls to have plenty of changes.” She indulged in a rare smile thinking of the contrast between the now and then, in dolls and their costumes, as in everything else.
One idea suggested another, and Grandma, for want of something to pass the time, had become an inveterate newspaper reader. For the first time in her life, she composed an advertisement. Her fingers held the pencil stiffly and she made many erasures before it was written to her satisfaction, but she was pleased with the result.
“Mrs. Santa Claus would like to make clothes for dolls. Busy mothers, please notice.” Then followed her name, naively set down as “Grandma” Westlin, and her address. She especially liked the thought of “Mrs.” Santa Claus.
Mrs. Westlin was touring the state in the interests of a political measure affecting women workers, and Grandma felt that the time was ripe for her venture. Somewhat tremblingly, she showed her advertisement to John, and explained her purpose. “The time hangs so heavy on my hands, John,” she said, pathetically, “that I’ve just got to do something, whether your wife likes it or not. Even if she does make me go to the Old Ladies’ Home!” Her voice broke.
“You won’t have to go there, Grandma — don’t worry,” he told her, reassuringly. He turned back the pages of memory and saw himself, a boy, visiting his grandparents in their village home. Grandma had never been able to do enough for him! How she had fussed and cooked and waited on him, and made every moment of his stay the happiest possible. She had gone, a quaint little figure, to his college commencement and wept with joy and pride when he had received his diploma.
There were certain yellowing clippings in Grandma’s Bible. They told of advancement that had come to him in more than one line, and Grandma exulted, not alone because of the honor to the old family name, but because she, worshipping, had always known that John was worthy of, and would receive, the best. With his wife out of hearing he praised Grandma in a way that delighted her beyond expression, and he furthermore promised to see that the advertisement was duly inserted in the morning paper. She was satisfied because “the word of a Westlin was as good as his bond.” Keyed to the highest pitch with anticipation, she emptied the bag of “pieces” on her bed, sorted them out, and even threaded a paper of needles to save time when the real operations should begin. Before Mrs. Westlin returned, her little business of being “Mrs. Santa Claus” was so well under way that no amount of protest would stop it. For John put down a decisive foot against interference with the old lady. Hour by hour the shining needles flew in and out and little garments took form like magic.
One of the delighted mothers slipped a five-dollar bill in Grandma’s hand. “I insist on your taking it,” she said. “I can’t sew to save my life, and my little girl has been simply crazy for a new outfit for her favorite doll. She loves this particular doll above anything else and its clothes were in frazzles.” She looked with approval at the neat little wardrobe that the patient fingers had wrought. “No this isn’t one penny too much. It is well worth it.”
Five dollars! Grandma blinked at the bill and touched it unbelievingly. What should she do with it? Of all the uses that occurred to her, which would be the best? Or should she divide it among several causes?
Interrupting her unaccustomed line of financial thought, the doorbell rang insistently, and the maid, displeased, ushered a small boy into Grandma’s presence. He was clean but threadbare, and his hands were blue with cold.
“Are you the lady what calls herself Missus Santy Claus?” he asked. “I read yer ad and I brought yer this doll to fix up for my kid sister. She’s lame.”
He deposited a bundle in Grandma’s lap. She unrolled layers of newspaper and discovered a doll — an evident aristocrat among dolls — in spite of the fact that one arm and one leg were missing and that she was sadly rumpled. Little frozen clumps of ashes clung to her and smears of coal disfigured her face. But she had curly bobbed hair and flirty blue eyes with long lashes, and her initial cost had probably been large.
Grandma surveyed doll and boy with interest. “Where did you get this?” she inquired.
“Out’n the ashbarrel over there.” He indicated the direction with a jerk of his thumb. “I hunt in the ashbarrels ev’ry night, Lady. Sometimes I find things to take home to my sister. She can’t walk and she’s always askin’ for a doll. But this didn’t have no clothes on so I brought it to you to git drest.”
“How did you know about me?” pursued Grandma, kindly.
“My mother is advertisin’ for work and I was lookin’ over the want ads to see if hers was in. That’s how I come across yours.”
“Have you a father?”
“My father is dead and my mother goes out washin’ and cleanin’.”
“Has your little sister always been lame?”
“No’m. She was just like any other little girl ‘til that sickness went around three or four years ago that left so many kids lame. But she don’t seem to mind, Jennie don’t. She makes up stories for herself, just as if she was readin’, and she sings to herself, for comp’ny. She’s nine years old,” he volunteered. “The neighbors like her and sometimes they come and set with her while Ma and me are workin’. I sell newspapers. I’m only twelve and you have to be a lot older to get a real job. If I could earn enough money, Lady, my mother would never have to go out to work. I’d see to that.”
“I know you would,” said Grandma, with approval. She knew exactly what she would do in a case like this if she were in her own home with her own kitchen at her disposal. But in the home of another! “Day after tomorrow’s Christmas,” she meditated aloud. “I’ll have to work quick. Well, sonny, you be sure and come back tomorrow night and the doll will be all ready for your little sister.”
“How much will the clothes cost?” he asked. He counted out a few hoarded pennies. “Will it be more than that? There’s coal and eats to buy and maybe you won’t think this is enough.”
“It’s enough,” said Grandma. His face shone so that her heart glowed responsively.
Surely no doll was ever dressed with more loving care. The choicest remnant in the bag of “pieces” was a bit of pink calico, and Grandma cut into it happily. Little lengths of white muslin and edging were transformed into apparel of which any doll might well be proud, and the pink calico made such a gay little dress that it would bring cheer into the grayest surroundings.
Grandma next turned her attention to the making of an arm and a leg. Tightly rolled cotton and cloth answered the purpose and Grandma attached them to the doll’s body with pride. She brushed the tangled hair strand by strand and restored the soiled face to its original cleanliness. Her efforts were repaid by a doll so irresistible that she cuddled it as if she were seven years old instead of seventy-five. Eagerly, she told the story to her grandson, enjoying his interests at sight of the rejuvenated doll. “And that, John,” she said, indicating the pink calico, “is a piece of the dress your own father wore when he was two years old and having his first picture taken. It laid in a chest in the attic for years — seemed as if I was too choice of it to ever use it. Then thought I, what’s the use of keeping it, and I tucked it right into my bag of pieces. And how glad I am that I did. I can hardly wait for that boy to come back.”
Next morning Grandma scanned the advertising columns of The Daily News as was her custom, ever since her own profitable advertisement had appeared. Something stood out on the closely printed page in letters that seemed to her an inch high:
“Little girl is grieving for favorite doll, thrown into ashbarrel by mistake. Five dollars reward if returned.”
“This very doll!” gasped Grandma. And here it was all ready for a little cripple who had never owned a doll and was praying that Santa Claus would bring her one.
“My five dollars and the five dollars reward,” reasoned Grandma — “why, we’ll have some kind of a Christmas for her after all. But land alive! I’ll have to get a doll with a boughten dress. And mercy me, how will I ever get around in the stores in the Christmas rush?”
The house was deserted, for John did not come home at noon, the maid had received permission to do a personal errand, and Mrs. Westlin was investigating cases that had come to the attention of the charity committee of her club. Grandma felt that she ought not to delay, and that since it was not far to the address of the grieving little girl, she should essay the trip alone. She did not know where to find wrappings, so she clasped the doll in its gay pink calico against her best black coat, and started bravely forth. The kindly policeman on duty at the busy corner gave her the required directions, and halted the traffic. Many a passerby turned and smiled in friendly fashion at the sight, sensing something of more than usual interest in the intent old lady, picking her steps so carefully, and snuggling a bobbed-haired doll to her breast.
What happened was rather a jumble to Grandma. She ascended the brown stone steps of an imposing residence, and rang the entrance bell. The door opened and she entered a great room with an open fireplace. There were soft lights and “oh — these people must live in the lap of luxury,” she thought. A child’s delighted cry rang out, and a little girl with curls like burnished gold, hurled herself into Grandma’s arms and took her and the doll together in an embrace that almost took Grandma’s breath away.
Then there was the story to tell to an interested group who wanted to learn all about Mrs. Santa Claus, the “bag of pieces,” the newsboy who found the doll in an ashcan, and the little crippled girl. In the center of the group stood the happy little mother, with her restored treasure, hugging her doll, and waiting her turn to tell how the new nursemaid, thinking it was of no value because it was minus an arm and a leg, and likewise clothing (its dress was being laundered for Christmas), had tossed the cherished doll into the ashes; and how badly she felt when she learned that it was the one loved above all others. When she hurried to find it, it was gone.
There is no eloquence like that which comes from the heart and Grandma did not seem like a plain old lady in black, telling a story that had largely to do with a piece of pink calico that had once been her baby boy’s dress. It was as if the Spirit of Christmas itself was speaking, and every hearer warmed to the appeal.
The little girl and her mother and father bundled Grandma into a big, luxurious automobile and insisted on taking her on a shopping trip that knew no limitations. If Grandma became tired she did not realize it in the least, for the simple reason that she was too happy to sense fatigue.
They did not stop at buying one doll – or two – or three; they added warm bedding and clothing, and a Christmas tree with shining ornaments; books, toys, and even a plant with red flowers. Grandma was finally persuaded into going to her room to rest, with the assurance that the others would call for her in the evening, to deliver the gifts in person. The wealthy father of the little girl took all the more interest because he was on the friendliest of terms with John Westlin.
At the time appointed, the small newsboy came, quivering with hope. “Is the doll all drest?” he asked, and peered about, vainly looking for it.
“Not the doll you found but another, just as nice,” said Grandma, and she opened the dresser drawer and heaped his arms with dolls large and small.
“Gee!” he exclaimed, and “Gee!” again. “Oh, I say, Lady!” – and then words failed and he could only stare first at the precious armful and then at Grandma until his eyes blurred over with tears of joy.
“Well, you know I’m Mrs. Santa Claus,” said Grandma, briskly, getting into her hat and coat, for the automobile was at the door. “Now come and show me where you live, and we will give your little sister a Christmas that is a Christmas! And me one, too,” she added under her breath, for the Christmas atmosphere in the Westlin household was an extremely rarified one. Grandma had learned long years before, that Christmas has very little to do with the giving of gifts but very much, with the giving of self.
The neighbors stared when the handsome car rolled into their narrow street. The gifts were carried upstairs by many willing hands and placed outside the door until it was discovered that the crippled girl was soundly asleep. An empty stocking was pinned where Santa Claus could not fail to see it, for she was sure that he would find the way to her sometime even if he never had before.
There was nothing in the room outside of bare necessities. “But it’s clean – oh, scrupulously clean!” thought Grandma, looking about with the satisfaction of an expert housekeeper, as she went on tiptoes, placing the gifts.
The tree was set up and quickly, deftly trimmed. It sparkled as if it understood. A warm comfortable blanket was thrown over the bed and pretty new clothing arranged where the lame girl’s unbelieving eyes would see it the first thing on Christmas morning.
As they left, after a long, satisfied look, the Little Rich Girl tugged at Grandma’s arm. “You believe in Santa Claus, don’t you?” she asked; blue eyes wide in her own happy faith.
“Bless your heart, I always have believed in him and I always will,” assured Grandma, folding her close.
“Then, what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas the very most of all?”
“If I whisper, you must never tell a soul in this world,” cautioned Grandma, “for even Santa Claus can’t give me my heart’s desire. But when you see him, just say to him for me that the thing that Grandma wants most, is to have her old home back again.”
“Where is your old home, Grandma?” Somehow the Little Girl felt like crying without knowing why.
“It’s back in the country, dear, many and many a mile from here – a little white house with green blinds. In summer, there’s the loveliest garden!” Grandma, taking her by the hand, added detail after detail, because it was so seldom these days that anyone seemed interested in her affairs.
For hours, the Little Girl pondered the tale that Grandma told. She had given her promise not to tell “a soul in this world,” but she was not quite sure if Santa Claus answered that description or not. She finally appealed to her father.
“Daddy, is Santa Claus ‘a soul in this world’?” she inquired. “Because if he is not, I must write a letter to him.”
“No, you couldn’t exactly call him ‘a soul in this world,’ for Santa Claus is surely not like the rest of us. When you speak of a ‘soul in this world’ you mean people,” he answered, understandingly. “So now write your letter.”
Patiently the little girl toiled, unwilling to ask for help in composition or spelling for fear that she would have to divulge Grandma’s confidence. So it came about that on Christmas Day her father called on John Westlin to explain the circumstances, and put a letter addressed to Santa Claus in his hands.
“Dear Santa Claus,” he read. “This is for Grandma. She is not truly my grandmother but she is everybody’s grandmother. She said I must not tell a soul in this world only you, but Daddy says you are not a soul in this world, but she wants you to give her back her old home. It is a white house ever so far back in the country, and she cried when she told me about it, she was very happy there. I don’t think she is happy now but she did not say so, so please dear Santa Claus, give it back to her, please, please do.”
“What am I to do?” said John Westlin, deeply affected. “I didn’t realize that Grandma was miserable. After all, it’s cruelty, in spite of our best intentions, to uproot old people from their homes. I only thought that Grandma ought not to be living by herself at her age. I might have known that she would be better off where she knows everybody and could do as she pleased.”
“This is only a suggestion,” offered his friend, “and you may not want to consider it, but let me tell you the story of last night. It would be an ideal place for those two children and their widowed mother and the woman could look out for Grandma and spare her the heavy part of the work. We can investigate the case and make sure it is worthy. Personally, I cannot doubt that it is.”
On Christmas night dinner was served in the Westlin home with ceremony. Grandma dressed in her best black silk with white fichu and cameo pin, dutifully ate in silence, because she was present only in body; her spirit being back in the old home living over again the rollicking Christmas days of other years. There had been a formal exchange of gifts.
Grandma got back to her room a bit stumblingly. She wouldn’t dictate to Providence, but perhaps the Good Lord might mercifully let her spend her next Christmas with Grandpa. Was he somewhere beyond those glittering starways? Did he miss her too, this Christmas night? She spread the curtains wide and the great planet of evening swung into vision. So must the Star of Bethlehem have looked. Her heart thrilled to the Creator’s shining message and her whole being was flooded with peace.
“I guess I’ll get me to bed, now,” she thought. “God’s in His heaven; it’s all right.”
On the pillow lay an envelope with a gay Christmas seal. It was addressed to Grandma and she opened it wonderingly, looking for the signature first of all. When she read “Santa Claus” she gave a tremulous little laugh.
Her hands shook so that she had difficulty in reading the strong, masculine handwriting that said:
“Grandma: Your wish has been made known to me. Your little white home with green blinds, away back in the country is waiting for you to come back to it. I can’t take you there in my sleigh drawn by my reindeer, much as I would like to; but my messenger has bought a railroad ticket that will take you there just as soon as you are ready to start.”
Grandma read the letter over and over again before she fully comprehended its meaning. Then she gave a quavering little scream, that John Westlin, waiting outside her door, heard with a gulp in his throat. He hurried into the room and Grandma threw herself into his arms, laughing and crying all in one breath. “What do you think?” she exclaimed, her old happy self again. “God has said Merry Christmas to me!”
In the meantime, a second letter was in the hands of the little girl, and it too, was signed “Santa Claus.” “Oh, Daddy,” she cried, “what does this part of it mean?” And he, with a volume of Eugene Field’s poems on his knees, turned the pages and found the lines:
“You are too young to know it now,
But sometime you will know.”
This was the message:
“Dear Little Girl:
“Did you know that Christmas is not just one day in the year? It is every day, because the real Christmas is in your heart. Whenever you do anything for anybody because you love them, you have heard the echo of the angels’ song of peace and goodwill. Those who listen will always hear the rustle of the white wings of Christmas. May the beautiful Christmas Spirit abide with you always.
“And to make you very happy indeed, Santa Claus has bought Grandma’s old home and she is going back to stay there as long as she lives. The little lame girl and her mother and brother will make their home with Grandma too, and by another Christmas the little lame girl will be strong and well.
“I am glad that you wrote me that letter. It will be our secret and we will not tell ‘a soul in this world.’
“Your friend, now and always,