From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1939 –
The Last Line
By Lella Marler Hoggan
Martha drew a hairpin from the soft graying knot of hair at the nape of her neck and ripped open the thin envelope that the postman had delivered. She inspected its contents carefully.
“Merciful heavens!” she gasped, “it can’t be so. There must be some mistake.” Her fingers trembled as she removed her glasses, wiped them on the hem of her crisp apron, and again examined the letter. It was her name all right and the proper address. It seemed impossible, but there it was in plain words that anyone could read.
The clock on the mantel struck ten. The autumn sunshine was streaming across her kitchen table. The air was heavy with the odor of sweet spices from the kettle of apple butter simmering on the stove. Yes, her senses confirmed the fact that she was awake and in her right mind. She really had won one hundred dollars for the last line of a limerick.
She could hardly wait to tell the good news to someone. But Sam had gone to the mountains hunting with some of his friends and would not be back for another week, and their daughter and three sons all lived in distant towns. It would not be exactly kind to be babbling of her prosperity to her neighbors. Widow Johnson never had any money for luxuries. And sour old Lem Flinders, the war veteran, did not want to hear of anyone’s good fortune while he was hobbling about in penury waiting for the adjustment of his lapsed life insurance. No, she would wait until Sam got back to break the glad news. So she put the check in her gray silk purse and slipped it under Sam’s pillow on their bed. Several times during the day she went in and opened the purse to make sure the check was still there.
One hundred dollars was a lot of money to spend just as one pleased. What would she do with it? All through the years she had treasured in her heart unfinished dreams and plans that for lack of a few dollars were still waiting to be completed. What a thrilling experience it would be to bring about a realization or some of these long-hoped-for things.
During the next few days Martha spent hours planning, figuring, measuring. She made a trip to town where she priced materials, matched colors, and wrote down lists of suggestive purchases. Then one morning just as she opened her eyes, it came to her like a flash. Why hadn’t she thought of it long ago? Why not use the money for Christmas? One hundred dollars for Christmas! It would be magic. It would be more than magic. Why it would be the dream of a lifetime come true. Her thoughts ran riot. There was Sam and the children and grandchildren and friends to be made glad. Oh it would be a glorious adventure, nothing less.
Out of all her planning, however, she did not make a single purchase. And when Sam reached home at the end of the week she had not even cashed the check. Sam was tired, dusty and bewhiskered, and his usual even temper was somewhat ruffled. “Cold as blazes in the mountains,” he growled, “and not even so much as a deer track insight.” But oh, it was good to have him home again, thought Martha.
He soon had his chores finished and was shaved, bathed and into clean clothes. The hot appetizing meal was ready for the table, and he noticed that his plate was turned down. Tired as he was, his curiosity was at once aroused.
It had been a family custom throughout the years to save the little happy surprises for meal time. It might be a gift or a joke or some cheerful message that was concealed under one or more of the plates, but no one lifted his plate until after grace was said. And so after they had offered thanks for the food, Sam’s twinkling eyes met Martha’s animated gaze across the steaming food. With his hand on his plate he waited.
“What’ll you bet I can’t guess the first time?” he bantered.
“I don’t gamble,” her face was beaming, “but you’ll not guess this time, not even in a dozen guesses.”
“Dried venison,” was Sam’s hazard. “It must be dried venison considerin’ the luck I had on the huntin’ trip.” He lifted his plate, and the letter addressed to Martha was revealed. He held it up questioningly.
“Read it,” she urged.
“A hundred dollars! A hundred dollars!” he kept repeating, after he had read the letter. “Why, glory be, Marthy, you’ve saved the farm!”
“What do you mean ‘saved the farm’?”
“Why, the taxes, Marthy, the taxes. This will make our full payment and tide us over till we can sell the hay or the grain.”
All of the joy went out of Martha’s face, just as if an eraser had rubbed off every vestige of gladness.
“Oh, yes, the taxes … to be sure.” Always there was the taxes. Why hadn’t she remembered? Without a word she went to the small desk in the living room and endorsed the check and passed it to her grateful husband, but her attempt at cheerfulness during the remainder of the meal was a dismal failure.
She was relieved when Sam finished eating and went into the living room to glance through the newspapers that had come while he was away. Being alone would give her a chance to think things over and to adjust her mind to her changed financial situation.
Sam, tired from his trip, fell asleep in his chair before he had finished the first paper. Martha aroused him patiently, and without ceremony he undressed and tumbled into bed. He looked so tired and deserving, she observed. Soon his regular heavy breathing echoed through the quiet rooms.
When Martha retired, she slept fitfully. Once she awakened with a start and reached for the gray silk purse. Her hand touched Sam’s cheek, and then she remembered. She had companioned with the precious check for so many days that it brought an empty feeling to her heart to know that it was gone. It was like losing a friend.
She recalled gloomily how time and again in the past they had saved money for some special purpose, then a crop failure from some cause or another had occurred, and their precious savings had gone to pay the taxes. The hailstorm had taken the grain in the field the same fall they were married, making it impossible for them to go on a honeymoon trip. The money they had saved for the trip had to go for taxes. That was more than forty years ago, and they were still waiting for that honeymoon tour. Not that they needed such a trip, far from it; their marriage had been one long honeymoon. But she could not help recalling that the tax payments had caused many a heartache.
She tried to put the whole sorry thought of it out of her mind, but over and over like a rhythmic chant of bitterness and disappointment the words repeated themselves, “a hundred dollars for taxes – the Christmas money for taxes,” until finally she could stand it no longer.
Slipping out of bed, she tiptoed into the kitchen, put on a robe and some house shoes and walked out on the porch. Everything was so silent as she stood there in the white moonlight and gazed across the broad acres. The fields of stubble and the empty trees told of the garnered harvest. The stack of hay back of the barn, grain in the granary, boxes of red and yellow apples, and long shelves of bottled fruit and vegetables in the cellar, attested the summer’s labor and the winter’s store.
They had spent practically all of their married life here. Sam had helped to build the house, and they had moved in just a few weeks before Diana was born. It seemed only yesterday that they had packed up and left his father and mother at the old ranch house up in the valley. And yet Diana’s children were growing up now. Why, Bonny Lou, Diana’s daughter, was married last year.
The greatest joys of their lives centered here. The rooms of the old home were hallowed with a wealth of sacred memories. Every foot of the land bore the marks of Sam’s toil-worn hands. The quiet beauty, the soft stillness of the night, soothed and comforted Martha. It brought to her an acute realization of the fact that this farm home was something that money could not buy. No price was too great to save it for themselves and for the ones who would come after them. It was more than a farm – it was a sanctuary. Awed and grateful, she went back to her bed. In the darkness of the quiet room a deep content carried her into untroubled slumber.
The next morning she began all over again to make her plans for Christmas. This time she would plan a Christmas without money. She was not going to let a paltry hundred dollars spoil the most blessed day of the whole year. One did not need money to commemorate Christmas – at least not much. She would dip deep into her own life. Surely she had garnered treasures enough to share with others for one year. She would make this one of the most beautiful Christmas seasons they had ever known.
Weeks went by, and cold autumn skies were clouded with a flurry of snowflakes as winter made its appearance. Soon the fields were covered with a soft mantle, undulating drifts swung out along the foothills, and the streams were locked in ice.
Martha did dip deep, even as she had promised herself. In memory she went back into the years and out of the hallowed drama of the pasts he materialized many fleeting memories: Recipes of old favorite home dishes, booklets containing the children’s pictures and their funny little sayings and doings, maxims and slogans that had been household jokes during the years, choice poems, bits of humor and philosophy, souvenirs they had loved and treasured.
Then there were relics and heirlooms of value and beauty. Why not pass some of them on to the children this year? Sam gave his enthusiastic approval and helped Martha to pack the boxes. They included in each box cartons of home-grown popcorn and dried sweet corn, bottles of crystal clear honey, and bright luscious apples.
When they began addressing the boxes and parcels, they were puzzled as to where they should send Bonny Lou’s remembrance.
“We had better send it with Diana’s,” was Martha’s decision. “I think Bonny Lou and Bob plan on getting home for Christmas.”
“Well, if they’re not already there, they’ll never make it for Christmas, unless they go around, and that means an extra hundred miles. No one has tackled the pass since the big storm last week.”
“Well, let us hope that they’re already there.”
“But if they should be too late to get through the pass, Marthy, don’t you suppose Bob would bring Bonny Lou here?”
“Yes, I’m sure he would. But Sam, suppose they should get caught in the storm out in the mountains. Why if anything should happen to that darling girl–” Martha’s eyes filled with tears, and she choked up unable to say more.
“Nothin’s goin’ to happen to her, Marthy. The road is not open, so they’ll not be startin’ through the pass. Don’t you worry.”
“Sometimes I wonder if I don’t love that girl too much,” and she wiped her eyes gently.
“Now I’d like you to tell me just how a person would go about it to love an only granddaughter too much.”
“She’s sure got a big place in our hearts, Sam.”
They decided to send Bonny Lou’s parcel with Diana’s things. When the boxes were ready, Sam took them to the post office. It brought a feeling of deep satisfaction to both of them to have everything in the mail a week before Christmas.
The very morning before the eventful day, when Martha came into the kitchen to prepare breakfast, she found that Sam had already set the table, and her plate was turned down.
“Now Sam Hanford, what are you up to?” she demanded in assumed earnestness.
“Not a thing, Marthy,” and Sam’s expression became painfully solemn. As she came near the table, he hurried to warn her, “Now, no fair peekin’; you know we always made the children wait.”
“Of course I’m not peeking, but I’m sure wondering what prank you’re playing on me.”
“Marthy, I’m surprised!” and the twinkle in Sam’s eyes belied his gravity. “Whoever heard of me playin’ a prank on you?”
Martha prepared the breakfast in record time. She really was curious to know why Sam had turned her plate down. After the regular devotion was over, she quietly lifted her plate.
“Sam, why, Sam, where did this come from?” and she stared in wonder at a stack of crisp ten-dollar bills. She was too surprised to remember to count them until he explained that he was just paying back the loan for the taxes.
“You know very well that was not a loan, Sam. The taxes are as much my obligation as yours.”
“I know, but the sheep man paid me for the use of the field yesterday. And I just said to myself, ‘It’s a dern poor farm that can’t pay its own keep.’ So there it is. Besides, we couldn’t use your money to pay the taxes with. That’s professional money. That’s money for literachoor.”
She wanted to answer Sam’s merriment with some joke, but her eyes filled with tears; she did not trust her voice to reply. When Sam had finished eating and had left the room, she carefully folded up the ten ten-dollar bills and put them into the gray silk purse. It was a strange world, she mused. Here she was with one hundred dollars for Christmas and her gifts already wrapped and mailed.
She recalled some of the lean Christmas seasons when the children were home. Oh, what a blessing it would have been to have had the money then. Yet, those lean Christmases were the sweetest ones in her memory, for out of full hearts they had brought into their home the real spirit of the season. It was at one of these times that Sam had said to her, “Never mind, Marthy, if we can’t buy presents. It’s the gifts of the heart that count, and you’ve been givin’ us them in full measure, all through the year.”
As Martha went about her morning’s work, the puzzled expression on her face plainly showed that she had a problem to solve. She finally decided that her needy neighbors were her first consideration. So when the noon meal was over, she put on her warm wraps and made her way across the fields to their homes. Alice Johnson came running out to meet her, her face alight with good news.
“My, you look happy, Alice.” Martha’s arm went around the slender girl’s shoulders. “You look as if Santa Claus might have been here already.”
“Oh, he has, Mrs. Hanford, he surely has. Mother’s check for the turkeys came day before yesterday. We should have had it long ago, only it was delayed in the mail because of the Christmas rush. But it’s here now, and we’re all so happy we’re just dancing for joy.”
Widow Johnson’s face was as animated as Alice’s. Christmas preparations were nearly completed. The household was vibrant with a spirit of gladness.
When Martha left them a half hour later, her heart was singing, too.
She stumbled along the half obliterated path that led to Lem Flinder’s cabin. Rapping lightly on his door she waited, expecting to hear a glum call for her to enter. To her surprise, the door swung wide, and Lem, with a beaming countenance, welcomed her warmly.
“Well,” he announced, when she was seated, “the impossible has at last come to pass. They’ve looked up my record in Washington and everything’s O.K. I’m going to get my insurance. In fact, I’ve already got some of the money that was past due.”
“I’m certainly glad to hear the good news, Lem,” and Martha’s bright smile confirmed her pleasure. She rejoiced to note that his face shone with contentment and satisfaction. It was good to know that the old man had at last found peace of mind.
It was not far from Lem’s cabin to Molly Gregory’s little home where Martha found Molly singing lustily as she applied her industrious fingers and a wooden hook to the task of hooking a bright colored rug.
“It’s glad I am to be seein’ you, Marthy,” announced Molly, opening the door wide in welcome. “Such a good fortune has befallen me that I am wantin’ that my neighbors should hear of it, but with the paths so deep and slippery and me so uncertain on my feet I dare not venture out to be tellin’ them.”
“I’m sure I’ll be as happy to hear the good news as you will be to tell it,” was Martha’s assurance. “Your little room is fairly singing with good cheer.”
“Good cheer it is indeed, Marthy, and no one knows better than you of the braided rugs I’ve been at this live-long winter. Well, I’ve sold ’em, and for a handsome price at that. Why, I’m that happy that I can’t stop singin’. I honestly sometimes wonder if it’s a dream or if it’s reality.”
Molly’s happy laughter was good to hear. It was still ringing in Martha’s ears when she reached home. Removing her wraps, she stirred the fire to a bright blaze and sat down in the big easy chair before the hearth. She opened her small gray purse and taking out the roll of new bills smoothed them one by one across her knee.
“I had so hoped,” she mused, “that they would bring Christmas cheer to someone, but they don’t seem to be needed at all.” She rolled them up and put them back into the purse. Suddenly the bills in the little gray bag seemed to have lost their value.
She laid her purse on the table and reached for her knitting, as Sam sauntered into the room. With his back to the fire, he warmed his hands while his kind eyes looked lovingly across at Martha.
“Well, Marthy, Christmas is nearly over.”
“How do you figure that, Sam, when it doesn’t even begin until tomorrow?”
“Oh, I mean the makin’ ready for it.”
“Oh, to be sure, and I’ve enjoyed it this year, too.” The resignation in her voice brought a twinkle to Sam’s eyes, which was lost to Martha as she plied her needles industriously.
“Yes,” he mused, “it’s comforting to have plenty of money for a day like Christmas.” She knew what was coming and did not reply, but her needles clicked faster than ever.
“Well, Marthy,” and his voice was pathetically serious, “it’s a dad-burned shame to be left with a hundred dollars on your hands and Christmas all but over. But I wouldn’t feel too bad about it if I was you. You might be able to buy yourself a new spring outfit.”
“Yes, you can just see me spending a hundred dollars for a new spring outfit, now can’t you, Sam?”
“Well, you could do a lot worse.”
“Yes, and I could do a lot better.”
“Just what, for instance?”
“Well, I haven’t decided yet.”
“Now that’s just the trouble, Marthy. That’s what comes of getting yourself a pocketful of professional money. Plain folks like you and me shouldn’t be turnin’ professional at our age. It’s not practical. We don’t know how to use easy money, then we’re left with a lot of it on our hands and nothing to spend it for.”
“Goodness me, Sam, I wish you’d be quiet.”
“Quiet? Why, it’s so still around here now you could hear a pin drop. Come on, let’s hang up our stockin’s.”
Martha tossed her work on the table. There was no use trying to knit; she was dropping stitches.
“Sam Hanford, aren’t you ever going to grow up?”
“I hope not,” and his smile met hers.
“Seriously, Marthy, I’ve thought of a way we could spend the hundred dollars.”
“What way?” There was eagerness in her voice.
“We’ve been waitin’ a long time for our honeymoon trip.” He took her hand tenderly in both of his. “Why can’t we take it now on your hundred dollars.”
“Where could we go on a hundred dollars?”
“Well, with a little I could put with it from the sale of the hay we could go down south, down to the sea. It would be great, Marthy – blue skies and sunny beaches, with the waves rollin’ in, and the song of the sea comin’ to us out of the white spray. There would be warm breezes and palm trees and roses. Think of it, Marthy, roses in December.”
“I am thinking of it, Sam. It had never come to me that we could use the money that way.”
“Why, it’s what we’ve been workin’ for and waitin’ for these many years. That’s what the money must have been saved for.”
“Well, we’ll see. We don’t want to make ourselves any promises we’ll not be able to keep.”
A path of sunshine lay across the floor as Martha entered her kitchen on Christmas morning. From the shining stove the tea kettle hummed gleefully.
“Merry Christmas, Marthy!” Sam called cheerily. “The weather man is sure out in his best bib and tuck this mornin’, ain’t he?”
“He certainly is.” Martha’s face shone with a quiet joy, and her voice was tender with emotion. “I wish you a merry Christmas, Sam.”
“Thanks, Marthy.” He reached over and kissed her as he went into the living room with coal and kindling for the fire. She followed him, and while he busied himself at the fireplace, she began looking over the Christmas parcels and cards and letters that she had previously arranged on the big table. There was a bright array of gay wrappings and happy messages.
“There’s no card or anything here from Bonny Lou.” Martha’s voice betrayed her anxiety.
“May be in with Diana’s parcel; open it, and we’ll see.” Sam adjusted the fuel in the grate and brushed the dust from his hands. The glowing fire soon lent its cheer to the big room. Hearing someone approach, he opened the door. A telegraph messenger greeted him cheerily.
“Sign right here,” the boy directed. Sam’s fingers trembled as he affixed his signature. To Sam and Martha there was always something ominous about a telegram. But this one was different. A flaming poinsettia and cheery Christmas streamers met their gaze as they scanned the sheet anxiously.
“Lovely boy born Christmas Eve stop Mother and baby doing fine stop –”
“Hooray for Bonny Lou and Bob! Think of it, Marthy, you’re a great-grandmother,” and Sam embraced her and kissed her excitedly. “Hold on a minute, Sam, let me see that telegram.”
“Well, look at it. It says they’re goin’ to call him Sam – Samuel Robert Hallaway mor’n likely. Now ain’t that a high-soundin’ name?” and he waltzed Martha around the room.
“That’s not what I’m thinking of. Look here!” Again they bent over the paper. “It says Hanford Ranch. Sam, they didn’t make it through the pass. They’re at the ranch.”
“Yes, they must be at the ranch. They must have phoned that message in from Riley’s place. But this says everything’s all right.”
“What in the world will they do at that old ranch house?” Martha’s brow was wrinkled with misgiving.
“Now don’t be runnin’ down the ranch house, Marthy. I was born there myself, and it’s still the best lookin’ house in that neck of the woods.”
“But it’s been empty for months. Unless Mrs. Riley has fixed it up, it’s just impossible. There’s no rugs or curtains or bedding or anything – just the bare furniture.”
“Well,” mused Sam, scratching his chin, “a hundred dollars is a hundred dollars in any man’s language. I see your money takin’ wings mighty fast, Marthy. Also, I see a certain sunny beach slowly fadin’ from view, while the song of the sea is growin’ fainter and fainter.”
“Sam, will you stop your mooning around and help me to get things ready? We’re going to Bonny Lou. You know just as well as I do that nothing could drag you away to any warm southern beach while Bonny Lou’s up at the ranch house with that new baby.”
“Very well, what can I do?”
“Bring me a basket from the basement, please, and I’ll pack the lunch while you get the car ready.”
“In a few minutes Sam was back with the basket. He had remembered to bring up some large red apples and bottles of cranberries, sweet pickles, and pears. Then he hurried out to the garage.
Martha was rushing from kitchen to pantry. She adjusted linen napkins between her best china dinner plates as she fitted them into one end of the basket. She kept counting the various articles on her fingers to make sure that nothing was forgotten.
“The old jitney’s in good shape,” Sam announced, as he came back to the kitchen. “If the roads are open, we ought to be able to make it in pretty good time.”
“If we get started right away, we’ll be there in time for dinner with Bob and Bonny Lou, even if she does have to eat in bed propped up with pillows. We’re taking the turkey and pudding and everything,” Martha informed him. “I can just see how their faces will light up when we come tip toeing in.”
“Bonny Lou will likely be in Mother’s bedroom,” Sam was serious, “and maybe the little feller will be in the old wooden cradle that Father made for me.”
“Oh, it is going to be a great trip, Sam across the foothills and up the valley, with that snow shining all over everything like a million diamonds.”
Sam sat down before the fire, but he made no reply.
“You want to go, don’t you, Sam?” There was solicitude in Martha’s voice.
“You haven’t heard me say anything about not goin’ have you?”
“No, but you don’t seem very enthusiastic about it.”
“Who would be? After waitin’ for forty years to go on a honeymoon to the sunny south, who would be enthusiastic about a trip back to the old ranch through snow crotch-deep to a tall Injun? I’m askin’ you, Marthy, do you call that romance?”
“I’ll say I call that romance. I know you don’t mean a word you’re saying, Sam, but just the same I’d like to remind you that the old ranch is the place where we first met and where we were married and spent our honeymoon. Besides, Bonny Lou is there. And if there wasn’t a stick of furniture in the place it would still be romance, if Bonny Lou was there.”
Sam chuckled softly. Martha looked up from the lunch basket, suddenly realizing that she was getting sentimental. An understanding smile passed between them.
“Don’t forget little Sammy,” and his voice was as gentle as the softly humming kettle on the stove, “it ain’t every couple, Marthy, that can have a bran’ new great-grandchild to go to on Christmas mornin’.”