From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1954 –
Seek for the Gift
By Beatrice R. Parsons
The kitchen bustled with activity and excitement. It was a few days before Christmas. The children’s eyes held dreams. Only Rod’s heart was bruised and sore.
How, he thought bitterly, can a man give his children a decent Christmas with their mother gone? His heart ached with loss and pain. Martha had been dead only a month. Silently he called her name, Martha, Martha! Why, oh, why?
He had no answer for that question. Truths Rod had known since childhood, through adolescence, through his marriage to Martha, had completely disappeared from his consciousness. He had forgotten everything but his loss. Inside he was old, shriveled, without hope. Martha was dead, buried within the white blanket of snow which had swept across the cemetery during the night.
Rod’s face was twisted as he watched the children eating breakfast. Fran, his seven-year-old daughter, was eating oatmeal without enthusiasm. It was lumpy because Rod had cooked it. Carefully, she pushed the lumps aside. Rod had made the cocoa, too. He knew by the way five-year-old Timmy was shoveling sugar into the mixture that it was tasteless. Martha had been such a good cook. Baby Trudie, just past one year old, was drinking her milk. Rod watched a rivulet run down her torn bib. Julie, his eldest daughter, ten-going-on-eleven, took a paper napkin to wipe Trudie’s hands.
When Martha was alive, there had been pretty white napkins with gay sprigs of embroidery in the corners. Rod’s eyes burned as they watched Julie. “She’s old enough to miss her mother,” he told himself painfully. He wished that he had let Mrs. Jensen, his next-door neighbor, stay all night as she had wanted to. But he couldn’t impose on Mrs. Jensen. Her husband had a cold, and she had her own worries. Of course, there were others who had been helping, cousins, neighbors, and the children’s grandparents; but Rod knew his problem was his own to solve. He thought with sudden despair: How can a man give his children a good Christmas when he’s alone?
He was alone in that bright, gay kitchen. The children had retreated into their own little magic world of Christmas. Their eyes were shining like lighted candles, and talk flowed round the breakfast table in a river of excitement.
“I told Santa to bring me a six-gun!” It was Timmy’s voice, high, eager.
“I want a doll,” said Fran haughtily. “One that drinks, and wets, and everything.”
“I wanna doll,” cried Baby Trudie, banging her silver mug against the aluminum tray in her high chair. She began to cry, and Julie hurried to comfort her.
Rod noticed, painfully, that Julie did not tell her wants. Her small, pensive face was pale and pinched. Rod knew what Julie wanted most.
Pain flooded over him. Why, oh, why, had Julie’s mother died? He could not stop asking it. There was no answer. But he needed one. Desperately.
Rod was frightened – agonizingly frightened. He wasn’t a homemaker. He’d left that to Martha. Now he was alone. Alone during the uninterrupted hours of the long, empty nights when he longed for the touch of Martha’s hand on his, the fragrance of her brown hair on the pillow beside him.
Rod was confused. Relatives had offered to take the children to live with them. He had tried to think what would be best. The children needed something he could no longer give them. They needed the security of an untroubled home.
The bleak bankruptcy of hopelessness made Rod put down his newspaper and speak slowly. “Children, I’ve something to tell you.”
Yes, his mind was made up. He could not face Christmas without Martha. Not even the dinners and trees that had been offered so generously by so many people. He could not stay in the place which meant Martha in a million burning, hurting ways. He could not hurt the children by asking them to stay. His mind was made up. It was better this way.
His voice was loud, and more stern than he realized. “I think it would be better for you children to live with someone else.”
He was shocked to see their faces. Julie’s was pale and still. Baby Trudie didn’t understand. She laughed and banged her cup against her tray. The noise cut into Rod’s nerves, and his voice was rough.
“Julie, you’re going to live with Grandma Henderson. She wants you because you’re so like … like your mother.” He had trouble with the word then added quickly: “She can’t take the other children. She’s not very well.” In the face of their silence, he tried to make them understand. This is the best way. Timmie will live with Aunt Ellen. Fran with Aunt Margie. Grace wants the baby. You’ll have a wonderful Christmas…”
“But how will Santa know where we are?”
It was Timmy’s voice, shaken, desperate. He tried to hide tears by rubbing his eyes with the back of a grubby hand. Rod saw that Timmy’s suspender buttons had come off. One side of his overalls hung limply at his waist. Rod felt a lump in his throat. He forced his voice to be calm.
“I’ll see Santa this very afternoon. I’ll tell him your new addresses. I’ll see that he brings you everything you want.”
Every gift, he knew helplessly, except the one gift he could not give them. To be together as a family at Christmas. Their eyes were still turned towards him. Their small faces had not changed. They were waiting.
“It’s not that I don’t want you to stay with me.” If only he could tell them how baffled he was, how ill with his own shortcomings. His voice almost failed as he continued: “I can’t look after you the way your aunts and your grandmother can. They love you. They want you. It isn’t that I don’t love you, either.”
They didn’t believe him. They sat there like stones. Even the baby’s cup was quiet. He couldn’t make them understand.
So that they could not see the tears on his lashes, he got up and began to wash the dishes. He clattered them loudly so as not to hear the small, stricken whispers which sped around the table.
He tried to bury doubt, fear, and discouragement deep in detergent suds. After a while he became conscious that the children had left the table and were playing their usual games.
Julie was sweeping the crumbs. The broom was too tall for her. But Julie was like her mother – a housekeeper, a homemaker. Rod’s hand touched her sunny brown hair, and for an instant it was like touching Martha’s.
Yet Julie seemed to shut him away as she went to put the broom in the closet. Rod’s thoughts bred bitterness. He was thankful the children were young. That they could not be hurt as he had been. They had loved their mother. But they would forget her.
And each other! thought Rod despairingly. He didn’t want that to happen. Yet there was nothing he could do. He could never take Martha’s place. And each child would have love and kindness showered by eager relatives. After a while they would stop missing their mother and their father.
But Rod would never stop missing Martha. Martha with her bright, happy smile, her eager plans for their future. Even when they’d bought the small white cottage on Walnut Street, Martha had been hoping for a December baby, but not even Martha had dreamed that Timmy would be born on Christmas Eve!
Rod could still recall the fear that had swept into his heart when the doctor said there was no time to get Martha to the hospital. Martha had reassured him.
“Just hang on to my hand, darling. Everything will be all right!”
He had held her hand and he could still remember the wave of awe and gratitude which had flowed out into his heart at his son’s first, frail cry.
That was a beautiful Christmas. Martha had insisted on having the tree set up in a corner of the living room where she could see it from her bed. She had even asked him to hang the silver star at the end of one of the branches so that it could shine into her room.
The future had been so bright. It had seemed brighter than ever when baby Trudie had come. But Martha had not been well after Trudie was born. There had been pain for her, anxiety for Rod. Martha had guessed his worry and had reassured him.
“I’m feeling better, darling. Even well enough to go to meeting on Sunday. Bishop Fence is going to speak. He has so much faith, so many truths in his heart. He knows, Rod. He never doubts.
Rod had also known the things of which the bishop spoke as he had sat next to Martha, touching her hand. There had been no doubt in his heart as they walked home together through the coolness of a crisp November evening. But in the morning, when he woke to find Martha lying pale and white, a soft, gentle smile against her colorless lips, all the things they had heard cried out in mockery. Martha was gone. Rod was alone.
Now, as he wiped his hands, he saw Mrs. Jensen crossing the lot. Her blue stole made a cheery blot of color against the white snow. As she opened the door, stamping powdered snow from her galoshes, she chided Rod gently. “Mercy, Mr. Edgerton, you didn’t have to wash the dishes. Next time pile them up. That way you’ll have more time for the children, and I’ll wash the dishes while the children are playing.’
Rod glanced at the children. They had closed the door to their small, magic world, and he was grateful that they, at least, had power to forget.
But he saw, as he kissed them goodbye before getting out the car to go to the office, that they were still afraid of the coming separation. Julie’s small, red mouth trembled when she kissed him, and Baby Trudie clung to his legs begging to be lifted up before he went. Walking out into the winter cold the bleakness of its snow and ice froze the unshed tears behind his lashes.
The morning was cold and bright; but there was a promise of more snowflakes in clouds that hung pinned to the mountain tops. Downtown there were gay red lanterns on lamp posts, and great, sparkling stars suspended in the middle of the streets. At the northernmost star, the great snow-tipped spires of the temple and the golden figure capped with a crown of snowflakes, made the pain in Rod’s heart grow keener than ever.
It was more than twelve years since he and Martha had stood within those temple walls to be married. Their hearts and their hopes had been as high as the sky. Now Rod felt they were dead, buried under the earth below that sky which had promised eternal happiness.
As Rod entered the big office where he worked, one of the new stenographers was placing sprigs of holly on the desks. She put one on his and spoke eagerly, “My mother sent me a box from the holly tree in our back yard.” Her eyes misted a little as she explained: ‘I used to live in Portland, Oregon. I’m staying here in Salt Lake while my husband, Ben, is in Germany. …”
Her chattering broke off in the middle of a word. She seemed suddenly aware of the grayness in Rod’s face. She snatched up the holly and apologized swiftly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Edgerton; I had forgotten…”
Rod reassured her stiffly. “It was nice of you, Mrs. Brown. Christmas can’t stop just because …” He left it there as he turned to the insurance books on his desk.
Just before noon he made a list of the things he meant to buy – a six-gun for Timmy, a fire engine, and some little cars and trucks for Aunt Ellen to tuck into the toe of his stocking. He’d buy a doll for Fran, and some bottles and nipples. And plenty of didies! There was a fireplace at Aunt Margie’s where Fran could put up her stocking. Trudie should have a new doll. Maybe a doll buggy, now that she was beginning to walk so well. He’d buy some new bibs. Some training pants. Baby Trudie would have a fine home with Cousin Grace.
He chewed his pencil and thought about Julie. He didn’t know just what to put down. Julie would want something more grownup than a doll. He’d find something when he went through the stores. Julie would have a good Christmas with Martha’s parents. They were old, but they loved Julie very much.
When Rod went down in the elevator, Mrs. Brown was there. Her voice held a veneer of gaiety. “I’m going to buy the smallest turkey I can find and cook it all for myself.” She was close to tears, but she shook them away, saying: “I’d hate Ben to see what a baby I am. When he comes home we’ll have a good laugh!”
After they’d entered the street and Mrs. Brown had turned off into the supermarket, her words tortured Rod’s mind. If only Martha could return home! But Martha would never return.
The knowledge was an edged knife in Rod’s heart. He tried not to see the brightly decorated windows, the strings of gay-colored lights on the Christmas trees, and the red-coated Santas, with their silver bells. He did not look before him. The future was flat and empty. It was like walking backwards, seeing where you’d been, not where you were going.
Inside the big department store a current of eager shopper swept him toward the elevators. But they crowded in, and he had to stop at the door. The elevator girl gave him a smile. Her brown hair was a little rumpled, but her cheerfulness was a bright, gleaming badge. “They push and shove, but they don’t mean to be rude. It’s just that they’re so happy.”
“Happy!” The word jarred at Rod’s mind. He was surprised to see that the girl looked a little like Julie, or like Julie would look when she was eighteen or nineteen.
When the elevator came down again, the girl gave him a little nod. He got in and was crowded to the back by the wide shoulders of a tall, young lad. The boy gave him a companionable grin.
“Kinda scares you, doesn’t it?”
Rod had to admit that it did. As they stepped into the lane of toys bordered by a steady march of blue and gold Christmas trees, the lad again spoke. “I gotta find something extras well for Mom!” His hands swept up to ruffle his shock of red hair, and he turned back to the elevator, realizing that he was on the wrong floor. As the car door closed, something caught Rod’s attention. Why, in spite of freckles and red hair, that lad looked a little like Timmy, or like Timmy would look at fifteen.
“May I be of service?” A kind voice broke into his thoughts. A clerk stood at his elbow. There was a hint of silver in her hair, and she was middle-aged. “Something for your children?”
Rod nodded and followed her to the games. She picked up a nurse’s case. Her eyes shone behind her polished glasses. “I bought one of these for my granddaughter. She’s always playing nurse, though she’s just a baby.”
Trudie liked to play nurse. Rod said he’d take it, and was surprised to be thinking of Trudie as a fine grownup young nurse with a stiffly starched cap over her soft, blond curls.
He spoke awkwardly: “Perhaps you could suggest something for my eldest daughter. She’s almost eleven.”
The clerk showed him a set of Blue Willow dishes. “My daughters used to have play parties when they were eleven and ten. This set has everything from soup plates to a serving tray. If your daughter is a little homemaker, she’ll love it.”
Rod had a mental picture of Julie sweeping crumbs. His voice was tender.” Julie is like her mother.” His voice died on the quick pain in his throat. But the clerk was writing her sales slip and didn’t seem to notice. When she had finished she looked up.
“Where are these things to be delivered?”
Rod’s hands shook a little as he separated his purchases into four piles. He began with the play party dishes. “This is to go to…” He could not give his mother-in-law’s address, and said quickly: “Have them wrapped and I’ll call by and pick them up on the way home from the office.”
As he went towards the elevators he chided himself: Now why did I tell her that? It will only make for confusion. He’d have a lot of running around to deliver the packages.
He was still puzzling about it as he stepped from the car on the main floor. The elevator girl made little clicking sounds with her starter and gave him a friendly grin. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
He nodded. When he gained the street he found that it had started to snow. The flakes were icy against his face. As he passed the market Mrs. Brown came out. She was clutching a knobby bundle, and he took it from her arm.
She spoke breathlessly, “I bought a bigger turkey than I expected. I met some friends in the store. They are sort of alone the way I am with their husbands overseas. I’m going to cook dinner. I won’t be alone, after all.”
Rod heard the words with a dull, gnawing ache in his heart. As they passed a window, Mrs. Brown urged him to stop and watch the mechanical toys that rode musical merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels under a gay, tinsel-trimmed Christmas tree. Rod saw that one of the silver stars had come lose and was hanging perilously close to the end of a branch. Unconsciously he put out his hands as though to straighten it, and Mrs. Brown laughed as they turned away.
“Don’t worry about that silver star, Mr. Edgerton. Even if it falls its brightness won’t diminish. Even lying on the floor of the window it will go on shining as brightly and proudly as before.”
She hurried away, after retrieving her bundle, to finish her shopping. Rod tramped slowly along the slushy streets and kept thinking of that silver star. Why, it was very like the one which Martha had asked him to hang on the end of a branch when Timmy was born. He smiled, and as he smiled Martha seemed very, very close.
That afternoon as he sat at his desk, working over his insurance books, he seemed to hear the elevator girl’s voice asking: “Did you find what you were looking for?”
He heard the other employees leaving for the day, and even as he put his books away, the voice said over and over: “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Suddenly, as he got his car from the parking lot and turned in a storeward direction, he recalled the events of the day – the girl with the brown hair like Julie’s, the clerk who had sold him the nurse’s cap for Trudie’s soft, blond curls, the boy with the red hair and freckles, who looked like Timmy would look when he grew up, and the silver star!
All at once wonderment filled him. Had he found what he was looking for? Had he found the answer to the dream he and Martha had shared? Had he found Martha in remembering a silver star?
The truth as he had known it from the first was beginning to brighten in his mind. The ice that had ringed his heart was melting in the knowledge that was springing up in his soul. Martha had painted their future, and he had caught a glimpse of that future in a bustling department store, in a window filled with mechanical toys, and a silver star.
He saw it more plainly, more clearly than ever as his eyes turned to the spires of the temple, gilded now in a weak burst of setting sun. How brightly they gleamed in spite of their snow-tipped pinnacles. How clearly things stood in Rod’s mind as he remembered the vows he had exchanged with Martha.
He knew now that she would never entirely go from his life. He had a part of her – a living part of her – in their children. He had the future that she had planned, and eternity together.
Nothing could ever destroy that future again. It would be very hard to keep it, but Rod meant to try. He didn’t know how he was going to manage. But he would not send the children away. He would keep them close to his side with the help of friends, neighbors, and kind and loving relatives.
He could imagine the joy which would flood their small faces when he told them. He could almost see the happiness that would light Julie’s eyes.
A little while ago he had felt lonely, bereft. Now he had found his Christmas miracle. His eyes were wet, not with burning, cruel sadness, but with gleaming, shining hope.
He felt strangely reborn in truth and knowledge, like a small child who has been given a great, and unexpected gift!