From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1949 –
The Hurrah’s Nest
By Estelle Webb Thomas
“Now don’t get to thinking we’re rich, dear!” Dad warned, but Mother only gave her disarming little laugh and said, mildly, “It’s all a matter of attitude. I can be rich with the same amount of money you can be poor with!”
“Another dangling preposition, Mother!” Linda pointed out. Linda is majoring in English and watches for grammatical errors like Towser watches for rats. It’s not what we say that matters to her, but how we say it.
“I told you, dear, I’m not saying ‘with which,’” Mother stated, firmly, “it’s stilted!”
But Dad was not to be deflected by Linda’s red herring, for that’s what it was. She was trying to change the subject because, to us children, the very foundations of the home seem to rock when Dad and Mother don’t agree. Now, don’t get me wrong – my parents are tops, and lovely to each other. They practically never disagree except when their complexes conflict and, of course, they can’t help that, for though both the poor dears have a complex, unfortunately, neither knows it, or would admit it if he did. Luckily, I understand all about such things since I started taking psychology Under Dr. Ewing and can be a lot more tolerant than I once was. Dad, you see, is not at all to blame for his. He inherited it from his New England ancestors, who, due to the hard country and conditions of those early days, grew to be what Mother delicately calls “close” about money. Dad’s a darling, but honestly, his fear of poverty and dependence in his old age amounts to an obsession and makes things pretty complicated at times, though at heart he’s the soul of generosity.
He asked now, sternly, “Don’t you ever think of trying to leave the children anything?”
“Certainly, I do,” Mother replied, airily, “memories!”
“You’ll find they can’t eat memories, or wear them, either!”
“But happy memories feed the soul,” Mother persisted perversely.
“The way these kids wear out shoes, I have to think more of s-o-l-e-s than of s-o-u-l-s,” Dad growled, “and you’d better do the same!”
“What a low thought, Dad!” Maitland laughed, and got a withering glance in reply. If there’s anything Dad hates worse than extravagance, it’s puns.
Mother’s complex, by the way, is cleanliness. She wages an endless war with dirt, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that we’re all recruits in her army, sometimes unwilling ones, especially Maitland who, being a normal boy of fourteen, is really in the enemy’s camp.
But, to get back to the present argument, which concerned Mother’s pet plan to adopt a European family. Since Dad finally convinced her that at present he was able to support only one family, and if it was to be a European one, they’d have to put us children in an orphan asylum, Mother narrowed down her project to providing our foreign friends with a beautiful Christmas.
It was unfortunate that the time for sending the boxes overseas should also be the date for the Youth Convention, because Linda had set her heart on going and that made two big expenses at the same time. We were all languishing in the poor house at the mercy of heartless strangers before she had Dad talked over. But I noticed he had as much fun as any of us filling the Christmas boxes with good things to eat and wear that we knew would be real luxuries over there.
But after they were posted and Linda gone, Mother seemed to sort of droop. I found her in our room one day when I came from school, half-heartedly straightening the closet.
“Why, Mother,” I protested, “I’ll do our room.”
But she shook her head. “It was Linda left it looking like a Hurrah’s nest. I thought I’d just pick up a bit before you got home.”
A disordered room always looks like a Hurrah’s nest to Mother. Dad says it’s the silliest expression in the language and tries to break her of using it, but Mother declares it describes just what she means and won’t give it up.
I was really worried when she found the zipper of Linda’s formal bag open and a cricket inside. She didn’t even scold, just wrapped the cricket in a paper handkerchief and dropped it in the wastebasket and quietly zipped up the bag.
“What’s the matter?” I burst out finally, “you look like three rainy days!”
“It’s Christmas,” Mother confessed dolefully, sitting down beside me on my bed. “No one to plan for but ourselves. But, of course, after sending all those boxes …”
“You mean nobody’s coming, not even Aunt Mary?”
“Well, dear, it’s nobody’s fault but my own, after all, those boxes were expensive and Linda’s trip – and I promised Daddy …” Mother looked out the window and blinked rapidly several times. “Aunt Mary will understand.”
Mother’s Aunt Mary is her nearest living relative and she not only spends every Christmas with us, but we send her the round trip ticket as well.
“But isn’t Dad asking Cousin Sally and the children?”
“No. That’s why I can’t have Aunt Mary. It means a lot to Daddy to have Sally’s family here.”
After Mother left I sat on doing some mental juggling with my Christmas money. But thought I cut all gifts to the bone, I still couldn’t manage Aunt Mary’s ticket with that. I was forced to remember the cold cream jar full of coins I’d been saving for a new formal for the Christmas dance. Sadly, I kissed the dream goodby. It was to have been a black, slinky affair, and Mother wouldn’t have let me wear it, anyway, and it wouldn’t be Christmas to Mother without Aunt Mary. That would be my gift to her. It was hard to keep it a secret when I saw Mother listlessly cutting the fruitcake recipe in half and deciding against mince pies, since we don’t care specially for them, though Sally’s gang can eat a dozen.
And the bluer she got about Christmas, the fussier Mother got about keeping everything spic and span. She even said it was probably a good thing we were having no one for Christmas, company made such a mess. That was the day she told Dad his den looked like a Hurrah’s nest.
“Now look here, my good woman,” Dad protested, “that mysterious creature has nested in every room in the house, except mine, but I swear it’s never been there! I wouldn’t know a Hurrah if I’d meet it on the street!”
Mother wasn’t amused. “I often wonder what you’d do if I’d die?” she said, in a martyred tone.
“We’d give you the most wonderful send-off a woman ever had!” Dad gazed dreamily out the window.” Flowers banked to the ceiling – sermon by …”
“You don’t have to have so much fun planning it!” Mother snapped, “and I don’t mean the funeral, as you well know. I’d be satisfied with a few less flowers and the assurance you all had all your buttons!”
“That’s the girl!” Dad patted her shoulder, which she says always makes her feel like a horse. “I think you’d better decide to stay with us till we get out of the helpless stage!”
“Which will be forever,” Mother muttered, but she looked mollified.
This was an old story to us children, but we were always relieved when Dad had Mother kidded out of that particular mood. We noticed that if he joined enthusiastically in her talk about dying, the idea seemed to lose some of its charm.
But Mother was not the only one lacking the Christmas spirit. Dad wasn’t his usual jovial self and even Maitland said suddenly one day while we were washing dishes, “Gee, everything seems tough! Got any money, Missy?’
Missy – that’s me. Isn’t it revolting? Maitland got rid of “Matey”by threatening to run away from home unless we called him his real name, but my real name is Artemesia. We inherited it, along with the Hurrah’s nest, from Great-grandmother Wrenn, so you see why I stick to Missy.
Maitland had been wanting to do something about Aunt Mary or Sally, it seemed, but he has too many friends to ever have any money of his own. He looked relieved when I told him not to worry. Maitland has a lot of confidence in my sixteen years – the poor innocent!
Linda, too, was more aloof and difficult than usual these days, though as a freshman in college, she always likes to pull her rank on us high school kids. We tried to talk over the Christmas situation with her, but she seemed uninterested and even did her shopping alone.
There certainly was a different atmosphere at our house than ever before. No orgies of cooking, no family conclaves as to where we’d put the guests, no gay preparations at all; but, in a way, I was happy because for the first time in my life, I was thinking of Christmas in terms of someone else rather than myself. All that seemed to matter was that Mother be happy. I decided that I must be an adult at last.
I sent Aunt Mary a money order and told her I was writing as Mother was busy and not to bother to answer, and hoped she would take me literally. I was wishing, as I walked home, that I could do as much for Father. He loves having his widowed niece and her children for the holidays, we all do, but as he often tells me, I’m not rich.
I was so absorbed in my thoughts I almost stumbled over old Mr. Jacobson. It was dusk and I didn’t see the gnome-like little figure clomping out of the alley.
He wears a built-up heel which gives him a peculiar, jerky walk and, for a moment, I was frightened, just as I used to be when Mother sent us to his house with a Christmas basket or a loaf of fresh bread. He always snatched the gift and banged the door in our faces. All the children in town were afraid of him, and tonight, I suddenly realized why. He had hated them because he was afraid of them, of their thoughtless cruelty, for he must have known they called him Rumplestiltskin and ridiculed his queer, misshapen figure, funny face, and heavy accent. He looked so little and old and lonely, I must have spoken more warmly than I knew, because he fairly beamed at me and kept repeating, what I very much doubted, “Dis vill be a happy Christmas! A happy, happy Christmas!”
“There’s a new family in town,” Linda said that night at dinner. Linda is also taking sociology and spends several nights a week at the Welfare Center. When she isn’t chasing down grammatical errors, she’s looking up civic ones.
“Sort of a pitiful case. The mother’s in the hospital and the father has his hands full with five little children under ten. They haven’t been able to find a house – are living in Brown’s garage and it’s dreadfully cold. The ten-year-old girl’s taking care of the others while the father hunts work.”
“A very merry bedtime story,” Maitland observed. “Don’t you see you’ve spoiled Mother’s dinner?”
To everyone’s horror, including her own, Linda shouted, “Maybe Mother’s old enough to know the world’s full of such happy situations and they’re not all in Europe!” Then she burst into tears and dashed blindly from the room.
You can imagine the tension there was when I didn’t even ask Dad about the tree. Ever since Linda was big enough to sit in the car seat beside him, Dad has made a ceremony of taking us children to the forest for the Christmas tree. It was the biggest thrill of all, I think. Last year Linda had a date and only Maitland and I went with Dad, but it was still fun. Well, it’s a sign of retarded mentality to hang onto childish practices, so I tried not to care when Dad didn’t mention the tree this year. We really didn’t need it for our grown-up gifts.
The day before Christmas was cold and blowy and snowy, ideal weather if one had the Christmas spirit, but pretty depressing under the circumstances. Well, it couldn’t help but cheer us up a little when Aunt Mary arrived. I wondered how I could sneak out the car to meet her, and if she’d ride with me when I did. Aunt Mary thinks no one under thirty should drive a car, and a woman never! It would never occur to her to take a taxi, however, so I had to try. But when I slipped out to the garage, there was Dad, just driving out.
He looked startled and muttered that he had an errand downtown.
“May I go, Dad? I have one, too.”
I could see I wasn’t welcome, but climbed in anyway. This was chummy to what it would be when he found what my errand was. Strangely enough,he drove straight to the bus station and seemed not at all astonished when Aunt Mary, tiny and frail, waved gaily from the platform. Dad picked her up in a big bear hug as he always does, and carried her across the snow to the car. Aunt Mary kissed me warmly, but I thought she gave me an odd glance as we drove off.
There was no chance for explanations between Dad and me, and I was a little disappointed that, though Mother was delighted to see Aunt Mary, she didn’t look surprised enough. Of course she couldn’t let Aunt Mary sees he was not expected. It began to seem a little more festive, with the two of them chattering in the kitchen while Mother prepared the Christmas Eve supper.
“Tell me all about everybody!” I heard her say.
Aunt Mary retorted, “Oh, I’ve got a lot of news, but first you tell me why I got three tickets? You couldn’t have been that anxious to see me!”
Mother didn’t have to answer, for at that moment, Dad, who had slipped away again, threw open the front door, and with a lot of laughter and shouting and feet stamping, Sally and her four rowdy youngsters rushed in. If Mother was surprised, they didn’t know it, for her welcome was as heart-warming as ever. I took the dishes off again, and put another leaf in the dining table, and Mother beat up another batch of biscuits and did some juggling with cans and jars.
Meanwhile Dad winked at Maitland and they went out and returned, presently, with the biggest and prettiest tree we had ever had. Sometime after Dad had sent for Sally, he and Maitland had got that tree. I felt a small pang that I had been left out, then remembered about being retarded, and put it out of my mind.
Now it even smelled like Christmas! “We’ll all turn in and trim it after supper,” Dad said, jovially.
We were finally sitting down to the table when we heard a timid knock. Maitland, looking elaborately unconcerned, made no move to answer the door. I went, instead, and simply couldn’t believe it when old Mr. Jacobson hobbled in, bowing and smiling and clutching an odd-shaped package in his arms. He had never before been known to enter any Centerville home but his own.
“Why, it’s Rum– Mr. Jacobson!” I gasped and he said, beaming, “Goot efening, my dear! I trust I am not late. I wass preparing a Christmas goose in the Scandinavian manner and it delayed me!”
Maitland, who was staring out the window, trying to look as if he weren’t the one who had invited Rumplestiltskin, now said loudly, “There’s a Model T just bursting with kids.” The next moment he said, still more loudly, “Why, it’s stopping here!”
Linda stood up suddenly and her face was white as a sheet. “I’ll have to explain before they come in,” she said rapidly, wadding her napkin into a ball. “I invited the Watsons to spend Christmas with us. It was so dreary –” She looked at Dad and then Mother defiantly.”I thought they might as well come tonight. Christmas means so much to children – or should– they didn’t have a thing – not even a tree!” She glanced distractedly around the table. “I thought – I didn’t know–”
I held my breath. She just mustn’t tell all these people they weren’t expected. But Dad was opening the door to the Watsons as if they were visiting royalty, and Mother was making room at the table for six more.
“Missy and Matey were just finishing!” she said, brightly, whisking away our loaded plates.
“We were?” Maitland’s tone was belligerent, but he repeated, lamely, “Yes, we were,” at Mother’s significant flick of the eyes toward Rumplestiltskin beaming happily from her place.
Well, it turned out the gayest Christmas Eve of all. Maitland and I did the mountains of dishes, with Sally and the oldest Watson girl helping dry and then we all trimmed the tree. After that, we sang all the carols in the book, but when the children began to nod, there was a bad moment or two. Mr. Watson said, half-heartedly, he’d take his bunch home, but Linda, who had spent her entire Christmas fund on them (she said she knew we’d understand) was determined they would wake up to the loaded tree, and said confidently that Mother would think of something.
It was really Rumplestiltskin who came up with the idea of putting the children in the beds and the rest of us making a night of it. So, that’s what happened. All the children, and finally Aunt Mary, were put to bed and, can you imagine it, the rest of us sat before the fire, popping corn and roasting apples and nuts, singing and talking all night long. It was Maitland’s and my first experience of the kind, and we really felt flashy.
There was never a dull moment. Mr. Watson proved to be a harmonica virtuoso and just happened to have one in his pocket. I never knew before that Sally was a mimic and could take off all the prominent radio performers, north at Mother and Dad had sung duets when they were young until Aunt Mary insisted they do it again. Good, too. Linda and I played the two-handed pieces we thought we had outgrown, and Maitland recited, “Woodman, Spare that Tree!” We even rolled back the rugs and danced on Mother’s highly polished floor. But the star performer was Rumplestiltskin. He told the most fascinating stories of Christmases in Denmark and his early life there and his travels and experiences since. Having an appreciative audience went to the lonely old fellow’s head and his stories got better and better.
We were all surprised when the gray winter dawn broke up the party and the children trooped in to see the tree and get their gifts. In the ensuing hubbub, no one noticed that none of us received anything from the rest of the family, we had all given our gifts to the guests. Poor Maitland had spent his all on a red woolen muffler for Mr. Jacobson, but no gift ever brought greater joy.
Then the children must be washed and fed and got off to church, and the big Christmas dinner must be prepared. All the grownups took a hand at this, but it was Rumplestiltskin who did the most, and with wonderful results, for it seemed that once in his checkered career, he had been a chef.
It was early dusk of Christmas night when we told him, the last guest, goodbye. Aunt Mary, who was not leaving, had gone to bed, worn out with excitement.
After Rumplestiltskin had bowed himself out, still thanking us all, Dad put his arm around Mother. “Well, you had your Christmas, after all! Satisfied?”
Mother sighed, happily, “Oh, it was wonderful! But I’m afraid it was pretty expensive,” she added in a small voice.
“Undoubtedly!” Dad grinned, “and what’s more, the whole place looks like a Hurrah’s nest!”
“Who cares?” said Mother.