From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1950 –
A Star Is Shining
By Sylvia Probst Young
Snowflakes, like small curled feathers falling against the bus window, held Jessie’s eyes and brought a little smile to her lips. There would be snow for Christmas. Already it lay upon the roofs like foamy cake frosting, and every tree stood “ridged inch deep in pearl.” She had hoped that it would snow, snow would make it seem a little more like Christmas tomorrow, although nothing would really make it seem like Christmas without Mom. For Mom had made Christmas, and every memory of her was as bright and sparkling as the lights on the Christmas tree.
A sudden mist blurred Jessie’s eyes – remembering. They had always had such fun planning for Christmas. Ever since she was a very little girl she had helped with the gift wrapping, and the Christmas cards. Together, she and Mom had made fondant and a very special kind of Christmas cookies with nuts and dates and lemon peel. Together, they had trimmed the tree, with Dad there to hang ornaments on the topmost branches. But the most important thing about Christmas had been planning a present for Dad.
This year everything was different, for Mom was not here – Mom had died. It was so final and poignant, that knowledge, and always it was with her, stinging at her heart. Christmas without Mom would never be the same. Last night she and Dad had trimmed their tree, and Dad had been unusually gay, but she knew he was just pretending. Last year they had popped corn by the fireside, and Dad had read the Christmas story from the Bible. She and Mom had played a duet – “Star of the East.” She could remember it all so clearly, even the dress Mom was wearing – a new, blue wool, the color of her eyes. Always, through all the days and years, there would be only memories – memories that made her ache with longing.
Everything had changed so much since that October morning when she had awakened to see Dad sitting by her bed not looking like himself at all. She had been afraid then, more afraid than she had ever been before, because he was so gray-looking and old. He had held her very close and had tried to say something, but he couldn’t talk, and she had known without being told. The next few days had been like a horrible dream. Everyone had been so kind and had tried so hard to help, but it was as if her heart were frozen inside of her and wouldn’t ever thaw out. After the funeral was over, and they were all alone – just she and Dad, loneliness settled in with them like a permanent tenant, familiar everywhere – in the livingroom, the bedrooms, the kitchen, the yard. It had been almost more than she could endure, and one day Dad had found her in Mom’s clothes closet with her arms around a blue gingham house dress, crying softly to herself. But when she saw how choked up he became she forgot about herself, thinking of him. Thirteen or thirty-six, it was a mutual feeling. And there, with his arms around her, she had resolved to be brave and to never let him see her cry again. She had succeeded, too. But time crept along on old, tired feet. It seemed like two years, instead of two months, since Mom had gone.
A tear slid down her cheek, and she brushed it away. Another block and she would get off in front of Samuelson’s. She was going there to buy a present for Dad – a white shirt from Mom and her. They had planned it during those long weeks in the spring when Mom had to lie in bed with rheumatic fever. There had been so many hours to talk things over and plan for birthdays and Christmas.
“I know something we must buy for Dad’s Christmas,” Mom had said one day, “a white shirt. When he was getting ready for church last Sunday I noticed how shabby his shirt is, and it is the only white one he has. I’ve already turned the collar and now the cuffs are beginning to fray.”
“And every man wears a white shirt to church,” Jessie volunteered.
A sudden shadow had crossed Mom’s eyes. “My doctor bills have been such a drain, Jessie. Your Daddy has gone without so many things he really needs. I’ve been thinking how nice it would be if we could really make his Christmas special this year. By June I’ll be all well and strong. Then maybe I could work again. Wouldn’t it be nice to have our own money and to be able to buy him ties and several shirts and a robe?”
“I think it would be the nicest thing,” Jessie had agreed eagerly. “And maybe I could help, too, if someone needs a babysitter.”
But it was not until September that the first money went into their Christmas fund. For although Mom had been up since June, and seemed to be as well and full of life as before, Dad simply would not hear of her going to work; and all summer long it seemed that no one needed Jessie to mind children. Then one day in September, scarcely two weeks before that never-to-be-forgotten day when Mom was rushed to the hospital, Jessie came home from school to find her busy making an angel food cake, and she was beaming.
“Jessie, just think, honey, Mrs. Price asked me to make a cake for party she’s having tonight. That will be a dollar toward our Christmas fund, and, who knows, by Christmas maybe I’ll have a chance to bake a dozen cakes.”
That had been a memorable afternoon. Jessie had helped whip egg whites and sift sugar and flour, and all the while she and Mom had talked about the fun they would have surprising Dad. That night they had taken the precious dollar and put it in a little blue china vase on the highest cupboard shelf.
It was the last time Jessie had thought anything about the money until one day just after Thanksgiving. Then she took the vase down, and emptied its contents into her hand – one round, silver dollar. Tears ran down her cheeks as she remembered the cake-baking day. There would be enough money to buy the things they had planned, but maybe there would be enough for the white shirt if she could earn a dollar before Christmas. Maybe Mrs. Roberts would want to do some Christmas shopping and would need a baby sitter now since Gary was born. Jessie decided to stop by and ask her.
And Mrs. Roberts had been so sweet, especially when Jessie told her about the white shirt. “Why, yes, Jessie, I’ll be very glad if you’ll stay with him, maybe next Friday after school.”
She had stayed on Friday afternoon and then last Saturday morning. Now she had the money – two dollars here in her purse, and it would buy a white shirt. Samuelson’s had advertised them for a dollar and ninety-five cents. Dad would have a new white shirt even if she couldn’t get any of the other things she and Mom had talked about. He wouldn’t have to look shabby in church anymore. Jessie smiled a little, could it be possible that Mom might know? She had thought when she looked at Mom’s picture this morning, that her smile seemed unusually bright. It was almost as if she were going to say. “Good girl, Jessie.”
The snow had stopped falling when she got off the bus, and the magic of the storm seemed to have transformed the town into a fairy-land, adding glamour to each festive street. Over the silvery, frosted air, the voices of a choral group rang out: “O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.”
Jessie walked slowly, drinking in the beauty of the song. The streets were crowded. People, their arms filled with packages, were hurrying in every direction. Everyone but a small boy in an old, brown top coat. He was standing by Samuelson’s window, his face pressed against the pane, his eyes glued to the silver Christmas tree with its trimmings of glistening red balls. No one seemed to notice him especially, for any child will stop to look at a Christmas tree. But something about the way he was standing, the look in his eyes, told Jessie that he was unhappy. And because all her life she had been taught to be kind, it was instinctive to stop beside him.
“It’s a beautiful tree isn’t it?” she said. And when he turned to look at her she could see the trace of tears in his eyes.
“Is something wrong?” she asked sympathetically.
Although he couldn’t have been more than eight years old, there was a certain manliness about him.
“No,” he answered, squaring his shoulders, “I was just wishin’.”
“Wishin’ that I had a Christmas tree.”
“But everybody has a Christmas tree.”
“I haven’t.” In spite of him the tears were near spilling. “Gram says Santa Claus can’t bring trees, he’s got too much else to bring.”
“Do you live with your grandma?” Jessie asked.
“I do now – Mom died.”
“Oh.” There was sympathy and understanding in her voice. She knew how he felt; they had experienced the same heart-crushing loss – knew the same loneliness.
“I’m Jessie” she said kindly. “What’s your name?”
“But, Terry, you’ve got to have a tree. Couldn’t your Grandma buy one?”
He shook his head. “She hasn’t enough money.”
Jessie didn’t answer then. She was suddenly very conscious of the two dollars in her purse. Two dollars would buy a Christmas tree. But she couldn’t buy a tree with that money. No, of course she couldn’t. That money was to buy a shirt for Dad, a shirt from Mom as well as herself. They had always given Dad a Christmas present; it wouldn’t be Christmas without doing that. And Dad needed the shirt, Mom had said so, too, and she had left a dollar to help buy it.
But what about a boy without a Christmas tree? And there was something so pleading in Terry’s face looking up at her. What could she do? A strange sort of conflict was going on within her. The money in her purse – it belonged to Mom, too. Mom – what would Mom do? Mom would buy a tree for Terry, of course. The answer came instantly, as if someone had spoken it. A strange sort of warmth filled Jessie then. The conflict was gone; she knew the answer.
“Terry, I’ll buy you a Christmas tree,”she promised.
His face lighted instantly. “You will? Have you got the money, Jessie?’
“Yes, Terry, right here in my purse. Where do you live?”
“Just a block up and one over. Gee, wonder what Gram will say when I bring home a tree?” He was jubilant.
In the next block they found a man selling trees, and he seemed to be anxious to get rid of them.
“Do you have any for two dollars?” Jessie asked a bit timidly.
The man eyed them kindly. “Wait,” he said.
He was gone only a few minutes, and when he returned he was carrying a little tree. It was a bit straggly, but not too bad.
“This was two dollars. You can have it for one. Won’t be bad when it’s trimmed up.”
Jessie handed him the money. There was still a dollar left. Maybe she could still buy something for Dad. Terry picked up the tree. His face was radiant.
“Will you come and help me trim it?” he asked.
“Well, I guess I can if I don’t stay too long. Have you got any trimmings, Terry?”
The light went out of his face. “Gee, I never thought of that, but maybe Gram’s got something.”
Jessie knew that it wasn’t likely his Gram would have anything, at least not any glistening ornaments or silver icicles. There was still a dollar in her purse, and maybe a dollar wouldn’t buy a very good tie, but a tree without trimmings was as good as no tree at all.
A little while later Jessie followed her new friend through the door of a small, shabby-looking house at the end of a narrow street. Terry was proudly carrying the tree and under her arm Jessie held a box of blue ornaments and another of silver icicles. The room they entered was quite bare, but very clean, and warm from the fire glowing in the little heating stove.
“Gram,” Terry called, “come and see what I’ve got.”
From the adjoining room came a thin, frail-looking woman, with soft, gray hair and a face that expressed gentle kindness. She looked from Terry to Jessie in complete surprise.
“Gram, just look,” cried the boy, “a Christmas tree and trimmings! This is Jessie, Gram. She got them for me.”
“Jessie,” she smiled warmly.” What a nice surprise. So you buy a tree for my boy. Come by the stove and take off your coat. Now tell me how you know Terry needed a tree.”
Briefly Jessie related her meeting with the little boy, while Terry busied himself with the tree. The Grandma listened, and her eyes grew sad.
“So bad I wanted a tree for Terry. But this month I needed coal and warm underwear for him. So little money I have, none is left for a tree. So now you give your money for his tree, but the money you have saved for something else,” she concluded. “A good girl you are. Your Mama is a kind woman, she teaches you how to do.”
Jessie felt a lump rising in her throat, and then she was telling the Grandma all about Mom. And the Grandma was so kind and so motherly. With an arm around Jessie, she spoke words of comfort and understanding that drove the choked-up feeling away, and Jessie went to help Terry with the tree. It was fun seeing his eyes sparkle as the blue ornaments and the silver icicles transformed the bare little tree into a thing of beauty. For it was beautiful, Jessie decided, standing off to admire it. Somehow it had transformed the little room like a magic wand would have done. The Grandma, too, was all praise for it.
“And now I have something,” she said,”come.”
On the table were cups of hot chocolate she had made while they were trimming the tree. From a drawer she brought a great loaf of braided bread with a glistening top, and laughed at Jessie’s wonder. “This bread we make in the Old Country for Christmas, so here I make it, too. Now you see how good it is.”
It was, too, and the chocolate was delicious. Sitting there with the Grandma and Terry, Jessie decided it was the nicest afternoon she had known since Mom died.
Long shadows were falling when she left for home. In her hand was a paper sack with a generous slice of the Christmas bread in it. “For your good Papa,” the Grandma had said. Jessie had smiled. She would see them again, for the Grandma had carefully written her name and address in a little black notebook. “God bless you and your Papa,” she told Jessie. “Because of you, Terry will have a merry Christmas.”
It was almost dark when she got home. Quietly she went into the house and turned on the light. The face in the picture on the end table smiled at her, and she smiled back. She took off her coat and turned on the lights of the Christmas tree. It looks like a lady in a formal dress, wearing a million jewels, she thought.
Maybe there would be carols on the radio. She turned it on, and someone was singing: “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the new-born King …”
A calm peace filled her heart. Better fix Dad some dinner. She hurried to set the table and put the finishing touches on the food she had prepared earlier in the day. Finally she heard him coming in through the back door.
“Hello, kitten,” he greeted her. “Is dinner ready – our Christmas Eve dinner?”
“All on the table, but don’t you want to look at our Christmas tree first?”
He seemed too quiet, standing there looking at the tinseled boughs. Jessie knew he was remembering last year, and her heart hurt for him.
For a while they stood in silence, watching the colored lights.
“Shall we have dinner now?” he asked finally.
After the meal was over and they were back in the living room, Jessie touched a match to the logs in the fireplace and sat down on the rug in front of the blaze.
“Dad, there’s something I want to tell you.”
“What’s the matter, honey, anything wrong?”
“No, nothing’s wrong, Dad, but I want to tell you about today. You know every year Mom and I have bought you a present together, and today I went to buy it. Way last spring we decided on it – Mom and I. We decided that we would buy you a white shirt, and I was going to get it. I had two dollars – one I earned, and one Mom earned making a cake for Mrs. Price one day last September.”
“She did?” There was a choke in his voice.
“Yes. And I went to buy the shirt downtown, Dad, but I didn’t get it after all, because I found a little boy who didn’t have a Christmas tree.”
Then she told him all about the afternoon with the Grandma and Terry. “So that’s why I didn’t buy you anything, Dad. I just couldn’t see Terry go without a tree. But I want you to know that I really didn’t forget about you, I could never do that.”
“Jessie,” he spoke tenderly, “you have given me the most beautiful gift in all the world – it’s your unselfish heart. Look, kitten, here through the window, that star – the bright one. Remember the story I used to read to you about the Christmas angel who hung a star in the sky for every child who did an unselfish deed? A star is shining for you, Jessie – that bright one. And I feel sure your Mama knows, honey.”
“Oh, Dad, do you really? Do you really think so?”
“I really think so,” he answered, smiling down at her.