From the Improvement Era, December 1943 –
Glory Is of the Spirit
By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Clear and cold – perfect weather for Christmas Eve! The storm hadn’t lasted long. As Fran stepped off the porch, the air stung her nostrils like fire. She must make sure everything was secure against the night. A stab of nostalgia that was sharper than the cold brought a sudden weakness to her knees. Silly little chore, making the rounds each night. yet she and Clayton had made a ritual of it. They had loved doing it because the stock, this place had been theirs. Now they were hers alone. After tomorrow they would not belong to her. She was selling this place, the stock and the machinery. She was going so far away she would never see Clayton’s family again, nor know if they had their Christmas morning party. Party. How could they want it, and the news just received?
“I know how you feel,” her sister-in-law had said earlier in the evening, “but we can’t give way to grief and self-pity.” She and Ben had brought presents for the twins’ stockings. Fran had forgotten.
“You know how I feel? That’s a laugh.”
“Clay was my brother,” Ben reminded her.
“Oh, what’s the use,” she had flung her hands in a gesture of helplessness. “Besides, this is my last Christmas here. I am selling.”
“I am selling this place. Clayton left it in my name.”
“You must be out of your mind,” Ben cried. “Suppose he did put it in your name. That was because he trusted you. This land has been in the Downing family since sagebrush days. It’s your children’s birthright. Aren’t you getting your values crossed?”
“I think not. Running a farm is a man’s work.”
“It is everybody’s work these days. You know how to farm. You owe it to Clayton, to the twins, and to your country to stay with this place. I will help you.”
“I have paid my debt to my country. You have more work now than you can do.”
“I can always do a little more.”
In the barn, Toby, the dog, left his warm bed by the cows and whined a puzzled welcome. Everything was in order. The door of the root cellar was well-covered. She turned off the lights in the henhouse and started back. Making the rounds alone. That was all life offered now.
By the back steps of the house she stopped to look at the stars. She would miss nights like this when she was in town. She could not remember when the stars were so many or so bright. One was low, even below the line of hills.
Startled, she realized it was not a star but a light. Old Nels was still up. That light was for her. Well – he would need a lot of kerosene for his lamp if he waited for her. She wasn’t going there tonight, nor any night. Not ever again.
Billy was lying on the floor before the fireplace looking at a book he had received that afternoon. It was a book of history stories, with colored illustrations.
“Let me see. Let me see this one again.” Betty, his twin, snatched at a leaf to keep him from turning it.
“You’ll tear it. Darn you.” Billy’s quick temper flared.
“I’ll be careful. Please.”
Immediately contrite Billy removed the hand he had slapped over the page. The picture was “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”
“Who is this?” Betty pointed to the figure of Washington.
Fran glanced at it. “That is General Washington.”
“What for is he standing up?”
“He is the general,” Billy explained, out of his deep knowledge. “Like Tommy Turner at school. He gives orders.”
Betty ignored his disdain at her ignorance. She pointed to the men rowing the boat.
“Why for don’t they stand up?”
“They must row the boat.”
“What does it mean, row the boat?”
“The men who are sitting push the boat across the river with their oars.” Realizing they knew nothing at all about boats Fran explained in detail. She told the story of the crossing and the victory that followed. The twins listened breathlessly.
“Is Daddy a general?” Billy asked.
“Is he a pusher?” Betty demanded.
“I think he might be called one.”
“I’m going to be a general when I grow up.”
“I’m not. I am going to be a pusher.”
Billy was through with that story. His agile mind went quickly to another. Fran told them the story of the first Christmas, but she told it badly. She was listening for the telephone. Mr. Haddon, the real estate agent, was calling about the farm. She wanted the twins to be in bed by then. She didn’t want to answer their questions tonight. Not that it mattered particularly. Christmas Eve was no different from any other evening.
This hour of the evening had once been the high spot of their day. Before the fire, telling stories to children, talking over the morrow’s work together, that was the way they had planned it. For Fran to be alone with the farm and the children had had no part in their dreams. Neither had this numbing aloneness, this unreal waiting that would never end. Desperately she looked about for something to break the treadmill of her thoughts. The newspaper lay on the radio where she had flung it. She looked again at the picture monopolizing the front page. Bob Dunn in flying togs. He had left before Clay. There hadn’t been that look in his eyes then. Bob had never been serious. Over the picture was the caption, “Hero Given Posthumous Decoration.”
Bob had died in the same battle as Clayton; but Clayton had – just died. One of many. His fall had been unnamed and unmarked. There was a picture, too, of Lois, Bob’s wife, receiving the medal. It and its presentation would help in a small way to fill the void left by his going. It would be a story to tell Bobby. Something to hold to when memory would not be denied. Crushing the paper in her hand, she threw it in the fire. Rising, she went to the window. It was a good night to be inside. Over the radio a baritone was singing “Silent Night.”
Why the mockery of Christmas? Where in all the world tonight was there a hint of Christmas spirit? Long ago a mother had watched her son die to bring peace to a troubled world. Now, mothers’ sons were dying the world over for the same thing. After two thousand years the world was still in chaos. Of what use then was their sacrifice?
“What do you see?” Billy crowded between her and the window.
“Emptiness. Just emptiness.”
“I can’t see any.” He raised his face and she saw the trouble in his eyes. “Mommie, why can’t Daddy come home for Christmas?”
“Daddy is too far away.” She pushed the words over the thickness in her throat. Sometime soon she must tell them.
“When I am a general, I am going to have Kings-X for Christmas so all the daddies can go home.”
“I am going to be a pusher.” Betty had brought their pajamas so they could undress by the fire. “You can’t get home ‘less I push.”
“I am going to be a general,” Billy screamed.
“I am going to be a pusher.” Betty’s voice, like her father’s, was always unruffled.
“Shall we hang the stocking?” Fran asked quickly. This would go on all night.
Immediately they forgot their differences in the joy of hanging their stockings, and later, having said their prayers, the children went to bed.
From out on the road came the jingling of sleigh bells. They stopped before the gate and happy, youthful voices singing “The First Noel” set her heartstrings a-quiver. Stubbornly she refused to acknowledge the courtesy.
The caroling ceased. The sound of bells receded, then stopped at Nels’. Again the sound went on and was lost in the distance. Curious, she went to the window. The light was still shining. Stubborn old coot. Still clinging to symbols. She jerked the blind down.
Grandfather Downing had brought Old Nels Olsen and his wife from the old country. Only he had been Young Nels then. The first year he had met with an accident. For a long time he had hovered between life and death, yet he had outlived his wife and son, and Grandfather and Father Downing. He was in his late eighties yet lived alone in the two-roomed cottage the Downings had built for him on a corner of their land.
While a ward of the family, he made but one concession to their desire to help. At Christmas time he would accept gifts. In fact, he was quite autocratic about his receiving. Every Christmas Eve he put his lamp in the window, and there it stayed until every Downing had laid his or her gift at his feet.
Someone was telling of Bob Dunn over the air. His townspeople were making much of his glory. And rightly so. Clayton had just died.
“Darling,” her anguished heart cried. “It is so unfair to you. You deserved so much.”
Into the stillness of the room the telephone shrilled. At last this bridge would be burned.
“Mrs. Downing? Haddon speaking. I would have called sooner but got tied up. You have decided, have you? I think I told you I want the place for a Christmas present for my son. He wants to try his hand at farming. I’ll run out and give you a check to—”
“No. No, don’t,” she cried, panic rising unaccountably in her. “I’ll discuss it with you tomorrow.” She hung up in sudden distaste. Try his hand at farming!
She turned off the lights and filled stockings by the flicker from the fireplace. A rush of warmth went over her in thankfulness to Donna for doing the shopping. to have failed the twins would have been tragic. Children needed symbols. Old men didn’t.
Every move was an agony of remembrance. As she rehung the stockings, she shivered with cold. The temperature must have dropped. Restlessly she went to the window again and raised the blind. The soft darkness of the room made the world outside more vivid by contrast. Against her will she looked across the field. Still burning!
Abruptly Fran went to a closet for her wraps. Everyone conspired to keep her remembering. Even Old Nels. She must find something for him. Perhaps then she could sleep.
Hanging on a high hook was a sweater. A warm, warm sweater of wool. Clayton had hung it there himself. Nels had always liked it.
At its touch a pain that was the essence of all the misery in the world went through her. She held it against her cheek, but none of its warmth crept into her flesh. She began shivering. Hastily, then, she reached for her coat.
At his door she stopped to get her breath before knocking. The wind lifted her skirt and numbed her legs above her overshoes. At his faint “Come in,” she turned the knob. Creaking with frost the door swung back. She slipped through and closed it quickly.
The room was only faintly warm and was lighted only by the lamp in the window. The old man was sitting in a low rocker before his small cookstove. His feet rested on the oven door. A wool shawl covered his wide shoulders and was held in place by one large-knuckled, emaciated hand. Old Nels had been an enormous man in his day. The flesh was gone, the bones were stooped, but his spirit was unconquered. He turned his head slowly to face her.
“You are up late, Uncle Nels.”
The old man rose and hobbled to the window. Fetching the lamp he placed it on the table. That done, he returned to his chair.
Fran laid the sweater on the table. Her fingers clung to it. Suddenly she wanted to talk. To make him see that life had changed.
“Why did you wait?” she demanded. “You know Clayton is gone. Why go through the motions of Christmas when there is no Christmas?”
“It is a good sweater. T’ank you,” he said placidly.
“Did you hear me?” She beat her fists on the table. “Christmas is gone. Clayton is gone. He was young and strong –”
The old shoulders made a piteous attempt at straightening. She remembered Old Nels had been younger than Clayton when he had been reduced to this husk of a man. Then her voice rose in argument. “It was all wrong. He shouldn’t have gone.”
“Duty is never wrong.”
“But he had his family.”
“So much the better. You are not alone.”
“It was so – so useless, Uncle Nels. To – to just die when he – oh, look what Bob Dunn did. He left something by his going.” There, it was out. she breathed with relief.
The points of fire that were his eyes burned with startling intensity. His shoulders under the shawl shook with anger.
“So, it is jealousy – not grief.”
Fran’s anger matched his. She drew her coat about her and jerked open the door. Quickly, unheedingly, she stepped onto the icy path. Her feet went form under her and she sat down – hard. For an instant she just sat, too stunned and numb to move. Then feeling came into one hand and her thighs with the sting of a thousand needles. It was hard to rise. She tried to laugh, but the sound was a hollow croak. She reached the gate and leaned against it for support.
A few straggling clouds were coming up from the west. Surrounding them the sky was deeply blue. A light, below the clouds, was moving swiftly from west to east. Head uptilted, she watched, forgetting her aching limbs, the keen bite of the cold. Hope fluttered to sudden life.
“It’s coming this way. It’s coming this way. Could it be – possible – ” with both hands she grasped a cold picket of the gate.
The light swept nearer, dropping lower and lower. It was going to stop. It was. There had been a mistake. A ghastly, horrible mistake. He had come back.
Above her the light seemed to poise. Her hands tightened and she heard the picket snap. As though the sound were a signal, the plane rose slowly. She cried aloud, trying to hold it, to bring it back. It could not go on. But it did. soon she could see it no more.
“Clay! Clay! come back.”
The white silent night gave back no answer. It waited, expectant. Then that something within her grew bigger and stronger until it burst, and she wept.
Cold, creeping through her veins, brought self-control. She felt better. There was an answer here if she could find it. Her glance fastened on another star more vivid than the others.
Had Mary remembered the Bethlehem Star the night of the crucifixion? or had she resented the ignominy of his being hung between thieves?
“What am I thinking?” she cried aloud, and the words were her answer. She came out of her nightmare, and peace was in her heart. Perhaps Nels had been right.
In all ages, in all conflicts, there were those who had gone as Clayton had gone, shattered and broken where no man could mark the spot – where no wife could lay a wreath. Yet, though they died unnamed and unsung, they were no less immortal than the heroes.
Because of the pushers of the earth its freedom would never perish. Glory is of the spirit, not of achievement. She threw back her head and laughed aloud. She must hurry home. She must make ready for the party and find presents for the family. She must tell the twins the story of their father.