From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1953 –
Journey for Christmas
By Katherine F. Larsen
The cold began early that fall. School had been going for only two or three weeks, and already the mornings were hoar frosted, with glassed-over puddles and a wintry feel to the air.
It was on one of those perceptibly shortened afternoons when the green beetle of a school bus let us out up on the highway, that I bore the heavy, new, brightly colored Sears-Roebuck catalogue homeward, Ruthie crowing at my elbow teasing, “Please, Kathy, let me look at it a second after you, please…please,” while I, full of the importance of good tidings, did not deign to answer.
Every school day I had to call for the mail, including the previous day’s newspaper, before noon lunch was over, at Fingal Barman’s small general store and branch post office a quarter of a mile from the schoolhouse.
Winter catalogue arrival was an event at our small isolated farm house. It meant that mother would order our long winter underwear, new stocking caps, mittens, and perhaps a new coat for me, passing my outgrown one down to Ruthie, and – best of all to us children – we could pore over the Christmas toys lithographed in tempting splendor therein. Oh, the dolls, the lavish array of dimpled adorable dolls! No Christmas could possibly be Christmas without a new one apiece to join the old family in the corner of Ruthie’s and my bedroom.
This exciting night, after supper dishes, Ruthie, Larry, and I sprawled on our stomachs before the glowing franklin stove in the front room to look at the catalogue, pointing and shrilly debating which toys we wanted; but Larry quickly lost interest when we turned to the doll section. I read the descriptions aloud to Ruthie, because, being just six and in first grade, she could read scarcely at all. Larry, not yet five and a boy, was of course interested only in things like toy tractors, wagons, sleds, and miniature farmyards; and Dorrie, at two, was caught up in the excitement without quite understanding what it was all about.
At the first page of the doll section I nudged my sister and shrilled, “Look, oh, look at this gorgeous doll, Ruthie! Isn’t she a love?” She was pictured in color, and was according to the description, “Twenty-four inches high, sleeping eyes with real lashes, cries ‘Mama!’ when tipped forward, daintily dressed in red dotted swiss trimmed with val lace, leatherette shoes, white socks…”
We gasped at her brown hair, Dutch-cut like ours. And ineffable magic, crowning enchantment, she had a little music box inside her stuffed body, with a little crank coming out of her side up under the dress, and when you turned it music played. Then I saw the price – $4.95 – almost five dollars! Enchantment took on a never-never quality. Our dolls could not cost more than two dollars, and, especially, this year.
Because of the early cold, mother’s hens had almost quit laying the eggs which she depended on selling for the money to buy our winter clothing and the Christmas things. She looked worried when she confided to me that our toy orders would necessarily have to be sent much later than usual. Being nine-and-a-half, I had understood about Santa ever since I began geography in the third grade. Logic told me that no one could travel all over the world in one night, and when I taxed mama with the problem, she explained it to me, and, afterward, we conspired to keep the other children believing. Knowing took the edge off anticipation in a way, but it made me feel more grown-up and more a part of the adult world.
After Ruthie and I had admired the music-box doll again and again, I turned the pages to where the less expensive dolls were pictured in black-and-white, and, after consulting with mama several times, we each picked out ours. Mine was described as “Daintily dressed in pink lawn, lace-trimmed; sleeping eyes; composition head and arms; painted life-like hair; cries ‘Mama’; eighteen inches tall; soft stuffed body; $2.19 plus postage.” And in small print, “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money refunded. If item ordered is out of stock, a better grade of similar merchandise will be sent.” It always said that, but the only time we ever sent anything back was when Mama was wrong on the size and had to exchange stockings or something.
The snows started early, too, after the unseasonable cold. B.y Thanksgiving there was over a foot on the ground, and it continued to fall, intermittently with cold snaps severe for so early in the season. Mother’s hens remained reluctant, and, consequently, it was only two weeks before Christmas Eve when she finally got off the order for our dolls. Everything else was either on the way, or had already arrived and had been stored on the high shelf in mama’s and papa’s bedroom. Larry had ordered a small tractor from Santa, and together with Ruthie’s and my dolls and a woolly white lamb on wheels for Dorrie, made up the large items of our Christmas. For the rest, there would be one or two games and books, hardtack candy, and nuts, a very satisfactory array, in our eyes.
Excitement ran higher and higher as the days grew shorter. I awakened one night from a confused dream of Christmas to the yip-yip-yip-yi-i-i-i, long drawn out, of yelping coyotes outside. Sometimes in the cold they crept very near, sounding as if they were right beneath our window. Mama always reassured us, saying they sounded much closer than they really were. I tucked the quilts closely over my exposed ear to shut out the eerie sounds, but it was a long time before sleep came again.
Time dragged more and more slowly for us children, although, inevitably, drawing nearer to the day. Now mother made her divinity loaf, heavy and creamy and rich with walnuts, wrapping it in waxed paper and leaving it on the cold, back-screened porch to ripen for several days.
At last, at last, it was only two more days until Christmas! Papa would go after the tree that very morning, trying for a fir from the hills above the upper pasture. It would take most of the day, because of the deep snow. Ginger, the cow pony, could only flounder through the drifts with difficulty, and would require frequent rests.
Mama got the box with the tree ornaments down from the attic hole in the ceiling, and we happily rummaged through it, unwinding the red and green ropes and tarnished tinsel, finding the star for the tip, and peering at the fragile glass balls in their little nests of cotton-wool. Tomorrow evening we would trim the tree! We were beside ourselves with excitement.
In the midst of the merry hubbub mother beckoned me aside. She looked worn and troubled. “Kathy,” she said, “the dolls didn’t come yesterday when Mr. Williams brought us our mail.”
I knew what that meant. The postman came on his horse only once a week, and school being recessed for the holidays, I wouldn’t be bringing any mail home on the school bus until after the holidays.
“Couldn’t papa …?”
Mama shook her head. “He won’t be back from getting the tree until too late, and, besides, Ginger will be too tired to go six miles after such heavy going through deep snow.”
“But, Mama, can’t he go tomorrow?”
Mama said regretfully. “Look at the calendar, dear; Christmas Eve comes on Sunday this year, and Barman’s will be closed all day. It has to be today. Kathy, I hate to ask you, it’s such a long way for a little girl not ten years old, but the snow plow has been through on the highway, and Ruthie wouldn’t understand if Santa forgot her doll. Besides, yours will be missing, too.”
Panic held my throat for a moment. Over six miles… walking … and all that snow! But I knew mama was right. Ruthie just couldn’t wake to disappointment on Christmas day.
We looked at each other, horrified at the thought that the parcel might not even yet have arrived.
After noon dinner, mother bundled me against the cold, because even though the sun was shining, the temperature had been a record forty degrees below zero at the railroad station three nights before.
“Unbutton your coat if you get too warm walking,” Mama said, “but not the sweater. And leave your cap and mittens on.”
She kissed me goodbye, and I stepped outdoors into a nearly unbroken dazzle of white. I floundered awkwardly across the slight decline that marked the frozen brook, and trudged on up to the highway. The snowplow had pushed the packed snow higher than a tall man’s head on either side, and it was work to scramble over the top and down into the hard-packed trough of the road.
My eyes soon became accustomed to the noonday glare on snow, and I amused myself for the first half mile to Rosehill cottage imagining that I was a princess, and all the acres of dazzling diamonds winking in the sun were my jewels. Down the hill into Mathews’ hollow was easy, but up the other side and slowly rounding the long hill, the going began to be harder.
After a while, halfway there, I could see the cottonwoods down by the river in the distance, shivering gray ghosts of the trees that made a green oasis in summer. Above them, to the north, huddled beneath the bald hills, was the Peterson village store, ramshackle, with peeling yellow paint. A sign said “Barman’s,” and, below, “U.S. Post Office.”
I was much too far away to see the signs, but I knew they were there. By now I was numb with effort and the monotonous rhythm of walking, and for the last long mile, with legs like wooden posts, I blundered on.
Fingal Barman was waiting on a customer, whose team I had vaguely noticed hitched outside, but the customer finished his business and left before my vision cleared enough to make out the familiar bedraggled, gray mutton-chop whiskers and rheumy blue eyes under the bald and shiny dome.
He rasped out in his bleared voice, “Well, gal, what d’yew want? D’ja come with yer dad?”
I shook my head, too shy to tell how I came, and asked, hesitantly, if there was a package.
It seemed an interminable time he took shuffling to the post-office section, and an age before he waddled back – empty-handed. He peered at me, shaking his head.
I fought down the lump that suddenly blocked my speech, and the sickening feeling of disappointment. “Oh, Mr. Barman, I’ve walked all this way, and Ruthie …” I choked, my eyes filling with tears, “… and we won’t have our Christmas …” I couldn’t go on.
Mr. Barman pulled at his whiskers. “Mail train got through late. Sure, now, maybe it’s in the stuff the man just brought from the station. Haven’t had time to go through it yet.”
He shuffled back once more, and I could hear him muttering and pawing through the mail sacks.
At last he emerged, bearing the precious package.
“This it?” he asked, handing it across the counter to my eager hands.
I read the return address. “Oh, yes, thank you, thank you, Mr. Barman.”
Then I turned and burst through the door, eager to be home and the bearer of good news.
On the steps outside I paused. The sun was still quite high, and I was so hot inside with all the sweaters, mufflers, heavy leggings, and coat, maybe I’d better rest my tired legs a while before starting the long way back. I sat down, leaning my head in its heavy woolen cap against the rail post, and it felt so good!
I must have been sound asleep, for I was roused abruptly from a dream of climbing, climbing over glacial ice and snow in some alpine fastness, a pack of gray wolves howling on my trail and gaining fast.
“Sakes, child, yew still here?”
It was Mr. Barman’s rasping voice. I rubbed my eyes and looked around, bewildered. He was peering down the steps from the door, to which he was affixing a padlock. Closed read the sign hung askew from a rusty nail near his head.
I started up stiffly, shocked to see the sun now gone behind the mountains. It would be dark in less than an hour! I muttered goodbye, clutched my parcel, and stumbled down the remaining steps.
Chill had penetrated my layers of clothing, and I hurried on my way with difficulty. What would mother think if I was not back by dark?
Freshened by my nap, after I got warmed up again, the first mile around the long hill was quite easy, except that I had to change the bulky parcel from one arm to the other quite often. But before I reached the hollow, dusk obscured the familiar landmarks, and I dreaded to go down into the silent dark, where bushes loomed on either side, where coyotes might be lurking to pounce on me as I passed. My overactive imagination had them sneaking at my heels for the next quarter mile or so.
I pushed ahead, down into the hollow and up the other side as fast as my legs would go. Then another worry overtook me. My side felt as if a red hot poker had been thrust under my ribs, and I gasped for breath with every step. Soon, gaining the crest, there were small sharp knives slashing my straining chest. I had to rest.
At the top of the hill I halted, climbed the snow bank, and looked to the right to see the cheering lights of Rosehill cottage, a quarter of a mile off the highway. How I longed to stop there instead of pressing on, but it was very dark now, and mama and papa would think something had happened to me.
I sat down abruptly on the snow and began to whimper. I was so tired I wanted to sink down and go to sleep, but the cold, biting through my clothing, reminded me that people froze to death if they went to sleep in the snow. With a last regretful look at the shining windows of the cottage, I slid down to the road again, to trudge the last half mile.
About halfway I suddenly heard heavy feet crunching the snow just around the bend ahead. Then a circle of light danced before a tall looming figure.
I turned with a sob and began to run back toward Rosehill cottage.
“Kathy!” the figure shouted in dear papa’s voice. “Kathy, is that you?”
How comforting his arms were around me, as I sobbed with relief, and how lovely it was to be carried, pick-a-back, the rest of the way home.
Christmas morning we were, as usual on that day of days, up and in mama’s and papa’s room long before daylight, teasing and pleading with them to get up. Finally, they arose. Larry hopped up and down, Dorrie clapped her hands, and Ruthie and I clutched each other blissfully when they went into the living room to light the candles on the tree. We waited breathlessly for an age by the closed door before they sang out, “Ready, now,” and “Merry Christmas!” as we burst through the doorway, smallest first, me last.
The glory of the shining tree stopped us fora moment. Ruthie clasped her baby doll with both arms, her face alight. How happy I was that my trip had not been in vain. Then I saw my doll sitting under the tree, demure in red dotted swiss – no, it couldn’t be …
Slowly I bent and picked her up. “Oh, Mama, the music box doll! How…?” I turned to mother, bewildered.
Her brown eyes shown as she turned me aside from the busy smaller children.
“Sears Roebuck were all out of the doll I ordered for you, so they sent this one, with a note saying they hoped it would do instead. Aren’t you glad?”
I was speechless with the wonder of it. Slowly I tipped the princess over to hear the plaintiff “Mama!” I touched the real eyelashes with a careful finger, then smoothed the brown hair, and, finally, I reached up under the red dotted swiss skirt, found the tiny crank, and began to play a merry, magic, tinkling tune.