From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1946 –
The Luxury of Giving
By Norma Wrathall
“Only the poor can know the luxury of giving”– George Eliot
The two little girls, Ruth and Hope, dawdled over their work of cleaning the lamp chimneys. It was 1860, and mama often said what a blessing it was to have oil lamps instead of candles. Of course, there were times when the work of cleaning the chimneys proved irksome, but not today. For when Mama and Aunt Em spent an afternoon sewing, something important was often discussed. The little girls tried to be as quiet as possible, so that they would not be sent out of the room, but it was no use.
“Run along now, dearies,” said Zina Gleason, glancing up. “Put your wraps on, see if there are any more eggs before they freeze in the nests, and give the hens some wheat. Then you can play in the sitting room with your dolls.”
As the girls trailed reluctantly out, Zina bit off a thread, and leaned forward. “I don’t like the looks of things at all,” she said. “It was to have been a Christmas wedding, you know, in Salt Lake, so her father could be there. But all of a sudden, Cy announced that he was going to the canyon with the other men to get wood, and Julie told me this morning that the wedding had been postponed – I don’t think we needed any more wood, anyway. There’s enough to last until early spring.” Zina sighed. She was a tall, firmly built woman, her pale features framed by heavy dark braids which wound smoothly about her head. Her direct, gray eyes were troubled as she looked at her sister-in-law.
Emmeline James was plump, short waisted, jolly looking, with rosy features and reddish blond hair which she wore in a large knot on top of her head. Em was very positive in her ideas. She shook her head sympathetically.
“Sts, sts, it’s too bad, Zina,” she said. “Goodness knows you’ve done all a mortal could do to make her feel welcome. I hate to say it, but I’ve thought all along, she’s too citified for this pioneer life …” Her voice trailed off as Zina held up a warning hand.
The stair door opened, and Julie Saunders came into the room. She was almost willowy in her slenderness, and her delicate face looked unusually pale in its frame of fluffy, light brown hair. “The baby’s asleep at last,” she said speaking of Zina’s youngest, two-year-old Jay, who had been named for his father, Jacob Gleason.” Just as he would start to doze, he’d start telling me again of how he has the same birthday as Jesus, and I’d have to tell him the Christmas story again.” She laughed softly, but her eyes were uncertain as she glanced over at Em, who, with lips tightly compressed, bent industriously over her knitting. Julie seemed to sense Em’s disapproval.
Zina rose and began poking the fire in the great, black wood-burning stove, which stood at one side of the high-ceilinged room which was kitchen and dining room. “I do hope his cold doesn’t get any worse,” she said, speaking of Jay, “he’s subject to croup, you know, and it would be just our luck to have him sick for Christmas. I never planned a big day in my life that one of them didn’t get sick.” She took up her work again, a blue wool dress for her sixteen-year-old Millicent.
Em dropped her hands in exasperation. “Oh, dear, I’m out of yarn. You haven’t a piece that would match this red, have you, Zina? I’ve just the thumb to finish.” She held up the glove she was finishing as a Christmas gift for her husband.
Zina rummaged in her large work basket, which still smelled faintly of wood smoke because it had been made by old Indian Mary. She came back with a mitten. “It’s a little darker, but maybe you can make it do.”
Julie spoke up quickly.”Cy’s going to take me over to Garfield as soon as he comes back from the canyon, so I can get the train to Salt Lake in time for Christmas. Maybe I could get some there.” She bit her lips, her cheeks reddening as she remembered she had not told Em she was leaving.
Zina spoke up kindly, to cover the girl’s confusion. “I hardly think you could get it there, Julie. Garfield’s nothing much at this time of year – they have a bathing resort over there in the summer.”
Em took the mitten and began gathering her work. “Well, Julie, I didn’t know you were leaving us, so soon. I guess it’s none too pleasant for you out in this country,” she said stiffly.
Julie murmured something about its really being very pleasant, and turned quickly toward the window, her eyes full of tears. She doesn’t like me, know she doesn’t, was her thought.
The two older women put on their wraps, and went out to hitch up Em’s horse and buggy. Her house was just over a little rise in the ground, but she had driven over to bring a large basket of things she was going to use to help prepare for the Christmas feast, which was to be at Zina’s house this year.
After a few minutes, Julie followed them, putting a heavy shawl over her head and shoulders. She stopped by the little fence that separated the dooryard from the big yard, and looked toward the road which stretched on toward the point of the mountain. The Gleason ranch lay on the edge of Tooele Valley, in the rich meadowland. Julie had never seen it in its lush summer beauty. As far as she could see, the bare benchland, as yet only lightly streaked with snow, sloped away to the gray hills. She drew her breath in sharply. Never, never would she be able to get used to the vastness, the emptiness around her. She was not sorry that she and her father had joined the Church soon after her mother’s death, and had come to Salt Lake. But all this was so different from her home in Iowa. She looked toward the foothills, where dark clouds were settling, and he r uneasiness increased. Suppose there should be an accident, and she might never see Cy again? She shivered, drawing the shawl closer about her, and walked out through the little gate as Em and Zina came from the barn, leading the horse and rig.
“Might as well take these pumpkins over with me now, then I can roll out my pies any time,” Em was saying, “I’ll send Millie right back.” Millicent had stayed with Em’s babies for the afternoon.
Julie spoke up in vague alarm.”Will you let her walk the half mile alone,when it’s getting dusk? Mightn’t there be an Indian or something?”
Em snorted. “Indians! Why, the idea. I never heard of such …”
Zinc interrupted gently, “You see Julie, there hasn’t been any Indian trouble since frontier days. The Indians around here are really too docile for their own good. Millie isn’t a bit afraid.”
“Why should she be? H’mph!” Em slapped the gentle old horse vigorously with the lines, and clattered out the big gate, but not before they caught her caustic murmur – “Indians! Some people think if they getaway from Main Street in Salt Lake, they’ll be scalped by savages.”
“Don’t mind Em,” laughed Zina, “she really has a heart of gold.But you’re without your coat. Let’s hurry in – I havetoget at my chores soon as I get my old gloves on.”
They walked along in silence, until Julie spoke, her voice low with emotion.”How, or why, do you do it, Zina? Why should women submit to such drudgery, out here on the edge of nowhere!”
“Why, Julie, I’m afraid I don’t–”
“Oh, yes, you do! I saw you looking toward the hills. There’s a storm brewing, and you’re worried, aren’t you? Aren’t you, Zina?” Julie stopped in her tracks,the wind whipping her long skirts about her ankles.
Zina put her hand on Julie’s arm, and began drawing her toward the house.”Don’t worry so, dear. You’re all upset, partly by what Em said. But she didn’t mean it. And this really is a wonderful country, Julie. Of course, there are still hardships, but we have such a nice place. Why, I wouldn’t trade my home for any place. I mean that. And we women have to do our part. There’d have been mighty little pioneering done without the women.” She laughed a little, to soften the seriousness of her words.
“I wish I could feel that way about it. I’ve tried,truly I have. Oh,why can’t people live nearer Salt Lake,where you could get help if you needed it?” She looked again toward the hills, and the wind seemed to pick up her words and send them echoing back into her heart.
Zina started to say something about how could they build up the country that way, but Julie did not hear. She paused on the top step, her face white and still.
“I guess you’ve wondered why I postponed the wedding. Well, I’m going to tell you. It isn’t because I don’t love Cy enough, or that you haven’t been more than kind to me, Zina. It’s just that – oh, I just can’t stand it, the loneliness and the waiting, for days on end, with your husband out in the hills, or some other far-off place, and no way to get word, or find out what’s happened if he doesn’t get back – and Cy won’t leave here –” She turned and ran into the house.
Zina’s shoulders bent wearily. Had Em been right? She felt tired, with the worry of it all, and, taking the milk pail from its peg over the built-up well on the porch, she started toward the barn.
By the time December twenty-third arrived, and still the men had not returned from the mountains, Em and Zina were exchanging worried looks, but they went ahead with their plans for Christmas, for the sake of the children.
Julie sat up late that night, sewing a dress for Ruth’s doll. Somehow, she found a sort of solace in the preparations in which all the family seemed to take pride. The doll, given to Ruth the Christmas before, had been brought across the ocean by Zina’s grandmother, and the lace was hand-crocheted. It looked very fine under Julie’s clever fingers, the dress being made from a bit of material left from Millie’s dress.
Zina was assembling the children’s gifts. “This cradle Jacob made. It’s for the little girls together. It’s almost large enough for a real baby.” She regarded it proudly. “And this little bench is for Jay – he can carry it around with him as he plays. Then I’ve knit each of them a pair of new mittens – did I show you these long gloves I knit for Jacob? He likes them to come high up on his wrists, because he’s out so much in the cold.” She began carefully folding the blue dress. “It takes so much planning, and work, and then sometimes I wonder if I’ve got anything to give them that’s worth while. At least, Jay’s croup didn’t materialize, but now there’s this new worry – the men not coming home.” She bit her lips, for she hadn’t intended to say it aloud.
Julie, her head bent close to her work, said slowly, “Zina, the way you keep up, and make your plans, is wonderful. Christmas means a lot to you, doesn’t it? The way you plan, and all. You put so much of yourself into it. I mean the doll that came across the ocean – and all these things you’ve made by hand.” A tear fell unexpectedly down onto the doll’s dress, and Julie brushed at it carefully.”And those little pies that you sit up so late on Christmas Eve to make. Millie tells me that she’s to help with them this year, because she’s sixteen.”
Zina smiled a little shakily. “Yes, Millie’s quite excited about it. We call them St. Nicholas pies, and I began to make them in the years when there was simply nothing else to give the children. I used to fill them with stewed dried fruit, but now I fill them with jelly. They’re really very elegant, made with jelly and with the tops like fancy wheels or stars.”
Julie folded the finished doll’s dress, and laid it on the table. Somehow, the gifts she had brought with her, purchased in Salt Lake, which had seemed so fine at the time, now seemed bare compared to these things which held so much love.
Julie stood up, and put her arm impulsively around Zina’s shoulders. “Zina, don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right,” and turning, she lifted the small lamp from its place on the shelf and hurried upstairs. Her own form leaped in long grotesque shadows from the lamp to the stair wall, and she found herself wondering if her fears were like that, long shadows exaggerated out of all proportion? But suppose something had happened to Cy, and she might never have a chance to explain? Her thoughts held no comfort and she crept into bed.
Julie woke with a start to see daylight streaming in and fresh snow sliding from the window panes. She jumped up, realizing that she had overslept. Zina would have been out long before this with the lantern, sweeping paths to do her chores. Julie tried to push away the heavy feeling that oppressed her as her icy fingers fumbled at her clothes. Now she remembered. It was the day before Christmas and there was to be no wedding, and she couldn’t go home; Cy was lost in the mountains. But, as she hurried down to the kitchen, a feeling of peace came over her, to see the girls preparing breakfast over the great, black range.
It was Christmas Eve day, and Julie helped Zina to clean and stuff the chickens, and watched Em’s babies while she rolled out two more mince pies for old Mrs. Bates who lived down the road a piece, and who always helped them out in times of sickness.
By the time the cold winter afternoon shadows lay along the porches, Julie stood oftener and oftener by the window, looking out across the snow. Each of the children selected a chair upon which to hang his stocking, near the round sitting room stove with its isinglass windows. “They don’t mind so much about the tree, you know,” Zina said, in an aside to Julie. “We don’t always have one; this year was to have been sort of special …” and Julie whispered, “Oh, Zina …”
Then Zina held up her hand for silence. There was a sound. Yes, it was the sound of wagon wheels creaking across the snow.
The moments which followed were like a daze to Julie. She heard hale and hearty Jacob Gleaner explaining that they had broken the wagon tongue; but he didn’t see why the women had to worry so much about that. Then Cy took Julie into the sitting room and closed the door.
“I’m sorry, Julie,” he said, suddenly embarrassed. “I know I promised to get you home for Christmas – couldn’t be helped, though. Maybe we could make it tomorrow.” He had been turning a small package over and over in his hands, and now he held it out to her. “I want you to have this; it isn’t much, but I’d planned to get something else, too.”
Julie unwrapped a pair of fine white buckskin gloves, hand-sewn and beaded by Indian Mary. “Cy, they’re lovely,” she cried. “I have a little gift for you, but I intended to give it to you in the morning. But these past few days, I’ve learned that gifts don’t mean so much, unless you give yourself, too.”
Cy’s lean, weather-tanned face took on a puzzled expression. “Why, Julie, what do you mean?”
“I mean,” replied Julie stoutly, her cheeks flaming, “I want to stay for Christmas, and if you won’t leave this country, well, I guess I’ll stay.”
Cy stood stock still, his dark face still incredulous. Then he had her in his arms, and the fluffy brown hair was against his cheek as he murmured, “Julie, Julie, are you sure?”
But he must have found out that she was sure, long after the children had tiptoed upstairs to bed, and Zina, her eyes heavy with sleep, her face dusted with flour, had fixed the last wagon wheel a little lopsidedly atop the last St. Nicholas pie. Cy and Julie still sat by the round sitting room stove, and the Christmas stars were in their eyes.