From the Relief Society Magazine, December, 1943–
Look at the Star
By Beatrice Rordame Parsons
The bus was a long time coming. Lucy felt it would never arrive. The crowds were thick and people jostled her. Excited children left harried parents and rushed to the Salvation Army Santa Claus for one last, quick instruction on how to find a particular chimney.
The air was scented with pine and holly as men with great armloads pressed against her. Even the red, blue, and green lights had been fastened to the lamp posts and they glowed with a gay, Christmasy brilliance.
But Lucy frowned. The doctor had said it was neuritis that made her hip ache like that. He had told her to go home and to bed, but how could she? Just a few days before Christmas with so many things to do.
This year they’d all be together. The words had been humming through her heart all day. Even the pain was quiet when she thought of it.
This Christmas must be perfect! Lucy wanted that more than she wanted anything in the world. Ever since she’d had that letter from Hal saying he was sure of his furlough, she had been planning.
He was bringing his wife. The family had never met her, though Hal had sent her photograph and written ecstatically:
“…I was scared that she wouldn’t have me. She’s been reared by a very wealthy aunt, and I have so little to offer. But I turned on the charm, and she couldn’t resist. You’ll love her, Mother…
Lucy hoped so, but she wasn’t so sure. She had scribbled a friendly little note welcoming Iris into the family and had received a very formal letter in return. Iris’ life had been very different from the sort of harum-scarum growing up that Hal had had. Lucy wanted Iris to think well of the family. She had worked hard to make the house look nice. Iris was used to such elegance.
As she boarded the bus, Lucy thought about Ben’s sister. She was coming to dinner, too. Ada was a grave old maid. She taught history at high school and Lucy had often pitied her the barrenness of her existence. Ada had missed so much.
Lucy dropped the token in the box and her lips were tender. How much fun Christmas had been when the children were small.
But seeing the restless, almost dissatisfied faces about her, Lucy thought of the war. How hard it had become for anyone to have faith in the old, familiar words: Peace on earth, good will toward men! Why, even Link, who was only eleven, wished he might have a real machine gun to shoot real bullets.
Lucy shivered as she got off the bus. Crossing the street she saw that the early winter sunset made an intricate pattern of shadows through the leafless trees. Then she forgot its beauty as she realized that Link had not cleaned the walks.
When she opened the front door, she saw why he had neglected them. There was a cluster of dripping straps and ice skates on the floor. She must remember, she decided worriedly, to wipe up the snow before it left a stain on the polished floor.
“Is that you, Mother?”
The sound of a girlish voice floated down the stairs and Miriam appeared on the landing. She was a pretty girl of fifteen with blue eyes and a long V of brown curls reaching down to the middle of her shoulders. She had been painting her nails and was careful not to touch anything.
Lucy protested. “That’s entirely too dark a shade for a young girl.”:
Miriam blew on her thumb, paying no attention. “Did you get the material?” she asked.
Lucy put her coat on a hanger. She put Miriam’s, too, for Miriam had simply flung it on a hook. Then she pointed out a bundle.
“You open it,” said Miriam. “My nails might smudge.”
Lucy undid the string. Her eyes were on Miriam’s face. She did hope the silk would suit. She had had to go to four stores.
“Oh, dear,” Miriam pouted, “that isn’t what I meant at all. Sally’s is a lighter blue. We wanted them exactly alike.”
Lucy folded the silk and fastened the string. As Miriam went upstairs, Lucy was conscious that her hip was aching worse than ever. She was so sorry Miriam didn’t like the material for her new dress. She had tried to please her. She wondered why it was that everything Sally had seemed so much nicer to Miriam than the things she owned.
When she went into the living room, her husband looked up. He was in his favorite chair, and the lamp was soft above his rumpled brown hair. Lucy dropped a little kiss in the middle of it, and he smiled pleasantly.
“I thought you’d never get home. I’m practically famished.”
Lucy smoothed down her fair waves before the round mirror over the buffet and there was a little frown between her dark brows.
“Ben, I just couldn’t find a thing for Ada. I’ve given her so many umbrellas, hankies and slips that I’m ashamed to give her anymore.”
She started to undo one of the packages she had brought into the room, but Ben put out his hand.
“What do you say we wait until some other time, dear? I’ve got to slip down to the office right after we eat.”
Lucy limped a little as she went into the kitchen. All the pleasure and excitement of her shopping trip were slipping away.
She sighed as she caught sight of the cabinet. Link had had a snack after school. The peanut butter jar was open, the bread unwrapped.
She thought impatiently: “Miriam might have cleared that mess away before she went to dress.”
She tied a bright, organdy apron over her frock and cleared the sink. Then she started dinner. Lucy liked things neat. She spent a lot of time over her house and prided herself that she was a good housekeeper. the glasses shone as she carried them into the dining room.
Leona came in while she was setting the table. Leona was almost nineteen, with her father’s clear brown eyes and her mother’s soft, fair curls. Right now dissatisfied lines etched the corners of her mobile mouth.
“Oh, I wish Christmas was a million miles away,” she said as she dropped into a chair. “Nobody knows what I go through at Taylor’s.”
Leona worked in the office of one of the biggest department stores in the city, and Lucy knew how busy she was.
Looking at her as she placed the silver, Lucy saw the same thing in her daughter’s face that had been in those on the street car – a restlessness that was hard to explain. She knew that Leona and Dave had had another quarrel.
Leona wanted to be married before Dave went away. She had her wages at the store, and she could go on living at home. Dave had other ideas. He didn’t want to start that way. He said he loved Leona too much to make her suffer.
Lucy sighed. Back in the kitchen she thought about the Christmases of long ago. How secure they had been. How wonderful! She couldn’t keep her mind from going back …
She recalled a cold, wintery dawn creeping out of the darkness of the night, excited whispers, the patter of bare feet coming into the bedroom. What expectancy had been in the childish faces. What faith had been in their eyes. Oh, for Christmas as it had been when her children were small!
Now they were changed. Leona was young and lovely yet there were bitter lines about her eyes and a set smile on her lips. She had lost her little-girl laughter, and appeared hard and brittle.
Miriam was fast growing into a petulant, thoughtless young woman, thinking of nothing but clothes and fun. Boys like Link, she thought, her hands cold as she mixed the dough for biscuits, were becoming calloused and hard. Even Ben seemed to think only of his stomach. Perhaps rationing was to blame for that.
He had followed her into the kitchen and was poking into the refrigerator. “Um,” he said, licking his finger.
Lucy rescued the vanilla pudding and frowned reprovingly. “Honestly, Ben, you don’t let me get in the door before you start yelling for something to eat.”
Ben cupped her chin in his palms and studied her flushed features. “Have a good time down town?”
She pulled her face indignantly away. “I just wish you’d do the shopping, Ben Henderson. You seem to think Christmas is fun.”
“Well, isn’t it?” challenged Ben with a teasing grin.
Feeling the way she did, Lucy wasn’t sure.”Fun for children,”she admitted reluctantly. She had just finished her housecleaning. Remembering all the woodwork she had scrubbed, all the curtains she had hung, her wrongs rose within her. “I have to see to everything,” she complained. “Link wanted something for the school tree. I had to go to three stores. Miriam is disappointed in her new dress.”
Ben sat on the stepladder stool and pushed his feet through the rungs. There was a look in his eyes. “I suppose it isn’t like Sally’s,” he said.
Lucy had to smile. But the worried light remained in the depths of her eyes.
“I’m sure I don’t know how I’m going to find the time to make it. Tomorrow, I’m going to get out the decorations.”
“Oh, let ’em go,” said Ben carelessly, as he pushed open the door and disappeared into the living room. “Or let Link put them up.”
Lucy poured milk into a pitcher with angry hands. That seemed to be her family’s cry, nowadays. Let someone else do it. If you wanted things done right, you must do them yourself. Couldn’t Ben understand that it was important how the house looked when Iris came? She found a cloth and went into the hall to wipe up the snow.
Bending made her hip ache again, and she looked tired as she carried the plates into the dining room. Link had come in and was lying in the middle of the floor where she had to step around him, looking at the funnies in the newspaper.
he had shed his cap by tossing it over a candlestick on the buffet. The sleeves of his jacket were hooked across the back of a dining room chair.
“Link,”said Lucy sharply, “I thought I asked you to clean the walks.”
Link looked lazily out of the darkening windows. A few thistle-light snowflakes were touching the glass.
“No sense cleaning walks when it’s going to snow,” he said, and turned back to his paper.
Lucy bit her lip as she carried his jacket and cap to the hall closet. That seemed to be Link’s philosophy of life. No sense watering the lawn when it was going to rain. No sense raking leaves when it was going to blow. Suddenly, in Lucy’s mind, Link seemed very selfish and very lazy.
He was chuckling at Flip Corkin when Lucy came back into the room.
“Whee!” he chortled, pointing to a falling, flaming plane.”That’s just what those enemy bombers and planes deserve.”
Not even Christmas, thought Lucy wearily, could make her son’s thoughts of peace, good-will toward men.
In the middle of dessert Link stopped eating long enough to say: “Oh, Maw, did you get the tree?”
Lucy appealed to Ben. “You were to attend to that.”
Ben flushed. “I forgot,” he confessed, then added placatingly: “I’ll get it tomorrow. There’s still plenty of time.”
Plenty of time, agreed Lucy silently, if they were to be content with a spindling little thing that they’d be ashamed of. Pictures of the sort of trees Iris had always been used to rose before her eyes and made her voice sharp.
“Please see to it first thing in the morning.”
Link seemed to sense her exasperation, and he looked up and grinned. “Gee, Maw! Any ole tree’s all right if it’s got a star at the top.”
“I want a nice one,” said Miriam insistently.”You should see the one Sally’s got. It must be nine feet tall.”
Lucy winced and Ben winked at her. Leona yawned as she left the table.
“What difference does it make?” she asked rather bitterly. “We’re all adults, or aren’t we?”
As Lucy carried the dishes into the kitchen, Leona’s words rang in her ears. Leona had meant: “What difference does anything make, anymore?” Lucy’s heart ached for her daughter. She wanted to see her happy and gay again.
Ben came into the kitchen as she was hanging up her dishtowel. He had his overcoat over his arm and he stopped in surprised chagrin.
“I thought Miriam was helping you.”
Lucy hid her face as she put away the cups. “She and Sally went to the movies,” she said.
Ben frowned, started to speak, then slipped his arms into his coat sleeves. He didn’t look at her.
“I’d have helped if I’d known,” he told her.
Lucy kissed the end of his nose as she buttoned his coat. When she walked with him to the door, her lips were smiling.
“It doesn’t matter, Ben,” she said sincerely. “I like to do it.”
She really did. Perhaps that was why the girls were such bad housekeepers. Miriam and Leona had a way of leaving odds and ends undone. Lucy liked to have a neat kitchen. Her eyes twinkled.
“I can’t imagine what sort of Christmas we’d have if I let the girls attend to it.” Now she was really laughing and she added teasingly: “And I shudder to think of the gift you’d choose for Ada.”
She didn’t know there was anything prophetic in her words. Even when she awoke in the night with the pain in her hip feeling like hot wires inside, she thought she would be all right in the morning. But when she tried to get p, she had to fall back against the pillow with a moan.
Ben, white-lipped and worried, insisted on knowing what the doctor had said.
“Just rest and the heating pad,” confessed Lucy, “with vitamin B thrown in.” She held her breath while the pain came and went, and then she wailed: “Oh, Ben, I can’t stay in bed. There’re a million things to do.”
Ben’s voice was gruff. “You’ve done too much already. Just relax, and I’ll send up a tray.”
She might not have been quite so acquiescent if her pain hadn’t been so severe. Link came bearing the tray proudly, scraped toast, thickly sliced orange, lukewarm cocoa. She smiled wanly.
“I hope this won’t spoil your Christmas,” she said.
“It won’t,” said Link cheerfully.
Long after he had gone, Lucy stared at the door. She had been right. Link was hard and callous. Christmas meant very little to him.
Leona put her head in the doorway as she rushed off to catch her bus.
“I’ll get the turkey and you can tell me how to make the dressing.” She fumbled in her purse for her lipstick and didn’t look at her mother as she rouged her lips with the aid of her compact mirror. “Who knows? Dave may fall for my cooking. If I give him a bang-up meal, he won’t think I’m such a debit.”
Lucy’s mouth dropped in amazement. Certainly neither Dave nor any other man would ever fall for Leona’s cooking. How many times had she tried to impress her daughter with the fact that keeping house was an art? Now that it was too late, Leona was planning on bowling Dave over with an elaborate Christmas dinner. Lucy’s head ached just contemplating it.
Miriam dropped into her mother’s bedroom on her way to school. She had the unwanted silk in her hands and she sat on the bed.
“I just ran over and showed it to Sally. She says it won’t be so terrible if I make it by her pattern. I’m going to take it to school and get Miss Robbins to help me cut it out.”
Lucy had a sort of lost feeling in the pit of her stomach. Miriam was taking sewing at school, but her seams were always so crooked!
At lunch time, Ben hurried home from the office to fix the furnace and ge ther lunch. But he burned the leftover soup and Lucy had to compromise on bread and milk.
That night at dinner there was a rumpled napkin on her tray and one of her best cups from the china cabinet in the dining room. It was Miriam who let it slip that they had run out of kitchen china.
But later, Link came to report that Dave had done K.P. duty. He “had swung a mean dishtowel,” and according to Link, everything was “under control.”
“Pop bought the tree and let me help pick out Ada’s present,” said Link as he said good night.
Lucy felt relieved when the house settled down to sleep. Things weren’t really going as bad as she had imagined they would. Perhaps she’d be up tomorrow.
But Hal arrived in the middle of the argument she was having with Ben about it, and vetoed her suggestion.
“I’m the doctor,” he said, kissing her fondly, and he added as he drew Iris into the room: “And this is the doctor’s wife.”
Lucy put out her arms. She had meant to kiss her new daughter-in-law, but the hand that touched her fingers was very cool. There was a wary formality in the girl’s tone.
“I’m so sorry you’re ill, Mrs. Henderson,” said Iris politely, and her eyes went around the room. Lucy was painfully conscious of the soiled towel in the middle of her dressing table, of the empty tray on the window seat.
She felt sure that the downstairs part of the house was in similar disarray. Iris’ first impression of the Henderson menage hadn’t been exactly what Lucy had desired; but she tried to comfort herself with a happy thought.”I’ll be up in the morning. Then I’ll tidy things up and use the nicest silver. Perhaps she’ll think better of us.”
But in the morning her pain was worse. The family declared they could manage.
“Iris can wash the dishes,” said Hal magnanimously, and Lucy saw the look that came into the girl’s pretty face. Iris wasn’t used to doing dishes.
“Miriam can do them when she gets home from school,” said Lucy, but Miriam protested.
“I’ve got to stay and finish my dress. Iris can do them.” She looked at her brilliant nails. “Besides, I don’t want to chip my polish.”
Lucy glanced at the exquisite brilliance of Iris’ shining nails. She wanted to shake her daughter; but later she heard Iris and Hal in the kitchen. There was a clatter of dishes and the sound of voices. Once when the door swung open, she heard Iris laugh. She didn’t sound too terribly unhappy. But, of course, she had Hal, and that, decided Lucy with mother-like devotion, was enough to make any girl laugh like that!
When the family came home, the evening passed with a great deal of commotion. The girls kept running into ask where things were. Lucy’s mind was a treadmill of doubt. When Link shoved his rumpled head in at the door, she wanted to ask questions herself. But he just grinned widely, and said: “Gee, Maw, we trimmed the tree. It’s a beaut!”
Lucy was pleased. So Ben had found a nice one. But trimming it always made such a mess. When Ben came up, she asked what he had done with the boxes.
“I just shoved ‘em behind the divan,” he replied and seemed to consider himself so clever that Lucy hadn’t the heart to scold. Just as she was dropping off to sleep she remembered that Ben hadn’t told her what he had bought for Ada. She asked him what it was, leaning up on her elbow to look across at the other bed.
He mumbled sleepily and turned over. It didn’t matter. A false complacency lulled her to rest.
Christmas morning dawned as all Christmas mornings should dawn, clear, cold and bright, with a tiny pattern of frost fingers against the windows where the furnace heat hadn’t reached. The entire family trooped into Lucy’s bedroom and watched her undo her packages. She felt a very gay invalid in a blue, quilted robe, satin mules, and a dash of Link’s rather highly scented perfume.
Later, Ben and Hal made a “chair” with their hands and carried her downstairs into the living room while the rest of them opened their presents. There was so much laughter and excitement that for a little while she didn’t notice her surroundings. When she did, she suppressed a little gasp.
Link had said the tree was a “beaut”; but Lucy saw that even the bright, new star on the topmost branch couldn’t hide its thin, straggling formation. It was the worst they’d ever had!
As Ada untied a bit of red ribbon, Lucy held her breath for she realized what the present was that Ben had picked out. There was a shout of merriment as Ada held up a doll, a long-legged French affair with unreal blonde hair and taffeta ruffles.
Link explained: “It’s to put in the middle of your bed.”
Ada thanked Ben gravely, but her cheeks were flushed. Lucy couldn’t help thinking it was a ridiculous gift for an old maid.
When dinner was ready, Leona declared that everyone must help carry in the food. Dave triumphantly bore the turkey in on the platter and Lucy thanked her lucky stars for an automatic gas oven.
Ben slid her to the table in a big chair so that she would not have to walk. When grace had been said, the plates were quickly filled. Lucy thought the turkey was tough, the gravy lumpy, and that the dressing had too much onion in it. But as she watched them eat, she saw that they didn’t seem to notice. Dave couldn’t get over the fact that Leona had prepared this magic feast with her own small hands, and Lucy didn’t remind him of the numerous trips Leona had made to her couch to inquire how to cook the meal.
When Leona cleared away the plates, Dave helped her, and when they came from the kitchen with the dessert, Leona’s eyes were shining.
When she leaned over to fill her mother’s glass, she whispered in her ear: “It turned the trick, darling. He’s willing to take a chance. Says he doesn’t want to lose such a good cook.”
Lucy pressed her daughter’s fingers tightly. There were tears in her eyes as she saw Leona’s face. The bitterness had fled, only laughter lurked in her smile.
“I speak to wash the dishes,” said Iris loudly when they had finished. Lucy was startled and her eyes sought her daughter-in-law’s hands. The brilliant nail polish was chipped and worn, but Iris didn’t seem to care.
While the entire party trooped into the kitchen to help, Lucy lay back on the pillows of her divan and looked about her house. The boxes which Ben had shoved behind the divan was beginning to overflow. Evidently, everyone with an unwanted box had thought of the same thing.
The wreaths at the windows hung rather lopsidedly on their red ribbon bows. Tin-foil icicles dripped onto the floor under the tree. The evergreens over the fireplace were threatening to tumble down.
Lucy couldn’t understand it. Couldn’t anyone else see that the living room carpet was littered with bits of string and hundreds of pine needles from the dried-up tree? Couldn’t any of them see that nothing was just exactly right?
Link came into the room, his face smeared with chocolate, and began to tinker with the lights. “I gotta put in a new globe,” he told his mother as he hurried away.
Ada came through the living room with a pile of plates for the china cabinet. As she passed her French doll, she put out her hand and touched the pale-green taffeta ruffles, Lucy saw her eyes. They were no longer faded and dull. The doll had brought back her youth.
The room was drowsily quiet when Iris came in. Lucy wasn’t sure she was beside her until she lifted her lashes and saw her smiling. There was a sort of inner glow in the girl’s face, and when Lucy patted the couch, Iris sat down.
“This is the nicest Christmas I’ve ever known,”she said wistfully, and Lucy saw that the diamond ring she wore was dull with grease and soap. Suddenly she touched Lucy’s hand. “Mrs. Henderson,” she began, and changed it to” “Mother, Hal and I want you to be the first to know. We’re having a baby in July.”
For a moment Lucy didn’t move. She wanted to be sure she heard the simple words. Then her fingers tightened about the girl’s hand and she drew her close for a happy kiss.
“I’ll have to tell Ben,” she whispered wonderingly.
But Ben and Hal were coming into the room, their arms about each other’s shoulders. Iris’ eyes twinkled mischievously. “I don’t think you’ll have to,”she said, and went into Ben’s opened arms.
Link came back with the globe he had been hunting. It was a moment before he got it screwed in. The others came out of the kitchen and waited breathlessly.
Suddenly the tree was a blaze of light. The star at the top gleamed benevolently. Link’s voice was filled with glee.
“I told you, Maw. A tree’s swell when it’s got a star at the top!”
Everybody laughed gently, and admired the display. Leona’s hand was linked with Dave’s brown one, and there was joy in her eyes. Hal had his arm about his wife’s slim waist and there was no fear for the future in either of their faces.
Miriam wore her crooked-seamed dress with an arrogant air. When she moved, the skirt flared out and she watched it happily.
“It’s a lot prettier than Sally’s,” she admitted with a smile.
Ben stood thoughtfully stroking his chin. “I hope it’s a boy,” he said out of his dreams, and no one laughed.
Deep in her soul Lucy knew peace. “Boy, or girl,” she said teasingly, “it will be thrilling to be a grandmother.” She saw very clearly, now, that Link had been right. Christmas is always wonderful if you look at the star!