From the Improvement Era, December 1947 –
A Christmas Story
By Christie Lund Coles
Lyla Mae sat in the schoolroom listening to the familiar voice of the teacher talking about mythology. It was an interesting subject in spite of the funny names like Jupiter and Juno. Yet, today she was not interested in it; it just didn’t matter whether the Greeks or Trojans won the war. It didn’t matter.
She was thinking of her mother and the conversation they had had this morning. She could see the warm, clean kitchen, with Mama sitting across the table buttering the toast and not looking at her just as though she weren’t going to speak while all the time Lyla Mae knew better. She knew when Mama’s mouth set that certain way that there were important things going to be said, things Mama didn’t want to say but felt she must.
Lyla Mae went ahead eating her wheat cereal, and after a moment Mama began softly, “Honey, you’re not going to like this, I know. Neither do I. But it just can’t be helped.”
The girl looked out of the clean window, at the crispy, white snow, the clear blue sky, and wondered what her mother could possibly tell her that could spoil this joy-feeling inside of her. It was so near to Christmas, and she always felt like this, warm and good, and wildly happy as though she would like to break out and sing, sign Christmas carols like had been coming over the radio for days and would come almost constantly in the next week. Whatever her mother told her to do, she would do willingly. If Mother was cross about something Lyla Mae had done, she would apologize. Nothing could be very wrong today or this next week. Why, they even got out of school on Friday for nearly two whole weeks.
She looked at her mother expectantly, saying, “Yes, Mama, what is it?”
“You’re a big girl now …”
Jeepers, maybe she’d forgotten to hang her clothes up in her room. She really wanted to be more orderly, but somehow she was always so rushed. She said, “If it’s my clothes, I’ll run in and hang them up now.” She knew her mother couldn’t stoop much in her condition; she surely didn’t want her to either.
Her mother’s eyes brimmed suddenly with tears, and she choked on the words, “No, I think your clothes are hung up. They were rather crooked on the hangers, but they were hung up. You’re getting better, and I’m proud of you.”
The girl looked at her inexpensive watch, she was getting impatient. Anyway, whatever it was couldn’t be too important. Things just sort of got out of focus when women were going to have babies; Mama cried over the funniest things, like now for instance. And she didn’t like to see her cry. She said, “Gee, I’ve got to hurry . . .” and began cramming the last of her toast into her mouth.
“Yes, I know. Well, what I wanted to tell you was that the doctor thinks I may be in the hospital for Christmas …” She didn’t wait for an answer but hurried on, swiftly, trying not to betray the catch in her voice, “You and Daddy can go out to Grandma’s for dinner; you’ll have a nice day.”
Lyle Mae stopped chewing her toast; it seemed for a moment that she even stopped breathing. The bright sunlight disappeared, and it was as if a cloud lay over the whole world.
“Not for Christmas, Mother,” she said seriously, with determination. “Doctors don’t know everything. You’ll be home for Christmas; I know you will.”
“I’m afraid not, Honey. But you’ll have a nice time. And when I come home, we will have a new baby sister or brother.”
Lyla Mae clenched her small fists on the table, “I won’t have a nice time; I don’t want a baby sister or brother, either one. I don’t want you to have a baby. There are too many children in the world now.”
Her mother just looked at her; the girl expected her to speak, to tell her to stop speaking like that, something; but she only looked at her; and her chin gave a funny little tremble.
Then Lyla Mae went and got into her coat and boots, put her scarf on, dallying a little as she did so, hoping her mother would say something, scold her, anything at all so that she could say she was sorry. But her mother just sat still at the table, staring straight ahead of her.
The girl sitting in her seat, third row from the left, sixth seat, moved restlessly. She felt that she was sick, more so than when she had measles or whooping cough. There was a terrible lump in her throat and one in the middle of her stomach. Nothing Mama could have said would have hurt her nearly as much as that silence, that hurt, terrible silence. And she deserved it, she had said she didn’t want the baby – she guessed that wasn’t exactly true. She had thought she wanted it all the time, she had tried to be thrilled thinking of sharing her room with it, letting its small crib stand under her window. Maybe underneath she hadn’t ever really wanted it all the time; she had tried about sharing Mama and Daddy with somebody else. After all, she had had all of their love for years. It wasn’t easy to know she was just going to be pushed aside now for a fuzzy-haired baby that they could just as well have got along without.
She didn’t know where she had heard the remark that there were too many children in the world, but she’d heard it somewhere. Maybe it was true; she didn’t know. Surely one child less wouldn’t make much difference. It was the baby’s fault that they had this quarrel. She guessed she really didn’t like it though she shouldn’t have said so to her mother. She would go home and apologize as soon as school was out instead of playing in the snow like the other children. She would put her arms about the beautiful lady and squeeze her until she would guess just a little bit how much she loved her.
But she wouldn’t say she really wanted the baby. That would be lying and she mustn’t lie. Especially not now – just before Christmas when everyone was talking about the birth of the Christ Child and how great and good he was.
As she neared the pretty little brick colonial house with its shining windows and the holly wreath already in one of them, she slowed her step for a moment as she noticed that Daddy’s car was in front of the house. She wondered what he was doing home this time of the afternoon. She would be happy to see him, of course, but she had hoped that she and Mama might have the rest of the day alone, to talk and visit. So that she could help her with dinner, maybe even bake a cake. So that she could let her know how sorry she was. Well, they probably would be alone; Daddy maybe just dropped by for a few minutes.
She ran up the three cement steps, opened the door a little slowly, for all of a sudden it occurred to her that Mama might have told Daddy how bad she had been. Maybe he had come home to punish her. After all, he took awful good care of Mama now, and they both were so anxious that the baby would be all right.
She walked in, closed the door softly behind her. She didn’t even dare call her usual, bright, “Hello.” But her mother had heard her, and she called from the bedroom, “Is that you, Honey?”
“Yes,” she answered, and then, “What’s Daddy doing home?”
She went toward the bedroom, before her mother could answer, and saw from the hall that the woman was sitting on the edge of the bed, fully dressed in coat and hat and boots. A look of hurting was on her pale face. Lyla Mae asked quickly, “What is it, Mama?”
Daddy came in before she had time to answer, and his hand touched the girl’s head very gently as he told her, “Mother has to go to the hospital now. When she comes home, we will have a new baby. Won’t that be fine?”
Lyla Mae gulped, “I – I guess so,” she stammered, then threw her arms about her mother and kissed her on the cheek again and again, “I love you so,” she murmured, “I didn’t mean what I said this morning –“
Her mother kissed her too, but it was a quick, funny kiss, and she sort of pushed her away from her and gave a little groan. Her eyes were strange, and she didn’t seem to have heard the words, for she just said to Daddy, “We’ll have to hurry.”
Without waiting for anything the man picked up Mama and started out with her, telling the girl to open the door. As he went out, he told her, “Be a good girl. Aunt Cecile will be here to get you. If I am not back, you can stay there tonight.”
Mama turned in his arms to throw her a kiss though her eyes still had their pain look, and all she seemed to really be thinking about was getting to the hospital. Lyla Mae watched through the window, saw Daddy having difficulty getting the door of the car open and wanted to run out and help, to let them know she was of some use, but he had it open too soon. They drove off, and she was left standing alone in the quietest house she had ever been in.
That night she slept in a strange bed at Aunt Cecile’s, but she lay awake for a long time and looked out of the window at the clear, cold sky, and somehow kept thinking of the words she had heard again on the radio, “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by.” To her, it was the prettiest of all the Christmas songs. It was almost like a lullaby, and as it kept singing through her mind, she grew sleepier and sleepier. Just before she fell asleep she thought what a nice lullaby it would be to sing to a little new baby – their baby.
Yet, in the morning, realizing anew that Mama was gone, that Daddy didn’t have time to be very interested in her and that her Christmas was spoiled, the resentment again pricked at her like a large, sharp pin. She was quiet and sad and was sure she would never be really happy again no matter how long she lived.
Just as she was ready to start for school, Daddy drove up. He looked tired and thin, but he was smiling, and he picked her up in his arms and threw her toward the ceiling, (didn’t he know she was too old for that?) saying, “Well, sweetheart, you’ve got a new brother. The cutest, pinkest, roundest-eyed baby since … well, since you were born.”
That warmed her a little, and she said, “Was I really cute, Daddy?”
“You bet you were,” he assured her, kissing her forehead and lowering her to the floor while he began talking to Aunt Cecile who was asking about Mama, asking how she was and everything. He said she was fine. Very tired, but resting now.
Lyla Mae pulled at his overcoat asking, anxiously, “Can’t I stay home from school and go with you up to see her?”
“They don’t allow children in where there are babies, afraid they’ll bring in some germs. They probably won’t even let me see him except through a glass wall.”
“You mean, I can’t go up to see her at all?” she asked, incredulously.
“I’m afraid not.”
What she wanted to say was, “Not even on Christmas? Not even to take her presents?” But the words didn’t come. She tied her scarf around her head and went out of the door while both of them were so interested in talking that they didn’t even notice. So, it meant that neither Daddy nor Mama would be with her Christmas. That was nice. Well, let them have the baby. She didn’t care if they wouldn’t let her see him. She didn’t care.
For the next day or two she kept mostly to herself and on Friday and Saturday, feeling very old, she went alone to finish up her Christmas shopping. She felt a little lost in the hurrying crowds because always before she and Mama had gone together. She had sent her mother down the aisle to look at something while she bought a gift for her. She supposed she knew what it was, but they both pretended she had no idea, and maybe, if she knew, she forgot for she always acted really surprised and awfully glad when she saw the gifts on Christmas morning.
She had bought for everybody. She had fifty cents left besides her carfare, and she could use that all right for a double rich malted milk and a sandwich. She would go to the counter in the five and ten cent store and that would give her a chance to rest, too, and count up her money to be sure she hadn’t lost any. As she walked down the crowded aisle, being jostled this way and that by the bigger people, she found herself once almost pushed up against a counter. If they were going to shove like that, she might as well stay here for a moment and let them by. She turned to the things for sale before her and was surprised to see soft, woolly baby blankets, baby bottles and bonnets and pink and blue rattles with rabbits or baby bears on them. In spite of herself she found herself looking at the baby doll dressed in baby clothes and admiring it. She wondered if their baby would look like that and how long it would be before it would be that fat. She picked up one of the prettiest rattles, made in the shape of a drum with tiny bears holding drumsticks painted on, she shook it and smiled at the sound it made.
The clerk was in front of her now asking, “Can I help you?” Lyla Mae felt the smooth fifty-cent piece in the palm of her hand. She thought of the thick creamy chocolate malted milk and the minced ham sandwich. Then she looked at the rattle again, shook it. She told the clerk, “Yes, I’ll take this one.” When it was all wrapped and she took it in her hand—she wouldn’t put it in the sack with the other thinks she had – she was surprised to find that she really wasn’t hungry any more … or tired either. And the funniest thing of all, as she walked toward her bus she didn’t feel lonely either. Somehow, the little rattling noise in her hand as she walked along was company, was like having someone there beside her – her mother, or a little brother.
Daddy helped her wrap her presents and trim the tree, then as they put them under the tree she said, “Will you take mine up to Mother on Christmas?”
“I’ll see,” he said, suddenly very interested in the wire on one of the Christmas ornaments that had fallen off. Ordinarily, she would have said, “You’d better,” saucily but the hurt within was still too raw, too proud to be admitted. She moved the gaily colored packages around a little on the glistening cotton. Suddenly, not really knowing that she was going to say it, she asked her father, “Do you think there are too many children in the world?”
“Heavens, no,” he answered, his voice very serious above the sound of Christmas carols being sung on the radio. “What hope would there be for the world if it weren’t for children?”
“But maybe just one child – wouldn’t make much difference.”
“Ah, but who knows what any one child can be or do? Take our baby, for instance; he can become just about anything that you and I and your mother try to make of him. Allowing of course that he is in agreement.” He laughed then adding, “Time to get to bed. Grandma will be here bright and early to start on that turkey.”
“I’m glad she’s coming here instead of us going there. It makes it seem a little more like other years. You will be here for dinner, won’t you?”
“Certainly I will. I wouldn’t miss it. Why, it’s been years since my own mother cooked my Christmas dinner.”
She looked at him, searched his face quietly. Didn’t he miss Mama? Didn’t he know that it couldn’t possibly be the same? She found no answer, for he told her, “Hurry up now. I’ll come and tuck you in.”
The next morning she woke early; other years she would have leaped from the bed, now she turned over and closed her eyes. She might just as well sleep a little longer—the day would be long enough anyway. When she awoke again, there was the smell of spicy pumpkin pies baking in the oven, of turkey being browned. For a moment it seemed that everything was all right, that Mama was singing in the bright kitchen, that her presents were waiting to be opened, to be shared. Then she remembered. She was tempted to put her head down under the covers and stay there until Grandma or Daddy took enough interest to come and wake her up. Still, curiosity got the best of her, and she slipped to the edge of the bed, put her feet into the fuzzy mules and took her white robe. As she came out, Grandma heard her and called, “Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” she answered not too enthusiastically yet tempted anyway by the pretty packages, the gleaming, good-smelling tree.
“Where’s Daddy?” she asked, almost reconciled to the fact that the three of them would have fun opening, seeing.
“He had an errand to run. He’ll be back pretty quick.”
“You mean … you mean, he went without even telling me, without wanting to see the presents?”
“Well, child, it’s after nine o’clock. You really slept in like a good one.” Grandmother was standing in the door now, smiling; Lyla Mae ran over and kissed her cheek, so that she wouldn’t maybe notice the tears in her eyes, “I guess maybe I’ll wait awhile before I open these –” she said, motioning rather blindly toward the tree. Then as she looked she saw the baby’s rattle right on top of everything with its enormous silver and blue bow. “I – I thought Daddy would take that to the hospital,” she said, torn between wanting to give it to the baby and her resentment against him.
“I’ll tell you what, you come and eat your breakfast, then he may be back, and you can talk to him yourself.”
As Lyla Mae sat at the table trying to eat, she kept remembering that other morning. It seemed so long ago in a way, yet it was only six days, less than a week. She remembered the conversation and her own words. She hadn’t been entirely satisfied with Daddy’s answer about babies. She’d see what Grandma thought. “Grandma,” she began, “lots of people think there are too many children in the world.”
“Oh, they do, do they?” Her grandmother came back sharply, “And the Lord pity those very ones – especially come Christmas.”
“But – well, say they already have a child, or maybe two, perhaps they figure that’s enough. I guess one child less doesn’t make much difference.”
Grandma raised from basting the beautiful turkey; she stood poised with the ladle in her hand, her cheeks pink from the heat, “One child doesn’t make much difference? That one child as you say has made all the difference in the world to millions of people.”
Lyla Mae went to speak, then she heard a car stopping outside and looked out. It was Daddy back. He was getting out. She couldn’t see him very well because a slow but very heavy curtain of snowflakes was falling between her and the car. It was the ’specially best kind of weather that could be for Christmas, not too cold but with the snow thick and soft and the sky seeming so gray and close. She loved to go taking presents on Christmas days like this. She loved to get her own presents. She would hurry in by the tree and let him think she was just up, ready to look at things.
She was bending over looking at some attractive looking boxes when the door opened and a cool breeze and snow blew into the room. She turned and saw Daddy coming in – and there – no, oh, yes, it was really, truly real – there was Mama in his arms, and in her arms was a small, pink-blanketed bundle. This was why Daddy had acted so strange about taking the presents to the hospital, why he had gone before she was awake.
Grandma rushed forward to take the baby. Daddy put Mama down in the big, blue chair and then she was reaching her arms out to Lyla Mae. She was saying, “Merry Christmas, my darling. We didn’t expect to, but we made it. Oh, my darling, I’ve missed you so.”
The girl found the good, sure security of loving arms about her, but suddenly what she was most anxious to see was the face that Grandma was uncovering, the little baby that was making such a tiny, strange cry.
She pulled away, ran to the tree, and picked up the rattle – for it was much more important in this moment than anything that was there for her – took it to him, shaking it in its wrapping as she went. It almost seemed he heard it, seemed he saw it, for he quit crying and his large, dark eyes looked straight up into hers. His precious bit of hand reached up and somehow got hold of one of her fingers. “Oh,” she breathed, as though she were witnessing a miracle, “isn’t he adorable? Isn’t he sweet?”
Oh, yes, Grandma was right, and Daddy was right. There weren’t too many children in the world, there never would be.