by Olive W. Burt
Synopsis: Carol Wilson, the only unmarried one in her family, attends the funeral of her sister Elizabeth and tries to comfort the motherless children. Kathy, the eldest niece, begs Carol to stay and take care of them, but Carol, who is an artist, returns to her work in the city. Their grandmother will care for them.
Brent Gibson, managing editor of Your Home Magazine, and Carol’s boss, met her at the airport as she returned to the city from Wyoming and the funeral of her sister, Elizabeth.
“How did it go?” Brent asked solicitously, as he greeted her. Then, before Carol could answer, he went on, “It was rugged, I can see from the way you look. Take it easy today, Carol. Try to rest and not to think. But I’ll tell you one thing – I’m mighty glad to have you back. I was afraid you’d decide to desert me.”
His voice, Carol noticed, held a note of deep sincerity, not called for by the casual words.
Carol raised her eyes to the familiar face, and then shifted them quickly. Once in a while she caught a look like that in the man’s eyes, and it always troubled her. They were business associates, that was all. And there was no reason for that intent, tender expression.
“You weren’t hoping instead of fearing, now, were you?” she tried to sound teasing, but she was too bone weary to make it believable.
Brent, too, was trying to sound casual. “Not just afraid, terrified!” he said, and grinned down at her. “A Wyoming ranch house filled with noisy kids is no place for my chief artist.” Then he went on relentlessly. “Your Mother’s Day cover is about due, you know!”
That was more like Brent. Carol smiled suddenly. “Slave driver! But it’ll be ready.”
Back in her little studio, under the pressure of work to be done by a certain time, work that she loved to do, Carol felt release from the tensions of living. She could push Elizabeth’s children back in her mind and lose herself in the creative effort required by her painting. And as an overtone to this effort, completely filling her consciousness, was the desire to create something that would meet the critical approval of Brent Gibson.
As she stood before her easel she was subtly aware of what this picture must be. She hadn’t consciously planned it, but it was there, in her mind’s eye, complete to every small detail. She began to sketch in the rough outline of her idea. Her hand, trained and obedient, moved almost involuntarily in response to her imagination.
When Brent Gibson dropped in a few days later to see how she was progressing with the assignment, he looked at the nearly completed painting and gave a low whistle of surprised admiration.
“That’s great, Carol! Truly great!” he said earnestly.
Carol looked up, gratified at his genuine approval. His eyes moved from the painting to the artist, and he regarded her thoughtfully for a long moment. It was as if he were reappraising her, re-evaluating her.
She flushed a little in embarrassment, and, to cover this emotion, she asked, “Do you get the significance?”
“Of course. Who could miss it?” he turned his gaze again to the painting. It was Carol’s memory of that evening in the bedroom with Elizabeth’s children – the children who had lost their mother and were clinging to her in place of their mother. It showed a small girl at her mother’s knee, praying. But the figure of the child alone was visible. Of the mother, only the skirt of a soft robe showed, with the bare feet of another child on the mother’s knee, lifelike against the heavenly blue of the robe. It was the expression on the praying child’s face that told the story. Somehow Carol had managed to convey in those rapt, peaceful features the whole essence of security and love – the security and love found at a mother’s knee, with the spirit of God hovering, almost tangible, over them all.
“It’s a beautiful thought, Carol,” Brent said softly. “And different. You’ve contrived to depict the essence of a mother’s love, and without showing her face at all. It’s great! For you’ve put here what any observing person must have realized – that the love between a mother and child has nothing at all to do with the mother’s appearance. Always artists are showing the mother’s face – and making her beautiful. But,” his voice caught, “it’s the love that is important.”
Carol’s face was troubled. “After I got started, I began to have doubts. You know, Brent, I think I was just a bit confused about what a mother really looks like.”
He took her shoulders between his strong hands and looked down into her questioning blue eyes. “You’re worrying about your sister’s children, aren’t you? but they’re all right?”
“Yes,” she said slowly. “I suppose they are. I tell myself that they don’t need me – that I’m just being a sentimental old aunt.”
He shook her gently. “And this is the lady that came to me begging for a chance to show what she could do in the magazine world! The lady that promised breathlessly, without even being asked, that she would be a permanent fixture, growing with the magazine, staying with it as long as she was wanted. No fly-by-night! No silly young girl longing for a home and husband …” He broke off suddenly and turned away. “When can I send for the painting?”
“Day after tomorrow,” Carol answered, and there was no trace of emotion in her voice.
But as soon as Brent was gone, she turned away from her easel, drew out her sewing machine and opened a big box she kept hidden in her closet. It was filled with material and patterns, and a half-finished full-circle skirt she was making for Kathy. But before she sat down at the machine, she took a peek at the clothes already finished. There was a sort of balm for her heart in these lovely little garments – in the dainty dresses for Trudy and Becky and the elaborate cowboy shirt for Steve. While sewing for the children, she could summon up their images, could almost believe they were here with her. And when the children received these products of her time and skill, they would know that they had not been forgotten by their aunt.
They knew that, anyway, she thought. she had written to them every day or two, and she had one letter from Kathy with a scrawled P.S. from Steve and crosses for kisses from the little girls. Kathy had told her that everything was fine. They were all well and happy and hoped she was the same. Carole smiled crookedly at the thought. Yes, she was the same – and always would be, she guessed.
As the Christmas drew near Carol found herself constantly planning what she could do for Elizabeth’s children, shopping for toys and goodies, searching the counters for gay surprises. She would have liked to fly up there, herself, and be with them over this, the best of holidays. But she didn’t dare. She felt sure that if she saw them again, she would not be able to tear herself away. And that would be foolish. They were well cared for. And it was probably just her own selfish need for love, her own need to be important to someone, that made her think of thrusting herself into Fred’s home on the pretext that his children needed her.
Brent Gibson dropped into her studio one wintry afternoon while she was busy with her painting.
“I’m calling for help!” he cried gaily. “I simply can’t tackle the job alone this year!”
“Now what job can that be?” Carol asked.
“Shopping for the staff’s Christmas gifts,” Brent said, and then went on with comical ruefulness. “That’s old big-hearted Brent! Other bosses send an office boy out to do this little job – or, if they are very, very thoughtful they get their private secretary to take over. But not Brent Gibson. Oh, no! He has to go out and select each gift himself! Please tell me why!”
Carol smiled. “It’s because you’re the best boss in the whole world. But don’t let that go to your head – I don’t really mean it.” Then suddenly, inexplicably, “Yes, I do, too, mean it, Brent.”
“I’m glad you added that,” he said soberly. Then, “Come along, lady, and help me out.”
As she reached down her hat from the closet shelf, she dislodged the box that held the clothes she had made for Elizabeth’s children. It fell to the floor, the top came off, and dainty frocks and petticoats, shirts and scarves went scattering over the floor. Brent stared at them in surprise, as Carol tried to pick them up. He reached down and rescued one of Trudy’s diminutive, ruffled frocks.
“And what’s this?” he asked. “Looks like a fairy-child’s dress.”
“It is,” Carol said gently, as she took the little garment from his hands and placed it back in the box. “It’s Trudy’s Christmas dress. Elizabeth always made the children new clothes for the holidays, and I’m not going to let the tradition die.”
“But you sent off a box of clothes just a few weeks ago …”
“I know. But I like to sew.” She put the box back on the shelf and turned bright eyes to the man. “Come on, or you won’t get much shopping done today!” she said brightly.
The afternoon turned out to be a gay one, with Brent displaying an uncanny insight into the personalities of the men and women who worked for him. Carol, watching him select each gift with discrimination and, yes, affection, thought how sensitive and perceptive this man was. He ought to have a home and a family, she thought once. But this made her smile. He often said he was wedded to the magazine and the staff members were his family. That was all he wanted, really. Why did she have to sentimentalize over everyone?
They topped the day off with dinner at the city’s finest restaurant, and then Brent took Carol back to her studio apartment.
“It’s been a wonderful day!” he said as he told her good night. “And I here and now appoint you my permanent shopper’s aid.”
Carol laughed. It had been wonderful.
But when Brent was gone and she was alone, she slumped tiredly on the long couch. This was anti-climax – she was dreadfully lonely. Well, she would go home for Christmas. Her thought swung to Brent. What would he do on that day, sacred to family and family love? A sudden thought made her smile. She would take Brent home with her. He probably wouldn’t enjoy it too much, confirmed bachelor that he was, but it would be better than spending the day alone.
It proved to be a happy solution. Brent, as on that afternoon of shopping, showed a cheerful adaptability to the demands of the situation. He played with her sisters’ children, for both Grace and Denise lived close enough to be frequent visitors at their mother’s house. Carol missed Elizabeth’s children, but Fred had written that they didn’t want to leave the ranch. “A Wyoming Christmas can’t be beat anywhere!” he had declared.
The little holiday made a pleasant break in the year’s routine, but Carol was glad to get back to her studio and her beloved easel. She settled down, now, to the work that seemed to be piling up more urgently every week. She had finished illustrations for the little book, and the publisher had been so delighted that he had immediately commissioned her to do a far more pretentious job. It was a demanding piece of art, calling for imagination and creativeness, and Carol had little time to think of anything else. She did, however, manage to send letters regularly to Elizabeth’s children, and was always moved by their careful, scrawled replies.
The weeks, the months slid by, and it was late spring when a letter came from Kathy that brought Carol to her feet with a little cry of pain. As usual, it was in the painstaking, stilted phrases that showed so plainly that the child had been warned not to bother her aunt with their troubles. Carol had been able to read between the lines, as clearly as if the words were printed there, “Grandma Trent and Daddy say I mustn’t tell you how I really feel, Aunt Carol. They say I mustn’t let you know that we are all awfully lonely and unhappy.”
Carol had read some such unwritten message in many of Kathy’s letters, but she had pretended, even to herself, that it was not there. But this letter …
“We are all well and happy and hope you are the same.” And there, as a poignant period to the brave words, was a big, soft blob where a tear had fallen, unnoticed by the child.
Then after the neat, “Your affectionate niece, Kathy” came a P.S. “Grandma Trent is sick in bed. I guess we’ve just about killed her, we make so much work. Daddy says I’ll have to be the woman of the house now, till Grandma gets well again.”
And then Stevie’s inevitable last word, “Gee, ant Carol, things is getting pretty tuff around here.”
Carol stared at the expressive blob on the soiled sheet. Then she sighed and went to the telephone. She dialed the magazine’s number and asked for Brent.
“Brent,” she said, keeping her voice under control, “I’m leaving tomorrow morning for Wyoming.”
“Oh! something wrong up there?”
“Everything, I guess. though Kathy says they are well and she hopes I am the same. But Brent,” her voice shook, “there’s a blob on the paper. She was crying when she wrote that. I’ve got to go.”
“Steady, Carol!” Brent’s voice was calming. “I’ll come and take you to the airport.”
Good old Brent! Not a word about her work! Carol gulped. “There’re still two weeks before the next cover’s due, Brent. I’ll get it done, somehow.”
“Of course you will. But don’t worry about it. Take it easy, Carol. Take it easy.”
“Brent,” Carol said carefully, “I may have to stay – really stay. You may want to get another artist …”
“Let it ride, honey,” Brent answered. “Wait till you see how things are. And don’t jump in without looking! And looking carefully and honestly!” he laughed, embarrassed. “Listen to old Uncle Brent giving advice. But I mean it, Carol.”
“I know, Brent. But I’ve got to see …”
“I’ll be there for you – early enough so you can have your breakfast at the airport. Nothing like speeding the departing staff!”
“Thanks, Brent.” Carol cradled the receiver. Well, this was the end of her months of resistance. She was giving in – lock, stock, and barrel. She shook herself grimly.
“No, I’m not! I’m not giving in. I’m just going up there to look things over!”
She got up quickly and began to pack.