From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1960 –
Uncle Matt and the China Doll
by Sylvia Probst Young
Night was stealing down the mountains when Elizabeth, carrying a supper tray, crossed the barren field toward Matt’s place. At her side the wind moaned ominously. A now wind, maybe. How late the snow comes this year, she thought resentfully. They were to be gone “when snow flies,” Hank had said.
At the far end of the field the light from a lantern glowed eerily through the barn window. Hank was milking. This was the life he loved – life on the land. He was willing to keep on trying year after year to make this raw country into a thing of beauty. He would make the farm pay, he said. Young, strong, and dauntless, he had cleared the sage from acre after acre with his own two hands and a grubbing hoe.
It was she whose courage had failed after three years with no crop. Hank had finally agreed after a July hailstorm had lashed the golden turning wheat into the ground and left the fields looking devastated.
“We’ll go back to Parkville,” he had told her. “I’ll lease the place. Maybe it’s better that way.”
Her heart had lifted then. ‘You know there is always a place for you in the mill,” she had encouraged, “and Patty won’t have so far to go to school.”
“We’ll try to go by the time snow flies,” he had promised.
Now it was the first of December, the ground was still bare, and Hank had talked no more about leaving.
Elizabeth quickened her steps; she wouldn’t brood now.
The warm lamplight from Matt’s windows gleamed out invitingly. As she neared the porch, the door opened suddenly.
“Mama!” Patty’s brown eyes were glowing. “Come in, Mama, and see the new dolls.”
“Dolls?” Elizabeth smiled at her eager eight-year-old daughter.
Patty, with the blond pigtails, the shining brown eyes, and the quick smile, was the light of their lives.
In the homelike warmth of the big room that served as general store and Matt’s living room, Elizabeth unbuttoned her coat and put the supper tray on the great wooden counter.
“Guess you’re about ready for supper, Matt. Has this daughter of mine been behaving herself?”
From his armchair by the window the big man looked lovingly at the little girl.
“She’s a big help, Patty is.”
Elizabeth nodded knowingly. “By the time she’s sampled all the penny candies and the gum, she hasn’t much time to help.”
“Oh, but I did help, Mama,” the little girl defended. “I dusted the showcases and straightened up the combs and the cuff links. I didn’t have any candy at all.”
“That’s right, Elizabeth,” Matt assured her. “And then Patty was busy with the dolls.”
“Matt,” Elizabeth brought the supper tray to the little table beside his chair, “I thought you weren’t getting dolls this year. I thought you were saving all the money you could for a wheelchair.”
“I am, Elizabeth,” he told her. “I’ll get my wheelchair, but it wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t have dolls in the window.”
Elizabeth’s eyes sought the front window where a dozen different dolls were on display, some suspended by cords and some propped up in pasteboard boxes. At Patty’s urging she went to look more closely at them. Dolls – so many of them, no wonder Patty’s eyes were glowing. And each one was different. Some had composition heads, two or three were celluloid with painted faces and, wonder of wonders, some of them had eyes that opened and closed. But there was one – a very special doll; Patty had pointed her out immediately. She looked like a queen. Her body was covered with soft, white kid, her head and arms were of china, her hair and eyelashes were real, and her eyes – dark brown like Patty’s – would open and close.
“Isn’t she just beautiful?” Patty breathed.
Elizabeth could only nod her head. The little girl’s eagerness had brought quick tears to her eyes. Patty’s dolls had been of the celluloid variety.
It was wrong for Matt to have such a doll in his window, she thought. Who in Rockport could buy it?
Matt seemed to read her thoughts. “‘The big doll was specially ordered,” he told her.
“Or did Mr. Geece just use his super salesmanship on you?” Elizabeth challenged, thinking of the tall, suave, friendly drummer.
Matt smiled and shook his head. Elizabeth found a chair beside the pot-bellied stove and watched her brother-in-law eating the simple food she had placed before him. Her heart warmed. Matt was a very special person. Some kind of paralysis had made his legs useless, and for twenty years he had sat in his combination store and living room greeting friends and neighbors. They brought their eggs to exchange for vinegar or sugar, back combs, or greeting cards. They sat by his stove to play a game of checkers with him or to tell him their troubles.
He was always willing to listen to their joys and their sorrows. In his friendly place the young people gathered to sing or to talk of their romances, women exchanged recipes, men discussed cows and crops.
“It’s a good supper.” He looked at Elizabeth while he buttered the warm bread. “I always told Hank he married the best.”
From behind the counter Patty, who was deciding what kind of candy to take from the glass jars as pay for helping Uncle Matt, turned to join in the conversation.
“Uncle Matt told me our life story again,” she announced.
“Matt,” Elizabeth laughed, “she knows it off by heart.”
“I like best the part where Daddy came home from the dance,” Patty twinkled, “and he said, ‘Matt, I met the schoolteacher tonight, and I’m going to marry her.’”
“Your Daddy didn’t take long to make up his mind,” Elizabeth told her, “and speaking of your Daddy – we’d better go, he’ll be through milking now.”
She rose to gather the dishes and felt Matt’s eyes upon her.
“You’re unhappy tonight, Elizabeth. What about Parkville? Nothing decided?”
The tears she had fought all day suddenly glistened in Elizabeth’s blue eyes.
“Hank’s never said anything more,” she choked, “and I haven’t wanted to nag him.”
Matt’s face was marked with understanding. “It will work out, Elizabeth,” he said gently, “it will work out.”
The wind was still blowing when they went outside, and light flakes of snow peppered the cold air. But Elizabeth’s heart felt warmer.
Matt had always been able to soothe her troubles as a father soothes a child. She tucked the little girl’s hand in her coat pocket, and turned her eyes toward home.
“Mama,” Patty’s voice was wishful, “do you think that Santa Claus could bring me a china doll with eyes that open and close?”
“I don’t know, honey,” she chose her words carefully. “Sometimes Santa Claus doesn’t have enough dolls to go around, and we have to be happy with whatever he can bring us.”
The little girl sighed. “I know, but maybe I could write him a very special letter.”
The purr of the separator greeted them when they entered their kitchen, and Patty went out into the back room to watch the golden cream run out of the valve. It always delighted her. Sometimes Hank let her turn the big handle.
“She’ll make a good farmer’s wife,” he would say. And Elizabeth’s only answer would be an unspoken, “No!”
The dishes were on the table, and she was slicing bread when Hank came into the room.
“Hello, honey.” He came over to the table to plant a light kiss on her forehead, his dark head towering above her fair one. “What we got for supper?”
“Just dried beans and carrots.”
“Sounds good, though.” He was so easy to please. “Patty’s been telling me about Matt’s dolls.”
“Yes. She’s got her heart set on one of them. Wish Matt didn’t have them.”
He looked at her tenderly. There was concern in his eyes. “You’ve not been feeling well, have you?” which reminds me, I talked to Willis this afternoon, again, he’ll lease our place.”
“Hank!” Elizabeth cried. There was mingled joy and exasperation in her voice. “Why don’t you ever tell me these things?”
“Didn’t want to get your hopes up before I knew. He’ll take over the cows the first of the year, or before, if we want it.”
In her eagerness she was unaware of the forced lightness in his voice.
“I’ll write Mama and tell her. We can stay with them until we find a place.”
“You want to go before Christmas?”
She saw the shadow on his face then. “No,” she said quickly, “oh, no, we’ll stay here for Christmas. Matt would be so disappointed, and Patty, too.”
When supper was over, Hank went over to Matt’s to visit a bit and help him to bed.
Patty helped Elizabeth with the dishes, and they made plans for leaving Rockport, but Patty did not share her enthusiasm, and Elizabeth was disappointed.
When the little girl was tucked in bed she went to stand at the front window. The ground was covered with white now, but it had stopped snowing, and the moon was breaking through, fringing the clouds with gold. her eyes followed the road to a place near the hill – Rockport’s cemetery. A part of her heart would always be there by two little graves where two infant sons were buried. In Parkville there were doctors within call, the coming baby would have a better chance.
She turned from the window, the room was warm and pleasant. The lamp burned with a lazy tongue, and the wood fire crackled cheerfully. She smiled, thinking of Hank, big and quiet, a little shy, but sure of what he wanted. She was glad he had wanted her.
The next afternoon Hank drove Elizabeth over to Mortensen’s Mercantile. The butter and egg money that she had carefully saved, came to $3.57, enough to buy material for shirts for Hank and Matt and pongee for a new dress for Patty. There would be enough pongee for a new dress for Patty’s doll, too. She had debated long over the money before buying the cloth – $3.57 – the china doll in Matt’s window was $6. She couldn’t ask Matt to charge the rest; her charges were always written off his books, and he had said the doll was a special order.
Patty would understand, and next year they wouldn’t have to depend on a crop for their existence. Hank would be working at the mill in Parkville. Patty could have a new doll then.
In the days that followed, when Patty was at school and Hank busy with the chores, Elizabeth worked at her sewing machine. The dolls in Matt’s window were fast disappearing, but the china doll was still there, much to Patty’s delight.
A few days before Christmas, when they brought Matt’s supper to the store, the china doll was gone. Patty noticed its absence at once.
“Uncle Matt,” she cried, “the china doll is gone.”
Elizabeth thought she saw a tear in the dark eyes, but the child only smiled. “Well, I guess she couldn’t stay here forever,” she said, “but whoever gets her is going to be awfully happy.”
When school let out for Christmas vacation, Elizabeth had finished her sewing. She was pleased with the red-checkered shirts, and the pongee dress, with its ruffled skirt, was beautiful. Even the celluloid doll looked sweet in her new dress, although the paint on her eyes was almost worn off.
The day before Christmas, Elizabeth and Patty busied themselves making gingerbread men and honey candy. Hank brought the tree into the house in the early afternoon, and Patty’s delight knew no bounds as she strung popcorn and hung bright tinsel stars on it.
They took Uncle Matt’s supper over early. The store was full of neighbors and friends, little gifts and bright greeting cards lay on Matt’s table.
“Everybody loves Uncle Matt,” Patty observed as they walked home in the gathering twilight. “We’ll miss him, Mama.”
“Yes,” she said lightly, “but we’ll have him tomorrow and that will be a wonderful day.”
It was late when Hank came back from Matt’s that night. Elizabeth had gone to bed, but she got up when he came in.
He was carrying packages and he put them on the table. “Been so many folks there I couldn’t get away.”
“What do you suppose he sent us?”
“Well, the sack is candy and oranges, he had me fix that up. The others, I don’t know.”
“Shall we open them? It’s almost Christmas morning.”
“There’re no names on anything.” Hank picked up a long, thin box and handed it to Elizabeth.
Her hands trembled as she lifted the lid. For a long moment she couldn’t speak, her eyes were glued to a china-headed doll lying in the box before her.
“Hank,” her voice was choked with emotion, “it’s the doll, and he said it was a special order.”
Hank nodded. “I’m not surprised. Won’t Patty be happy? But he’ll be even happier – it’s the same every Christmas, he writes people’s accounts off his books. Guess he gave half those dolls away. Don’t know when he’ll get his wheelchair, but I don’t know anyone happier.”
Elizabeth held the doll close to her. Anticipating a child’s joy, an unheeded tear rolled down her cheek. Matt was happiest making others happy, even when it meant going without himself.
She looked across at Hank. He was like Matt, even willing to give up the land – the thing that he loved so much, to make her happy. The land was his hope, and spring would come again with new promise. But she was taking him away from it. He would never be so happy anywhere else – maybe she would not either.
“Hank,” she looked at him steadily, “let’s not go after all.”
“Elizabeth! you mean … Oh, Elizabeth …”
There were stars in his eyes as he took her into his arms.