From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1959 –
The Miracle Mile
By Leola Seely Anderson
You can walk a mile down Wilshire boulevard any night in December and meet a miracle. There is a small but brilliant sign just the other side of one of Hollywood’s big department stores that tells you this is it: The Miracle Mile. You may see only the fabulous glitter of a man-made empire, or you may see a sudden and strange light, as Louisa Devore did, about eight o’clock on the night of December 23d as she walked the Miracle Mile with her daughter, Nancy.
Wrapped in furs and bright scarves, they were a striking couple even among the throngs of well-dressed, package-laden people, but though she walked with the measured tread of confidence, Louisa Devore knew panic in her heart. She felt the rapier thrust of icicles in the air swirling in from the ocean, and although the Miracle Mile blazed light as day, the sky above was blackly impenetrable.
Mark, Mark, where are you? Her silent cry spiraled into the night and found no answer. Her shattering widowhood still ached and destroyed with its loneliness. Though it had been nearly six months since Mark’s sudden heart attack, her loss seemed as poignant tonight as at first. Christmas without Mark was like summer without sunshine or winter without hope.
Louisa slid her arm through Nancy’s and held her tightly. She still had Nancy, a vital part of Mark – like him in her quick generosity, her gay, laughing spirit. Without her there would be no going on.
Tonight the girl seemed restless and preoccupied. She misses her father, too, Louisa brooded. Holidays had always been such fun. It had become a ritual to walk the Miracle Mile before Christmas Eve to enjoy the elegance of the displays and the storybook dream as in the windows. And Mark had always insisted on buying them something special, a cloud of nylon, celestial blue, or maybe a stole iridescent with sequins, like a star remembered. Or perhaps a sack of popcorn, or a Christmas elf.
Louisa forced her errant thoughts back. Nancy had been talking all the way down the street, not in the usual torrent of excited chatter, but thoughtfully. Louisa drew closer to her daughter. Panic was a shadow, so near.
“Paul says you have to be away from all this to appreciate what Christmas really means,” Nancy spoke softly. “He says all the surface show and high pressure commercialism make him ill since he spent a Christmas overseas. He thinks …”
“Paul says, Paul thinks” – Louisa’s taut nerves grew tighter still. She knew Paul Candland was a fine young man; she knew he was ambitious and intelligent and halfway through law school. He was also terribly in love with her daughter, and that was frightening, too.
“Paul thinks every second generation should be born poor – just so we don’t lose the wonder of living. He says doled-out money is a narcotic that gives people the idea the world owes them a living, when actually it only owes them the right to earn it. Isn’t he splendid? He thinks – oh, wait, Mother! You really should see this!”
She maneuvered Louisa expertly through the crowd into a jewelry store entrance and pointed into the show window. A fabulous solitaire winked each of a thousand facets at them. Around it the other stones were lesser stars.
“That’s the ring he’s going to get me. We picked it out last night.”
Louisa gasped, “Why, that ring would cost more than Paul makes in a year!”
“Sure!” Nancy smiled. “But, as Paul says, the best is none too good for me!”
Louisa stiffened. “I thought Paul objected to five-dollars-down deals. I thought Paul was the independent type, who asked nothing from anyone, who planned to fight the dragon single-handed and bring it back to you on his silver charger!”
At the edge in her voice, Nancy looked up. “Oh, he isn’t going to get it right away. Maybe in the next fifty years, though.”
Louisa’s lips relaxed slowly.
Nancy chose her words more carefully. “No, Paul’s going to finish his law course in the East. He has been offered a part-time job in a legal firm while he studies at the university. He’s leaving before the New Year, Mother.”
Louisa’s breath stopped in her throat and anguish piled up behind it. Nancy wanted to go across the continent with Paul! Her last comfort would slip away unless she could stop it. She must stop it!
“He’s a wonderful person, Mother. He’s thoughtful and kind and he works so hard. I’m afraid he’ll overdo it when he’s away off there alone, with no one to look after him. He says there’s so much to learn and time goes so fast …”
Off there alone? Louisa gasped at hope. “You – you aren’t going with him?”
Nancy raised blue eyes misty with tears. “Not as long as you want me here, Mother. He thinks you need me now more than he does.”
I do – I do! Louisa cried silently. I’ll always need you. Maybe away off there Paul will find somebody else … She turned quickly from the window to stop her guilty thinking. Her relief rushed out in unconsidered words. “I’ll make it up to you, Nancy. Why don’t I buy the ring you want, and you’ll have it while you wait …?”
Nancy’s look shamed her. “I don’t think Paul would like that. Besides, he knows I don’t need a ring to wait. From my bedroom window I can see the angel Moroni shining at the top of the temple out on Santa Monica, and I can wait.”
Oh, to be young again, to have time and faith! As through a mist Louisa’s lost gaze drifted – then riveted – to a shop window opposite the jeweler’s. There was nothing gaudy or brilliant in it. A tiny blue and white pastry shop with a single display. In letters of gingerbread a foot high it spelled out the name “Louisa,” and an obbligato of Christmas bells tinkled softly in the background.
Shock jolted Louisa alive. Suddenly she was young again. Impelled, she raised her eyes from the gingerbread name to the face of the short, roly-poly woman who nodded and smiled at her through the window. Louisa swayed unsteadily. The woman’s ash-blond hair was swept up to a flat bun on top of her head, and her eyes were twinkly and China-blue. Her gay cotton dress, like a generous sack of flour, was tied in the middle by an immaculate white muslin apron.
Moving without volition, Louisa pushed open the door of the blue and white shop, and a wave of spicy fragrance rushed to meet her. A strange excitement possessed her. Don’t be silly, she commanded herself. It is more than twenty years since Granny Straus died. Yet give this little lady a bright blue bowl and a batch of feathery “windcakes” in the making, put her in a spotless kitchen away off in a tiny Utah village, and she could almost be dear, precious Granny Straus, the only mother Louisa Devote had ever known.
“The Sint Nikolaas koek in the window …” she began.
The little woman beamed. “You know this cake, yes? You are Dutch, too, maybe?”
Louisa nodded. “My grandmother was. The name – why did you use ‘Louisa’?”
“Is a common name in Holland. Is also my name, and the name of my granddaughter.” She smiled and bobbed her head.
Louisa drew a slow, stabilizing breath. Of course. How foolish can a sensible woman get!
“Saint Nicholas cake,” Nancy repeated. “Didn’t you used to tell me about that, Mother – that it meant something special?”
The little woman rubbed her hands down the sides of her apron. “But, yes. The cake is put on the mantel on the even of Sint Nikolaas. The size, how high it is, tells everybody have you been a good girl this year. A very high cake – a very good girl. You wish to haf cake made for you?”
Nancy gurgled, “Let’s Mother! One for Paul, too!”
Louisa’s drooping chin came up. Why not? Christmas is for remembering loved ones and precious things and symbols that have had a part in fashioning one’s life.
The back door of the shop swung open and a little man came in. A host of wonderful smells came with him – cinnamon and apples and spices rich as the Magi. He was short and stocky and almost bald, with a face like a Rubens cherub on which a mischievous boy has painted a Van Dyke beard.
Without uttering a word, he captured Louisa’s vagrant emotions and spun her thoughts back twenty years. All the way back to a tiny railroad station in a vast white valley asleep at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. It was Christmas vacation, the last one she had spent at home from school.
As she had stepped into the snow from the ancient passenger car, Gramp had shuffled out of the half-buried station to meet her, a veritable Santa in his fur pillbox and ear muffs, which were as much his trademark as the short white beard at which he tugged whenever he was perplexed.
All in a moment he had embraced her, told her how pretty she was, and tucked her into the sleigh under a heavy patchwork quilt. The team of spirited bays had leaped forward at his signal.
It was like flying to the tinkle of silver sleigh bells. She had loved the sting of wind in her face, laughed at the snowballs tossed up into her lap by the horses’ prancing feet. Down the single street of the tiny village, square little Dutch houses were lined up companionably like a row of children in bed. Here were security and permanence as unchanging as the mountains.
“Could I get you maybe a glass of vater?” the little man behind the counter asked softly, smiling at Louisa Devore. “You look sick.”
His voice. That accent. Louisa tried to clear her head. This was absurd. There was no snow in southern California, no matched bays pulling two-runner sleds, no blue Dutch house, and no Gramp with wise, understanding eyes. Not for twenty years had there been.
Yet the little shop breathed the same cherished fragrance, the same warmth and simplicity. The past lived again in these two friendly persons so like those she had loved most. Seeing them called up living pictures of forgotten things. Pioneers from foreign lands strong in a new faith, who knew so well where wisdom lay. They had planted in her heart guideposts deep and firm and immovable.
Like the advice about love – love is giving and sharing and never thinking about yourself until everybody else is thought of!
Love. Louisa Devore turned suddenly to look deep into her daughter’s eyes. How like Granny’s they were. How like Granny this child of hers was. She might have been the one to whom Granny gave her priceless advice. Think of everybody else first. Louisa’s cheeks flushed.
“We’ll take the cakes, Nancy. One for Paul, too. We’ll have a Dutch Christmas right here in the middle of Hollywood.” And we’ll shut out the glamor and glitter, she promised silently.
Nancy began to bubble. “We’ll make manikins, Mother, to hide our presents in – like you used to tell me about when I was little.”
Louisa fumbled in her wallet and laid a bill on the counter.
“Make us a Merry Christmas gingerbread, too,” she said rapidly. “Only spell it with an ‘X.’ It will be a more convenient size.”
The two smiles faded. The couple exchanged perplexed glances, and the little lady broke into voluble Dutch. Louisa caught a word here and there, and nostalgia surged up in her card again. Quickly she added her card to the bill.
“Send the cakes early tomorrow, will you? We must have time to alter our decorations.”
“I’m sorry,” the little man said gently. “The names we will do, yes. But the Merry Xmas, no. Ve never put an ‘X’ in Christmas. Ve can’t take der Christ out,” he finished simply.
The impact of memory was like a bolt of lightning. Just so Gramp would have said it – just so he did say it – more than twenty years ago.
“No substitute for der Christ Child, Louisa. Christmas then vas real jewels brought by devout kings with priceless incense and rich spices laid at a Baby’s feet; ‘tis the innocence of woolly white lambs, und der integrity of parental devotion.”
Louisa took Nancy’s arm and leaned against her. “Forget that one cake, then. The others – tomorrow.” At the door she turned to look at them again. “Thank you. Thank you very much,” she whispered.
Outside the lights struck her full in the face. Up and down Wilshire blazed the Miracle Mile. The crowds had thinned, and within her vision were three pseudo Santas plying their trades. One rang a bell over a black pot; one whistled mechanically, his body encased in two battery-lighted boards; a third sat inside a show window making promises to the starry-eyed child on his lap.
“If everyone taught Christ as sedulously as people do Santa, what a different world this would be,” Nancy mused aloud.
Louisa scarcely heard her. Clearly from the hills above Hollywood shone lights in the darkness. Lights of homes like hers. Fabulous, many of them, possessing real jewels and rare perfumes – and why not parental devotion as well? The kind Gramp taught her the day he met her at the station and took her home for the last time.
Louisa’s thoughts flowed out in a murmur. “You never did see the little blue house where I grew up, did you, darling? It was a beautiful house – I thought.”
Nancy looked quickly at her mother, and as quickly away. Gently she guided her on down the Miracle Mile.
“I wish you could have seen it as it was when I came home that last Christmas. Granny had been gone six months, but my Sint Nikolaas keoke stood on the mantel as always, a very big koek it was. And there was appelbalen in the kitchen, and a pine log fire laid in the parlor …”
Gramp had knelt to light it. The flame had sent a dainty red tongue exploring and began its feast with pungent pleasure. The old man stood up and, taking his pretty granddaughter’s shoulders in his big hands, had looked into her troubled eyes.
“Gramp knew what was bothering me, Nancy, even before I told him. He knew about Mark – he had met him early in the fall. And he knew, without telling, that I wanted to marry him and go away to California. But how could I leave my old Gramp alone – so alone?”
“Silly child!” Gramp had said, shaking her gently. “How little you know of life and luff!” He had taken out his huge red handkerchief and blown his nose loudly. “I’ll never be alone. Granny is not far away. I haf only to close my eyes and she is there in her chair, rocking and smiling, and bidding me pick up the match I’ve untidily dropped on the hearth.” He had stooped and thrown the match into the flame. “She’s smiling now.”
“Come to California with us, Gramp,” she had pleaded, as they sat before the fire, her head on his overalled knee.
“No, child,” he had said gently. “I haf my home, my horses, my friends, and my memories. You have a life of your own to live. You vill come back and show me a grandchild, and I will be proud of you and the baby. It will be like der first Christmas of all, ven a liddle One was King of peace and love.” His knotted old fingers had stroked her bright hair. “Remember, child, those who love us best are never far away. They see and know and understand. Und der Christ – he loves us most of all.”
Louisa Devore smiled at her daughter. Dear, generous Nancy. She would have let Paul go and stayed behind, all without complaint. but what Nancy didn’t know and Louisa had just remembered was that one must walk the last mile alone. Christ did – up Calvary. Gramp did – he never saw Nancy at all. Gently Louisa Devore disengaged her arm from Nancy’s.
Past the blaze of the shops the radiance of the Miracle Mile becomes subdued. Down near the end of it, on a clear night, one might see the stars, if one was looking up. Louisa raised her head. A huge white shaft pointed straight to the sky. It might have been only the gleaming tower of a building, but it seemed to be measuring the distance between a human heart and heaven.
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you …”