From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1954 –
A Little More Spirit
By Carol Read Flake
Julia Brayner leaned heavily upon the straphanger beside her as the bus swung onto her street. She straightened, not bothering to murmur another apology. She had been leaned against, stepped on, and shoved about for twenty-one blocks. If she could remain vertical for seven more she would never board another bus until next year.
Which wasn’t saying much, she remembered dismally. Next year was only a week and a half away. Her armload of packages shifted perilously, and she forced her aching muscles to redouble their effort. Christmas! She started to sigh in dismay, but was interrupted by a violent lurch forward. As she regained her footing, she felt a sharp object being thrust into her ribs, which she valiantly ignored, although it probably was a gun. She was carrying two of them herself. Plus a bright yellow road grader!
She bent in an effort to see beyond the swaying torsos. They should be nearing her stop. Only an indistinguishable blur of colored Christmas lights rushed past. When the bus slowed, Julia allowed herself to be carried along to the exit. One glance told her she was short of her destination, but there was no turning back.
“Oh, dandy,” she muttered under her breath as the wind tore at her coat. “Just dandy to have to finish off with a hike.” She was scarcely in a mood to enjoy the brightly decorated windows along the street. At most it stirred a feeling of relief in the knowledge that their own tree was trimmed. When she had put the presents beneath it, she had discovered that one child suffered a shortage and her sister Ethel a complete lack of gifts.
There had been nothing to do but wake little Larry from his nap, cart him over to Mrs. Chandler’s, next door, and catch a bus to town – for the dozenth time this week! But there would be no other opportunity, with school programs to attend, the house to clean, and a hundred other things to do by Christmas. Julia hoped the children had found her note on the kitchen table and gone to bring home Larry as soon as they came from school. Tom was probably home by now.
There was the house at last, large and overbearing beside Mrs. Chandler’s tiny cottage. But what – there wasn’t a light anywhere! She quickened her pace. Where could the children be? Surely not still over to Mrs. Chandler’s. They knew better than to stand around in her crowded little parlor, chattering like magpies.
She was out of breath when she reached her door. Pushing the bundles against the wall, she freed a hand to open it – then blinked in surprise at the unfamiliar Christmas tree glowing in the corner.
“Mama, sh-h-h! I’m Santa and everyone is s’posed to be asleep …”
“Mama! Mama’s home!” a shrieking chorus interrupted Santa, who was eleven-year-old Dick, padded and stuffed in his father’s pajamas. Children rushed at her from all directions. “Mommie, we wanted to help do the tree!” “Mother, did you get my present for Miss Chadwick?” “Hey, what’s that yellow –”
“Stop it, stop it!” Julia’s voice rose above the bedlam as she pushed through to the hallways. “Now behave, all of you. For goodness sake, Dick, get that outfit off and straighten this room. Put your school things away, Tommy. Sharon, take the baby’s coat off and get the table set.”
“It is set.” The girl followed along, almost as tall as her mother. “Mother, I have to have Miss Chadwick’s …”
“Yes, yes, dear. I have it. I can’t get at it this minute. Now stay out, every one of you.”
She shoved the bedroom door shut with an elbow, and deposited the heavy armload on the bed with a deep sigh. A curtain billowed and little curls of dust bobbed about on the floor. Julia groaned as she went to close the window. She had let the house go all this horrible week.
There was Tom now. She could tell by the baby’s breathless little squeal as his Daddy tossed him high. Hurriedly she hung away her coat and jerked an apron from the hook, reaching the door just as he did.
“Gee whiz, all dolled up.” he bent his lanky frame for their kiss. “Town again?” he grinned teasingly.
“Tom, honestly, if you could be a little more help at Christmas time instead of …”
“I see a tuck. I wanna tuck, Daddy.”
Julia closed the door sharply behind them, her voice equally sharp. “No, you do not see a truck. Hasn’t sister taken your coat off yet?” She snatched Larry from Tom’s arms and whirled into the nursery.
The children were clamoring at the table, when she brought the baby to his highchair. Tom stood peering inside the refrigerator. “M-m-m, how about sampling this fruitcake of yours?”
“Don’t you dare! It’s only four days old and won’t be cut until Christmas.”
“Okay, okay. Just thought I’d ask. It’s leftovers again, while Mother’s in her usual Christmas dither.”
Julia’s hands trembled as she tied Larry’s bib. A lot of appreciation she got for running herself ragged so the family would have a decent Christmas.
“Tommy, ask the blessing – wait until your mother sits down.”
“I’m not eating,” Julia said, but dropped into her chair as Tommy mumbled briefly over his folded arms.
“Eat, Julia,” Tom ordered. “You can’t keep that human dynamo going without fuel. Did you have to stand on the bus?”
“What do you think? And with nothing to cling onto but my sanity. There wasn’t even a strap left.”
Tommy dashed suddenly from the table. “Oh, Mommie, I almost forgot. Teacher gave me a note.”
“Oh, no. Not another costume! I haven’t finished Sharon’s yet.” She took the slip of paper from her little first grader. “Well, a shepherd. I guess I can rake up something. Daddy will have to make the staff,” she added pointedly.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Tom made a long reach for the butter. “I see you handled the Christmas tree all by yourself.”
Julia’s head flew up, her dark eyes sparking indignation. “I thought you’d be glad to see that job done.”
“Is decorating the tree such a grim task? I thought it was supposed to be a gala event, with all the family sharing in the fun.” He ducked beneath his upraised hands. “Yes, I know. if I think it’s fun, I need my head mended. What you need, Mama dear, is a little less grimness and more of the old Christmas spirit. You’ve forgotten what it’s all about.”
Julia sprang up. “I know what Christmas is. It’s nothing but a great big birthday party for every member of the family, with presents to buy, and wrap, and baking to do, and the house to clean and decorate. and then they call it a holiday!”
“It’s Jesus’ birthday, isn’t it, Mama?” Tommy’s voice carried a note of bewilderment that brought color rushing to Julia’s cheeks. She could not meet Tom’s eyes. She turned and went quickly to her room.
She stood beside the bed, gazing with revulsion at the pile of packages. Reaching down, she fingered the pale rose organdy she had bought to make Ethel’s apron. It would have to be run up on the machine tonight, the handwork done tomorrow. Sharon’s angel costume had to be fitted and finished, Miss Chadwick’s gift wrapped …
“Julia, aren’t you going to eat?” Tom was coming down the hall. “I’ll scramble you some eggs, honey.” The note of solicitude in his voice warmed her, and she smiled the least bit as he came in. “Thanks, Tom. I’m not hungry, and I’ve some things I must do.”
“What’s that?” he demanded, nodding toward the organdy.
“Material to make one of those fancy aprons for Ethel …”
His eyes fell upon the little road piece. He picked it up with a scowl Julia hoped was curiosity rather than disapproval. She explained hesitantly, “I got to checking, Tom, and honestly, Dick didn’t have a thing. I mean, besides clothing and books. Nothing to have fun with.”
He had set the machine on the rug and was lowering the blade. Suddenly he grinned. “They haven’t missed a thing, have they?” He stood up, reaching into a pocket. “I guess we were both worrying about Dick’s Christmas. I got him this today.” He brought out a long, narrow box, snapped it open.
“Oh – a watch! But it must have cost …”
“It did,” he assured her emphatically. “Now don’t go trying to equalize the presents again. We can’t afford it.”
By morning the wind had given place to a dreary rain. There was much rummaging about to locate caps and rubbers, with Dick constantly grumbling, “Gee whiz, why’d it have to be rain? We never get snow anymore for Christmas.”
“Cheer up, son. Be glad you don’t live in Australia, where Christmas comes in July.” Tom whisked through the kitchen on his way to the garage, pausing briefly to kiss and admonish his wife. “Now take it easy, Julia. Don’t turn the house upside down today.”
She waited at the dinette window to wave to the family as he backed down the drive. Take it easy, indeed! She would scarcely get a good start when she would have to break away for Sharon’s program at one o’clock. Tomorrow would be Tommy’s – and also the last day of school. Housecleaning she must do before the children were out for vacation, swarming all over the place.
Her eyes moved to the curtains, crisscross; they had been new and beautiful when she hung them last summer. Might as well start with them. She got the dusty things off the rods and carried them to the utility room. There on the washer lay the bag with Tommy’s shepherd costume. Remember to take it along this afternoon. Remember to wrap Ethel’s apron and mail it on the way. Remember to do this. Do that. Hurry! Hurry!
At noon she fed Larry and hurried with him to Mrs. Chandler’s. “He’ll sleep till I come,” she announced hopefully, tucking the afghan around the chubby little body. “Oh, Mrs. Chandler, what would I do without you?” she paused at the door, letting her gaze sweep over the neat, quaintly furnished room with its colorful rag rugs, the chairs with their crocheted tidies in place, plants trailing greenery from tables and window ledges.
She couldn’t repress a wistful sigh. “All this peace and orderliness. Sometimes I think I won’t last to enjoy the sunset years.”
“You’ll probably last, my dear.” The white-haired little woman smiled benignly. “But whether you enjoy them depends upon what you have to look back upon in these busy, productive years.” She turned her smile to the covered child, murmuring, “All these lovely young lives to shape.”
Julia was looking at her watch. “Oh, I’ve got to run. I want to get the wax on, now this toddler’s out of the way, so the floors can be dry when the children get home.”
Now I’ve made myself late, she lamented to herself when finally she was ready to leave for the school. Sharon was on stage when she arrived. Julia caught her eye and watched the girl’s face light up as she gave her an admiring wink and a smile of encouragement. She took her seat in the auditorium, casting a nervous glance toward the clock on the wall. She hoped this didn’t take too long. There was still that package to mail and she mustn’t forget to stop by Tommy’s room.
She heard her daughter’s voice, low and tremulous: “… which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
Don’t be frightened, darling. Pride swelled in Julia’s bosom. Truly she was an angel, this only daughter of hers. The heavenly host was joining her now, half a dozen lesser little angels, singing together. How earnest they all were. Julia settled back, soothed by the familiar music and the story.
The story. It was all there, she observed as the pageant proceeded, word for word, right out of Holy Writ. Something stirred deep within her, some emotion of gratitude. How marvelous, really, that the schools could do this. What was the little song the children sang – “Where, oh, where but in America, can you sing sweet freedom’s song?” How blessed they were, in this Christian land of liberty where children could hear the story of Jesus and his teachings and mold their lives …
The low, sweet tones of Luther’s “Cradle Hymn” began. Sharon and the other angels were replaced by shepherds and Mary and the Infant. But Julia was no longer relaxed and glowing. something else was stirring within, pricking uncomfortably as she remembered Mrs. Chandler’s comment – “You have these lovely young lives to shape.” In the same moment came Tommy’s voice, uncertain, questioning: “It’s Jesus’ birthday, isn’t it, Mama?”
The guilty flush returned. What sort of mother was she, complaining about the preparations for a day that commemorated one of the greatest events in the history of the world? The flush deepened with realization of the painful truth. She had not been preparing for such a thing at all. Not in all the frenzied shopping and card mailing and housecleaning and tree trimming had there been any real thought of honoring Jesus, the Savior of the world. Nowhere had she paused to shape her children’s minds. An angel, Sharon? How wonderful, darling. The Lord sent his angel to tell Mary she would bear a son, and he sent the angel to announce to the shepherds that he had been born. And you’ll be one of those shepherds, Tommy. The Bible tells the story of the shepherds, how they were the first to go and visit Mary and her Baby. Dick, dear, snow isn’t what makes Christmas. It’s love for our Father in heaven and for each other, and doing good …
The nativity scene was over, and the entire sixth grade crowded on stage for a final round of carol singing. They were chanting to a soft accompaniment of bells the sweet, simple words of Eugene Field: “Why do bells for Christmas ring? Why do little children sing? Once a lovely, shining star …”
Tears stung her eyes and the words her heart. She didn’t wait for the curtain to be drawn. Blindly she made her way into the hall and down the corridor.
Tommy’s room was in another wing. As she approached the half-opened door the sound of baby voices reached her, raising in a lilting tune:
Sing a little song at Christmas.
Christmas is a time of joy,
When Santa Claus remembers
Each good little girl and boy.
“That was lovely,” she heard Miss Adams exclaim. “Isn’t Christmas a happy time, children?”
There was an excited clamoring of voices. One stood out louder than the others until it had claimed attention. Julia bent nearer and almost stopped breathing as she heard Tommy announce to the entire room, “My Mommie doesn’t think Christmas is a happy time. She says it’s just a bunch of work.”
“Christmas is a busy time for our mothers, Tommy,” Miss Adams explained. “How many of us try to help our mothers?”
Julia gasped and drew back. She hesitated, staring at the shepherd things in her arms. Then she turned in confusion and hurried from the building.
Mrs. Chandler’s house was warm and fragrant with the spicy odor of baking. “Sit down, dear,” the old lady invited, moving her needlework from the big chair. “Baby’s still sleeping like a cherub. Didn’t even wake with all my clattering in the kitchen.” She settled herself in the little rocker. “I’m baking a few cookies for the children.”
“Oh, Mrs. Chandler, you shouldn’t.”
“My goodness, I wanted to. It’s been a long time since my own children were home and I could do for them. I was thinking this afternoon of all the fun we had at Christmas, stringing berries, popping corn, making cut-outs and doodads for the tree. We didn’t have all these fine baubles and gadgets you have now.” She rocked in happy reminiscence. “Our tree always looked beautiful to us, though. My, I haven’t had a tree in years – never since I moved into this house.”
Julia was gazing glumly at the braided rug beneath her feet. “You’re all tired out, dear.” Mrs. Chandler clucked sympathetically. “Such a pace you keep. Why don’t you go have a rest before the children come home? Larry’s just fine and dandy here.”
It isn’t that I’m tired, Julia wanted to cry out. It’s that I’m sick, sick at heart because I’ve failed my family so miserably. And only last night I was feeling noble and self-sacrificing “doing” for them. But I wasn’t “doing” for them. I was cheating them.
She rose and said, gratefully, “Maybe I will, Mrs. Chandler. I’ll send Sharon over for the baby.”
She entered her home by the front door and leaned back against it, staring through burning tears at the Christmas tree that mocked her from the corner. Closing her eyes over the tears, she bowed her head in her hands. Help me – someway – to make it up to them.
She moved on to her room and changed to a house dress. They would be trooping in soon, eager and aglow with anticipation of the holidays. And what would they find? A mother, cross and complaining, making a burden of it? No they would not. She tied on her apron. Plans were beginning to shape in her mind. Not tonight they wouldn’t.
The clock on the kitchen range told her there was still time for a delivery. She sat at the telephone and scribbled a list – one small tree, bag of cranberries, can of popcorn, walnuts, citron …
“Mother, my fudge is sugary!” Sharon wailed, licking her fingers.
“Well, never mind, dear. It won’t go to waste, you may be sure.” Julia was busy spooning carrot pudding into a baking powder tin. It didn’t take a very large container for Mrs. Chandler. “Why don’t you give Tommy a hand with those berries? He isn’t piercing all of them through the center and they’re lopsided. No, no, Larry! That popcorn isn’t to eat.”
“Hey, how’s this, Mom?” Dick appeared in the doorway with the little Christmas tree. He set it carefully upon the linoleum. “Gee whiz, it still tilts, doesn’t it?”
“Not bad, son. You can fix it.” Julia hummed a little tune as she placed the pudding in the boiling water. “Think I’ll try a batch of divinity, Sharon. Daddy likes it better than fudge, anyway.”
Then she realized that she was humming a familiar tune.
“Mama, I know that song,” Tommy cried. “We’re going to sing it in our program tomorrow. How’d you know it?”
Julia looked at him blankly. “What was I singing, honey?” Then she flushed, remembering, as he fairly shouted it out.
Sing a little song at Christmas
Christmas is a time of joy,
When Santa Claus remembers
Each good little girl and boy.
“Daddy’s here,” Dick called from the utility room. “Can I tell him, Mom?”
“No, me, me, me!” Tommy made a wild dash for the door, his string of berries trailing after. “We’re making a Christmas tree for Mrs. Chandler. See, Daddy. We’re using berries and things.”
Tom stopped in the doorway, surveying the scene with wonder.
“And we’re going to have a program after supper,” Sharon informed him importantly. “Mother is going to read to us from the Bible and I have to sing my Christmas carols …”
“We’re all going to sing ‘em,” Tommy corrected indignantly. “I know a lot she doesn’t.”
Tom pushed his hat to the back of his head. “What’s the occasion?”
The children stared, dumbfounded.
Julia came to him, half smiling, half sober. “It’s Christmastime, darling,” she said softly. “I finally remembered what it’s all about.”
“You did?” He smiled indulgently. “Well, three cheers for Mama. She has had so many things to do she hasn’t had time to remember.” He winked above her head. “We’ll have to see if Santa can’t do something about that, won’t we?” he asked, making a pantomime of dishwashing behind her back to remind the children of the new dishwasher present for her, as they all shouted happily in anticipation of her joy and surprise on Christmas morning.