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Advent: Gifts

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 13, 2013

From the Relief Society Magazine, January 1937 –

Gifts

By Vera Hinckley Mayhew

Just ten more days until Christmas! The children sang the words joyously, the newspapers printed them blatantly and Alice whispered them feverishly as she rushed from store to store. The days in which to do the work of the weeks. It had seemed impossible to get at her shopping earlier. FirstBbob had had the “flu,” then she had taken it and been in bed three weeks. She was hardly strong yet but Christmas preparations must be started.

She glanced from her wrist watch to the list she carried. It was almost noon and so very few of the things on the list had been checked off as done. Everything had gone wrong this year. The stocks were so small and poor that it was hard to make a selection. Things had already been picked over and the clerks were dead on their feet. She had handled things she didn’t like, bought things she didn’t want until she was sick of the whole Christmas business.

Her feelings were reflected on the faces of other shoppers. Such a clutching, grabbing mob. She had the feeling that if Christ were here today he would be as disgusted with this mad throng as he had been with the money changers of old. But perhaps there never had been a Christ! Certainly his teachings were little enough followed today. The celebration of his birth had descended to a greedy exchange of gifts. Gifts? No, it could hardly be called that. A gift was something given freely from the heart. Something that took with it a bit of the soul of the giver. These other things she had been buying today were not gifts, they were presents to others who gave presents to her. The gifts she looked at longingly and passed by. These she couldn’t afford: the Gladstone bag for Bob, an adorable little silk dress for Amy’s Beth, a snuggly quilted robe for Sue, who had always been her best loved friend and for whom life was so pitifully hard just now.

It was especially too bad about the bag. It seemed a shame that the man who struggled so hard and turned every cent he earned over to his family should always have to smile cheerfully on Christmas morning and say thanks for shirts and socks, never could have any of the small luxuries that he would love. She bought the shirts and ties with a sigh and passed on to a consideration of things for the children.

Would the doll bed be too babyish for Molly? Molly was eight this month and whenever Alice thought of her a tiny spasm of fear clutched her heart. They had had such a time bringing the child to these eight years. This morning she had had a slight cold and Alice had thought it would be better to postpone her shopping trip. But the time was so terribly short that she had given careful instructions to her mother’s helper and left home with a heavy heart.

The winter dark had descended before Alice was through and could climb into her car and drive wearily home. She felt frozen through, yet strangely soiled and sticky. Outside all day the wind had been bitter, penetrating the fur of her coat as if it had been sheerest muslin. Inside the stores had been warm enough but the doors of cafeteria food and hurrying humanity had made her faintly sick.

When she finally opened the door of her own home everything was so quiet that she felt instinctively that something must be wrong. She called out before she saw anyone, “How’s everything?”

“Fine,” the mother’s helper announced. “Molly has slept nearly all day and the rest are playing in the basement.”

“Slept?” Alice cried in a high unnatural voice. “Oh, that isn’t so good. She wouldn’t sleep unless her temperatures were rather high.”

Alice dropped her bundles, hat, coat, purse, gloves without regard to where they landed on the way to Molly’s room. The child’s forehead was hot to her lips as she murmured. “Mother will just slip into something easier to work in and give you a nice cool sponge. You’ll feel better.”

After the bath and a light supper of fruit and toast the child seemed better and Alice was free to turn her attention to the rest of the family.

When the last one was settled and she lay at last on her own bed she thought she had never been so tired. But it was long before she could sleep. Her mind was a jumble of thoughts. The many things she had yet to do before Christmas, the inappropriateness of some of the things she had bought today, and constantly recurring the little demon of worry over Molly.

At last she dozed, only to be wakened almost at once by the sound of coughing, dry, hard coughing that sounded as if it had no bottom and accomplished nothing. With icy fingers she groped for slippers and robe and stumbled into Molly’s room. The child’s head was clammy damp, but her hands were dry and hot. In panic Alice called to Bob and hurried to the phone to summon the doctor. But the doctor was out on an all night case. They worked alone through the interminable night. At times it seemed as if the child were better, but they never could be sure. Alice thought with a shudder of the terrible winter when Molly had had pneumonia.

When the doctor finally arrived Bob had had to leave for the office and Alice without his calm sureness was a victim of her fears and imaginings. She could hardly move her legs, so weak they felt, to let the doctor in and take him back to Molly’s room. The examination seemed endless. When he finally raised his head and said, “We had better get her into the hospital right away,” it seemed to Alice that her life had been an eternity of waiting for those fearful words. She felt her heart turn into ice and slowly congeal her body. She just could force her stiffened lips to form the dread word, “Pneumonia”?

At the sound of her strange voice the doctor looked full at her face and said gently, “Not yet. Don’t worry. She isn’t so bad, only it is better to fight this type with oxygen from the beginning.”

He had said, “not yet,” but he had said “this type” and Alice knew too deep for any words to affect the knowledge that it was pneumonia, that the child was sicker than she had ever been. It was better to be sure. She knew now what she had to face. Her voice was steady as she said, “I’ll call Bob. Will you arrange for a room for us?”

Bob was home sooner than she had believed possible. As he placed the little blanket-wrapped form in her arms in the car she could scarcely restrain the desire to press the little one against her throbbing heart and cry out, “You can’t leave us, oh, you mustn’t.” But the little girl with trusting eight year old eyes looked into the mother’s face and said, “Will I be home for Christmas?”

“Of course, dear,” Alice answered with a smile that was almost more than she could manage.

Christmas! Of what significance was Christmas? Oh, yes, it was supposed to be the birthday of the Savior of the world. Flor what had he saved it? For little ones to be torn from the arms of their mothers? For thousands to go hungry and shivering? A sorry place it was. Alice had always had a trusting child-like faith but the events of the past few years had made some pretty deep dents in her religious armor. Now she wondered if there were a God why his people showed so few of the attributes of divinity.

“You won’t leave me, Mama?” Molly asked with a note of pain in her baby voice.

“No, I won’t leave you, dear.”

The child closed her eyes but the mother cried out within herself. “But what if you leave us? Oh, my darling, I had rather bear you a thousand times than lose you like this.” How she hated to put the child in a hospital, cold, unfeeling, an institution.

That first day was one long nightmare of half-hour periods. A half-hour under the oxygen tent, a half-hour of hot packs. To Alice, watching the little girl so still and blue, it seemed as if all her life had been lived in this hospital room watching for the pink to creep into Molly’s fingers and lips under the blessed tent, watching the dread blue return in such a few seconds when it was taken away.

From somewhere she gathered strength to go through that day and endless other days. She moved as a woman in a dream. Nurses came and encouraged her to drink hot, strengthening liquids. Office attendants summoned her to the phone over and over that she might assure Bob, who must keep working, that everything was just the same. On the second morning When she came into the hospital she noticed that the nurse on duty was familiar. Her own little sister.

“Why, Florence, how did you know?”

“Mother called me and I came,” the girl answered simply.

“But you were on your honeymoon. What about Charles?” Alice asked.

“He told me to come. Often the difference between someone the child knows and trusts and a stranger is enough to make all the difference.”

“How can I ever tell you how grateful I am?” Alice asked while the tears streamed down her face.

“No need. I’m not doing anything I don’t want to do.”

For the first time a feeling of gratitude entered Alice’s heart. She began to notice others and to sense, at least partly, the part they were playing in the drama of her life. As she entered the hospital so early every morning the attendants stopped to ask her how the child was. Relatives of other patients knocked softly on the door and made kindly inquiries.

On the fifth day the doctor said, “You can stay tonight,” and she knew the crisis was near. She sat by the child’s bed weary in every bone and almost too numb to think. Late in the evening the superintendent himself wheeled in an operating cart. “It isn’t awfully comfortable,” he said, “but it is better than sitting up all night.” Bob helped her on to the cart, covered her gently and held her hand as together they watched while the fever shot up, the child became delirious and the rapid breathing more and more uneven. Two nurses worked madly and at last when the watchers felt they could bear it no longer, the child resumed a more normal breathing and the doctor said, “I believe she’ll make it.”

In the next few days Alice came to know more of the workings of a hospital. It was a little city in itself. A city of pain and sorrow and death. But a city of love and kindness and sacrifice. Every day people did things for her that were far outside the bounds of duty and she in turn felt the desire to extend comfort and help. All these, Molly’s neighbors, had a place in her thoughts and prayers. She came to know the special nurses and each morning was anxious to hear of the progress of their patients. There was one little nurse that interested her greatly. Stevens, the other girls called her. She was nursing the pneumonia in 208 who was the mother of five children. “No one thinks she’ll live but her husband and me,” the girl told Alice. “I know she will and I’m not going to give up or rest till she goes home, if I only weigh eighty pounds.”

It was four days, three days, two days until Christmas. Alice’s preparations were forgotten. She got a few simple gifts for Molly to have for her nurses on Christmas morning and she helped with the tree being planned for the children in the ward. She was so busy and so thankful for Molly’s improvement that she forgot to resent it that the child would not be home for Christmas or to worry that her own Christmas preparations would not be made.

Christmas Eve she stayed all night at the hospital to watch the even breathing of her child and just be thankful. She must have dozed in her chair for she was wakened by the sound of music.

“Glory to God, Glory to God,
Glory to God in the highest.
Peace on earth, good will to men,
Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Alice looked toward the bed where Molly stirred slightly and murmured, “The music is pretty, Mamma.”

“Pretty!” Alice thought. “It is divine. An expression of the spirit of the Master. ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of these the least of mine …’!” Once again the music came.

“On earth peace, good will to men.”

At home her table would be piled with presents. But here in the hospital she had found gifts. Gifts of the spirit. Purified by suffering she was able to see the spirit of the Master reflected in his children. She began to count her gifts and the givers. The little sister who gave her honeymoon so willingly and the young husband who would not have it otherwise. The nurses who gave attention far above their price. The visitors who brought cheer to an overburdened heart.

Suddenly she understood the spirit of Christmas. It did not belong to one season only. Life was full of gifts. Here in a hospital room she had found the spirit of Christ and she knew that where his spirit was in such abundance was the sweet assurance of the existence of God, who looks after little children and bestows upon all his gifts.



4 Comments »

  1. This one was hard for me, but it’s a great little story. When my mother passed away, she was in the hospital over Christmas, and I fully agree that it is one of the places where it is possible to find the deep and peaceful Spirit of Christmas.

    Comment by Matt — December 13, 2013 @ 11:41 am

  2. My mother spent her last Christmas there too, Matt, after going in on Thanksgiving Day. I have some idea of your feelings.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 13, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

  3. Clever ….a sneak appearance of the uniquely LDS carol “Far Far Away on Judea’s Plains.”

    Comment by Coffinberry — December 14, 2013 @ 7:41 am

  4. I finally put my finger on what is bothering me about these ‘too caught up in business to appreciate Christmas’ stories. It is that I have generally only experienced that in connection with church related activities. It’s people’s fault, not the church’s fault, of course. There was the Christmas I was 9 months pregnant (bad planning, I know) and carefully got all of my shopping done while I could still fit behind the wheel of the car while reaching the pedals. And then, a couple of days before Christmas, the bishop handed me money and asked me to buy presents for a family for whom I was the visiting teacher. I managed to drive, but it wasn’t easy. Then there was the college student who rehearsed a Christmas piece with his vocal coach all semester and then got home a week before Christmas and handed Ralph the music and asked him to play it on the piano Sunday. Or the choir director, who couldn’t play a musical instrument herself, but was convinced that Ralph could play the difficult pieces she kept handing him if he would just TRY. Or the people who are determined that the Nativity play be perfect, therefore requiring four weeks of practices.

    I guess that I am just a lot better at ignoring the commercial thrust of TV, radio, internet, and junkmail advertising. But I have a harder time shutting out the demanding voice of people in the ward directory. But I am slowly learning to smile and calmly tell people what I can do, and what I cannot possibly do. Ralph is getting better at saying, “I’m a self-taught organist. I need a month to learn something like this.” Or, as my sister once told a choir director, “If I thought you could browbeat talent into me, I would encourage you to do so. But I’ve never heard of that working, so you might as well stop.”

    Reading years worth of church magazine Christmas stories highlights that this challenge has been around for a long time and probably isn’t going away. I guess this is a time to apply the “Good, better, best” principle. Also, my house is a house of order, and the order is, “people first, things second.’

    Merry Christmas.

    Comment by LauraN — December 14, 2013 @ 11:57 am

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