From the Improvement Era, December 1953 –
“Let Nothing You Dismay”
By Estelle Webb Thomas
“Doesn’t seem much like Christmas time,” Jerry grumbled, staring out the window at the dry lawns and bare maples.
“In more ways than one,” his mother murmured, and Roger gave her a troubled glance. Marie had not been herself since they came to the reservation. He struggled with a feeling of irritation; surely she was not so old she could no longer take transplanting. After all, they were still young – well, barely middle-aged; and they had always felt so young! He had thought Marie had more zest for life than anyone he knew; she had been the very essence of warmth and gaiety, as full of fun as Chris and Cecily and Jerry.
Always before, she had made an adventure of their moves and, in the career of a government doctor, transfers were frequent. But Marie found excitement in setting up a new home and making new friends and had succeeded in making him and the children think this an ideal life. Could it be because this time he had been transferred to Indian service? She was saying now, rather sharply, “You’d better hurry, Jerry, you’ll be late for school.”
“O.K. Say, Mom, can you dig me up a costume thing? I gotta be a wise man.”
“I suppose I can shorten Dad’s bathrobe,” Marie said, indifferently, and Roger thought involuntarily, of the joy she had always found before in making costumes for the children’s various activities. Jerry, too, felt the difference, without understanding it and said, awkwardly, “I don’t want to do it, really, but Miss Black says us kids must not go back on her. The Indian kids aren’t such good actors.” He kept talking, hoping to break through his mother’s strange shell.
Roger saw Mrs. Morley, wife of the superintendent, in the postoffice that morning.
“Good morning, Doctor, and how is Mrs. Ellison? I’ve been meaning to call, but you know how it is – this busy season –” she went out, murmuring excuses.
“Miz Ellison will find folks aren’t too sociable here – not till they get well acquainted,” the postmaster commented, busily thumbing through a parcel of letters. “I figger it’s because they come from all over the map. All have their different ways and don’t mix too well; not like the little town I grew up in, but these folks are sure good friends when you finally get to know them,” he added, as Roger turned to leave.
Now, maybe that was what ailed Marie! So far as he knew, she had had no callers. But that would not have mattered, once; Marie had found her happiness in her family. He stopped short in the street. How stupid he had been. Of course she missed the children – Jerry could not fill the place of three. he looked hurriedly through the mail. A letter from Cecily and, yes, a thin airmail letter. Chris! He’d dash home before going tothe hospital – Marie must not be made to wait till noon for these.
He made a routine grip out on the reservation that afternoon and took Marie with him, although she went unwillingly, merely to please him. He tried to interest her in his new job, to explain what the government was trying to do for the Indians, but she turned on him angrily.
“What’s the point? Spending millions on these people – and then junketing the lives of thousands of fine young fellows – ”
He couldn’t explain, because he didn’t see it himself, but he could have told her important it seemed to him to save and rehabilitate this deeply wronged people and how he valued his part in the plan, except that her bitterness rebuffed him. He ached with sympathy for her, but, for the first time in their married life did not dare express it for fear of provoking another outburst. he had hoped so much from the two letters, but Chris’s was the usual brief note. Nothing cheerful to say, no information to give out, so he talked about them, rather than himself, wished them a Merry Christmas if he didn’t get to write again before then, and reminded them wistfully not to forget him. It only renewed the ever-present ache about him but was all they could expect. Cecily’s letter had brought a sharp cry of protest from her mother.
“Oh, Roger, they can’t come for Christmas! Glenn’s to be transferred – she doesn’t know where, and she says we must not count on them, at all!”
“But we hadn’t been at all sure they could come!” Roger protested. Marie’s stricken face, however, told him that she had been clinging to the frail hope of it. That was why he had insisted on taking her with him.
Jerry was hanging some paper chains he had made in school in uneven loops across the window when they came in.
“Mom, where are the Christmas ornaments?” he demanded. “We always have the house decorated long before this.” He looked somehow pathetic, Roger thought, with his pitiful paper chain. There has always been so much laughter and bustle about decorating for Christmas.
“Still packed, I suppose,” Marie answered. “I wouldn’t know where the box is.”
“I’ll go through the garage after supper. I’ll bet I can find it,” Jerry declared. It took him an hour but he came in, smudged and tousled, lugging the dusty box. “Found it!” he announced jubilantly. “Let’s get going!”
“I have some mending to do.” Marie bent over her sewing basket. After a moment, Jerry opened the box and began slowly lifting out the old familiar things, the tinsel ropes, the glass birds, the shabby old red bell that the children had been hanging in the doorway ever since Cecily was five and Chris a wide-eyed two. As he worked, he kept up a steady whistling through his teeth and Roger identified the tune as “We Three Kings,” or approximately that, he thought, grinning. But his throat felt tight as he watched the boy over his paper.
“Got to have a tree –” Jerry muttered, putting aside a box of colored globes. “Wonder – Dad, do they have Christmas trees where there’s no snow or anything?”
“Honey, listen,” Marie put her arm around him and looked compassionately into his face (then she had been touched by his solo performance, after all), “why not just sort of let Christmas slide, this year? As you say, it doesn’t seem like Christmas –”
“But Mom –” Jerry was as horrified as if she had suggested mass suicide.
“Everything’s different – Chris –” Marie’s voice sounded odd, but she hurried on, “Chris overseas. He won’t have much of a Christmas! And Cecily and Glenn in that training camp, where they don’t know a soul –”
“B-but that’s why!” Jerry’s brown face was white now and he looked as if someone had struck him. “If we don’t have Christmas – we won’t have anything!” His lips were quivering, and he turned and dashed into his room and slammed the door. He’d died rather than show tears to his parents.
Roger glanced at Marie, but her face was bent over her work. If she didn’t go in to the kid – but in a few minutes she did. He could hear a low murmur, then the door swung open and she was saying, “You see how it is, dear. It seems sort of a mockery of the good old times. We three could go up to town and have Christmas dinner at the hotel and then go to a show – you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“It’s okay, Mom. Anything you and Dad want to do.” Jerry’s voice was subdued and a little hoarse. “It just seems kind of funny, not having any of the good old Christmas smells – or buying a turkey, or anything –”
“They have very good turkey dinners at restaurants at Christmas,” Marie said.
“You’ll come to the Christmas play anyway, won’t you, Mom?” Jerry changed the painful subject. “Miss Black said to tell you and Dad to be sure to come. You ought to hear those kids sing!” He mimicked his fellow wise men, “‘We tree kings off Orien-tar,’” and then, when we sing the verses alone – each of us kings, you know – Notah sings his like this:
“‘Bonn a bay on Baff-lee-ham play –’
“Honest, it’s a scream! You remember that Alice I told you about? When we sing that round,
“‘Rheumatism, rheumatism, causes pains, causes pains
Up and down your system, up and down your system –’
that one, she always shouts, ‘Up and down your sister!’ Honestly, they’re a riot!”
Roger knew that Jerry sensed his mother’s tension and by his boyish chatter was trying to divert her and bring back the old feeling of security and comradeship and his throat felt uncomfortably tight again.
The next day, Jerry brought home a tree. “The Indian Boy Scouts were selling them, and I didn’t think you’d care, Mom. We’re supposed to help them, you know.” He looked apprehensively at Marie. If the look hurt her, she made no sign. After supper, Roger helped him set up the tree, and Jerry trimmed it alone, getting most of the ornaments on one side and whistling through his teeth as he worked. He even hunted up the stepladder the Indian gardener used and hung the tarnished angel, which Cecily had never consented to throw away. The elderly angel was too heavy for the topmost spires of the tree and had to be suspended by a string from the ceiling and usually turned round and round, slowly above the tree, swayed by the currents of warm air, a circumstance which had always delighted the children.
“Doesn’t look like Sis had done it,” Jerry muttered presently, head on one side critically.
“It looks fine, Son!” said Roger loudly and cast an imploring glance at Marie. But she was walking into their bedroom.
roger came in next evening, rather self-consciously carrying a large, newspaper-wrapped bundle.
“Old Navajo Charlie was peddling these down at the Agency,” he explained. “He looked as if he could use the money. It’ll keep all right till we want to cook it.” Why did they feel they had to apologize for every natural preparation for Christmas, he thought resentfully. After supper, he picked and dressed the turkey and put it into the refrigerator.
“If we weren’t going to town to dinner, I’d sure like to ask Miss Black,” Jerry said carefully, not looking at his mother. “Her home’s clear in Pennsylvania, so she’s not going anywhere for Christmas.”
“Someone will surely ask her,” Marie said, quietly.
“For that matter, we could take her to town,” Roger suggested.
“Oh, she wouldn’t like that,” Jerry said, quickly; “she’s used to that kind of meals.”
The school play was to be on Christmas Eve. Jerry came home from school that afternoon with cheeks glowing. “boy, oh, boy, she’s clouding up. Maybe it’ll snow for Christmas, after all!” He hurried through supper and then disappeared into his room. After a few minutes, he called, “Guess you’ll have to help me, Mom.” Roger remembered the excited squeals and bursts of laughter as Marie had helped the children dress for their various school and church plays through the years. How she dashed about, cheeks pink, as thrilled and excited as they. Now she and Jerry came soberly out of his room. Luckily, Jerry could not know how absurd he looked in the big, sloppy bathrobe, draped so far over the cord and a yellow scarf swathed, turban-like, around his head.
“I’m sorry I forgot to hem it up,” Marie said, but Jerry answered, quickly, “It’s okay, Mom. I’ll remember to keep it hitched over the belt.”
Roger and Marie looked curiously around the gym. In a stage whisper, Jerry identified the three sets of parents of the four other white children. Then he saw Miss Black signaling him frantically and disappeared behind the wings. Presently, two little girl angels drew back the monkscloth curtains. they were dressed alike, in white cheesecloth, with tinsel crowns and discouraged wings, made of big bows of the material of their robes. “Should have wire in,” Marie whispered unexpectedly in Roger’s ear.
One angel was one of the blond little Nesbit girls Jerry had mentioned, no doubt; he had said the older Nesbit was to be Mary. The second angel must be little Alice, “Up-and-down-your-sister,” Roger thought. The manger scene was now disclosed, with a pretty, blond Mary kneeling beside a cradle with a light bulb hidden in its hood and in which lay a large, staring doll. Joseph, also blond and several years smaller than Mary, stood gazing fixedly at her. A number of dark shepherds and one small white one, who looked as if he had got into the group by mistake, straggled in and began placing various objects about the cradle – boxes of water colors, ink wells, and lunch pails which were evidently intended to represent something else. One carried alive lamb. It baa-ed and struggled, desperately, plainly frightened at its surroundings. Miss Black’s hissing whisper was clearly audible to everyone but the harassed shepherd. “Put it down, Tony! Put it down!” But Tony continued to struggle until along black arm shot out and jerked him and lamb unceremoniously off the stage.
Now the wise men entered singing, in reedy and uncertain voices, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” They had to march around the stage innumerable times to give each king a chance to sing his solo verse. And this was poor Jerry’s undoing. Although he hitched at his bathrobe continually during the interminable stanzas of the two Indian boys, when his turn came, he was too nervous to remember. With horror, roger watched the robe slipping its moorings, the top part shortening, the skirt lengthening ominously as Jerry quavered out:
“Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying –”
The last word came out in a startled squeak as Jerry stepped on his hem and plunged into the cradle.
“Jerry Ellison! If you’ve broken my doll –” shrieked Mary, in very un-madonna-like tones, and Miss Black, highly agitated, dashed into view, frantically motioning the absorbed angels to draw the curtains. Roger noted with surprise, that he and Marie were convulsively holding hands, though she still appeared unaware of it.
When the curtain was mercifully drawn on the scene of confusion, there were unexplained bumping sounds, scurryingsw and hissing whispers; then the curtains were again opened, disclosing the entire group – actors and chorus, and Miss Black appeared again, visibly shaken, to announce tragically that untoward circumstances had unavoidably shortened the program and to invite or rather implore the audience to join in the final song. Faintly at first, then gaining momentum, the children began:
“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
Roger looked at Jerry, trying to make himself small behind the other wise men, his face still crimson from embarrassment. Hesitatingly the audience was beginning to join in, and Roger turned and stared unbelievingly as Marie’s voice rang out, clear and high,
“Let earth receive her king!”
She was looking straight at Jerry, and roger looked, too. At sound of his mother’s voice, the boy’s downcast eyes lifted and, startled, sought her face; then magically, as if smoothed away by a gentle hand, the painful expression of hurt and humiliation left his own, and after a moment he joined in the swelling song. It was a shock to Roger to find that he, too, was singing heartily, although it was a family joke of long standing that he could not carry a tune.
Several people came up and introduced themselves afterward, and when Roger turned to include Marie, she was not there. he learned where she had been when they were driving home.
“Oh, Mom, I’m sure glad you invited Miss black to dinner tomorrow! I asked all the kids and nobody had invited her – they all had some reason or other.” Jerry’s voice dropped. “’Specially since I spoiled her old play –”
“Why, you didn’t spoil the play, honey!” It was Marie’s old warm voice. “You did just fine. It was my fault you tripped on yoru robe and honestly, Jerry, that didn’t spoil it – just added a little humor, didhn’tit, Daddy?”
“Sure did!” Roger agreed, and they both laughed heartily.
After a moment, rather doubtfully, Jerry joined them, and they were all laughing when they entered the house. It had started to snow, large, soft flakes, and Jerry paused on the step to look back and exclaim fervently, “gosh, I’ll bet this is going to be a real Christmas after all!” He came in, switching on the bubbling, colored lights and stood admiring his Christmas tree, and Marie and Roger exchanged relieved glances. Evidently the memory of his debacle was erased from his mind, or at least, its sting. A moment later he cried, “Listen! the carolers!” Beneath the window there stood a teacher form the Indian school, surrounded by dark-faced, smiling children, and suddenly they were shouting,
“Gott ress you, marry shentlemans,
Let nuttings you dismay!”
“May I treat them, Mom?” Jerry urged, but while he and Marie were emptying the cooky jar, the children were gone, their gay voices floating back,
“Shingle bells, shingle bells!”
“I meant to tell you – I can’t go to town for Christmas dinner,” Roger said, tardily, “I’m on call tomorrow.”
“Who wants to go to town?” Marie demanded. “Didn’t you know we invited Miss Black?”
“You could have taken her to town,” Roger observed, but Marie sniffed. Encouraged by this he ventured, “Well – if we’re going to have a Christmas dinner anyway, how about letting me ask Thornbur? He hasn’t a soul – would just eat at the club.”
As it happened, he brought three guests, Thornbur, the assistant doctor, who had been unable as yet to find quarters for his family in the East, a young Navajo Marine, and Cinderella.
Cinderella was a fat, adorable two-year-old, whose Navajo mother had died in the hospital at the baby’s birth and whose young father was in the Army. He had left her there for adoption but, so far, she was just the “hospital baby,” loved and petted and spoiled by doctors, nurses, and patients. The Marine, handsome and tragic-eyed, had come home on furlough, after months overseas, to find his wife dead from tuberculosis, the scourge of the Navajos, and his baby with its grandparents – where he did not know, for after his young wife’s death the hogan was burned, as is customary, and parents and baby were taken in by relatives, somewhere on the reservations. He had spent his brief furlough searching for them, fruitlessly. Today he had wandered back to the hospital to hear again the sorry story of his wife’s illness and her parents’ ill-advised insistence that she return home for a visit, which resulted in her death. And Roger had impulsively invited him to dinner.
He was glad he had when they entered the heartening fragrance of Christmas cooking, the house warm and gay, and the radio softly playing carols. Jerry, an apron tied round his waist and nutcracker in hand welcomed them at the door, “Mom’s pretty busy. She’ll be out in a minute,” he said, importantly and then dashed to answer the telephone. “It’s for you, Mom!” he shouted, ‘I’ll take over the kitchen!” But he paused for a moment to pick up the smiling baby and take her along with him.
From the hall Marie was saying faintly, “Long distance?” Roger’s heart gave a sickening lurch, it could always be bad news. But a moment later she cried, unbelievingly, “Chris? Not Chris! But – where are you? Just today? Oh, Roger!”
Roger rushed to her side and, listening by turns, they learned that Chris had landed in San Diego not half an hour ago and would be home as soon as was possible.
“I’ll be thinking of you all at Christmas dinner – about time over there, isn’t it? Wish Sis was there,”he said. “Tell Jerry to eat enough of Mom’s turkey and mince pie for me, too!”
From that time on, there was no break in the excited talk and laughter in the kitchen. Roger and the Marine pulled out the table, and Jerry set it – not like Cecily, Roger thought, with an involuntary pang, but well enough. Miss Black arrived just as Jerry had given her up and was preparing happily to take the car and go after her. Fortunately for his self-esteem, he would never know how terrified she would have been to ride with him as chauffeur. At long last everything was ready and family and guests assembled about the table.
When Roger bowed his head to offer thanks for the feast, he did not say all that was in his heart. He did not voice his ache for the two bright faces missing form the Christmas table for the first time, nor his gratitude that Marie, who had been in a far country, spiritually, had returned, her old warm self, in time for Christmas. But he met her smile as he raised his head and knew she understood all he did not say.
“The doorbell!” Jerry grumbled, leaving his heaping plate reluctantly. “First it’s the phone –” But he was not quick enough. The door burst open without his help and, on a breath of fresh, cold air, Cecily and Glenn fairly blew into the room.
“Merry Christmas! Oh, Dad! Oh, Mom and Jerry!” Cecily was half-laughing, half-crying. “We got here just in time – and it’s just like always! Only for Chris! We were so afraid you wouldn’t be having a big dinner –”
“I told you they would!”Glenn interrupted the excited flow of words. There were hugs and kisses, questions and exclamations. Room was made at the table for the two, and as the meal progressed, there were explanations. Glenn was to be sent overseas and had been given a short furlough before sailing. They had learned of it the very day after Cecily last wrote and followed her letter home.
“So I’m to stay home for a while, if you’ll have me,” Cecily said, smiling brightly, but the glance she cast her young husband brought the old, tight lump into Roger’s throat, and Marie’s eyes filled with tears. There was a brief silence, and Jerry broke it abruptly. “I wish we could adopt Cinderella, Dad.” he glanced innocently about at the startled faces turned toward him.
“Did I say something?”
“You sure did, Son – a mouthful!” Roger assured him, “and no one but Mother can answer you.”
“Well,” Jerry voiced what was in all their thoughts, “we’ll have Cecily and Chris home for a while, but it won’t ever be the same. Sis’ll be thinking of Glenn all the time, and Chris –”
“You’re right, dear,” Marie interrupted him gently, “nothing stays the same. It’s foolish to expect it to. We just have to –”
“Take it in our stride!” Jerry finished for her.
“Yes. And about the baby – I believe we’ll think about that!”
“Yip-pee! She’s as good as ours!” shouted Jerry, picking Cinderella out of her chair and dancing madly about the room with her. And, as if his happiness must have further expression, he burst forth in his squeaky, adolescent voice,
“God rest ye, merry gentlemen,”
and with one accord, the rest joined in,
“Let nothing you dismay!”