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Advent: Her Phantom Family

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 19, 2013

From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1931 –

Her Phantom Family

By Elsie C. Carroll

It did not surprise anyone in South Cove when Anne Moreley started to build a home with part of the fortune her Aunt Hester left her. A woman who has clerked in a dry-goods store and lived in a second-rate boarding house for years, naturally would desire to have a home of her own if she had an opportunity. What did surprise people, however, was the kind of house Anne built–not a little two- or three-room cottage such as one would imagine for an old maid, but a big, family-like residence, with wide porches, three bed-rooms, a music room, a study, and what appeared to be unmistakably a playroom.

Of course, everyone knew that Anne was odd, even though the older residents of The Cove would remember when she was the prettiest and most popular girl in the village, and as full of live interests as anyone. But that was before the War, when Anne was getting ready to marry Dave Bramwell who had been her favored “beau” since childhood. When the word came that Dave had been killed at Chateau-Thiery, the shock of the news did something to Anne, and she had never been the same.

She went on clerking at Anderson and Midgley’s, and continued to live at Mrs. Springer’s, but she was changed to a silent woman with a far-away look in her eyes that made one continually surprised that she heard when she was asked for calico or bacon, and that she got the right things.

No one was surprised that she quit clerking when her house was finished. A woman with an assured income of a hundred and fifty dollars a month from stocks and bonds would be foolish to keep on selling coffee and sardines and listening to old man Midgley’s stale jokes. The thing that did surprise folks, was the fact, which leaked out soon after Anne moved in, that she didn’t really live in the house after all – that is, none of it except two little back-basement rooms. She went over the up-stairs every day, sweeping and dusting as scrupulously as if a whole family lived there, but she ate and slept in that tiny basement apartment.

It was Jane Stoker who made the discovery and broadcasted it. Jane used to clerk at Anderson and Midgley’s, also, and some of the older town gossips still recalled how hard she tried to vamp young Dave Bramwell when she first came to The Cove. Jane now lived just around the corner from Anne’s new home, and she made it a point to worm her way into the new house often enough to keep the curious posted.

As soon as this strange fact was known several persons tried to rent the main part of the house. Jim Daniel, the new bank cashier, went to see about it, as did L.W. Procter, the principal of the high school, and others. But to all alike, Anne shook her head and replied that the house was not for rent.

Jane kept the town posted as to the kind of furnishings and decorations Anne bought, and, as much as she was able, of the kind of life Anne lived in her little mansion.

But even Jane didn’t know much about the life. She had no idea of what those rooms and furnishings meant to Anne. No one knew that Anne Morely was really two women: that while the physical Anne was cooking and eating in the cramped little basement apartment, the spiritual Anne was living with a phantom family in the rooms above – the family that would have been hers had it not been for Chateau-Thiery. While one of her selves nibbled toast in the basement kitchen, the other was smiling into Dave Bramwell’s eyes across the table in the green and yellow breakfast nook upstairs and answering the questions of Anne Marie and Betty Jean and Dicky Boy and little Davy.

People who pitied Anne and thought how dreadful her loneliness must be, had no idea of the gay companionship she had with her phantom family. Every day they were doing something interesting and worth while. For instance, there were the anniversaries – days that are dreaded by most people left alone. Anne’s family always made much of anniversaries. They never let a holiday pass without making it a day to be treasured in the memory. In the summertime Anne went with her family on wonderful excursions and camping trips, during which she and Dave taught the children about the wonders of nature, while they themselves lived again – happy occasions of their courtship – evening walks under a softly smiling summer moon, long drives in the coolness of shading canyon roads, hours of day-dreaming on the banks of a splashing stream.

To be sure there were times when living this dream-life fell far from satisfying Anne’s soul. There were times when her whole being cried out in protesting anguish against the empty cup Life had given her: when she yearned for the physical companionship of those dear ones who rightfully belonged to her. Yet the fancied companionship helped to fill up that hideous hopeless void which had enveloped her when the news of Dave’s death had sent her mind slipping into helpless misery.

The coming of the Masons into the old Saddler place next door to Anne, helped to make her phantom children real. She was scarcely aware that she had some new neighbors until Jane Stoker reminded her one day. Jane was always running in to borrow a cup of sugar, or a box of matches.

“I imagine you are going to be pestered to death by those Mason kids,” Jane had volunteered. “They were even over walking on my fence yesterday. And the littlest boy was almost coughing his head off. I couldn’t help wondering if he didn’t have TB too. They say the mother is nearly dead with it – and her husband can’t be located anywhere. He went someplace to try to find work the day they moved in.”

After Jane had gone, Anne went upstairs to go through the daily routine of sweeping and dusting the rooms in which her phantom family lived. When she was through she sat at the desk in the study to go over again the Christmas list she always wrote out, designating specifically the gifts for each member of the family. Last night’s snowy blizzard had made her decide that Dave should have a fur overcoat. His long trips into the country to show real estate bargains to prospective buyers, must be made as comfortable as possible. She added also an electric stove to the list of toys for Anne Marie and Betty Jean. She had seen such a cunning little electric range in the electric shop yesterday when she had gone to pay her light bill – all fitted up with tiny cooking utensils to match. Any little girl in the world would go into ecstasies over such a gift. As she sat wondering what to add to the list for Dicky Boy and Davy, she was suddenly startled by the frightened scream of a child. It seemed to come from just outside her window. She went to the window in time to see a rosy faced youngster of about four years flounder to his feet in the deep snow by the fence which separated her grounds from the Saddler place.

The little fellow had evidently fallen from the top of the fence. That he was not hurt was apparent when he laughed merrily as the faces of another little boy and a little girl appeared over the top of the fence.

“Come on over,” he shouted. “Let’s make our snowman over here. See how deep and clean the snow is.”

The other children looked apprehensively first at the big house, then back at the squatty little shack on their own side of the fence. In a moment, however, they scrambled down on Anne’s side and began rolling huge balls of snow for the arms and legs and head of the figure they were creating.

Anne sat watching as if fascinated. Strangely the three children were fusing themselves into the children of her dreams. The littlest one, whose accident had brought the others, the little tad with such chubby arms and legs and rosy cheeks, was Davy. Anne trembled at the thought of gathering his plump little body into her hungry arms. The tall slender lad who worked so fast and who had already erected a huge trunk for the snowman, that was Dicky Boy; while the little girl with brown curls straggling out from her torn stocking cap, was Betty Jean.

Anne thrilled as she listened to their chatter and watched the snowman grow from two unequal stumps of legs to a fat grotesque figure with his small round head decidedly on one side of his shoulders because Dicky Boy could not reach high enough to set it in the middle.

The children were dancing gleefully about their masterpiece, singing “Jolly Old Snow Man,” when another head appeared over the fence. Anne gave a little start. She had become so absorbed in watching the three children that she had forgotten Anne Marie – but there she was, of course, blue-eyed and pink-cheeked and with a voice as soft as a bell.

“Say, whatever are you doing over here?” she asked with consternation. “Come right back over this fence. Don’t you know what Mrs. Stoker told us the other day about that awful old maid who lives in that house?”

Strangely enough, Anne did not even wince at the words. It did not occur to her that the unlovely reference was to her. But her eyes blurred and she sighed as the children scrambled back over the fence, casting reluctant glances back at the snowman they were deserting.

Anne went downstairs, but she was soon back again peering from one of the east windows to see if she could catch a glimpse of the children. From that day she lived upstairs. Neither of her basement windows commanded a view of the old Saddler place, and she grew to count time by the things she saw the children do.

As the cold December days went by, Anne added many items to her Christmas list – warm coats and shoes and caps, and sleds and skates and snowshoes – always things for the children – her children whom she watched at play in the grimy yard across the way. Every movement, she followed with hungry eyes. She warmed and thrilled at their snow fights, and when they rolled over and over in the snow until they looked like snow images themselves, she worried over the thinness and the shabbiness of their coats. Always when someone called them in she felt cold and lonely. Her old dreams no longer seemed real and satisfying unless she could see the children. Most of her time was spent watching at the windows that she might not miss a single glimpse.

Every morning she watched the two older ones – Anne Marie and Dicky Boy – trudge off to school, and she was always watching for them when they came home. Her mind tried to transform their shabby apparel to soft warm clothes and wraps into which she mentally helped them before she kissed them goodby each morning at her own door.

As the days went by, her plans for Christmas took on tangibility – as they had never done before. Instead of merely dreaming of the Christmas tree as she had always done before, she found herself actually ordering one, and that same afternoon she was trimming it with the finest decorations to be found in Anderson and Midgley’s. Item by item, too, she began to fill her Christmas list, always dreaming of the grand surprise of Christmas day. The day that the little electric stove was delivered she spent hours trying it out and hunting up dishes from her own childhood’s treasures to add to the equipment.

To be sure there were times when actuality broke through this phantom world and Anne berated herself for an idiotic fool and cried over her empty, lonely life until her soul ached. Then she would gather her wretched senses and again fly for escape to the land of fantasy.

Each deliveryman who brought a box of package exhibited ill-disguised curiosity.

“You must be expectin’ a lot of company, Miss Morely,” Hank Moran remarked as he loaded the kitchen table with groceries a few days before the 25th.

Anne said nothing. She sensed how queer she was to others and avoided all possible contacts with the real world.

“By George, I bet you got the purtiest Christmas tree in town,” Tom Kelly exclaimed as he brought in a huge box from Allen’s new ready to wear store. “Jim Dykes told me to be sure to notice it when I passed the living room window. You sure must be expectin’ to make somebody happy with all them things hangin’ on it.”

Again Anne made no reply, but as soon as Tom was gone she went into the living room and pulled down the window shades and spent an hour sobbing beside the gay tree.

The next day, the day before Christmas, just as she was putting her last mince pie into the pantry shelf beside the row of other pies and doughnuts and animal cookies and candied fruit and popcorn balls, she heard the door bell ring.

She hesitated a moment, then decided not to answer it – a usual custom with Anne – since everything she had ordered had been delivered. She couldn’t endure this constant breaking of her illusion by the unknowing servicemen who came to her door, and the misery that followed.

The bell rang again, but Anne did not move.

In a moment she heard Jane Stoker calling at the kitchen door. Anne despised the nerve of the woman as, unbidden, she pushed open the door and entered.

“Anne, I brought you over a piece of my fruit cake for your dinner tomorrow.” She was the only one of Anne’s old acquaintances who still thrust her company upon the unresponsive woman. Anne had been expecting this intrusion since Jane must have seen the many deliveries brought to the back door. Jane, of course, had come for an explanation of this unusual occurrence. Anne was panic-stricken. There was no explanation. She had just let her dreams get the better of her. It was all evidence toward the insanity she knew people expected and which she herself dreaded. Jane would, of course, be the one to start an agitation to send her up to the mental hospital. If Jane could find out that Anne was preparing a Christmas for a family that was a mere creation of her mind, that would be enough.

Anne trembled as she emerged from the pantry, wondering how she was ever going to meet Jane’s probing questions and quick searching eyes.

“I just brought you a piece of fruit cake,” Jane repeated, sinking into a chair by the kitchen table. “But –my – you smell good in here, as if you are doing a lot of cooking yourself.”

“Yes, I am,” Anne admitted.

“Specting company, I suppose,” Jane probed, her eyes shifting about curiously.

“Why – er– yes.”

“Some of your Aunt Hester’s folks, I guess?”

“Yes,” Anne assented eagerly.

“I always understood that she didn’t have any folks besides you.”

“She didn’t – that is, not any near relatives,” Anne floundered.

“You’re going to have a Christmas tree, too, aren’t you? Tom Kelly told me he bet it was the finest one in town. He sees all the trees, being as he delivers to everybody,” Jane looked hintingly toward the half closed middle door, but Anne said nothing.

“I should have brought more cake – you having company,” Jane went on. “I thought you’d be alone just as always.”

“That’s all right, and thanks,” said Anne, stepping to the pantry. “And I’d like you to try one of my mince pies.” She stood holding the pie in her hand. Jane finally saw there was nothing for her to do but to get up and take it.

“I guess you haven’t heard how Mrs. Mason is today?” she remarked, trying to think of some way of prolonging the call until she found some sort of answer to the riddle that was perplexing her. “They say she hasn’t a ghost of a chance to get well and they still can’t locate her husband. Mary Baxter was telling me. She says it’s just another charity case for the doctor to carry. Them children don’t seem to realize how sick she is by the way they yell and screech around. I’d think they’d drive you crazy – livin’ so close.”

“No – no – they don’t bother me,” Anne said, picking up a dust cloth and beginning to wipe off a chair near her.

At last Jane walked away disappointedly, but more convinced than ever that someone ought to demand an examination of Anne Morely, and wondering what would be done with Anne’s property when she was taken to the asylum.

Jane had no sooner closed the door than Anne sank into a chair beside the table and buried her face in her arms. No one could so cruelly break through her illusions as Jane Stoker. She shook with sobs. She was no longer a happy mother preparing a wonderful Christmas for her adored children. She was nothing but a queer, lonely old maid without one soul in the whole world who cared for her – and tottering on the verge of insanity.

The minutes ticked away and Anne’s sobs became dry and hard. Why couldn’t Jane leave her alone? she thought bitterly. What harm did it do to imagine she was a normal, happy woman?

Two or three times she tried to throw off her misery and to summon the genii of her imagination to shift the scenes, but this time she rubbed her Aladdin’s lamp in vain. Stark, barren reality remained staring her in the face. She wept on and on until her throat was dry and parched and her eyes were balls of flame.

The greyness of the afternoon deepened into gloom. Anne did not stir. She felt that she never wanted to see any of the things about her that must remind her of the flimsy happiness she had been trying to create for herself.

Then, all at once, she was startled by the sound of light running feet on the walk outside. Someone seemed to fly up the back steps. Before Anne could get up, the door flew open and a white-faced little girl appeared.

“Why – Anne Marie,” exclaimed Anne, rushing toward the child. “What –”

The child started at the unusual name, but only for a second.

“It’s my mother,” she gasped. “Won’t you come quick? She is coughing so hard – and blood is coming out of her mouth!” Frightened sobs filled the room.

“I’ll call Dr. Baxter, then I’ll be right over,” Anne said, her mind suddenly washed of everything else.

In five minutes Anne was entering the dismal little shack on the other side of the fence. The sound of a wracking cough reached her ears as she hurried to the inner room. Four frightened children were clinging to each other, crying. In the dim light of one small electric bulb suspended from the middle of the ceiling, Anne saw a wasted little woman fighting for breath as blood oozed from between her pale lips.

As Anne approached the bed, a pair of dark eyes looked up at her. They were full of dread.

“You children go out into the other room until Dr. Baxter comes,” Anne said tenderly. “I’ll try to help mother.”

The children obeyed.

Anne knelt beside the low couch.

“It was wicked of me not to have known – this – before,” she lamented. Suddenly she saw herself as a blind, selfish woman, shutting out real life to hug a mere dream. “I have ‘phoned to the doctor. He will be here right away.”

The woman shook her head and tried heroically to control her coughing.

“It’s no use,”she gasped. “I’m– dying – but – I – can’t die – my babies – .”

The agony in the dark, sunken eyes burned into Anne’s soul.

She was certain that the woman was dying. She feared that the doctor would be too late. For a moment panic seized her. She had been so long isolated with all real contacts with her fellow-beings, that she felt afraid and helpless now in this terrible crisis.

Then suddenly there came an answer to her unuttered prayer. The tumult inside of her grew calm. Like a flash, a vision of what her life should have been, of what she could make it to be, gleamed before her.

Gently she placed her hand on the clammy forehead.

“I am so sorry,” she whispered. “I want to help you. What can I do?”

The sick woman looked searchingly into her eyes.

“It is the children,” she gasped between coughs. “I – I – can’t – leave them – but I – I know I am dying.”

Anne knelt at the bedside. She was sure there was not a moment to lose if she was to give this stricken mother assurance and peace.

“Will you give your children to me? I have plenty. I already love them – as if they were my own. I live in the house next door. That will be their home. I will love them and care for them always.”

There was pleading in her eyes and voice. The sufferer lifted one white hand and drew it across her forehead. She must assure herself that she was not dreaming. The hand fluttered down into Anne’s.

“Say it again!” the weak voice whispered.

“I want to be a mother to your children,” Anne repeated passionately. “I love them. I want them. Will you give them to me?”

The frail fingers pressed Anne’s hand as the woman, seized with another fit of coughing, nodded her head.

Dr. Baxter opened the door. Hurriedly he began to open his bag, then with a glance at his patient, he slowly closed it again and came to stand mutely beside Anne.

A few moments later when the last flutterings of the tired heart had ceased, the doctor said huskily:

“A sad, sad case. I wonder what will become of the kiddies?”

Anne rose to her feet, unclasping the stiffening fingers from her hand.

“They are mine. She gave them to me and – I – I will love them and care for them always.”

Dr. Baxter stared at her in amazement. As he looked searchingly into Anne’s earnest eyes, he felt convinced that the complaint Jane Stoker had instituted would never go through, and yet he couldn’t understand this sudden change.

It was Anne who broke the silence again, speaking with clear decision.

“Can you send someone to take charge of things here, Doctor? I’ll take care of the expenses, but right now I want to get the children away from this – this sadness. I have their Christmas all ready for them over home.” When Anne had gone into the other room and the doctor could hear her softly breaking the news of the mother’s death and gently assuring the little ones that they still had a mother to care for them, he found himself rubbing his eyes, and wondering if he was so tired he could be dreaming, or if this were a new Anne Morely. “Well, well,” he breathed, “the longer I live, the more sure I am that miracles continue in the world.”



4 Comments »

  1. This is oddly disturbing, really creepy! What names will the children have? Any sense of normalcy seems out the window. Shudder.
    I’m very happy these are here—this time of year makes me crave the stories I skim the rest of the time.

    Comment by deb — December 19, 2013 @ 10:05 am

  2. It’s very gothic,isn’t it? Maybe we’re supposed to think that raising these children will bring her out of her half-life and into the real world, now that she can do what she was born to do?

    I kind of like it, weird as some elements are.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 20, 2013 @ 7:51 am

  3. It pushes farther into creepy than I wish it did, but in 1931 it was probably less unorthodox than it appears now. And she really does love them, not imaginary children. A few broken decorations from now, she won’t be living a dream anymore. :-)

    Comment by Ellen — December 20, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

  4. She’s going to be disappointed when the children grieve instead of happily jump into her imagined Christmas and life.

    Comment by Carol — December 20, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

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