From the Improvement Era, December 1952 –
By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Becky opened her eyes suddenly and sat up in bed. What was that? She listened, trying to still the excitement rising in her. There was no sound except the breathing of the other children. There was no feel of a new mother in the house nor even their own come-back father. Something tightened in her throat, and she swallowed hard.
“I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe Heavenly Father would treat us this way.”
The sound that had awakened her came again. it was only the calf bawling for its breakfast. A cold sun shining through the unblinded windows made Northern Lights of the thickly frosted panes. She snuggled back to the warmth of the covers. The storm was over, thank goodness, but at that you couldn’t count on anything, not even the answering of a prayer. That came from living in the hills, miles from the nearest neighbor.
“Circumstances allus eases,” Mama had once said, but she had also said, “You needn’t give in to circumstances.” She, Becky, wasn’t giving in to circumstances exactly, but she was honor bound to give Heavenly Father another chance.
“You could have until noon,” she temporized, “but Mama always said it was bad business to wait until the last minute. Something might happen, like this storm. We should have had a mother before it started. I asked Papa before I did you, but it didn’t do any good. he just looked at me for a long time, and his eyes got far-away looking, then he kissed me like he used to kiss Mama, and in a week he was gone. ’Course,” she explained hastily, “he did get things in shape for us; and he told me to remember we would never be really alone, but that was weeks ago. Not that I mind the work, but things is in an awful mess, and tomorrow is Christmas.”
Becky looked at little Susie beside her who was sharing her pillow with a big yellow cat; then she glanced across the room to where the three boys slept in one bed. Mama would have had the big boys, Jim, nine, and Bert, seven, sleeping in the loft, but she, Becky, hadn’t the heart. With Papa gone it felt safer to be together; besides, all she had to do in the night was wake up and listen are they breathing right. with that stubborn cough, Danny should be in bed with her so she could keep him covered.
Danny’s cough was another reason why they should have a mother now. If Papa were here, he could rock Danny and sing to him, but likely he wouldn’t know any more than she, Becky, what to do for him. It would be mighty nice to have him here, though. Doing without Mama was bad enough, but doing without both of them was past telling. Not that she meant to complain, but ever day since summer she had carried that prayer in her heart, and every night since the leaves turned, and she knew Christmas was coming, she had said an extra prayer that the new mother would be here by today. She had even marked the days on the calendar. ’Course, she hadn’t always kneeled but maybe heavenly Father would overlook that, considering the weather.
“Don’t expect miracles,” was another thing Mama had said. Well – she wasn’t, exactly. She’d known Christmas was a busy time with everyone asking for something, that was why she had started early and an earth miracle could be managed. It didn’t seem right to ask so special for a mother, but she knew if there was a mother Papa would be here, too. There was still time to get them here before noon if they had come as far as Jensen’s before the storm, but since Heavenly Father made a business of answering prayers, he would likely have thought of that.
The calf bawled again and taking care not to wake Susie, Becky swung her feet to the floor.
“Ouch!” The floor was like a slab of pure ice. She snatched her shoes and stockings and thrusting them between the covers lay down again. The bed was soft and warm. She wished she needn’t start the fire.
“Shame on you, Becky Holmquist,” she scolded herself. “A big ’leven-year-old girl whining about the weather and the work.” Presently she reached down and without lifting the covers pulled on her stockings and shoes; then she slipped out of bed and reaching for an old jacket put it on over her nightgown.
It was light enough in the kitchen that she didn’t need the lamp. As she opened the range, she hoped it wouldn’t act stubborn again this morning. Yesterday she had used coal oil to start the fire and that was one thing she had promised Papa she would never, never do. No wonder her prayers were not answered. With stiff fingers she tried to shake the ashes from the grate. Oh, dear. She tugged at the ashcan, and when it yielded, a shower of ashes cascaded to the floor. Those on the grate dropped through, and the kindling blazed up. With relief she laid on more wood and replaced the lid.
Not trusting herself to remember to carry the ashes out later, she found an old pair of mittens, and balancing the heavy pan she carried it across the room, scattering ashes as she went. She set it down by the door and tried to pull away the heavy braided rug that was cushioned against the sill, but it was held tight by frost. After stubborn resistance the door creaked open, pushing the rug before it. Grim winter rushed in, making Becky snatch for her breath. Hurried she lifted the pan through and closed the door.
She crossed the lean-to that served as a porch and a shed and opening the outer door looked about in dismay. Snow, hard and glistening, covered every5thing, even the path along the clothesline they’d used in reaching the stable. How could a sleigh ever make it through such drifts?
In by the fire again she warmed her hands by the blaze. It was hard to still the chattering of her teeth but harder still to cling to the knowledge that her prayer would be answered by noon. It just had to be. It took five trips before the ashes were all swept up and the pan replaced. Each trip dampened her hopes for an immediate answer to her prayer, but she wasn’t giving up.
By that time the stove needed more wood. Bert hadn’t filled the wood box last night. Papa had chopped the wood before he left and had had the boys rick it inside the shed. There was jut one row left.
She had put her clothes to warm on the oven door, and now she dressed hurriedly, standing with first one foot and then the other in the oven. When she carried her nightgown back to the bedroom, she was stopped short by a hoarse croak from Danny. Going to the bed she put her hand against his cheek as she had seen Mama do. It was too warm for this icy room.
“I’ll have to build afire in the heater,” she thought. “I can’t have him taking more cold. Maybe Papa will be back before the wood is gone. He’s been gone too long now. Stay in bed a little longer,” she warned, as the touch of her cold hand awakened Danny, but the four children were in the kitchen almost as soon as she was. Walking on the cold floor started Danny’s cough. Becky brought a quilt and draping it over the high chair placed the boy inside it.
“This is awful ’stravagant,” she said aloud as she prepared to start the fire in the heater, “but it seems like I have to do it.” the fire burned quickly, but even a big blaze could not make much headway against the bitter cold that pierced the thick log walls.
While waiting for the fire Becky went to the front window and clearing a space of frost looked out. The sun on the snow hurt her eyes. Drifts along the pasture fence were higher than a man’s head. A sleigh would never get through without a miracle.
Between the house and the yard gate stood a small crab apple tree. Its misshapen branches were short, and even the thick blanket of snow did not hide their starkness, but Becky remembered that in the spring they were a mass of pink and white blossoms. They lasted such a little while, but their remembered fragrance, Papa’s words, lasted all winter. Again she thought of Mama. Her beauty, Papa had once said, was like the blossoms, early passing but never forgotten. Papa said some queer things sometimes. When she felt she could leave the fire, she returned to the kitchen.
Jim had taken the water from the teakettle to warm mash for the cow. Hurriedly she looked in the reservoir. Thank goodness! They would be in a fix without water to thaw the pump. She took a pan of milk from the cupboard and put it on the back of the stove. It was frozen and bulged in the center.
“Bert, get dressed and go help Jim. You should be ashamed to have your brother do the chores alone. But fill the wood box first, and don’t you go to bed again without filling it. Susie, you are big enough to dress yourself.”
Susie’s bright face puckered as she dropped the cat she had been holding. With a pang Becky realized she had been scolding more and more lately. Here she was asking for favors, and she had enough against her without getting cranky. There was bread to be mixed if the yeast wasn’t frozen, and the house had to be cleaned before the folks go there – and the oatmeal was all gone and what would she do about Danny?
Bert came in with an armload of wood. “Gee, it’s cold out, and do you know what? Jim walked on top of the snow clean to the stable, and there is an icicle on the corner of the house as big as a hoe handle. I’m going –”
Jim walked on top of the snow. Jim walked on top of the snow. Suddenly Becky wanted to run and laugh. That meant a sleigh could come right along. They would be here by noon. She would have to hurry – hurry, but she was a big girl now. Last year at Christmas time she had been a little girl waiting for Mama to tell her what was what. All she, Becky, had to do in the night was cough, and Mama was right there tucking the covers about her. Even before the grass was green on the south slope they had put Mama to sleep there, and she’d had to take over. That part was all right, a ’leven-year-old girl should know how to keep house, and she had always helped Mama.
“I’m hungry,” Susie whined.
Startled Becky came back to the present. She found some graham meal in the bottom of a sack and stirred it into hot water. She went for potatoes to peel, but they were as hard as rocks. The boys would have to get some from the pit but not on a day like this.
“Don’t cry,” she soothed Danny, who was coughing. Picking him up she carried him into the front room and laid him on the couch. Instantly he hushed crying and buried his nose among the covers.
When Jim brought in the milk, there was scarcely two quarts in the bottom of the bucket. When Papa left, Spot was giving the bucket full. She took a cup of the warm milk and carried it to Danny. He drank a few swallows and then refused more.
“We need some hay off the stack,” Jim remarked as she re-entered the kitchen.
“Can’t you cut some?”
“’Course not. It is hard for Papa. Besides, he hid the hay knife so I couldn’t use it.”
“Then turn the stock into the stackyard and let them cut their own.”
Becky found some beans and put them on to cook. they would not be done in time for dinner, but they could have them tonight. Danny had quit coughing and was sleeping most of the time.
Suddenly, sickeningly Becky realized it must be noon. She didn’t know for sure, for their clock had stopped long ago, but the sun was overhead. her eyes ached from watching over the glaring snow. Surely they would be here in a few minutes.
The few minutes lengthened into an hour, two hours. The sun was at its warmest. Maybe – Maybe she shouldn’t have set noon as the time. Maybe she should have left the time up to Him. “An hour or two either way won’t matter,” she conceded.
“We have to have a Christmas tree,” Bert reminded her. The words aroused Danny, and he started crying weakly. Becky sat down by him. She guessed he was awful sick. Vaguely she wondered if she should give him some castor oil, but almost at once her mind was on her larger problem. If the mother didn’t come – she was just iffing – but if she didn’t come what would they have for Christmas? A hard pain hit her stomach. Papa had forgotten them. Heavenly Father had forgotten them. She looked up at Jim;. He tried to smile back. The nearest pine was more than a mile up the canyon. They couldn’t have a Christmas tree. She might make some candy for them if she could remember how.
“I know what,” Jim cried suddenly. “We’ll have the crab apple tree for our Christmas tree. It is already trimmed.”
The crab apple tree. Becky went to the window again. Snow was gone from the tree, but ice had veneered each crooked limb, and the sun shining on it had turned the frost into a million sparkles.
“Santa could put our presents on it.” Bert tried to help.
“No,” Jim said quickly, “they would freeze outside. Besides,” he drew a long breath, “if the road doesn’t get opened, he won’t be able to get here.”
“What good’s a Christmas tree if we can’t have presents on it?” Bert demanded, “or if we can’t trim it or touch it or sing around it? I want a real Christmas tree.”
Becky stared at the crab apple tree. It just wasn’t fair. Little children like Bert and Danny and Susie should have Christmas. But more than Christmas they should have a mother. If they had a mother, they wouldn’t want anything else, and if they didn’t get a mother, they wouldn’t get anything else anyway. Nothing but a miracle would bring a mother now, so she’d have to do something about Christmas, but what? If only Mama were here to tell her! Just looking at the crab apple tree made her ache for Mama, for Mama had loved it so. Grandma had sent it, a tiny thing, and Mama had nourished it with water and loving care. Every winter until now it had been wrapped against the frost. Mama’s love for it had something to do with weather and no fruit trees in the hills and making the best of what you had. Mama was good at making the best.
Maybe if Heavenly Father saw what a poor shift they were making of Christmas, he would send them a mother after all! With the snow so deep and soft a mother would have to fly to get here and only angels could fly. ’Course, Heavenly Father could bring one right down from heaven, but if he was going to do that, she wanted her own back. an earth miracle would be different.
“We’ll have to have the crab apple tree if we have any,” she told them. “But something might happen if we wait, so we will each put one decoration on it now. But we have to be bathed and cleaned up first.”
“Oh, heck,” Bert grumbled, “I don’t want a Christmas tree that bad.”
“Why, Bert Holmquist. How can you talk that way.” Being clean was part of that – that “remembered fragrance” about Mama. It would be pure insult to her to have a Christmas tree in their dirty clothes. “You know any mother would have us clean up first.”
Jim was looking at Danny. “I don’t think you had better let him go out.”
Desire and caution fought in Becky. If Mama knew, she would want Danny in on what Christmas they had, but it wouldn’t be wise to take him outside. She would have to think about it. Sympathetically Susie went to him and put her face against his. She patted him with her little hands. He cried harder and started coughing.
“Don’t bother him.” Taking Susie’s hand Becky led her into the kitchen. “Jim, you bring in the washtub, and Bert, you fill the wood boxes. Susie, would you like to go in the bedroom and get the box of decorations?”
She had a time finding clean clothes enough to go around. Seemed just yesterday she had washed, but it must have been longer.
Jim brought in the washtub and put it close to the heater. He ranged chairs on three sides of it and draped quilts over the chairs. They kept in the heat and served as a screen. Susie, being the baby and least dirty, was bathed first. When Becky tried to wash her head, she screamed and fought the water. Danny would have none of it. he cried weakly every time she tried to lift him. In despair she ave up. Likely the water wouldn’t be good for him anyway.
Bert would have liked to protest, but he knew better. Becky went inside the screen to wash his hair and neck and ears. She warmed the water a little for Jim, and since he was but a year and a half her junior, she trusted him to do a good job on himself. Once she peeked over the quilt. He was rubbing his head vigorously, but it looked mighty dry.
“I have to get the chores done before dark,” he warned.
Seemed like she didn’t have the strength to argue with him. Besides, dark wasn’t too far away. Dark! And the road not open from Jensen’s.
“Try and get Danny to eat while I bathe.” She watched Jim head for the kitchen, then she undressed quickly and got into the tub. Ugh. The water was colder than she had thought. While she was bathing, there came a clatter from the kitchen. Trust Bert. she hurried, and back in the kitchen found Bert dropping beans to the cat.
After endless urging she had them at the front door. Each carried one of the precious baubles Mama had saved so carefully. wordlessly she fastened a hood over Susie’s wet hair, then she took a long scarf that had been her mother’s and started wrapping it around her own hair. Oh, she had forgotten to wash it. Mama would never excuse that. Tears trickled form her eyes. Why couldn’t she do things and not forget!
Seeing her tears the group sobered. Susie’s lips puckered, and in an instant she was going to cry. Bert looked as if he might join her, Becky saw, and it seemed that all the trouble in the world was right on her shoulders. Then just as plain as anything Mama was standing right beside her, and just as plain as anything she heard Mama say, “Don’t worry, Darling. It’s what is in your heart that counts.” But what had been in her heart? Contrariness – dead set on having her own way. She hadn’t even said, “thy will.” But this time she had to have her will.
Without more words they stepped off into the snow and struggled toward the crab apple tree. Susie had to be carried, and with a damp head she was shaking with the cold by the time Jim had stamped a level place in the snow for her. Since he was the tallest, he took the decorations and hung them, one by one, on the tree. If they were pretty much on one side, no one would notice it. And the angel would fall sideways. The others were so interested in his struggle they almost forgot how cold they were.
“Now, let’s sing,” Becky urged, when the hanging was done, “then we won’t have to come out tomorrow.”
With her leading they sang “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night.” They huddled close together, their childish voices filled with hope and faith. When the last strain of “Silent Night” died away, Bert started for the house.
“That’s enough,” he announced.
“Wait a minute.” Becky stopped him. “Let’s say our Christmas Eve prayers right now.”
Bert would have protested, but a tap on the shoulder form Jim silenced him. Jim knew a situation when he faced one.
“Dear Heavenly Father in heaven,” Becky began, “we bow our knees – we can’t really but you know why – to thank you for all our blessings and to ask – to ask a special blessing for Christmas –.” then Becky couldn’t go on. Their great need and the possibility of a refusal welled up inside her. She thought of all the things she should have done and hadn’t. She thought of Mama’s sweetness and her own stiff-necked demands. “Please,” she pleaded, and her voice lost its ritualistic tone – she was really pleading. “We can’t go on like this any longer. The cow is drying up, and Papa should have been home long ago. If you have to send us a mother from heaven –” she gulped and stopped. A sob rose in her throat. She didn’t want one from heaven – but – His will be done. “– We won’t kick.” She paused and breathed deeply, then continued, “I didn’t wash my hair on purpose. I was in such a stew I forgot. Name of Jesus. Amen.”
Three positive “Amens” followed hers, but before Bert’s had entirely left his lips he was back at the door. Jim followed with Susie. Becky lingered. “Please,” she began, and then she knew she needn’t say any more words. He knew just as Mama had always known. A soft warmth flowed through her like she had on a fur coat and a sweetness like when she got her big doll wrapped about her. “thank you,” she whispered.
Becky came awake with a start. The moon shining through the windows gave her a hazy glimpse of the room. Something was different. Danny. she had left him on the couch meaning to listen for him. Instead she had slept like she was dead. On bare feet she hurried to the door of the front room and opened it noiselessly. The warmth of the room billowed about her like a soft cloud. The faint glow from the open damper of the stove made dancing shadows in the room. Feeling her way carefully she went to the couch where she had left Danny. It wasn’t morning, but she guessed it was too late to have her prayer answered. It must be His will that she take care of her little brother. She breathed deeply.
It was too quiet. She couldn’t hear Danny breathing. Maybe – her heart thumped with fear. She forced her hand to go where his face should be. Oh, thank goodness, he was there, and his face was not hot. He was breathing quietly like he was well.
She straightened, suddenly wondering. Who had kept up the fire? Who had rubbed Danny with camphorated oil? Slowly she looked about and her eyes saw what at first she had not been able to see – Papa’s overshoes by the fire and some newer smaller ones beside them. The quilt she’d had over Danny was gone and in its place was a soft blanket. And – and the stockings hanging – she whirled to race the door leading to the front bedroom. Someone was standing there – she couldn’t – it couldn’t – oh, no, oh –
“Aunt Janie,” Becky threw herself into the arms of the woman who knelt to catch her. “Oh, Aunt Janie. Aunt Janie.”
“Sh – sh. We must not wake the others.” Aunt Janie put a finger over the girl’s trembling lips.
“Aunt Janie. I thought it was Mama. You look so much like her.”
“I am your Mama now, dear.”
“Oh, Aunt Janie. I didn’t even think to ask for you. I thought after Grandma died you would keep on teaching school forever. I thought you didn’t like it up here.”
There was a movement behind them and a beloved voice said, “Better get to bed, Punkin. You might scare Santa away.”
After a big hug and kiss from Papa, Becky crept through her own door and closed it quietly behind her, then she dashed over the icy floor to snuggle beside Susie. She had her earth miracle and with all the “remembered fragrance” of life with Mama.