From the Relief Society Magazine, December 1939 –
A Song in the Cabin
By Maryhale Woolsey
There was a streak of gold in the western sky, mirrored thinly in the gray lake across the valley. The clouds overhead hung cold and threatening, lower than an hour ago; against them the rims of the mountains were less sharply defined. It would storm before morning, Libbeth told herself. And it would be snow, if she did not mistake this clean nippy tang of the air.
Snow! Winter at hand again! Well, it was nearly December; the fall had been beautiful. Libbeth sighed, thinking of another winter in the cabin – the new house so nearly ready, yet they had to wait! Drawing her dark warm shawl close about her shoulders, she leaned against the side of the cabin and turned her eyes from the west, to the north where, a little higher up the hill slope, the new house stood. It had a good stone foundation, walls of adobe, thick and snug, bright shingled roof, a small porch by the front door and a lean-to entrance at the back. Four big rooms there would be, with space for two more “someday” up under the gables – such a comforting thought after the years in a two-tiny-rooms cabin! Libbeth stretched out her arms, as if the very thought of spaciousness impelled her to reach out and ease cramped muscles.
It had been such a long time in the cabin. So many reverses had come, as if placed in their way to try them further– as if they had not borne trial enough for their devotion to the Gospel, even before coming here. One loss after another, disappointment after disappointment!
It didn’t do much good to remind herself that many of the brethren and sisters who were her neighbors had suffered even more. Sister Abbie Hemmer, for instance, who had come in the early fifties, had known many hardships which Libbeth and Arden had not known, coming as they had over a now well established route almost free of such dangers as had confronted the earlier pioneers.
No, thinking of that didn’t do Libbeth – in this mood – much good. it seemed only to intensify that rebellious questioning within her. Was it really worth the while, the sacrifices, the struggles, the giving up of comforts, pleasantries and niceties of living such as she had formerly known? Back home in Ohio there were still the ease and loveliness she had grown up in…
Was it possible that less than seven years ago she had been that happy, carefree girl she now remembered so wistfully? Seven years – an incredibly short time to have contained such an eternity of experiences!
Oh, she was tired of toil and anxiety and an unending caravan of deprivations, tired of two small rooms in a cabin; tired of odors of food cooking on a broken stove, smell of wash-suds, fresh milk and new cheese, of ripened fruit demanding attention…
Libbeth caught herself up sharply. She wouldn’t think of these things as being always so disagreeable as they had been recently. Arden would be deeply grieved if he should learn the things that were in her heart. Arden had no regrets for his sacrifices, and he, too, had given up much.
It had seemed little enough, at first – a privilege to give up home, friends, position, even family, for the sake of the Gospel. Of all their intimate circle, they two only had been converted to Mormonism. The sentiment of their community had been bitterly antagonistic. Jervis Mead, Libbeth’s father, had tempestuously opposed Libbeth’s and Arden’s interest in the Mormons:
“If you join them,” he had said, “I’ll want never to lay eyes on either of you again. Nor shall your mother, if I can help it …”
So it had been. Once Libbeth believed, her mother had made an effort to see her. Coming home one evening, she thought she detected a faint fragrance in the room, a perfume Alice Mead always wore. Her mother had been there; perhaps she would come again … but she had not come again.
Soon thereafter, Arden and Libbeth had come West to the city of the Saints. They would have a new home there, in the thriving new community; they would find opportunities among others who shared the same beliefs, the same ideals.
Almost from the first, disappointment had been their lot. One of their four horses died mysteriously; another Arden had lent to a fellow-traveler, who had a similar misfortune. It had been necessary to lighten their load, so they had stored part of their furniture at Fort Laramie. Libbeth’s cabinet organ had been among these, and there had never been money to spare to bring it on. She missed the organ particularly; she had loved her music. Would she ever be able to play again, she wondered? Her fingers were growing stiff from lack of practice and from the hardening toil.
The streak of gold was fading fast, the shadows deepening. Her ear caught the sound of wagon wheels approaching. Little Ardena heard them, too, and ran down the hill to meet her father and ride home on top of his load of wood. Libbeth’s heart lifted somewhat, as it always did at his coming, as if just his nearness shifted some of her burdens onto his stronger shoulders.
She felt almost abused when Arden, after supper, went out with a lantern to hitch up the horses again.
“I have to go to town,” he said. Shortly, she thought, as if he feared she might ask questions.
“I’m … making home unpleasant for him. If I lose him, too, if his love should grow cold … I could not bear it. And I should deserve it, too, for my moods and discontent. What shall I, what can I, do?”
She put the babies to bed, silently. Little Joey was sound asleep in his cradle and Ardena in her little bed was on the border of slumber land when Arden came home. He drove close to the cabin door, and curious, she opened it … to see him and a man she did not know lifting something tall and heavy from the wagon to the ground. She moved aside as they carried it through the doorway.
“Arden! It’s not – oh, Arden! The organ!” she cried, and stood, dumb with surprise, while they tugged and pushed and lifted until it stood against the farther wall. The stranger left, with a nod and smile to Libbeth as he passed her.
“Oh, Arden!” Libbeth went over and stood stroking the smooth dark wood of the cabinet. “How – when?”
“Your Christmas present, Libbeth,” Arden said. “It’s early, but I was afraid the roads might delay it, later.”
Ardena had roused and climbed out of bed. In her small long gown she stood wonderingly watching. Arden took her up into his arms.
“Might we have a song, do you think?” he said to Libbeth, and his voice was wistful. “It’s been so long … a mighty long time since I heard you singing, honey.”
A flood of self-accusation rushed over her. While she had been moping, he had been planning this great surprise for her!
“Oh, yes! Yes, of course!” she cried. “Only … I’m so surprised I can hardly talk – let alone sing! Of course I will!”
Eagerly, she started to raise the cover and was puzzled to find it resisting. She pushed, pulled, pushed again, her puzzlement changing to alarm. Maybe the wood had warped … through it looked all right …
Anxiously, she thrust her hand upward inside the cover, feeling carefully underneath for anything that might be the cause of the trouble. She caught her breath with relief as she found it – the corner of a thick envelope protruding from the back. With a little difficulty she drew it forth. With her first glance at the penciled writing on its face, she gasped and grew faint. Arden put his arm quickly around her to steady her.
“I’m all right, dear. I just felt startled. This is Mothers writing!”
“Your mother’s? Arden repeated. “But – why, Libbeth!”
The two stood staring, unbelieving. For Libbeth had drawn forth the contents of the envelope, and in her hand was a packet of greenbacks and a brief note, which presently she read wonderingly:
“My darling daughter:
“I have heard that you are going West. I dare not try to see you; you know how our friends feel about you, and your father and I do not care to risk their disfavor by being friendly to any Mormons.
“But I want you to have this money. It is my own, and I think even your father would not mind too much your having it, though he would never admit this; you know he seldom retracts anything he has said. I intend to come to your house when you are away and leave this where it will be safe until you find it.
“Please remember, dear child, that though this strange new religion which you have adopted may be the means of separating us forever, I shall never cease to love you and to pray that all may be well with you and yours. God bless you, and dearest love to you both.
Libbeth was crying softly as she finished reading. “Arden, remember that day I said her perfume was in the room when we came home? That was the time; I know it. She hid this under the organ cover, and it slipped back out of sight. It’s been there all this time. Arden, take it! It frightens me to have so much of it in my hands at once!”
He said, smiling, yet with a sober note in his voice, “It does look like a young fortune. I’ll keep it till you’re ready to use it for whatever purpose you wish.”
“Our house, Arden! Maybe now we can finish it so we can move in! There’s nothing I want so much! Why, maybe we can do all the things at once – get the rest of our things brought on, buy the new stove and heater and the store carpet for the parlor.” She was laughing and crying, and the sight frightened little Ardena so she began to whimper.
“There, you lamb, Mother’s all right. Listen, I’ll sing you a song!”
Haltingly, and with errors which amuse while they dismayed her, she played and sang – old love ballads, a hymn or two. There was no longer any room in the cabin but only gladness and cheer. Not alone what the money would mean, Libbeth told herself, but the message from her mother. She reread the note several times before putting out the lamp at her bedside.
She understood, now, a part of her discontentment which heretofore she had not guessed. It was homesickness, wanting her mother. A wife and mother herself, but still deep within her was a little-girl heart longing to know her own mother’s love. Now she had assurance of that love, “dearest love”which would never cease.
In bed she cried for a while, muffling her sobs in the pillow lest she awaken the children. Arden lay awake beside her, puzzled and awkward in his attempts to comfort her.
“It was a crazy place to put all that money,” he remarked after a while. “It might have been lost forever!”
Libbeth stirred eagerly. “Probably she has thought of that, too. Arden, I’m going to write her. I think she should know.”
“That,” he agreed, “would be kind, I think.”
“I’ll tell her all about us. Arden, Mother doesn’t even know she has a grandchild, to say nothing of two of them! I’ll write the first thing tomorrow!”
They moved into the new house just three days before Christmas. The miracle of telegraphy, starting their stored goods out within a few hours after their decision, made possible the arrival of things in time to add to the excitement and pleasure.
What a Christmas it was to be! Libbeth had gifts for each of the family, including one great extravagance, a small gold pendant and chain for Ardena. That was the child’s gift from the grandmother she might never know, and it was of a quality fine enough to treasure through the years.
Inside the new house it was warm and cozy. Deep snow came the day after they were established there, and the feathery flakes piled against the windows and the door sills. Within, Libbeth played, and Arden and Ardena sang with her, and even baby Joe seemed to try valiantly to join them, making queer lovable sounds. The organ stood grandly in the parlor, near the sitting-room door where – thanks to the new heater – Libbeth could always play in comfort. There was a fireplace in the parlor itself; they planned to light the first fire there on Christmas Eve.
They had a tree, too. A symmetrical young spruce, deep green and fragrant. Festoons of popcorn decked it, and bright-colored tapers awaited the time for lighting.
As a Christmas Eve surprise for Arden, Libbeth had secretly taught their little girl to sing “Silent Night.” Very nicely she sang it, while he stood in the sitting-room doorway and gave flattering attention.
“She’s going to be a real singer!” he boasted. “Maybe someday we’ll have a particular interest in the big choir, he, Mother?”
That was a new dream, exciting and wonderful. Already the fame of the great domed Tabernacle was spreading over the world. Its majestic pipe organ was the marvel of all the valleys. It was being said that with the coming of the railroad people would journey from many lands just to see and hear it. That would not be long now; day by day the shining rails were reaching out farther into the wilderness, bringing nearer the time when Utah would be bound to the nation by a strong steel girdle.
Voices, hallooing from the street, broke into Libbeth’s mental wanderings. She followed as Arden went to answer. There were two people coming up the path from the gate. A small fur-wrapped lady came running across the porch and into Libbeth’s eager arms. Behind her came a tall man with square shoulders and an erect bearing.
“Mother! Why – my own mother! And Father – how in the world – when – why –?” They were senseless, mixed-up greetings, questions tossed out with our need or expectancy of reply. Confusion, joyous, thrilling confusion!
Only after a long time, after they had eaten and cleared everything away, and gathered at last around the bright fire, did the conversation become intelligible and consistent.
“Oh, we had to come – after your letter,” Alice Mead said. “When we knew about the children –”
“We!” Grandfather Mead laughed loudly. “We! Don’t you believe it. It was she who’s responsible. It was rank insubordination, that’s what it was. ‘I’m going to spend Christmas with my daughter and my grandchildren,’ she said to me, ‘and you may come along if you wish.’ Yes, sir, just like that! And what else could I do, if she’d risk her neck in a crazy stage-coach journey through your incredible mountains at this season, what could I do but come along to look after her?”
“Not a thing else!” Libbeth laughed. She saw through her father’s bluff, she told herself joyously. He was as glad as his little spunky wife was, to be here. It was good to have them here, her father and her mother, sitting with her ownfamily in this spirit of joy and companionship!
The gladness of living was strong upon her now. She was proud of her house, its snug warmth, its comfort, its lamps burning clear and bright, its atmosphere of love and contentment; proud of her children, blue-eyed Ardena, quiet and wondering in her grandmother’s lap, and baby Joey, toddling from father to grandfather and back again with impartial affection; proud of the conversation which had turned to boasting of the progress and growth and the wonders being wrought here in the valleys of the mountains.
“Why, I expected a desert!” said Jervis Mead.
“But you find the desert blossoming as a rose!” Arden’s face glowed. “And I tell you, there are riches beyond our dreams waiting to unfold for us in this land – precious metals in our mountains, fine grazing lands and fertile farm sites in every direction, no end of possibilities for industry of all kinds. We made no mistake in coming nor in making these people our people; did we, Libbeth?”
“No mistake!” she agreed. “There’s no place I’d rather have my babies growing up!” The light in her eyes told them what the warmth in her heart was telling her – that this which she had spoken was really true.”No place in all the world!”
“No place in all the world!” The words went through her mind over and over again – singing words, a song which had been born long ago, born in the little cabin even while she was too discontented to know.
Jervis Mead was speaking again. “I hope you’ll forgive me, you two, for the past. No one has a right to dictate to another what he shall believe. I’m sincere in saying that. Even if I don’t quite agree with the Mormon teachings, you people out here have my respect and admiration. I’d like to feel that we can be friends, and I’d like to feel that we, here in this house, are friends and more – are one family, and will always be; that you and I, Arden, are father and son.”
“Why, of course.”
“I mean, my boy, caring deeply, as these women would like to have us. And these babies …” He was taking Joey up into his arms again.
“Look at him,” said Jervis Mead, looking into little Joye’s wide, confident baby eyes. “He really likes me. How about you, my lad?”
“You’re right, sir. We’ll be close to each other, always.”
“We’ll make it a Christmas gift to the women we love, eh? A gift of peace and good will!”
Their clasped hands sealed the compact.
Just then, Ardena slipped down from the grandmother’s knee and came toward her mother.
“The candles, now, Mudther, light the candles!”
They put out the lamps, so there would be only the candles and the lowering firelight in the room. One by one the tapers gleamed out, until the room was mellow with the light of them. Each one, though but a tiny glimmer was a symbol of the Star of long ago whose light was renewed and would continue to be renewed each year where hearts admitted the Christmas spirit of love and harmony. Each candle was an infinitesimal but certain testimony that the Star which hung over Bethlehem, had shone with a Light eternal.