Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas Eve 1917


We sat huddled together in the warmest clothes we could find, which were not very warm. The 'we' being my sister Vera, who was eleven, my little brother, Roy, and me, a scrawny eight-year-old girl.

The fire had gone out in the big kitchen range and the stove had lost all its warmth, all the residue of heat from its last fire. We never had enough fuel to keep a fire burning in it for very long, anyway, and the bitter cold of the New England winter crept in to fill the big kitchen and two bedrooms in which we lived. Our home was part of an old house which was almost all boarded up. The once beautiful mansion crouched like some bedraggled old crone in the midst of the tenement slums which had grown up around it.

When we moved into our place early in the summer, we had loved the big high-ceilinged rooms and enjoyed the feeling of spaciousness, but with the advent of winter, the 'airy' had become 'drafty'.

Papa, who was smart enough, and Mama, who must have been pretty once, both worked at whatever jobs were available, but there never seemed to be enough money, so we were often hungry and almost never warm enough.

Vera and I, by mutual though unspoken agreement, usually sacrificed a portion of our food to young Roy's needs. But today had been one of those hungry days, just about the worst I could remember. There had been no food to share.

If any of us thought of toys or other gifts no one mentioned it. For weeks I had dreamed nightly of all the improbably ways in which our needs and longings might be filled. Now, like Roy and Vera, I just sat hugging myself in dull silent misery.

It was dark when Mama came in and lighted the lamp. Papa came in slowly a few minutes later. Laying a single loaf of bread on the table, he said in a kind of choked voice, "That's all I could get." He walked on into their bedroom and closed the door.

Mama followed him but emerged almost at once. "Come, children," She said gently. "Wash your hands and sit up to the table."

No matter how hungry we were, bad manners were never permitted, so after saying grace we each sat and ate our slices of bread slowly and neatly.

I was not quite finished when Mama asked Vera to put Roy to bed. A moment later she offered me the last slice of bread on the plate. I hesitated, knowing it was part of her share and that she must be hungry, too. Then, at her urging, I yielded to my own hunger and accepted it. Later that night, huddled on my small cot bed, I cried bitterly. I knew even then that I would choke on that slice of bread as long as I lived.

Early next morning, Christmas Day, I was awakened by a loud knocking. Scrambling from my bed, I ran across the icy floor to the front door. Only an expanse of new-fallen snow met my surprised gaze. The knocking continued so I ran to open the back door, though we never used it since it led only to an enclosed yard from which there was no access to the street. There was no one there, either, and the snow lay undisturbed.

Puzzled and shivering in the bitter cold, I started back to the comparative warmth of bed. At this, the knocking grew louder, more imperative. Fearfully tracing the sound to a door in the kitchen's far corner, a door almost hidden by a large storage cabinet, I leaned toward it, quavering, "Who's there?" The only response was a loud tattoo of thumps on the wooden panels.

Frightened, I wakened Mama, who, roused by the fear in my voice, accompanied me to the kitchen. Blind terror gripped me then, for she seemed unaware of the deafening racket which was now coming from beyond that door.

"Mama," I screeched, "Somebody is knocking on that door over there!"

Papa joined us then, tying a robe about his thin frame as he came.

Hysterically I repeated my assertion in response to his questioning look. The hammering on the door was now echoing around the room--and I was the only one hearing it!

Papa looked at the offending door, then back at me with a strange uncertain look in his eyes. Then, muttering that the door only led to an unused entryway, he shrugged and went over and started trying to pull the unwieldy cabinet from the wall.

Strangely, as soon as he touched the cabinet the noise stopped.

Mama helped him drag the cabinet out and they soon had the door exposed and opened.

There on the landing before it stood a huge laundry basket of a kind seldom seen nowadays. It was filled to overflowing with food and toys, and tied to one handle was an envelope which proved to contain prepaid orders for warm clothes for the entire family.

Hastily they drew the basket into the kitchen, then Papa descended the steps which led to the outer door. Opening it, he just stood silently for a long time gazing out at the pristine snow before him. The basket must have been left the previous day.

Our Christmas blessings, however, were to hold an even greater wonder. Before returning to the kitchen, Papa discovered another door leading from the small entry way.

Fearful match lighted investigation disclosed what must have been a long forgotten cellar in the old house. it contained, in addition to odds and ends of furniture, a coal bin holding about two tons of coal and a wood bin neatly stacked to capacity.

As for who knocked on the door so that none but I heard it...well, I think I know the answer to that, but of course I can never prove it.

~Story written, and experienced, by Gail Stanley Brown

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