All Rights Reserved.
Written by Drew Delaney
Mama ripped the willowy envelope nearly to shreds. Both hands trembled, the paper ready to flail up as she read the note aloud.
My dearest sister,
< I have missed you so. I will be arriving at 1:00 P.M. by railway car on the twelfth of this month. Would you please meet me?
“Aunt Rebecca is coming,” she sang, skipping and hopping around the kitchen clinging to my arm and nearly ripping one elbow apart—when all at once she came to an abrupt stop. ”Today is the eighth. What will Aunt Rebecca suppose of our meager existence? If she had just given me more time to prepare,” Mamma complained, lines creasing her forehead.
Mama could have had all the time in the world. It would not have changed things one bit. She scrubbed everything until all was shiny like a bright new pin—washed, starched and ironed every wrinkle from the faded curtains and set up a cot in my bedchamber where Aunt Rebecca would sleep.
We hurried along the snow-laden path, leapt up unto the step of a horse-drawn red street-car, and continued on to the railway station. Papa remained at home with my two younger brothers: Charles age two, and Edward, who just turned four.
Upon approaching the platform, the clear shrill of whistles pierced through the air. Bells clanged heralding the train’s arrival. Impact of steel against steel sent shivers up and down my spine. Clasping my ears, and pressing my forefingers against my sensitive eardrums, I searched relief from the painful sensation. Smoke puffs hurled heavenward with grunts like an irate dragon. The earth quaked beneath my feet. We squeezed into an empty seat after a heavy-set woman stood to leave.
Mr. Thatch, the ticket agent, seemed a bit flustered. The station was boisterous, the line-up long and clamorous. He peered over his thick round spectacles, his eyes nearly protruding out of their sockets.
“Destination, please,” he repeated, as though he were a wind-up toy. A ticket he automatically handed over in exchange for money.
”Lucy! We must go now, dear.” Mama snatched my hand. Looking down, a piece of thread on her black wool coat caught her eye. She picked it, rolled it into a minuscule ball, and dropped it into a bin. “We mustn’t keep Aunt Rebecca waiting.”
I glanced at the monumental clock near the ceiling of the back wall as a thunderous bong struck. Huge letters stuck to its face and long black hands pointed to the letters.
“What kind of clock is that, Mama?” Her answer faded in the clatter of it all. It was impossible to near the train’s passenger door for the crowd that assembled for its arrival. Mama swayed and plodded through the crowd, tugging my arm as though I were some inanimate object. It brought to mind how I handled Molly, my ragged doll.
“Pardon me,” she said, nearly knocking down a woman twice her size and with suitcase in hand. Her excitement escalated as we approached the number seven coach where Aunt Rebecca would disembark. The conductor lowered a step for the trail of passengers to descend. Finally, Aunt Rebecca appeared.
“My! How she has changed,” Mama said. Aunt Rebecca’s hair was swept-up in curls and pinned to keep its shape—a hat with a purple plume feather nested in her hairdo. The conductor wore a grin stretching from ear to ear. A pair of specks found a niche on his pudgy, nose. He reached his hand toward her.
“Now, watch your step, my dear.” His white, gloved hand cautioned her along the way. Mama and I were ecstatic. Arms flung in all directions, until they wrapped tightly about Aunt Rebecca. She must have felt as though an octopus—one unwilling to set her free–embraced her. Her hat nearly toppled off in all the commotion, but her hand reached up to prevent the occurrence.
“Becky, oh Becky! How wonderful it is to see you again. It’s been such a long time.”
“I’m so happy to see you, Anna.” Then she turned to me. “And this must be Lucy,” Now the wailing began. Aunt Rebecca’s cheeks were drenched in tears, her red rouge forming trails down her skin. Mama handed her a clean hankie she’d tucked away in her black pouch. She used another to dab away the tears on her own face and to wipe the sniffles from her nose.
A hint of lavender hovered in the air around Aunt Rebecca. When we arrived home, Aunt Rebecca spoke non-stop with Mama and Papa around the table.
”You must give me the recipe, Anna,” she said, reaching for one more roll. These are so tasty.” They sipped hot tea and munched on fresh cinnamon rolls.
“Oh, ’tis nothing to it, Becky. All you do is ….” Mama took pride in her God-given abilities to create something wonderful out of next to nothing.
“You’ll have to write the recipe down. I’ll not remember. We’ll wait until the children are asleep.”
The ‘good ole days’, tonight’s feature topic, sprung laughter on Mama’s face, helping her to forget what Aunt Rebecca might suppose. They enjoyed a splendid time chattering and giggling, somewhat like the family of gray squirrels romping giddily up and down trees in the back yard.
Aunt Rebecca brought along some black licorice. My brothers secluded themselves in the corner and stuck their tongues out at one another to see whose tongue came out the blackest. What a time they had with this silly game Edward invented?
”Would you mind, Anna, if Lucy accompanied me to the city square tomorrow for an adventure?”
“Oh please, Mama,” I begged. “I promise to mind my manners and hold my tongue. Please, please Mama.” I knew Mama wouldn’t disappoint Aunt Rebecca, but it wouldn’t hurt if I added a plea or two. Mama had a kind, tender way about her, but it was Papa whom we had to persuade. I knew he wouldn’t give Mama a moment’s peace until I arrived home safely.
The trip, planned for the following day after school, became etched in stone. All this excitement was too much for me though. I had trouble falling asleep. My mind whirled about, until finally sleepy cobwebs crouched in.
The following day, as twilight approached, Aunt Rebecca and I walked hand in hand to the sleigh-hitch. Brushing against cedar branches released an aromatic fragrance. Boots crunched and plodded over snow packed paths and drifts. Evergreen branches drooped peacefully while being cloaked by fresh fallen snow.
We talked about anything and everything. We had a lifetime of catching up to do and we didn’t have much time to ourselves. The one thing we eliminated discussing was Papa. I wished I could’ve been free to tell on Papa and how he hurt Mama, but Mama warned me.
At times, we drifted apart when a tree blocked our path. Without my notice, Aunt Rebecca formed a snowball and hurled it at me. Striking me in the neck, bits of snow trickled down my back.
“Oooh! That’s cold,” I said, trying to wiggle free of them. The snowball fight was on. I threw one back at her. She ducked. Shucks! I missed. She flung one back at me. We ran to and fro amongst the trees, throwing, dodging and getting smacked by a heavy snowball. I laughed so heartily, I nearly wet my bloomers.
The rickety, wooden bench at the end of our lane was a welcome sight after all the cavorting. There, we watched an old hunchback woman, clutching a wooden stave in her bare hand. She snuggled in a brown, woolen cloak with an enormous hood attached. It sheltered her tangled, gray head. Even with the covering, she trembled and appeared as if she had slept underground since infancy.
She sat on a small barrel in front of the general store, a basket at her feet, and a sign draped about her neck. Give to the poor, it read. Some generous souls tossed in coins. Aunt Rebecca threw in some of the pennies that jingled in her pocket.
Suddenly, two young rascals, about nine or ten years of age played a dreadful hoax on an elderly gentleman when he accidentally dropped his pocket-watch into the snow drift. In a blink of an eye, the two boys recovered the watch, who then scattered in different directions. There wasn’t anything we could do.
We sat watching people, running in and out of the Post Office. They toted handfuls of Christmas cards and clung to securely wrapped parcels and packages, darting home to inspect the contents. Soon, the sound of horses’ hoofs, clicking on the cobblestone snowy roadway tickled my ears. The team trotted around the bend and approached in a mild gait. The driver hollered, “Whoa!”
Leaning back in his seat, pulling heavily on the reins, he again shouted another, “Whoa!” The footman slid down.
”Greetings,” he said, while escorting us passengers to black leather padded seats on the black lustrous sleigh. The snap of the driver’s whip and a loud, “Ee-hah,” set the sleigh to brisk motion. Well-groomed horses raced along the snowy, winding trail as if a ghost pursued them.
Despite the hour, darkness began to settle. Full-grown snowflakes fell to the ground, flapping us in the face. When we arrived at Yonge Street, I could hardly believe my eyes. Shop windows glistened with the spirit of Christmas, lively and intoxicating. I could barely contain myself.
”Look darling,” Aunt Rebecca said, once we got off the sleigh. She pointed to a window. “Isn’t she the finest doll you ever saw?”
”It is Auntie, the finest doll ever.” If ever it were possible that I could own such a treasure. Yes, I would take care of it. And—and I wouldn’t allow my brothers to touch it.
I tore my gaze away from the beautiful doll and looked down at myself. My insides tensed. Just look at you foolish child, an inner voice taunted. Boots all shabby and worn. This tattered woolen coat shrinks every time you put it on. Who do you think you are? The likes of you ought not to even be here.
My spirit crumbled.
Aunt Rebecca tapped my shoulder all at once, and said, “You’re it.” The absurd fancy ended. I chased her from the store window, down the street and into old man, ‘Higgins Shoe Shop.’ The potent shoe leather and polish stopped us in our tracks.
We browsed in many shops that memorable evening and later carried home red and white striped candy canes to fasten to the Christmas tree. Aunt Rebecca purchased a can of popcorn already popped and ready to eat or string together to decorate the evergreen branches.
Soon, it was time for Aunt Rebecca to leave us and continue on her way to New Brunswick to attend school. She planned to become a teacher and to specialize in literature and art so that one day she could write a novel.
She composed a simple rhyme in a brief moment especially for me.
‘Tis the time to be happy,
’Tis not the time to be sad,
Hold on to your dreams my child,
Hold on and cling to the glad.
It took a few days to rid our feelings of abandonment when Aunt Rebecca left. She induced such hope into our lives that we could never have dreamed possible. It was back to the plain life we were so accustomed to and it was heart wrenching. We were paupers thanks to our Papa who drank beer, spending his modest earnings, working as a chimney sweep, at the pub.
Mamma was in the family way again. I expected little, if anything, Christmas morning under the tree.
“I wish Papa would come home seeing it’s Christmas Eve. I don’t think he likes us very much, Mama. It strikes me that we are a bother to him,” I said.
”Now now, dear. Remember, he always sees to it that the wood box is filled and that we have potatoes in the cellar. Why, every Christmas Eve, he arrives home with a turkey from the butcher shop. Isn’t that right?” I nodded in shame, a pout pasted to my lips. Mama explained that Papa was an orphan. He lived on the streets of England, putting in long hours at the workhouses.
”How is he to know how to be a good father without even having one of his own? We must give him time. He will get better at it; I just know he will. And no matter what dear Lucy, remember, ‘Thou shalt honor thy father.’ ” Mama lived up to her staunch Catholic upbringing with ‘The Ten Commandments’ printed on the tablets of her heart. However, her deep-sea blue eyes became glossy and hard to conceal. Just then, my little brother tumbled from the kitchen chair and began howling like a wounded pup. Concern for him deterred Mama’s sadness for the time.
Why doesn’t Papa come home? The severity of the haunting grew unbearable. It was nearing nightfall. I decided to take a stroll down to the rich neighborhood across the narrow bridge. Shadow, our brown and white spotted hound, would protect me. Mama made me promise not to dawdle. She expected Papa would soon be home, embracing a fat turkey for tomorrow’s dinner. My faith was not as solid as Mama’s. Carolers ambled by singing, ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen….’
Shadow howled in unison. White smoke curled gently out of a reddish brick chimney standing prominently on the side of a two-story house. Square-paned windows and a heavy wooden door with a black metal-clad latch and knocker trimmed the front entry of the well to do home. The front windows were large. So large, they looked more like shop windows on the busy thoroughfare of the city. A massive Christmas tree stood in the centre adorned with ornaments and candles.
Shadow barked at the skater’s on the frozen ice pond. The women looked eye-catching in their long skirted frocks and high brimmed bonnets. I stood in awe for a moment.
“Hello there,” a young Miss called out.
“Hello,” I managed in an unsure, helpless voice. Did she even hear me? Awkward in my ragged coat and stockings, I shifted about. And what must they think of me? My unease tripled.
”What a lovely Christmas Eve, isn’t it dear?” Was she speaking to me? It couldn’t be. Soon she’d be running me off. I looked around, but didn’t see another soul. It must’ve been me to whom she was speaking.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, louder and with more tenacity than before. I expected these rich folk to be mean and crotchety.
“What size shoes do you wear?” inquired the young Miss, whose hands cuddled in a large, white furry muff.
“I don’t know ma’am,” I replied. She must think we shop for our shoes. We get hand-me-down things from the church. We wear whatever we get whether they fit or not. What would they know of it, these rich folk?”
”My dear, I’ll have Laura look up the pair of skates stored in the attic. If by chance they fit, why you’d be most welcome to have a skate with us.”
”Oh, ma’am, could I?” Astounded, I parked myself on the bench straight and still, praying the skates would fit. Next to me sat an elderly, white-haired gentleman. He appeared as though he might have been confused for he seemed to not even notice I was there. I tried to disregard him; however, I did notice that he wore a bushy moustache coiled up at the ends making him look very noteworthy.
Suddenly, a thought struck me dumb. Could he be the one who dropped his pocket-watch in the snow bank near the post office that day? I skimmed with the corner of my eye to get a better look. He leaned forward pressing his hands on his knees, his eyes in a blank stare.
What is the matter with the old fellow? A slight cambered pipe rested in the corner of his mouth. He gnawed on the mouthpiece, his teeth rattling and clacking as though they loosened in the process. The fragrance smelled soothing somehow. Shadow sat along side me, watching the skaters, her long tail swishing the snow.
Laura, a plump woman with ebony skin who held the position of a maid I presumed, soon returned with the pair of skates. The front blades curled up, just like the sleigh I rode in with Aunt Rebecca. Miss Laura handed them to me, a delightful sparkle in her eyes.
”Oh, thank you so much.” I clung to them, teardrops freezing my eyelashes together. I removed one scruffy shoe only to replace it instantly. Now what was I to do? There, hidden inside my frosted shoe was a toe, peeking out of my stocking. Wouldn’t you know it? The young Miss would have to skate over to me right at this moment.
”Here, I’ll help you bind the skates. They must be tightly bound or your ankles will bend, you know?” Oh, go away! I wish I had stayed home. My shoulders grew sore from the good and evil in constant battle.
“Your feet are freezing, dear. We must do something about that.” How could she not notice the anger and hurt I felt?
”If I remember correctly, there’s a pair of stockings stuffed away in these … Yes! Look here,” she said, pulling out something fluffy. She removed the wet holey stockings and replaced them with a warm, soft pair. Then she stuffed my feet into the skates and bound them snug. They were a perfect fit. What had I done to deserve this treatment?
Later, when I grew older and had a chance to reflect, I realized that the young Miss and Aunt Rebecca were comparable in character—two cunning young women with a knack to change a child’s mood.
The young Miss helped me up on the clear, slippery surface. As quickly as I stood up, I fell down. Everyone thought it hilarious. My cheeks flushed with embarrassment, but I couldn’t help but laugh too at my own contrariness. Time passed by too quickly. The bells at St. Mary’s Cathedral began to chime proclaiming the early Christmas Eve Mass would soon begin. Then I remembered.
“I must get home. Mamma will worry.” Removing the skates for me, Sarah suggested that I keep the warm stockings on my feet, as mine were frozen in a clump.
“Lucy! These skates are my Christmas present to you. Please, come and join me for a skate tomorrow, won’t you?”
”Oh, thank-you, Sarah. That would be delightful,” I couldn’t help respond. “I’m sure Mama wouldn’t mind.” Shadow and I went on our merry way with the skate-laces tied together, the pair dangling over my shoulder and warm stockings on my feet. I turned, waved good-bye, and shouted, “Merry Christmas everyone.”
What would Mamma think? Worry crept up on me like a sly fox. Nearing home, I could hear everyone singing, ‘Silent Night,’ a candle flickering a dim, orange light through the frosted window. I entered, gingerly, for fear I was in trouble for being poky again.
”Well! Guess what, Lucy?” Papa said, drawing me into his arms. Mama’s eyes no longer appeared fraught, but had taken on a look of relief.
”Why, I don’t know Papa. Whatever do you mean?” I was so pleased to have him home. Nothing could make me happier, but I was mistaken.
”Things are going to be different from this day forward. I’ve turned over a new leaf,” he said. He carried no foul odor. This wasn’t the Papa I knew. The first thing he shared was that he yearned to be a better father—one that didn’t make the pub his home night after night. Secondly, that he had been accepted at a new position as ticket agent at the railway station.
I couldn’t believe my ears. What had caused him to see his err? How had he even been given the remotest possibility at such a position? There was no way any of this could be real. It had to be a joke, but I didn’t think it was funny at all, however, the merriment of Christmas carols being hummed and the fragrance of plum pudding soon took my mind off the yarn.