Inside, I hear singing. Daniel has come back down to sit next to Patience, with only the Christmas lights on. The closeness between them makes me feel lonely. Will my life always be this way? I didn’t used to mind and actually thought it was easier to be single, and maybe it is, but seeing them together makes me wonder.
When I’m fifty will I be alone on Christmas? I picture myself in an apartment in the city somewhere, maybe back in Washington D.C. or maybe Boston. . . . I attend a Christmas Eve service at the National Cathedral, then come back to my rooms, have a cup of tea, and go to bed. . . . No rum toddies, no caroling, no tree. Why would I bother? The bleakness makes me shiver.
Back in my room, I take off my clothes, fold them over the back of the rocker, and pull on my long flannel gown. “Silent night. Holy night,” Patience and Daniel sing. “All is calm. All is bright.”
Upstairs I think I hear another voice. Could that be Dr. Blum?
Such beauty. Such sadness. Such longing.
December 24, 1934
Tonight I sang to myself in bed. “Silent night. Holy night. All is calm. All is bright.” Danny was asleep in his crib. Becky was downstairs in her bedroom and the Hesters were sitting in the dark parlor next to the lighted Christmas tree, crooning carol after carol in their sweet alto and baritone. I added my contribution in my rusty, unused voice, not that anyone heard me.
I was thinking about Becky and feeling just a little bit happy. I like it when she brushes my teeth. I could do it myself, but she doesn’t know that. What a sensual thing. She holds my head under my chin and orders me in that brisk nurse voice to open my mouth, but her hands are gentle. Sometimes I close my eyes. Despite my wanting to lock myself in a cell of silence, the human touch seduces me.
“O come all ye faithful,” Daniel bellows at the top of his lungs as he bangs around in the kitchen. I lie in bed, waiting for the house to warm up, listening to him putter, first getting the fire going, and then putting the dogs out. Beyond my window, the snow is falling again, this time in hard little pellets. It’s the first really big storm we’ve had and the Hesters say the lack of snow is bad for the soil. We need more moisture.
Oh, well, I’m awake anyway.
As I come out of my room dressed in gray slacks and a red cardigan sweater, little Danny bounces down the wooden stairs in his footie pajamas. “Did Santa come? Did he?”
“In here, honey.” That’s Patience. She still reclines on the sofa, where she spent the night. Behind Danny comes Dr. Blum, clunking along in his sock feet.
“Did Santa come?” Danny asks again.
“Looks like it.” Hester laughs, pointing to the child’s stocking with something bulging in the toe. Danny pulls out an orange that I got at the Bittmans’ store on discount and a little bag of marbles.
Then he discovers a red metal wagon under the tree. In the wagon is a delightfully carved rabbit with wooden wheels and a pull string. There are also a couple of other wrapped presents, and I put my small offerings under the spruce branches along with the rest. Daniel reaches around behind the sofa and plugs in the lights again.
“Danny Boy, slow down,” he hollers as the child runs through the kitchen pulling his new toy. “Bring the rabbit to your aunt Becky and show her what Uncle Isaac made for you.”
“The doctor made that?” I knew he’d been carving little animals, but nothing so large or so fine.
“Great, isn’t it? He’s been working on it for a couple of weeks,” Daniel praises his friend’s work.
I stare at the toy and run my hands over the carving. The bunny even has whiskers made with small wires. His eyes are carved in detail with black buttons for pupils. I turn to Blum to see if he is watching, but he only stares at his hands.
It takes us an hour to open our presents and we pass them around and remark on each one. I remember the Christmas scramble at my parents’ home in Brattleboro when I was a girl and my brothers were teenagers. We had a mound of packages under the big tree, but none were more appreciated than our few this morning.
Blum has even carved something for me, a small angel, each feather on her wings detailed with his knife blade. She’s holding an infant in her arms.
“It’s beautiful, Isaac. Thank you.” He smiles and the room lights up. It’s been so long since I’ve seen that wide grin. “I mean it. You’re very talented. Thank you.”
My gifts to the others are mostly hand-me-downs, a rose silk bed jacket I’ve had for ten years, but rarely used, for Patience. (She loves it.) A gray wool scarf for Dr. Blum that I bought at a church flea market in Liberty. I drape it around his neck and he surprises me when he reaches up and touches my hand. A bottle of ether for Daniel that I thought he could use for his animal surgery. This has been boxed in the back of the Pontiac since we left Virginia.
He grins and holds it up. “This stuff costs a fortune.”
“It’s from Dr. Blum and me together,” I explain. “We don’t have any use for it.”
Finally, for Danny, a picture book that I illustrated myself, the story of the Tin Soldier. It’s the first time I’ve used my watercolors since Dr. Blum got sick, and I sewed the pages together with twine.
Daniel and Patience must have exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve for she still has on the red crystal earrings and also under the tree are a stack of handmade white handkerchiefs, with Daniel’s initials on them. Patience has also knitted socks for everyone, with yarn from old sweaters that she took apart.
The last gift is a parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with a red ribbon for me. I open it, wondering what it could be, and am astounded to discover a soft, red velvet floor-length dress with a low, beaded neckline. My mouth falls open and a little noise comes out.
“Do you like it?” Patience asks. “If it doesn’t fit, I still have time to make changes.”
“Oh, where did you find it?” I rise and hold the dress up to my chest, letting the fabric flow. As it falls, I see that the red velvet is really two colors in panels, one a little darker than the other, but sewn together so they harmonize.
“I made it.”
“You made it? How could you?”
“With a needle and thread and a pair of scissors,” she says, laughing. “Out of two other flapper dresses my friend Nora left me. Her men friends often bought her clothes.”
I’ve heard about this Nora, the protégée of Mrs. Kelly, the midwife and teacher from Pittsburgh. I say “protégée,” but what I mean is lover.
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