(I wrote this story to preserve an experience my father, Chester M. Todd, shared with me. I tell the story from his point of view. Deseret Book first published the story in A Celebration of Christmas, 1988.)
“Oh, how the cold penetrates these old bones,” said Grandma. “My room is so cold that my teeth are chattering.”
“Well, sit here for a few minutes,” Mama suggested. “James just put enough coal in the Majestic for a few more hours.”
I was in the adjoining room sitting with my back against the wall where the heat from the stove radiated. It was the second warmest place in the house. Grandma had the first. I had been working in Uncle Henry’s stable all morning with a wheelbarrow and pitchfork. I was tired and cold. When I finished in the stable, Papa told me to go to the house and read until lunch. I like to sit here on the floor with a blanket draped around my head and shoulders, like a tent, to read. I also enjoyed listening to Mama and Grandma talk.
“Nellie, it’s a shame you and James have to live like this.” Grandma started in on her favorite subject. “Henry and Ella have a tree and Ella is making gingerbread for a party. Here you sit, my beautiful daughter, scrubbing potatoes and wondering where your next penny will come from.”
“I’m not complaining, Mother. We have this home.”
“Yes, with a mortgage so big we can only pay the interest. Oh, it’s so cold,” Grandma shivered.
“Spring will come and then summer and we’ll all be complaining about the heat,” said Mama. “Anyway, you know how hard James tries to find work. It’s not his fault the high schools don’t teach penmanship any more. And James is not the only man out of work. Only four men in the neighborhood have regular jobs. And think of Chester and Ione and Blanche, such good children. The Lord has blessed me. No. I’ll not murmur.”
“Well, it breaks my heart to have Christmas just two days away without the Christmas fixings. There’s no tree, no gifts, no fancy Christmas dinner. Why at Henry’s….”
“Mother, I know. Henry does live next door. Would you rather go there for Christmas?”
“No, no. It’s here with you I want to stay. You are the sweetest, most gentle daughter. It’s just sad to have a dreary Christmas. It’s almost more than I can stand,” Grandma sighed.
“It’s Chester I’m concerned about.” My half reading, half-listening suddenly became 100% listening as Mama said my name. “We have the aprons we made for Ione and Blanche. Your embroidery on them is lovely, Mother. But you can’t give an apron to a fourteen-year-old boy.”
“Grandma, come see our slide. Papa made us a slide!” That was Blanche’s voice, my seven-year-old sister. She was good at interrupting.
“I will in a few minutes, Blanche dear. First I have a surprise for your mother,” said Grandma.
“A sweet from Aunt Ella?” Blanche hoped.
“No, not this time. This is something for your mama and papa and me. Run along and I’ll look out the back window at your slide.”
“Here, Nellie,” Grandma said. “Henry sent you Tuesday’s Deseret News.
“Henry is so extravagant. That newspaper cost ten cents,” said Mama.
“I know,” Grandma acknowledged.
“You read to me while I set the table,” suggested Mama.
I hoped they’d get back to the subject of my Christmas. I didn’t think we were so poor that they were thinking of giving me an apron like my little sisters.
Grandma began reading: “The ‘Daily Thought’ is from Benjamin Franklin. ‘He that hath a trade hath an estate.’ Maybe it’s Mr. Franklin’s fault that James can’t find work.”
“Mother, how could that be?”
“Well, if he hadn’t been such a printer, maybe if the typewriter and printing machines hadn’t been so improved, James would still be teaching penmanship at East High.”
“Oh, I know. I think since the school district has diplomas printed instead of engrossed that the art of calligraphy will be lost. James’ trade hasn’t made him an estate, not in the least.”
“What else is in the news?” Mother asked to keep Grandma off the subject of Papa and his penmanship.
I wanted to remind Grandma that Papa is one of the best penmen in America. He writes monthly lessons for the Business Educator. He engrosses names on diplomas and certificates for the University of Utah and for the church. I like to watch him at his lettering desk gracefully moving the pen across the page, blotting, dipping his pen in the ink, and wiping it with care. Once, when he had time, he filled a whole page with my name, writing it in different fonts and sizes. I saved it in my drawer.
“Well, the weather will be unsettled and slightly warmer tonight. The maximum temperature will be twenty nine,” Grandma’s voice came again to my ear. “Here’s something interesting,” she said, turning a page, “Henry Ford says that money is the greatest mystery of all. He advises young America to learn and keep working. He said, ‘There is no depression, that business is all right and improving daily.’ He should come to Salt Lake. Oh, and listen to this. He was asked if he is ‘bitterly opposed to liquor.’ He answered: ‘We can’t have men in our factory drinking on the job at all…. We have fine, delicate machinery and a drinking man can’t come in and operate it.”
“He sounds like a wise man,” Mama responded.
“It says that holiday business is reported the best in years in Chicago. It may even exceed 1928,” read Grandma. “Not here,” she added sharply. “Remember Christmas two years ago when James was teaching? That year the girls got dolls and barrettes, and Chester got that nickel-plated BB gun.”
“Yes,” Mama agreed. “A lot can change in a couple of years. I think….”
“Nellie! Listen to this. Some students and clubs are renovating toys, it says, to make sure Santa visits every home in Salt Lake. Well, he won’t come here. I know that. How can they say that Santa will visit every child? Oh my dear, Chester. What can we do for him? He is such a good boy, too old for Santa, but he should get something.”
“Grandma! Did you look at me sliding?” Here was Blanche interrupting again.
“Oh, Blanche, sweet, sweet Blanche. You are frozen. Here, sit by the stove and I’ll go look out the window at that slide.”
“Mama, what are we having for lunch?’ Blanche asked.
“Blanche, your slide looks very slippery. You be careful out there. You are Grandma’s precious dark-haired beauty, you know.” Grandma always talked that way to Blanche. She loved to comb her hair at breakfast and iron her clothes every time she wore them.
“Lunch is ready,” said Mama. “Blanche, will you please call Ione and Papa and Chester?”
“Yes, Mama. Where is Chester?”
“Oh, probably with Papa in the chicken coop,” answered Mama.
I quickly put on my coat and slipped out the front door so they wouldn’t know I’d been listening.
Soon we were all seated around the table. “A bowl of potatoes and a plate of raw turnips every day,” I inwardly complained.
“Ione, will you ask a blessing on the food to thank our Father for it?”
“Yes, Papa. Dear Father in Heaven, we are thankful for food to eat. Please help us have enough money. Please help Papa get jobs. In the name of Jesus, amen.”
“Grandma, do you have any money?” Papa’s voice interrupted the sound of turnips being chewed.
“No, James, I don’t.”
“Nellie, do you have any money?” he asked Mama.
“I don’t. Do we need something?”
Well, I’ve been thinking. This is the last day the stores will be open before Christmas. I have two quarters….” Papa had a little tease in his voice. My heart, ears, and hopes listened. “With the fifty cents,” he continued, “I thought maybe Chester would like to walk up to J. C. Penny with me to buy some gloves for him.”
“Oh, Papa! Thank you. My hands do get cold,” I said through the potatoes.
“Right after lunch we’ll go,” Papa concluded.
“Have you ever measured how far it is to Penney’s?” Papa asked as we began our uphill trek.
“Well, it’s five-and-a-half blocks to Grand Central,” I said, mapping it out in my mind. “So, it would be nine blocks to Penneys. Is that a mile?”
“I think,” Papa said, pulling his scarf up over his chin, “that seven blocks equal a mile.”
“Will we ever have a car, Papa?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Chester, if I’ll ever have one, but I know you will someday.”
“Uncle Henry has had two cars,” I said.
“Henry has many things,” he answered as he put his scarf up over his mouth and nose. I knew I had said too much.
“Here we are at Grand Central,” I said, trying to renew the conversation.
My nose and ears burned with cold. My hands weren’t as cold as my head because I kept my hands deep in my coat pockets. I always worried that I would slip and fall because I couldn’t get my hands out of my pockets fast enough. Then a pleasant thought came. “On your way home you can put your hands over your ears and the gloves will keep both your hands and ears warm.”
We walked on past the Mexican restaurant, past the bank, past the stake house. Finally I could see the sign, “J. C. Penney.”
“Well, we made it,” I said hoping Papa would forget the comment about not having a car. When he opened the door the smell of roasting nuts ushered me into a new world. I saw shoppers and clerks talking and laughing and wishing each other Merry Christmas. I heard the ring of cash registers and coins dropping in tills. I wondered if any of my friends would see me shopping with my Papa. I wished Mama were here with us.
“Chester, the gloves are over here,” Papa instructed.
I could feel Papa’s uncomfortableness. J. C. Penney was like a foreign country to us. I wanted to stay and get warm, maybe do some looking around. Papa wanted to get done what we came for and return home.
We walked directly to where the gloves were stacked. I boldly picked up a pair and slipped in my hands. Papa looked at the price tag. Seventy-five cents. I picked up another pair. These were leather. Oh how I’d love a leather pair! Papa looked at the price. Three dollars. I quickly took them off. I looked for what I though would be the cheapest pair. I inwardly groaned when I saw the price tag. Sixty-five cents.
“Well,” said Papa, “these are men’s gloves. Let’s try the boys’ department. Your hands aren’t too big yet.”
There were two kinds for boys. I tried on a pair of knitted ones. My fingers looked big and long. There was no price tag. “These will be good enough,” said Papa.
We took them to the clerk. She pushed some buttons and said, “That will be sixty cents.”
“Sixty!” Papa and I gasped together.
As we retraced our steps the long nine blocks home, I felt Papa’s despair. I wasn’t sad for me but for Papa. Soon we were on Fifth East. I could see the school. We passed by Uncle Henry’s and walked to our back door. Papa held it open for me.
I looked up into his face and saw not the despair I expected but faith. Gently he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “There will be other Christmases.”
And there were.
The passing years have brought prosperity and maturity, but some memories never fade. Whenever I put my hand in my pocket and feel dollar’s worth of change, I remember how desperately on that day I wanted just one dime for my Papa.