Sunday, December 29, 2013

Short story, "A Christmas Letter"

My short story, below, "A Christmas Letter", was published in Canadian Stories, (ISSN 1496-4511) Vol. 16, No. 94, 2013/2014

by Ruth Latta

Late one December afternoon, Daddy arrived home after dark looking like a snowman. His wool coat and cap were plastered white from driving the open tractor against the wind, on the three mile trip from his brothers' farm. Mummy shooed the children into the living room and shook his coat outside while he warmed his hands at the cookstove.

"There's mail in the pockets," he said.
"The family allowance cheque?"
"No. But Dorothy got hers so yours will probably come soon. The lads said, if it does, they'll take me into town to shop."
Pat, in the living room archway, noticed a small flat package.
"Ah, something from Caroline Walker!" Mum exclaimed.
"Tell me again who she is."
"My old friend from Normal School. Oh, and card from your mother. You got paid!"
In the card from Gran was a five dollar bill. Mum studied it.
"Where's the rest of your pay?"
"Mam said the rest went for our tractor payment."
"But you've worked all fall for them, clearing land. You've paid for the tractor three times over."
Dad shrugged. "Not according to Mam."
"So all you get is five dollars and a Merry Christmas."
Mum pocketed the money, seized the lifter, raised the stove lid, and dropped Gran's card onto the flames. She put Mrs. Walker's present on the kitchen shelf, then bent to take a pan of hot biscuits out of the oven.
"Supper!" she called.
Jay, who was five, spotted the thin parcel in brown paper. "A present!" he cried. "Open it."
Katie, groggy from her nap, came running to Daddy, who lifted her into her high chair.
"We'll wait till Christmas." Mummy spooned vegetable stew into bowls.
"When is Santa coming?" asked Jay.
"Christmas is December 25th, but this year Santa isn't coming till January." Mummy said. They ate in silence.

That evening, Pat dried the dishes while her father brought in wood. She would have washed them, but she couldn't lift the kettle of boiling water off the stove and pour it into the dishpan. Usually she and Mummy talked while doing the dishes but that evening her mother was busy sweeping and putting away clothes.
After the younger children were asleep, Pat lay in bed and watched her parents in the living room. The door was open to admit warm air from the Quebec heater. Daddy and Mummy weren't fighting, but they weren't talking either. They were reading the bundle of North Bay Nugget newspapers that Gran had saved and sent with Daddy.

Gran kept the local post office in the farmhouse she'd once shared with her husband and three sons. Uncle Bruce still lived under her roof, and, a few yards away, Uncle Bob, Aunt Dorothy, Bobby and Barbara lived in a bungalow. Years ago, when Mummy was a teaching boarding with a family, she caught a ride into town when Daddy was taking the mailbags to the train. That was how they met.

"Daddy said he wanted to be independent," Mummy had once told Pat, "so I took all my saving and bought us this farm. I wish we'd chosen a different location."

Things went well at first. Together, Pat's parents had gardened, cut both fire wood and pulp wood for the forest products company and raised a variety of farm animals. But Pat came along, then Jay, then Katie, and Mummy had no time to work outdoors any more.

Daddy helped his brothers on seasonal projects like haying and threshing, so that they would help him, in turn. Back in the spring, using money he'd earned cutting pulpwood, he made a down payment on a tractor. Pat had loved the summer evening trips by tractor and wagon to visit the relatives, especially riding home after dark, lying back on cushions on the wagon, looking up at the stars.

Then Daddy asked his brothers to finish paying for the tractor in return for his help clearing land. Every day he'd worked, cutting brush and bulldozing scrub trees into windrows, leaving Mummy to cultivate the garden at home. Now, his folks hadn't paid him anything beyond what was owed on the tractor.

"When you children get a little older I'll go back to teach and get us on our feet again," Mum often said. Pat could hardly wait. The kids who teased her about her bulky brown snow pants wouldn't dare mock her if her mother was there. And maybe there would be money for a new red parka with matching pants in Eaton's catalogue.

She closed her eyes and pictured everyone in her family in new clothes from the catalogue, and next thing she knew it was morning. She could smell porridge and hear Katie and Jay's high voices in the kitchen. Through the frosted window, she saw a blue pickup truck crawling down the lane.

"Mummy, someone's coming!"
Mummy rushed into her room  and came out wearing her slacks and a sweater over her pyjamas. The door opened, and a blast of cold air hit the children as Daddy opened the door for Uncle Bob.

"Hello, kids," he said "Alice, your family allowance cheque turned up. It had fallen behind the sorting table." He held an envelope out to her.
"I'm so glad your mother found it," Mummy said.
"If you sign it, Tom can come to town with me today and buy what you need. A government cheque is as good as cash."
"Fine. Have some tea while I make a list."

As Mummy got her pen and writing paper from on top of the wardrobe, and Daddy shaved at the sink, Uncle Bob sat down between Jay and Katie.
"What are you two nippers planning for the day?" he asked. His own "ankle biters" were helping Aunt Dorothy make cookies. "Oh, I just remembered!" He took a folded paper from his pocket and handed it to Mummy. "You wanted stamps."

"Thanks. Be sure Tom gives you money out of the family allowance to repay your mother."

Soon Daddy was ready, and, with Uncle Bob, stepped out into the cold dazzling morning.
That morning, Pat dried the dishes and entertained the children while Mummy did some hand washing. When she was out at the clothesline, Pat climbed onto a chair to get Mrs. Walker's card and letter. She could read cursive handwriting.

"Season's Greetings to you and your family," wrote Caroline Walker. Then she told about her work. She had volunteered to organize a Christmas clothing and toy drive in her office. Though social work was often "heart-rending" at times, she was encouraged by the generous donations of good quality items received. Her office meeting room was overflowing. Pat was still reading the card when Mummy came in, on a wave of cold air, to warm her chapped hands.

"Let's start a card clothesline over the door," Pat exclaimed..
"Fine. Get some string."
"Tell me about Caroline Walker," Pat urged, as she cut a length of cord and attached two thumbtacks.
"Save Caroline's envelope for the return address," Mum ordered. "Put it on top of the wardrobe with my fountain pen and writing paper."

While securing the string over the doorway between kitchen and living room and draping cards over it, her mother explained that she and Caroline had been friends at Normal School. Caroline went to teach north of Toronto where her aunt lived, and wanted Mum to come too. But Mummy chose the north where boards offered higher salaries.

"We went to summer school together for several years. Then I got married and she switched to social work. I'm surprised she keeps in touch, our lives are so different."
"What's a social worker?"
"Someone who helps people."
"Who gets the stuff she's collecting?"
"Poor people."
"Could we get some?"
"Absolutely not!" Mummy glared. "We're not poor. We own a farm, though we owe taxes on it. But we won't beg. We haven't sunk that low yet." Her voice broke.
"I'm sorry, Mummy."
"Just - go and read. And put away that catalogue."
Pat obeyed, jutting out her lower lip.
"But we are poor!" she said to herself. "We have nothing for Christmas."

When she saw Mummy busy peeling potatoes, she found a pencil and crept into her parents' room. Taking a sheet of writing paper, she began a letter:

Dear Mrs. Walker.
I am Pat, your friend Alice's girl, aged nine. Mum wants me to thank you for your gift. This year we aren't getting much for Christmas as there is not enuf money. Can we have some used clothes and toys? Katie is 2, Jay is 5.

Carefully she printed Mrs. Walker's name and address on an envelope, and applied one of the stamps. She hid the letter in her snow pants pocket, and on Monday, she asked Miss Martin, who commuted from town, to mail it for her.

"Certainly," said her teacher, and put the letter in her purse.

Christmas concert rehearsals were in full swing, and Pat forgot about her letter as she went with the others to the community hall at the top of the school to practise carols and recite her poem.
Time raced by and soon it was December 22, the last day of school, and Concert Day. At final rehearsals that morning, Pat sat with her classmates on a bench facing the stage, breathing the freshness of the big spruce that the older students had decorated. Under its branches, near the piano, were bushel baskets full of paper sacks of candy and nuts provided by the Women's Institute. Each child in the community got one, including Katie and Jay. The principal's wife was picking up Mummy and Jay at noon so that they could attend.
The concert passed in a glorious dream, a blur of music, dancing and drama. After the last chorus, Santa emerged from backstage to distribute the candy. Some little children were afraid of him, but Jay was not shy; he happily sat on Santa's knee, wished him Merry Christmas and thanked him for the candy.

Then the room hummed with conversation. Mummy was soon surrounded by neighbours.
"So nice to see you out," someone said.
"Come to the next Institute meeting," a lady urged. "I'll pick you up."
"Can you substitute for me when I have my wisdom teeth out in January?" asked the principal.
Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Bob came up, smiling, with the message that Mam wanted them to come for Christmas dinner.
"Thanks, but we'll celebrate at home," Mummy said. "Katie gets cross if she doesn't have her nap."

Pat bit her lip. Last year at Gran's there had been roast beef. There would be none at home. If one of the hens became Christmas dinner, only eleven would be left to lay eggs. There were lots of carrots, potatoes and turnips, but she was sick of vegetables.

Travelling home in the warm car, Pat dozed. At home, Katie ran to Mummy as if they'd been parted for months. Daddy had set up the tree, and Mummy promised to get the ornaments out after supper.

As Christmas grew near, Pat tingled with excitement, and nervousness. She helped her mother stir the carrot pudding, watched her singe the chicken and helped the younger children decorate the tree and learn some carols for Christmas Eve. They kept them out of Daddy's way. He was cutting firewood, not in a good mood.
The night before Christmas, Mummy opened the thin flat box from Mrs. Walker to reveal candied orange, lemon and grapefruit. As they were eating them beside the tree, Jay cried, "Car's coming." Sure enough, a dark whale of a vehicle ploughed through the white foaminess beached near the house. They rushed to the door. On a blast of cold air, a big cardboard box with mittens and arms around it came in, followed by Uncle Bob, who was carrying it. He set it on the kitchen floor.

"This came in today's mail, from Walker in Toronto."
Pat was stunned. She wished she could vanish. Inside that box would be a note that began: "When I got Pat's letter..."  Mummy might say that Pat had brought shame to the family. There might be a fight, a spanking. Christmas would be spoiled, and it was all her fault.

"What a surprise!" Mummy said. "Thank you for bringing it over. Have some tea."
Uncle Bob said he ought to get home, but would drop by later in the week. After he left, Jay wanted to open the box, but Mummy said no.

That evening, when the younger children were asleep, Pat peeked around the bedroom door, watching her father cut the twine and her mother unfold the flaps of the box.
"We've hit the jackpot!" Dad exclaimed.
"Listen to this." Mummy unfolded a sheet of paper.

"Dear Alice. After writing to you about the overwhelming donations of good used clothing and toys, I realized that your growing children might be able to use some items. Sincerely, Caroline."

Daddy was digging.
"Here's a truck, a doll, and a book. Canned cranberry sauce, ham and a cake tin."
Mother took out folded piles of clothing. "Look! Two complete outfits for each child. And this sweater is man-size. It's for you."
"And this one is for you." Daddy held out something pink. "Try it on."
Mummy threw her arms around Daddy and began to cry.
"It's a miracle," she sobbed. "Maybe we were meant to have these things. After all, they had an overwhelming quantity."

Pat crept back to bed. How kind Mrs. Walker was! Smart, too, to read between the lines. Someday Pat hoped to meet her. Meanwhile, she could hardly keep her eyes open.

A red parka and matching ski pants, both gently used, waited for her on the rocking chair.

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