Friday, December 17, 2021

A Gift to Readers: Christmas 1949


A Christmas Short Story by Stephen Terrell

The sun set early in the holler. It wasn't even four o'clock and already long shadows cast by the copse of loblolly and slash pines on the hilltop crossed the creek, were settling over the weather-worn unpainted smokehouse. It wouldn't be long before the shadows made their way across the pasture to the house. The sun would be gone for the day, lost behind Carter's Knob.

Dorthea headed toward the barn, a battered metal bucket in hand. The oldest child, now fourteen, Dorthea had been milking the family's two cows twice a day since she was ten – first thing in the morning, then again in the late afternoon. The chore of retrieving eggs now fell to younger siblings.

Dorthea hated morning milking. She would stumble to the barn, the only light provided by a rusted kerosene lantern she carried. The sun was still hours away. She craved more sleep, wanting so much to throw the bucket aside, lay down in the hay and close her eyes. But the work had to be done or the young ones wouldn’t have milk to drink.

Afternoon milking was different. Dorthea enjoyed the sweet earthy scent of the hay and the cows themselves. Even the manure wasn't an unpleasant smell. She spent time with the cows, talking to them, praising them in melodious tones, softly singing church hymns to them. The cows would nudge her gently with their heads, maybe hoping that she would pull out a small piece of stale bread. She called them Spot and Dot, names prompted by the markings on their faces. Momma said it was stupid to name animals that might end up on your dinner plate, but Dorthea persisted.

This afternoon, in the deepening shadows and cold, the animals were quiet, more than usual. Even the sound of their moving across the straw on the barn floor was muffled.  The thought ran through Dorthea‘s head that somehow the animals sensed it was Christmas Eve, that maybe they were playing their own part in the manger scene. Maybe they could feel the coming of God’s night of peace on earth. She knew it was nonsense. But still, she dwelled on the thought as she softly sang Christmas songs while she milked.

When she finished, Dorthea stood, stretched her legs and back, and gave Dot a firm slap on the rump. Dot looked back as if to acknowledge their shared task was done, then moved across in the barn to a corner where she would spend the night.

Dorthea picked up the pail and headed into the house.

The smell of beans and johnny cakes cooking on the stove struck Dorthea. It soaked through her nose and mouth and into her pores. Hunger swept over her like the Spirit at a river baptism. 

"That smells so good, Momma," she said, putting the pail on the unpolished wood floor.

"Put that milk in a pitcher," her mother said, not turning from the stove. "Then tell them kids supper's ready."

Dorthea pulled the plain glass pitcher from a metal shelf over the sink. She hoisted the bucket and poured without spilling a single drop. She placed the pail with the remaining milk outside on the porch and covered it with a square piece of wood to keep out animals. The next morning there would be a skim of ice on the cream that rose to the top, the perfect complement for a Christmas day breakfast of pancakes and sorghum syrup. Of course, she would still have to milk the cows before breakfast.

The three youngest children were already inside. Dorthea cupped her hands and yelled for the other three. The two boys, Jacob and Tommy, came running from behind the barn. Esther, who was nine and the quietest of all of them, was down the path playing along the creek. Dorthea yelled again. Esther waved and started skipping back toward the house.

Ten minutes later they were seated on unadorned hand-made wooden chairs around a rough-hewn wooden table. Grace was said, and they ate their Christmas Eve dinner of beans with a little pork fat and onions.  Crisp johnny cakes were piled high and served with fresh churned butter and sorghum syrup from a Mason jar.

"Is Daddy going to get home for Christmas morning?" six-year old Ruth Lynn asked as she poured syrup onto a single johnny cake on her plate. 

"I don't know, child," Momma said softly. "You know he's truckin' for Mr. Whitsett up in Marysville, travelin' all over the country. But I'm sure he'll get home if he kin."  

Tears formed in the corners of Ruth Lynn's eyes and her lower lip swallowed up her upper lip. "I want Daddy home," she said, her voice revealing that she was on the verge of tears. "It's Christmas."

"We all do," Momma said gently. "And Daddy wants to be here. It’s just sometimes we can't always do what we want."

The rest of the children continued to eat, seemingly oblivious to the table conversation. 

Dorthea looked at her mother and their eyes locked for a moment, then Momma lowered her head and spooned up a well-soaked piece of johnny cake she had broken into her beans.

Among all the children only Dorthea knew the truth. Daddy worked for Mr. Whitsett driving a truck, but only when he could. Much of the time when Daddy was away, Dorthea knew that he was at the V.A. Hospital in Asheville. “In the crazy bin,”  Aunt Lucy said. 

"It weren't his fault," Momma had told her. "It were what that war did to him. " 

Dorthea knew the war had done something to him. She awakened many times to her father screaming out in his sleep. Yelling about the Japs. Calling out the names of men who died on some nameless Pacific Island. Sometimes just indecipherable yelling. 

Dorthea would see him in his nightshirt in the middle of the night grabbing his rifle and running out to crouch behind a bush, then firing off shots into the darkness. She had seen him down at the creek, stripped to the waist, throwing  icy water over himself, rubbing, and rubbing, and rubbing, maybe for an hour as if he was trying to wash away demons that possessed him.

When it got bad, Momma would send for Doc Carson. He'd give Daddy some pills, and sometimes that would work. And sometimes it wouldn't. Then the Doc would go get Mr. Whitsett. 

Mr. Whitsett was about the biggest businessman in the county. He owned a general store, a sawmill, some timberland and a trucking company that hauled almost everything in and out of the county. Not many of the people in the holler between the mountains owned cars, but Mr. Whitsett owned two: a 1935 Ford sedan that he drove around the county and a big post-war Packard that he drove when he went out of town. When he and Doc Carson would take Daddy to the VA, Mr. Whitsett always drove his Packard. 

"Them boys went through so much in the war," he'd say. "Least I can do is help get him to the VA."

Sometimes Daddy would be gone a week. Other times it was longer. He was gone almost all last spring, nearly three months.  Then one day, he just came walking down the dirt road and across the creek as if nothing ever happened.

A year ago last spring, when Momma and Dorthea had been off in the woods gathering May apples, Momma told her about Daddy's trips to the hospital.  Dorthea knew there was something other than trucking trips to Daddy's absences. Maybe that was the reason Momma told her. But Dorthea thought the real reason was that Momma could no longer hold the secret to herself. She needed someone else to talk with.

Momma wouldn't dare talk to the women at Church. Christian as they might be, they were terrible gossips. In days, they would have it all over the county that Daddy was in the loony bin, and probably worse. The same was true of the relatives, but somehow Aunt Lucy found out. At least she kept it to herself. 

Dorthea had remained true to her mother's wishes. She told no one. Not even her best friend, Irene. And she had not let it slip in front of her siblings. Not once.

With Momma's eyes lowered and Ruth Lynn still on the verge of tears, Dorthea knew she had to redirect the conversation. 

"Ruth Lynn, you better not cry. You know what tonight is," Dorthea said, forcing excitement into her voice that did not exist in her heart.

"It's Christmas Eve," said Ruth Lynn, her lower lip protruding. 

"That's right. So, when we get done eating, we have to pick out our best socks, and darn them up nice, so we can hang them up."

Dorthea could see her mother looking toward her, head still down, shaking it ever so slightly. Dorthea knew what her mother intended by the head shake. The year had been hard. There was little if anything left over for Christmas. But Dorthea was determined that they would put up their stockings, even if all it meant was that Dorthea would have to fill them with cheap trinkets that boys had won for her at the county fair last summer. At least it was something.

When dinner was done, Momma pumped water to wash the dishes. The girls cleaned the table, and Esther grabbed a broom and began sweeping away the dirt tracked in during the day. The boys went out to the neatly stacked ricks of wood sitting under a lean-to behind the house. They carried in armloads of split wood and stacked it just inside the front door. 

The world was dark and deeply quiet. There were no night sounds. Crickets and katydids were long gone. Possums, coons, foxes and mountain bobcats were hidden away, hunkered against the cold. Bears were in hibernation. The only sound was a faint gurgle from the creek, water flowing over rocks polished smooth by tiny fingers of time. 

As Momma washed the dishes, Dorthea gathered her siblings. "Santa's gonna be here tonight. Go get your best sock and I'll darn it so we can hang it up." Momma looked disapprovingly over her shoulder, but said nothing. 

The girls' bedroom was set off from the living room by a red curtain. Dorthea pulled her sewing kit out of the top drawer in a small chest and sat down on the worn bed she shared with Esther. The other bed, even smaller, was for Ruth Lynn and Lizzie . Dorthea threaded a needle by the light from an oil lamp. Each child brought in a single dingy white cotton sock. All had holes and tears, but they were the best each child had.

They gathered closely around Dorthea, sitting on the bed and around on the floor, taking up all the space in the small room. They watched Dorthea work. Her fingers darted smoothly, directing the needle and thread without a single wasted motion. 

Dorthea was a storyteller, and the children loved her stories. She would tell Bible stories and fairy tales from memory. She passed along old family stories that had been handed down through generations. Sometimes she would tell the stories she heard from the old women at church. Other times she would just make something up – something about knights or gnomes or star-crossed loves. 

Tonight, as she darned stockings, she talked about Christmas. She weaved tales of elves and snowmen, ice castles, sugar plums and gingerbread, shepherds and magi, the star, and the Christ child.  Her brothers and sisters sat around, eyes wide, images spinning through their heads.

When she was done with the last stocking, Dorthea put her sewing kit back in the drawer. She gathered the socks in one hand and, with her siblings in tow, walked to the living room. Tommy retrieved a small tack hammer and a handful of tacks. With a gentle tap,  Dorthea secured the mended socks along the front door jam.

"There we are," she said smiling. "All ready for Christmas."

Dorthea walked to the shelf running across the length of the living room wall and pulled down the family Bible. She sat in the wooden rocking chair and opened the King James Bible to the Gospel of Luke. With her siblings gathered around, she read the Christmas story.

When she finished, it was silent except for the crackling of the wood burning in the stove. Even Momma stopped to listen. 

Dorthea closed the Bible and her eyes. Her voice was lithe and smooth as she spoke from memory:  "T’was the night before Christmas . . . "

She recited the poem, every word perfect. The children huddled, their eyes glimmering, their heads filled with images of  things they had never seen – drifted snow, sparkling trees, a sack filled with gifts. Dorthea‘s voice lowered to a false baritone:  "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"

And it was done. Dorthea let the moment linger. Finally, she stood. "Off to bed. All of you."

*  *   *   *

Dorthea lay in the darkness. Esther's even breathing was the only sound. The coolness against her face signaled that the fire had died down. It would be only embers by morning, but still hot enough that it would rekindle with a few  pieces of dry wood. 

She breathed deeply, smiling as she replayed the evening of storytelling. She focused on the Christmas story, letting the sense of peace soak in like a warm summer rain. In the quiet, she drifted into slumber. 

*   *   *   *

Dorthea‘s eyes opened to full sunshine streaming into the house. It was morning. Christmas morning. She  overslept. There was no telling what time it was, but she knew it was hours after she was normally awake, hours after she should have been milking.

But what was that?  Her nosed twitched. Yes. It was the smell of bacon frying. Momma was already up making breakfast. And bacon at that. Maybe Momma had already milked the cows as a Christmas present to her.  

Dorthea sprung out of the bed and pulled back the curtain. Momma stood by the cook stove, her shoulders covered by a delicate pale blue shawl that Dorthea had never seen. Momma turned from her cooking to look over her shoulder at Dorthea . "Morning girl. Didn't think you were ever gonna wake up."  

Dorthea smiled back, but didn't say anything. Then she looked toward the door. The darned white socks hung where she had tacked them the night before, but now they were a different shape. They were bulging. Each sock was stuffed with candy, and fruit, and little presents. And out the top of each poked a red and white crook-stick candy cane. 

Dorthea put her hands to her mouth covering the smile that spread across her face.

There was a sound of someone outside. Then the door opened.

In stepped her father. He was wearing his worn hip-length coffee-colored hunting coat. He carried an armload of wood, as much as all the boys had carried in all their trips to the woodpile the previous night. He stood tall, his broad shoulders pulled back, not at all bent by the weight of the wood. He lowered the logs into an orderly pile by the door, then stood, clapping his gloved hands together, and turned. 

He saw Dorthea. The small wrinkles on his face pulled tight with his smile. His pale blue eyes shined. "Morning darlin'," he said in a crackling baritone voice. "I got in so late last night, I didn't want to wake you up. Merry Christmas, darling."

Dorthea bit her lower lip, her teeth clamping so hard that she expected to draw blood. But she didn't. The tears welled in her eyes. "Daddy," she said softly. Then the tears flowed freely, creating a salty stream over her cheeks, falling to the floor. "Daddy," she said, her voice a bit louder. "Merry Christmas."

He held out her arms to her and Dorthea started to run across the floor. But she couldn't. Her feet wouldn't move. She tried harder, but it felt like she was stuck ankle-deep in a bog. She struggled, but the more she pulled, the more her feet held fast. Finally, she pulled with all her might.

The blanket pulled loose from the bed and Dorthea’s feet flailed free. 

"Dorthea , you give me some blanket back."  It was Esther. She was shouting as she grabbed to pull the quilt back over her exposed legs.

Dorthea’s eyes opened into the pre-dawn dimness. "Daddy?" she said softly, and with the word knew the reality. Breakfast wasn't cooking. The sun wasn't up. Daddy wasn't there.

Esther situated herself under the covers and was immediately back to sleep. Dorthea just lay there in the dark, her eyes moist. Her heart pounded heavy in her chest, echoing through the emptiness that now consumed her. 

Moments passed, and with each moment the sense of Christmas ebbed from her. When there was no hope of finding more sleep, she sat up. With a deep breath, she got up to find her milking clothes, shoes and coat.

The bare wood floor creaked ever so quietly as Dorthea walked through the early-morning darkness. She took three small pieces of split wood from the pile near the door. Using the hem of her dress as a make-shift potholder, she turned the lever on the stove door and dropped the wood on top of the glowing coals. She shut the door with an iron-on-iron clank that shot through the stillness. But no one else in the house stirred.

Dorthea turned and noticed the sad line of darned socks hanging where she had left them. They were as empty as when she had tacked them in place. With a glum acceptance, she noted to herself that she would have to put some of her summer trinkets and baubles in the socks before the younger children woke up.

 Bucket in hand, Dorthea pulled her ankle-length coat tight around her and walked into the pink-gray coldness that comes just before dawn.  The barn was still dark. She walked past the kerosene lantern that hung near the barn door. She could find her way in the darkness, and today, this Christmas morning, she did not want the light. She wanted to be alone in the darkness.

The first squirts of milk hit the empty pale with a sound like a spoon rasping across a washboard. Dorthea jumped a bit with each sound until milk covered the bottom of the pail. She continued to squeeze milk from the udders, not bothering to wipe the tears as they rolled down her cheeks.

By the time the cows were milked, dawn had broken. Bright beams of sunlight cut across the tips of the trees on top of Carter's Knob, creating a knife-edge lines of gold. The holler was still in the shadow of the eastern mountains. It would be another hour or more before the sun emerged above the knob, but indirect sunlight began filling the valley. 

Dorthea picked up the bucket. Steam wafted gently from the warm milk. She walked up the well-worn path from the barn to the house, head down, concentrating on the smoothness of her steps so that the milk did not splash over the rim.

As she approached the front porch steps, Dorthea raised her head. She stopped. The bucket slid from her grip and hit flat-bottom on the ground. Milk sloshed out on one side, then the other, before settling.

Dorthea’s hands went to her mouth, as they had in her dream. She closed her eyes then reopened them. She stamped her feet to reassure herself that she was not dreaming.

Tacked to the unpainted clapboard siding, lined up in perfect order from small to big, were seven pristine new pairs of socks. Each sock bulged, filled with hard candy, nuts and small toys. Peeking out from each one was an orange. 

Dorthea ran up the steps. She gently touched each new sock, as if feeling the softness of new cotton for the first time. She moved up the line from the smallest to the largest. For long moments she stood, not moving. Her eyes moistened, then tears streamed down her cheeks. 

When at last she turned to go inside, she noticed a box sitting against the wall near the door. Inside the box was a smoked ham showing bright pink through a weave of butcher's twine. Piled all around it were sweet potatoes, white potatoes, bags of flour and sugar, peanuts, and Mason jars of fruit preserves.  

Dorthea stared at the box and its contents. She used the sleeve of her coat to wipe her tears.  She opened the door and ran inside.

"Get up!  Get up!" she yelled, directing her voice to the room she shared with her sisters. Then she yelled toward the upstairs loft where the boys slept. "Get up!  Santa's been here! It's Christmas!"

Dorthea was never sure where the gifts came from. She knew from her mother's reaction that Momma did not know who left the gifts for them. Dorthea thought Mr. Whitsett was the likely source, but if so, he never admitted it. It could have come from the church, but no one in the church had the money to provide such a bounty. Maybe it was one of the teachers. Whoever it was remained silent. But it was a kindness that Dorthea never forgot.

Daddy did not make it home for Christmas. Or for New Years. But one day in January, with snowflakes scattered in the air like so many fluttering butterflies, Daddy came walking down the dirt road, hobbling with his familiar limp, a remnant of the war. 

That year was the last Christmas in the holler for Dorthea and her family. Daddy left in the spring. His cousin in Cincinnati got him a job with a brewery. Over the summer, he settled in and saved some money. By the time the leaves started changing, he sent for his family. 

Daddy wasn't over his troubles. At times he would still wake up in rivers of sweat from night terrors. The damage of the war was never fully behind him. There were occasional trips to the VA but never for more than a few days. 

Shortly before his 56th birthday, he keeled over at work and was gone. He was freed of whatever demons had returned with him from that war. Momma brought him back to the holler to be buried in the family plot.

After the youngest child was grown and left home, Momma returned to the holler where she lived with Aunt Lucy until her death a decade later.

Dorthea married and raised her own family far away from the holler. No matter how difficult her own struggles, she and her family spent the week before Christmas putting together gift baskets for families where children would otherwise go without. 

Every Christmas Eve, Dorthea would gather her children, and later her grandchildren, around her. With piles of warm cookies before her and each child with a tall glass of milk, she would read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke and recite T'was the Night Before Christmas from memory. Then she would put everything aside, close her eyes and take herself back to 1949. Opening her eyes, she would draw her children even closer. She would remind the children of all their aunts and uncles and how they grew up in the holler. Then she would tell the story of her Christmas that year. When she finished, with trembling fingers she would wipe the tears from her cheeks, give each child a kiss, and send them off to bed where they would sleep with the joyous anticipation of the Christmas they were certain would come with the morning.