As you’re surely recovering from last night’s Festivus activities, you may realize that you’ve heard a little less from your friends at the University of Nebraska Press. That’s because we’re closed through January 1 and will reopen on January 2. Until then, keep up with UNP news on our Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as posts on this blog.
To celebrate the Christmas season, the following is an excerpt from Journey into Christmas and Other Stories (Nebraska, 1985) by Bess Streeter Aldrich. Below is a passage from the titular short story.
Margaret Staley stood at her library window looking out at the familiar elms and the lace-vine arbor. Tonight the trees were snow-crusted, the arbor a thing of crystal filigree under the Christmas stars.
Some years the Midwest stayed mild all through December, donning its snowsuit only after the holidays. But tonight was a Christmas Eve made to order, as though Nature had supervised the designing and decorating of a silvered stage setting.
Margaret Staley visualized all this perfection, but she knew that the very beauty of the scene brought into sharper contrast the fact that for the first time in her life she was alone on Christmas Eve.
For fifty-nine Christmases she had been surrounded by the people she loved. On this sixtieth, there was no one. For not one of her four children was coming home.
She could remember reading a story like that once, about a mother who was disappointed that no one was coming – and then, just at dusk on Christmas Eve, all the children and their families arrived together to surprise her. But that was a sentimental piece of fiction; this was cold reality.
The reasons for none of their four coming were all good. Three of the reasons were, anyway, she admitted reluctantly. Calling the roll she went over- for the hundredth time – why each could not make the trip.
Don. That was understandable. Don and Janet, his wife, and young Ralph in California could not be expected to come half way across the continent every year and they had been here last Christmas. She herself had visited them the pas summer, returning as late as September.
Ruth. Ruth was her career daughter, connected with a children’s hospital and vitally important to her post. Long ago she had accepted the fact that Ruth could give her only the fragments from a busy life and never had she begrudged it; indeed she had felt vicariously a part of her capable daughter’s service to humanity.
Jean. Jeanie and her husband, Roy, lived in Chicago. Jeanie was a great family girl and certainly would have come out home, but the two little boys were in quarantine.
Lee. The hurt which she had loyally pushed into the back of her mind jumped out again like an unwanted and willful jack-in-the-box. Lee and his Ann could have come. Living in Oklahoma, not too far way, they could have made the trip if they had wished. Or if it had not been convenient for Lee to leave, she could have gone down there to be with them. If they had asked her.
Standing there at the window, looking out at the silver night, she remembered how she once thought the family would always come home. In her younger years she had complacently, “I know my children. They love their old home and whenever possible they will spend Christmas in it. Of course there will be sickness and other reasons to keep them away at times, but some of the four will always be here.” And surprisingly it had been true. Someone had been here every Christmas.
Faintly into her reverie came the far-off sound of bells and she opened the casement window a bit to locate their tinkling. It was the carolers carrying out the town’s traditional singing on Christmas Eve.
She closed the window and drew the drapes, as though unable to bear the night’s white beauty and the poignant notes of young voices.
“I’m alone…I’m alone…it’s Christmas Eve and I’m alone.” Her mind repeated it like some mournful raven with its “nevermore.”
Suddenly she caught herself by a figurative grip. “Now, listen,” she said to that self which was grieving. “You are not a weak person and you’re not neurotic. You have good sense and understanding and even humor at times. How often have you criticized people for this very thing?”
She walked over to the radio and turned it on, but when “Silent Night…Holy Night” came softly forth, she snapped it off, afraid she would break down and weep like an old Niobe.
“Oh, go on…feel sorry for yourself if you want to. Go on. Do it.” She smiled again wryly, and knew she was trying to clutch at humor, that straw which more than once had saved her from drowning in troubled waters.