Press Democrat blog. Meanwhile, the longer version is here, chock full of the details and texture that historical research always yields. The whole thing feels so old-timey-Christmas that I went ahead and did an audio recording as well. If you like to hear your stories read out loud, you’ll find it on my YouTube channel: XMAS SR ’06 audio or XMAS SR ’06 audio for mobile devices.
Peace on earth and cheers to all. Many thanks to Robert and everyone at our cherished local paper, The Press Democrat, to which I am a grateful, long-time subscriber.
XMAS SR ’06
Chapter Three: Leaving Home
From the minute the day began, everything went piggedly-higgeldy. Where were the roosters? It wasn’t their ruckus I woke to, it was Maddie pummeling me from under the quilt, trying to push me onto the floor. “Grandpa’s calling,” she mumbled, puddling herself into a ball.
December mornings are chill in a proper bedroom, but out on the sleeping porch with the mist coiling around us, it was torture. I wrapped myself, nightgown and all, in a sweater and coat, sliding on a second pair of socks. I could hear Grandpa’s voice now, roaring, “Jessica Anne Collier, where are you?!”
That woke the roosters. Now they were crowing—Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!—with every dog on Cherry Street baying in response.
I scooted down the hall pretending the floorboards were ice and my socks padded skates, sliding so well that I missed the bannister and skidded into the grandfather clock which set it chiming a good fifteen minutes behind schedule. It had been running slow, of course, ever since the quake.
Grandpa stood at the top of the stairs, long johns bunching over his trousers, braces looped to his knees. “You are one sorry sight, Miss Catawampus! You’re on your own this morning. Get your sister ready for school. The boys too.”
“Where’s Auntie Ruth?”
“Gone for Doctor Walter.”
“Grandma’s taken a turn.”
“No, I mean, why didn’t you use the telephone?”
“Never you mind. Be a good girl now.” He shut the bedroom door firmly behind him.
Be a good girl. That’s what Papa always says when he wants me to do something I don’t want to do. Like be a mommy when there is no mommy around. I mean, you try dressing two boys who can’t find a clean pair of hose between them—Alfred with his knickers on backward until I set him straight, Carl scrounging for his tie beneath the bed, mussing his shirt until I grabbed him by the ankles and pulled him out.
It was too cold to dress Maddie on the porch so we huddled in the kitchen. Wiggling her into her tights was a nightmare, she wouldn’t sit still for her pinafore and her boots—well, never mind trying to lace them up. She kept swinging her feet out and in, out and in, singing some made-up song about “fluffy ruffles” until I had to grab both her knees and pinch them together.
But her hair was the worst. Mama always insisted that we keep our hair well off our faces. I braided mine, all the while pleading with Maddie to at least try to do her pigtails. Not a chance. I did my best to tie them up with mismatched yarn, a spray of stray ends poking every which way.
Mama will not be pleased. The thought crossed my mind before I could remember that Mama was not here and would not be here, pleased or otherwise.
“Where’s my mama?” That was Alfred in the kitchen door. He had a point. Where was Auntie Ruth?
“Timbuktu,” I told him. Carl, the little one, hovering behind his brother, looked like he would start to cry. “I want my mama!” he howled.
“So do I,” I sang out. In an instant, I scooped him up to swing him around, thrilling the tears out of him. “Aunt Ruth will come home any minute, boys. Let’s scrounge some breakfast.”
Maddie wanted biscuits, the boys muffins but there wasn’t so much as a scrap of bread in the house. We found ham on the sideboard. Potatoes, some currents. And pickles.
“Pickles for breakfast!” Carl was delighted.
“That’s what they eat in Timbuktu,” I told him.
The grandfather clock chimed the half hour. Late again! Out to the porch went the boys, snatching up their hoops with me yelling behind them, “No hoops at school!” waving jackets their way.
They’d started down the steps for the sidewalk when Joe Pastern came speeding on his bicycle, cutting square in front of Mr. Harris’s delivery wagon, spooking the horse so bad that three quarts of milk toppled onto the dirt not two paces from where we stood. I pulled Maddie back just in time to keep her clean.
A welter ensued. “Come back, hooligan! I know your parents!” called Mr. Harris, but the boy didn’t even stop for the damage he’d done. Poor Mr. Harris jumped down to take his mare by the reins, talking to no one and everyone as he went: “Infernal cyclists! There ought to be a law…”
“Roads are getting dangerous.” Pete, the newsboy, had Grandpa’s Press Democrat in his hand. “Folks on 3rd Street had to round up two cows this morning, somebody’s strays.”
Of course, the boys wanted to stay on with Pete to confer over the sensational possibilities that Santa Rosa’s streets held for mayhem, but Maddie was already halfway down the block. “Sis!” I called, “tell Teacher I have to stay home with Grandma.” Maddie waved as the boys caught up with her, Pete tagging along behind.
Phew. I sat down on the top step: If I’m quiet, I thought, Grandpa will think I’ve gone to school. His newspaper lay in my hand. He liked to read it before anybody else, pages flat off the press, but I held the thing up anyway, trying to take a look without disturbing its neat arrangement. A handbill fluttered out, brightly colored, elves and reindeer running around its edges:
Christmas comes by once a year
Christmas comes but once a year
When it does it brings good cheer.
Kith and kin so very dear
Travel home to gather here.
CONFECTIONER & PREMIER FRUITERER
Lollies of Every Description.
Christmas! Ugh! I folded the sheet to nothing, squinching it down inside my boot. Grandpa wouldn’t miss it; he’d never even know it was there. I smoothed the rest of the paper to erase any evidence of my nosing. There was a photograph on the front page. A handsome man looked straight out at me. He wore rugged clothes, a beat-up hat, just like the gear Papa had on when he headed north, the kind you need to cook over a campfire. Under the picture it said, JACK LONDON, ANARCHIST.
Dr. Walter’s horn blasted as he pulled his roadster to the curb. “Why aren’t you in school, little lady?” I jumped down to straddle the mess of milk and glass there, pointing to his wheels. Those Runabout tires are famous for tearing at the least little thing.
“Where’s Auntie Ruth?” I asked him.
He was gathering things into his doctor bag, “Ruth? I haven’t seen her for days.”
“Didn’t she come to fetch you?”
Clearly in a hurry, Dr. Walter stopped to take me in. “Why aren’t you in school?”
“Grandpa asked me to stay home and help.”
Of course that was exactly when Grandpa banged onto the porch with, “Jessica Anne, why aren’t you in school?” I expected to hear an earful. Instead, Dr. Walter smiled shaking his hand. “What a good girl she is, Ray, offering to help you.”
I could see Grandpa had other ideas about just how good a girl I was given my unauthorized truancy, so I held up the newspaper, pointing to the picture. “Grandpa, what’s a an-arch-ist?”
The doctor laughed. Grandpa did not. He took the paper, ushering the doctor inside. “Honestly, Ira, I wonder at the wisdom of this public education you’re so excited about.” He turned back to me. “That’s for grown-ups, Jessie. Now be a good girl.”
Up the stairs they went, leaving a houseful of scatteration and no one but me to put it right. I did what I could in the kitchen, rinsing, wrapping the ham, scraping what was left into a slop bowl for the pig. In the parlor, I went hands and knees, disassembling a fort the boys had made out of Grandpa’s precious paper.
On the sleeping porch, I pulled our GRAVENSTEIN crate out from under the daybed fixing to tuck away Maddie’s nightgown when what did I find there but more newspaper! Oh, that Maddie! Was she making paper dolls? Thank goodness, the pages weren’t cut, but they were pink! Maddie’d been coloring with her colored pencils. Grandpa would be furious! On one side was a photograph of an ancient, bearded gentleman brandishing a bottle. PERUNA, it said, THE GREATEST REMEDY OF THE AGE. I remembered the name from our trip to Carey’s.
Well, I hope it can remedy those eyebrows, I thought. The thickets of hair above the old man’s eyes were almost as long as his beard.
On the other side of the page, a whole advertisement had been scribbled in. FLUFFY RUFFLES, it said. THE WORLD’S MOST UP-TO-DATE DOLL Then beneath: IN VARIETY AND VIGOR, A MARVEL TO ALL WHO SEE HER.
Suddenly I could hear Dr. Walter on the stairs. “Her catarrh is worse.” Folding as fast as I could, I crammed the advertisement down into my other boot and held still to listen. “It may be croup or pleurisy, but there is general debility, marasmus.”
The words were as perplexing to me as “anarchist.” I could hear the doctor at the front door now. “The child must go to school, Ray. You cannot keep her here.”
He was already at the curb as I ran into the hall. “Oh, please, please, please, don’t send Grandma away, please!”
“What?” Grandpa stopped me with a look. “Good little girls don’t listen in on grown-up conversations, Jessie.”
“Your grandmother is not going anywhere.”
“I promise.” Grandpa looked tired. “I have to get to the bank. Be a good girl and sit with your grandma ‘til I come back.”
I took the stairs two at a time, glad to be of use, easing in next to the bed. Grandma was sleeping. Quilts covered her coverlet. A weak light came through the one window on the far side of the room. Two tables, round and square, had been set within reach. On them were medicines galore, bottles, sticky spoons and glasses cloudy with tinctures: AYER’S SARSAPARILLA, MOTHER SIEGEL’S CURATIVE SYRUP, PHOSOPHOL EMULSION and a poultice marked KOORINGA BILE BEANS.
Grandma snored a little. Someone had tied a bed cap around her white hair, the bow tucked under her chin. Only yesterday she’d been sitting up with pillows from all over the house behind her so that she could look out at the sumac tree, something that cheered her. But now she lay flat, clutching a dinner napkin in one hand. She’d already run out of handkerchiefs. The big painting of her and Grandpa with Papa and Aunt Ruth as a little boy and girl on their laps sat tilted against the wall, its glass gone, its heavy frame splintered, waiting for attention even all these months after falling down.
At least the painting could be fixed. Other things could not. Like our Christmas ornaments. The glass ones in all shapes—orbs and snowflakes, icicles and stars—so delicate, etched, treasures from Mama’s family. Boxes of them used to live in the downstairs closet at the bakery. They would be shards now. They had to be. I never asked, I never went to look, but that’s what I saw every night before sleep. Closing my eyes, I saw our ornaments in pieces among piles of bricks that once were walls.
The day crawled by like the slowest of turtles. I stayed upstairs until Maddie and the boys came home from school. Grandpa was nowhere to be seen. My cousins ran inside just long enough to gather their marbles. Dashing out the front door, they almost plowed into—Grandma Johnson! There she was on the porch, her boots mud-laden. With the harvest long over, she still wore her field bonnet. Her apron was covered with hop stains.
“Where’s your grandfather?” she asked.
Truth be told, I’d always been a little scared of Grandma Johnson. I never could figure how a woman so frozen-faced could be mother to my mother. Still, I could hear Mama’s chiding voice in my head: Where are your manners? I stepped outside, Maddie trailing along silently.
“I’m not sure where he is, Grandma Johnson. He said he was going to the bank.”
“He did, did he?”
Even coming into town alone, she’d driven the hop wagon. As always, Big Boy, the Percheron, was in harness. He’d swung his head clean around to look at me. I scooted down to the curb to let him snuffle my palms, Maddie at my side. I kept my eyes low on his muzzle.
“The doctor says we have to send Grandma away.”
“It’s not your grandmother who’s going, Jessie. At least not according to your aunt.”
“She came to see me this morning.
“That’s not what Grandpa said.” I looked up. Grandma Johnson did not look happy.
“I’ve come to get you. You and your sister.”
“I’ve come to take you home with me.”
“For the time being. Your Aunt Ruth came by this morning. She told me Grandma Collier’s taken a turn for the worst. She asked if you and Maddie could stay with me for a while.”
“Stay with you?” Maddie yelped. “For Christmas?”
“For Christmas but not for Christmas—” Grandma Johnson looked serious. She nodded toward the wagon. “Big Boy and I are not planning on celebrating Christmas this year. We’ve got hop wires to mend, poles to set, sacks to sew and that kiln to sweep out.”
“No Christmas!” That was Maddie, of course. I jumped past her onto the porch, my voice way too loud: “That’s fine with me. I hate Christmas!” In a flash I’d pulled the holiday handbill from my boot, stomping all over its Lollies and Pulled Figs, tearing it apart: “I – don’t – want – Christmas – ever – EVER – again!”
Maddie, the crybaby, started boo-hoo-ing which made Grandma Johnson apoplectic. She pulled a crinkled-up hanky from her apron pocket—it looked well used—alternately offering and pointing it at us. “That’s enough! We have all done enough crying for one year. Now get your things.”
Back to the sleeping porch we trudged, pulling out our GRAVENSTEIN crate to pack up what little we own.
“It’s just ‘til Grandma Collier gets better,” I said as quietly as I could.
“But no Christmas?” Maddie’s tears began anew.
“We’ll have Christmas, I promise.”
“Cross your heart?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye.”
Two voices boomed from the hallway. “Girls! Don’t keep your grandmother waiting.” It was Grandpa and Auntie Ruth. Finally they’d come home. I put my finger to my lips before Maddie let our whereabouts be known. “Make you a deal,” I whispered. “I’ll take the crate. You go out the back door and keep Grandma Johnson company.”
“But she doesn’t like me,” Maddie hissed.
“Oh, she likes you fine. Ask her to help you feed Big Boy an apple from the scrap heap.”
That brightened Maddie. Off she went.
Sneaking behind the hall door I could hear Auntie Ruth talking to Grandpa now: “We have to try it,” she was saying. “Remember what the man said? It’s ‘the greatest remedy of the age.’ Just a few drops of Peruna and mother will feel so spry we can bring the girls back home again.”
Peruna? I pulled the advertisement from my boot. There it was in print GREATEST REMEDY OF THE AGE.
“Quackery,” Grandpa snorted. “Have you counted the bottles by your mother’s bed?”
“But what if it’s a miracle cure?”
“Right now the only miracle we can afford is a cup of that oxtail broth of yours.”
I heard Auntie Ruth’s footsteps receding, then:
“I spy someone’s shadow…” Grandpa’s head popped around the door, sending me squealing.
“What did I tell you about eavesdropping, young lady?”
I held out the purloined newspaper, doll-side up, talking fast: “Grandpa, when I talked to Grandma yesterday she said that Maddie’s only seven and she needs a proper Christmas even far away from home so I thought maybe we could buy her a doll.” I pointed to the words in big letters at the bottom of the page:
THE WORLD’S FIRST
“Can’t-Break-‘Em, Grandpa. I found this in with her clothes.”
He nodded. I could see he understood. Maddie wanted one thing in this world, just one, that would not break, that could not break, no matter how hard the earth might shake. He pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket. “You’ll need every penny of this,” he said. “Ask Grandma Johnson to drive you to Carey’s and buy Maddie that doll.” He gave me a hug. “You’re a good girl, Jessica Anne.”
“I’ll take care of everything,” I told him. “You can count on me.”
He kissed me on the top of my head—once, twice, three times. “Pray for a miracle cure so we can bring you girls back home.”
Between the two of us, we carried the GRAVENSTEIN crate out to the hop wagon. I wasn’t much help, but Grandpa let me get my two hands up under it anyway like the big girl I wanted to be. Auntie Ruth was there to say goodbye. She looked flustered. “You’ll be home soon.”
“I’ve explained everything to the girls,” Grandma Johnson announced in a tone that said she wasn’t interested in saying much more.
With Maddie, I was all smiles. “We’re going on an adventure,” I told her and because I was smiling, she smiled too.
“Can I stand up in the wagon, Granny Johnson?” Maddie crawled up onto the flat bed like she was a picker.
“As long as you hold on tight,” was the answer. Grandma Johnson did not so much as turn around from her seat on the buckboard.
Maddie and I took a good wide stance, holding tight to the posts and even tighter to each other. Grandma Johnson clucked just once. As Big Boy eased forward, the wagon lurched. Somehow we managed to stay on our feet. Grandpa and Auntie Ruth waved from the porch, but we couldn’t wave back. All we could do was shout our goodbyes as Big Boy pulled slowly west down Cherry Street.