This story was originally published in Storyteller Magazine in 1998. It was inspired by my Mom’s stories of growing up in 40s era Ottawa. Happy Holidays to everyone!
by Deb Loughead
Blythe Coleman had a Christmas orange. She leaned over the upstairs banister and dropped a thick piece of peel. It landed near my feet and I gazed up at her pale round face fringed with a halo of frilly curls. She smiled down at me then slipped quickly into the shadows. I could hear the tap of her heels on the hardwood floor upstairs, but the fragrance of her Christmas orange lingered in the air. I picked up the peel and carried it into the kitchen.
The last few years we had oranges, too. They were always nestled like six eggs in a delicate China fruit bowl that was hand-painted around the rim with bright sprigs of holly. It had once belonged to my great-grandmother and I knew my mother cherished it. That fruit bowl meant Christmas. Every December 1st, amidst great ceremony, she climbed on the footstool, lifted it gingerly from a high shelf in the cupboard and placed it on a doily in the centre of the kitchen table, sacred as the communion chalice at church. The week before Christmas the oranges would appear, one for each of the four children, Mama and Papa. We saved them until Christmas Eve, but often gathered around the table to peer at them, touch them reverently, smell them, a circle of eager faces anticipating that sweet burst of flavour in our mouths.
This year the China fruit bowl was empty and I sat in the rocking chair by the stove, dangling my legs and wondering why. Mama was baking the mincemeat pies that we would be eating after Midnight Mass. There was a smudge of flour on her forehead where she had pushed back a loose strand of hair. Her face was carved like a jack-o-lantern with blunt lines of grimness as she silently squeezed the lump of dough. I handed her the orange peel. She stopped kneading for an instant and her dark eyes searched my face. Then she dropped the peel in the garbage can. Her gaze strayed beyond the hall door, towards the stairway that led to the upstairs apartment.
The tenants had arrived in September. We needed some extra money was why, Mama told us. Mr. and Mrs. Coleman and their daughter Blythe had sailed over fromEngland. Mr. Coleman had a position with the government and they were staying two years. Upstairs they had a furnished apartment, equipped with a tiny kitchen, a bathroom, two bedrooms and a cozy parlour. Adequate, they said, for a two year stay in Ottawa.
We lived within walking distance of Parliament Hill. Each morning, for the first few weeks after they’d arrived, Mr. Coleman set out in his flapping black raincoat, carrying an umbrella, even if the sun was beaming and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Blythe wore a raincoat too, whenever she walked the few blocks to the public school. It was as if they could never trust our fair fall weather, as if a dark rain cloud was lurking somewhere on the horizon waiting to drench them by surprise.
The first time Mr. Coleman felt confident enough to leave in the morning without rain gear, two inches of wet snow fell through the day. He sloshed his way home along the slushy sidewalks after work, the icy wet stuff creeping up his trouser legs. I had watched him hobbling up the street, bending over now and then to dig the snow out of his shoes. We’d heard him coughing and sneezing for a week after his encounter with an early Ottawa winter. Now he and his daughter never left the house without their galoshes, even if the sidewalks were clear, along with the sky.
We weren’t sure what Mrs. Coleman did all day. Not her laundry, that was for certain. My mother had been shocked the day a Chinese man knocked on the front door to deliver a freshly laundered load of clothes. Sometimes we heard her singing up there along with the tunes on the radio. Sometimes the thin reedy sound of a flute would drift down the stairs. But she never baked, because the bread man always delivered their bread and their desserts. We had never tasted store bread, but Mama said it was like a fat white sponge and had no taste.
It had taken a while to adjust to the sound of footsteps crossing the floor above our heads, in the rooms that had been our bedrooms just a few months back. We children had trouble, the first week, remembering not to race upstairs to play after school, or to slide down the polished banister when Mama wasn’t looking. But by December we were accustomed to speaking in hushed voices, to stopping our silly little arguments before they got out of hand and leaked raucously into the upstairs apartment. Now the four of us slept in the living room on the main floor and the dining room had been converted to a bedroom for our parents. Now we spent all of our time in the spacious kitchen, gathered in the soothing circle of warmth from the wood stove, sitting stiffly on pine chairs and envying whoever had gotten to the padded rocker first.
As I sat rocking by the stove, watching my mother roll out her pastry, the clang of Papa’s blacksmith hammer echoed in the crisp winter air. He was unemployed, so now he had to work in his shed in the yard, making and fixing things for people. Lately he’d been spending most of his time out there and all day long the smoke from his fire curled in a wispy plume above our yard.
When he trudged indoors for the evening meal, he’d smell of smoke and sweat and his sooty face would be creased with bleak lines of fatigue. He’d stamp the snow from his boots, leaving them in a sodden puddle on the mat then hang his jacket on the hook by the door. He’d grunt his way through supper, his eyes focused on his food, then sink with a slow sigh into the rocker by the stove, to sit and stare at the wall until bedtime. Every evening, like a sacred ritual.
There were no signs of Christmas in our house, this year. The garlands of accordion tissue bells that usually festooned the kitchen in December were missing. And it was no use draping the mantle in the living room with the traditional pine boughs, or setting up a Christmas tree, because that was our bedroom now and there was barely room to turn around. Even the crèche was glaringly absent; it was usually tucked under the Christmas tree in its place of honour.
Our hopes for a visit from St. Nick this year were beginning to dwindle. We children only risked uttering the word “presents” under the muffled tents of our bedspreads at night, savouring it like a peppermint candy on our tongues, and wishing that we would hear our parents utter it too, that most exciting of all Christmas words.
But Blythe Coleman had a Christmas orange. It didn’t seem fair. As I rocked and watched my mother at work, a sudden boldness born of envy welled up inside of me and I took a chance.
“Will we have oranges this year?” I whispered so quietly that I could scarcely hear myself.
“What’s that?” Mama asked. She looked at me with preoccupied eyes that weren’t even focused on my face. “Did you say something?”
I was afraid to repeat the question, afraid of those strange distracted eyes that silently spoke of deep, troubling thoughts.
“Nothing,” I said, and sat there, rocking and staring at the wall. Just like Papa.
* * *
The Sunday three days before Christmas, we had a visitor after Mass. We had to sit stiffly around the table on the kitchen chairs and listen to the boring drone of his slow, deep voice. Old Mr. Webster from down the street, with his bulging belly, tight suspenders and wrinkled church clothes. We were always afraid that his stubby sausage fingers would get trapped in the dainty handle of the tea cup. I nudged my sister Annie to remind her, and Papa shot us a somber glare when we both giggled.
Mr. Webster gobbled Mama’s mince tarts and chewed so that his food was showing, all mushy and wet. And he spoke of the hard winter and the hard times and how hard it was, even, just to keep himself fed. Annie nudged me and we both silently marvelled at his protruding belly.
Before long my legs felt like they were frozen in a sitting position, that I’d never be able to walk again. Then I spotted her. Blythe Coleman, squatting on the steps, peering at our family through the banisters. I asked to be excused, and wandered from the stuffy kitchen into the airy hallway.
I could smell meat cooking. A roast of beef. The aroma floated enticingly down the stairway and I tried not to inhale. A Christmas song wafted down with the smell of the beef, a merry rendition of “Jingle Bells” sung by Bing Crosby, playing on their radio in the parlour.
Blythe’s face was as smooth and fragile as the inside of the China fruit bowl. There wasn’t a mark on it. No freckles, no beauty spots, the face of a porcelain doll. It was the closest I’d been to her since they’d arrived. She was dressed in a frilly green velvet frock, white socks, patent leather shoes. I felt drab in my faded calico, a hand-me-down from a cousin.
She was eating another orange and the juice dripped through her fingers. I stared at it. I couldn’t help it. Two oranges! My head reeled with the wonder of it. I blinked. Blythe blinked. Then she plucked a plump wedge off the orange and slipped her bird-wrist through the banister bars, coaxing me to take it. My hand darted out eagerly and I popped the slice into my mouth, crushed it with my teeth, sucked the juice slowly, swallowed the pulp. Blythe Coleman smiled at me.
“Lizzie!” My mother called from the kitchen. “Come here, please.”
Blythe flicked her hand at me then clattered up the stairs to her apartment. I ambled reluctantly back to the kitchen and the dull company of Mr. Webster, still tasting the sweet slice of orange and trying to forget the dragging afternoon.
After supper that night, the four of us retreated to our bedroom to play. Ever since we’d lost access to the upper floor, it was the only spot left in the house where we could be free from the watchful eyes of our parents. The cellar was out of the question. It was little more than a dank cave, with a dirt floor, a low ceiling and a bulging octopus of a furnace that always made strange clanking sounds. Papa had killed a rat down there once, and we didn’t even like scurrying down those shadowy steps on an errand to fetch the potatoes. In our bedroom we could let our imaginations meander, and that night they were meandering in the festive direction of Christmas.
Papa had built a cozy fire for us and in the dim room the shadows of dancing flames flickered on the walls. And that was when we decided to play at Christmas. We couldn’t resist, even though our house was devoid of all the trappings this year. The game had become a pre-Christmas tradition for the four of us. We would wrap up pieces of firewood in newspaper or butcher paper and place them under the tree. Then we would curl up around the hearth and pretend we were awakening on Christmas morning, opening our imaginary gifts with all the glee of real ones.
This year, because we didn’t have a Christmas tree, we had to create one by draping a coat rack with the scratchy green wool blanket from my bed. We used scraps of old fabric from the rag bag as decorations and long strips of newspapers as the garlands. We cut out a paper star and balanced it precariously at the top, then laid our meagre presents under the tree’s woolly boughs.
It was when we were all pretending to wake up on “Christmas morning”, discovering our “presents” and oohing and ahhing over them, that I spied Mama and Papa standing in the doorway. Mama’s face looked white and sick like she wanted to throw up. She was clutching a handful of her apron in a tight fist. Papa’s arms hung limply at his sides and his face seemed to sag like a deflating balloon.
Without a word he stamped into the room and wrenched the blanket from the coat rack, scattering our makeshift decorations, and sending the rack reeling across the room to topple over Paul’s bed like a dead tree. He lunged for the pretend presents and pitched them into the fire.
“Go to bed now,” he said, and shambled from the room with his fingers entangled in his mass of thick wavy hair.
“Do as he says,” Mama told us, and hurried out behind him.
* * *
Sunday night the wind blew in a blizzard, spreading a deep, heavy blanket that hung like a neat shock of hair from our rooftop and buried the backyard in shimmering dunes. The four of us spilled out into the yard right after breakfast and instantly started a snowball fight. Annie and I were no match for our brothers, Stephen and Paul, and soon the two of us were coated in sparkling snow and looked like a pair of sugar-frosted gingerbread men. We licked the snow off our sleeves, pretending it was icing sugar until our tongues burned with icy numbness. Then we helped our brothers sculpt an enormous fort.
I heard a faint tap on a window and looked up. Blythe Coleman was in her bedroom gazing down at us in the yard. She had melted away the frost with the palm of her hand and she was waving at me in that flickering bird way of hers. I could see her in a blur behind the glass, her golden curls entwined with bright red ribbon. She held up a doll for me to see. It had a lacy gown and delicate features much like her own. It looked like one of the angel babies in the bible pictures, with golden hair and a soft round face. Blythe and her doll could have been sisters, I thought. The curtain she had lifted fell suddenly and the spot where her face had appeared quickly filled in with mist.
* * *
At noon the kitchen was hot and steamy. It was laundry day and Mama stood by the stove, stirring her sheets in the enormous pot of bluing water. There were brown sugar sandwiches on the table for our lunch. Mama hadn’t been generous with the butter and they were dry and hard to choke down. Papa had a slab of salt pork and a few boiled potatoes on his plate. He worked harder than us. He needed meat, Mama told us.
When he came stomping inside to eat, Mama sidled up to him, then reached into her apron pocket and pressed something into his hand. They exchanged a few brief, hushed words and I saw Papa’s thick eyebrows jouncing up and down like a pair of bushy caterpillars.
It wasn’t until the table was cleared that I noticed the China fruit bowl was missing. Through the frosty kitchen window I saw Papa heave himself up into his sleigh and give the harness a quick shake. Bells began to jingle merrily as the enormous work horses trudged across the yard. The sleigh slipped through the backyard gate and out into the snow-filled street.
I was alone in the kitchen with Mama. She had her back turned. She was concentrating on her work, wringing out the white sheets and dropping them in the wicker basket so she could haul them outdoors and hang them on the line. Later when she brought them back inside they would be frozen rigidly as if they had too much starch, but they would smell as crisp and fresh as a winter day.
“Mama,” I whispered. “What happened to the fruit bowl?”
“I broke it,” she said, without turning around. “I accidentally knocked it off the table with one of the wet sheets while you were playing outside.”
“I loved that bowl,” I told her back. Then I went over and looked at her face. It was blank, expressionless. “I loved that bowl,” I said softly.
“I know,” she said. “It’s too bad. I don’t want to talk about it any more.”
I shuffled out of the kitchen with a lump in my throat the size of a Christmas orange.
* * *
Christmas Eve. We had to stay awake until eleven thirty when we would leave for Midnight Mass. We sat drowsing in our uncomfortable chairs by the stove after our pea soup supper, envying Paul, who had gotten to the cozy rocker first and was fast asleep. Papa was napping in his room. A hush had settled on our household like I’d never experienced before. It was a stilted silence, thick with a yearning for things that would never be, and the three of us who were still awake wore masks of grim disappointment.
There was a sudden racket on the front porch and a pounding at the door. Paul snored right through it, but the three of us leaped from our chairs and dashed down the front hall, giddy with anticipation. Our mother followed slowly.
I threw open the front door and we were met with a blast of icy air and swirling snowflakes. A bushy Christmas tree stood alone on our front porch. The branches rustled mysteriously and all of our faces split with smiles. Then Mr. Coleman poked his head around the corner with a toothy grin, his crop of bushy brown hair veiled with snow.
“Would one of you be so kind as to summon my wife and daughter?” he asked. “I’ll need their help dragging this blasted thing up the stairs.”
“I’ll help!” I sang out before Annie and Stephen could open their mouths.
“Oh would you?” he exclaimed. “It would be an enormous help. Let me just stamp the snow off my galoshes and I’ll be right with you.”
“Don’t stay up there long,” Mama warned me before she turned abruptly on her heel and strode back into the kitchen.
* * *
We dropped the tree in the upstairs hall, and Mr. Coleman began nailing two slats to the trunk. The woodsy fragrance of pine had already spread throughout their apartment. It was a festive scent that I didn’t want to be reminded about.
Mrs. Coleman invited me to have a seat in the parlour, where Blythe was already perched on the edge of a plump armchair that used to be in our living room, clutching that porcelain doll of hers. They were both dressed in matching red velvet outfits. Blythe and her doll. Christmas music was playing on their radio, the one they’d hurried out to buy when they realized that it wasn’t included with their furnished rooms.
I sat down on our maroon sofa and admired the sparkling red and green Christmas balls that were dangling from the chandelier, the garlands of fresh evergreens that draped the mantle, the dessert plate on the coffee table that was heaped with rich cherry-mottled fruitcake and the whitest shortbread I’d ever seen, the music stand with sheet music and a shiny silver flute displayed upon it. And the merry stack of presents in a corner, that was waiting to be placed under the tree. I couldn’t tear my eyes from them.
“Some of them are from my Grandparents and Aunties inEngland,” Blythe said, following my gaze.
It was strange to watch Mrs. Coleman, slim in her tailored gray suit, with her blond hair draped on her shoulders in soft, loose waves, setting our dining room table for their evening meal, taking their good China out of our buffet. She slipped into the kitchen for an instant and returned bearing an enormous crystal bowl overflowing with fruit. Bananas, grapes, apples, pears. And oranges. My mouth watered when I spotted them and I noticed that Blythe was staring at me.
“Help yourself, dear,” Mrs. Coleman invited in her lilting British voice. “We’re just about to eat ourselves. You like oranges, don’t you?” She was watching me curiously. “Blythe told me so. Have one, why not.”
“That’s okay,” I mumbled. She smiled then went back into the kitchen. I glanced uncomfortably at Blythe, tried to think of something to say. “Mama broke our Christmas fruit bowl on Monday while we were outside playing. I loved that bowl.”
Blythe’s face was solemn and she frowned, pursed her perfect pink lips.
“The creamy one with holly on it?” she asked. I stared at her incredulously.
“How did you know?” She’d never been past the front hallway in our house.
“Because she didn’t break it, silly goose. She sold it to the bread man when he was delivering our bread. I saw her.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “It’s just not. My mother doesn’t tell us lies.”
“Maybe it was another bowl then,” Blythe said, shrugging. “Who cares anyway. It’s just a bowl. Why don’t you take an orange?”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’d better go now. Thanks for having me.”
I hurried down the stairs to our warm kitchen and plopped back into my chair. Paul was still sleeping. Everyone else was still staring at the stove. It was as if time had stopped in my brief absence and waited for me to return, before carrying on its slow sweep around the face of the clock on our kitchen wall. As if I might miss something.
“Isn’t it almost time to get ready for Mass?” I asked nobody in particular.
* * *
The organ thundered out “Joy to the World” accompanied by a chorus of clamorous voices. Then St. Matthew’s Church emptied into the snowy streets and parishioners meandered homeward, calling out cheerful Christmas greetings to their neighbours and friends.
The six of us linked arms on the street, Mama and Papa on either end, and we walked slowly home through a cascade of plump, lazy snowflakes. Mama was humming now. She was humming “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and her cheeks were tinted a rosy pink. I was sure I could detect a trace of a smile on her fair face that had been set in such a rigid frown all week. And then I heard it. A distinct rumbling from my father’s chest, deep and sonorous. He was humming along with my mother in that out-of-tune way of his that meant he was in a good mood. Annie nudged me, winked and smiled, but all I could think of was what Mama had done and my own face was frozen in a frown. When we reached home, I gazed up at Blythe’s windows. The lights were out. They were all asleep.
We gathered around the table and Papa solemnly lit a Christmas candle. We said a prayer of thanks, then plunged our forks into the steaming mincemeat pies; everyone praised the flakiness of the pastry and Mama blushed into her plate. Tonight we were allowed to eat as much as we liked, and to drink glass after glass of cold, frothy eggnog sprinkled generously with nutmeg. But I was having trouble swallowing my first bite. That vacant spot in the middle of the table glared at me like an evil eye. Mama had tried her best to fill in the emptiness with the jug of eggnog and a small plate of molasses cookies. I kept glancing secretly at her, trying to catch a glimpse of regret in her face. But all she did was smile.
“Bedtime, children,” Mama called out when every last crumb had been gobbled up. “Don’t forget to hang your stockings!”
Stockings? There would be stockings after all? She handed them out to us with a gentle smile and I hugged my red felt stocking against my chest. We all did, and Papa slipped his arm affectionately around Mama’s waist and whispered something in her ear. She grinned impishly and winked at us, one of those secretive Christmas winks that held so much promise for a child.
“Hang your stockings on the mantle in your room and hurry to bed now,” she said.
And we did, clambering between our cool sheets and writhing with excitement until sleepiness finally overwhelmed us and we drifted off. I only woke up once and lay there a few minutes in the snow-bright hush of our room, grieving for my Mama’s China bowl.
Paul’s feet were the first to hit the icy floor Christmas morning and he awoke the rest of us with a happy hoot. Our stockings were bulging! We stroked them, squeezed them, fingered them, trying to guess what was inside, to prolong the sweet anticipation. But Paul was only seven and he plunged his hand in first, pulling everything out unceremoniously, showing us what he’d gotten and ruining our surprise.
A pair of bright new mittens each, green for the girls and red for the boys, with thick woolen toques to match. A peppermint stick that looked like a tiny barber shop pole. A pair of scissors. And deep in the toe of each stocking, a Christmas orange!
“Mama forgot to put them in the bowl this year, so I guess St. Nick had to bring them,” Annie said, sniffing her orange, caressing it like an infant’s head.
“How could she forget about the bowl?” Stephen asked.
“Hey! Let’s go put our oranges in it!” Paul shouted, and they all made a dash for the kitchen.
The China fruit bowl was missing and they hadn’t even noticed. Maybe I had been more aware of it because I was the oldest. Maybe that was why. Who cares anyway. It’s just a bowl. But Mama cared. I knew it. She had made a very difficult sacrifice to give us a very meagre Christmas. I followed them into the kitchen, dragging my feet on the cold floor. Silvery flute notes floated over our heads in a merry Christmas melody that didn’t match my mood.
“It’s gone,” I heard my sister whisper and they all peered, perplexed, at the empty spot on the table. “Where’s the Christmas fruit bowl, Mama?”
Mama was stirring porridge at the stove. She spun around when she heard them.
“Merry Christmas, darlings,” she said cheerfully, but her quavering voice betrayed her and she couldn’t disguise the uneasiness in her eyes.
“Mama broke the bowl,” I told them all. “It was an accident, wasn’t it, Mama?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mama said as she came over and enveloped us all in a hug. “I know you all loved that bowl. I know it meant Christmas for you. But it was an accident, like Lizzie said.”
“”Who cares,” Paul said, squirming out of her grasp. “It’s just a bowl. And we still have our oranges!”
Mama hugged us all a little harder.
“I’ll save you a piece of my orange,” I whispered into her neck.