CHRISTMAS STORY: Solace by Linda Grace Hoyer

Solace by Linda Grace Hoyer

From The New Yorker

Ada dropped a match into the heap of Christmas paper at the edge of the wood and watched it burn the red tissue in which one of the gifts from her son, Christopher, had been wrapped.  It was a clear day, with a stiff breeze from the northwest.  She wore faded bluejeans with unravelling cuffs and a red mackinaw that had belonged to her husband, Marty.  An inch of snow had fallen during the night and, against a cloudless sky, the balsam fir that Ada’s mother had planted to add a touch of green to the gray woods in winter gently waved its wide branches.  With snow on the ground and the wind coming the way it was, the risk of setting fire to the woods was minimal, Ada thought.  But even while she prodded the pile of paper with a staff she sometimes used to steady her steps when walking outdoors, a green pickup truck turned in to her yard and Mr. Murdough, her nearest neighbor, jumped from the cab.

“I saw your fire,” he said, “and thought it might be the woods.”

“Oh, no, this is where I always burn the paper – very carefully,” Ada said, and she turned to the youthful tricolored collie that earlier in the year she had bought from the custodian of the local animal shelter.  “We love that woods, don’t we, Peter Pup?”

“You know that woods has no fire lanes and there’d be no way for us to bring in a fire engine,” Mr. Murdough said.

“I know that,” Ada said.  Mr. Murdough’s unexpected arrival implied a need for his presence that Ada had not felt, and she did not smile.

“If you tell me where to find a bucket, I’ll bring water from your spring, to douse the fire when you leave.”

Though Ada previously had been unaware of Mr. Murdough’s resemblance to her late husband, she noticed it now.  Their straight blond hair, their deep-set hazel eyes and jutting jaws were similar.  Especially like Marty was Mr. Murdough’s determination to help.

The April that followed Marty’s death, Mr. Murdough had driven his tractor into a field where Ada was hand-raking newly turned ground prior to planting peas in it and, above the roar of the engine, shouted, “That’s not the kind of work you should be doing.  It’s too hard for you.”  There had been no time for Ada to explain that on account of a recent thunderstorm the soil was too wet to be worked any way but by hand.  Looking as determined as Marty might have under the same circumstances, Mr. Murdough had sent the tractor careering back and forth, while she stood by and saw her garden ruined.  Then, without speaking, Mr. Murdough had driven away, and Ada, rake in hand, had retired from the field.  To this winter day, eight and a half years later, Ada had not returned to plant peas, though in summer she drove her own tractor-drawn mower into that field to cut a tangle of red clover and Queen Anne’s lace that grew where peas might have grown.

In the face of Mr. Murdough’s present determination, Ada managed a smile that felt dry, if not actually forced.  “The spring is so close,” she said.  “I’ll douse the fire, if necessary.”

“Are you alone, Ada?”

“Yes, Mr. Murdough.  I’m alone.”

“I thought Christopher might’ve come.  For Christmas.”

“It’s a long way for him to come, and I don’t mind being alone on Christmas – or any day.  In fact, I enjoy being alone.  After all, we’ll all be alone in our caskets.”

“I’ve never thought of that, Ada, and I’m not sure that you should have.”

“I often attend my funeral in imagination.  It can make Christmas alone seem happy.”

“I’ll suggest it as an exercise for my mother the next time she complains of being left alone.  My father, as you know, was no saint.”

“And now she thinks he was?  A saint?”

“Yes.”

“I know how that is.”

“But Marty was a saint.”

“Not quite,” Ada said.

“I never heard him say an unkind word about anybody.”

“I did.”

“He was a great man.”

“He was a singular man, with the ability to lead his students and acquaintances to accept their own singularity.  That is a rare gift.”

“Mother worries about you – all alone.”

“Tell her not to worry.  The Wertz sisters have invited me to share their Christmas dinner.  And tell her to be glad that her son lives so close.”

“Be careful when you drive today.  There’s ice under the snow.”

“You take care, and have a merry Christmas.”

“A merry Christmas to you, too.”  Briskly, Mr. Murdough returned to his truck and started in the direction of his mother’s house with Peter Pup barking, leading the way.

A family of yellow jackets had nested during the summer in the ground not far from where Ada stood with her back to the fire, and the sharp stinging pain in her right ankle recalled summer’s several clashes with its members; indeed, Ada would have been no more surprised to see a yellow jacket taking leave of her than she had been by Mr. Murdough’s arrival a few minutes earlier.  Widowhood, it seemed to her, was more surprising than her marriage had ever been.

What Ada saw when she looked down was not an angry yellow jacket but a fringe of flame where the right cuff of her bluejeans had been.

To Marty, an unexpectedly painful happening had been either “a new experience,” and therefore a kind of “blessed event,” or, as the blooming rhodora had been for Emerson, “its own excuse for being.”  Though disinclined to share Marty’s stoical acceptance of surprises, Ada managed to bow from the waist and, with callused hands and a wry smile, stifle the flames.  That done, she called the dog and went into the house with him.  At this point, as she saw it, there was no need to douse the trash pile.

After her father’s death, Ada had carried upstairs the cushioned maple chair she had given him for Christmas in 1934 and set it at the head of Christopher’s bed.  Abandoned, the bed and chair waited with an expectant air in the bedroom where Christopher had slept.  Actually, they had the look Ada saw, on her way down the hall, reflected in her bathroom mirror.  It was the look of a person who, although obviously of less use than she formerly was, continued to expect well of the future.  Holding the medicine-cabinet door open, Ada was relieved to see that a magazine clipping Marty had pasted inside long ago was still there.  She read it aloud while Peter Pup listened: “‘Whether caused by flame or chemicals, a burn should be flooded with water immediately for approximately fifteen minutes.  A burn caused by chemicals should be examined by a doctor as soon as possible.’

“The treatment will be as simple as taking a bath,” she said, and, having closed the medicine-cabinet door, she opened both spigots of the bathtub.  Much simpler, surely, than the application of apple butter and sliced raw potatoes, tied on with strips of an old sheet, that her mother had used when Ada had burned her arms in hot corn mush.  How old had she been at the time?  Three, perhaps?  Ada remembered, as though it had happened today, the corn’s color – pure gold – in an iron kettle on the arrowbacked chair.  She remembered, too, how, after an awkward struggle with the bandages, her mother, who seldom had time to hold her, had taken her onto her lap and held her there until the pain was gone.  Compared with that pain, the pricklings Ada felt while bathing her ankle were a discomfort, nothing more.

Ada was in the tub when the phone rang.  “That’s Lucy Wertz calling to say, ‘Are you still alive?’”  Ada told Peter Pup.  And when, nude and waterlogged, she climbed from the tub and crossed the hall to answer the phone, she found that the caller was indeed Lucy Wertz.

“Were you at the barn?” said Lucy.

“No, I was taking a bath.”

“In that case, you should have your breathing fixed, Ada.”

“After the pulmonary lab tests, Dr. Hutchinson told me not to worry about my slight emphysema.”

“Then perhaps you need an evaluation of your heart.”

“Have you forgotten the Holter monitor I wore for one whole day last year, and the digitalis Dr. Razzano prescribed?”

“You may need another prescription.”

“Right now what I need is a towel.”

“You are coming to have dinner with us, aren’t you?”

“Yes, after I’m dressed.  If I’m not there by twelve, start dinner without me.  Mr. Murdough was here and said there are patches of ice under the blowing snow.”

“We’ve seen a car go by the house this morning.  The road is open.”

Ada didn’t argue with her.  Never having learned to drive, the Wertz sisters had sold their husbands’ automobiles and forgotten the difficulties of driving in wintertime completely, so that nothing Ada might have said on that subject would have been useful.

“We’ll pray that you have a safe trip,” Lucy said, adding, “Jane’s hungry.”

“I’ll try to be there by twelve,” Ada said.

At ten minutes before twelve, Lucy Wertz, seeing Ada’s blue compact in the snow-covered driveway beside the house, opened the back door and, with a delight so shrill that a stranger unaccustomed to Lucy’s way of greeting visitors might have fled to the safety of the woods, said, “Merry Christmas, Ada. It’s good to see you.”

Familiar though Ada was with Lucy’s greetings, they surprised her, so that without a word she followed Lucy into the kitchen, where Jane was turning the yams in a glaze of butter and sugar.

There, in the voice that a moment before had welcomed Ada, Lucy said, “Go on into the living room and wait until dinner is ready.”  To reinforce her command, Lucy led the way and, from the center of the room, said, “Sit down and read until I call you.”

“In which one of the chairs would you like me to sit?” Ada asked, remembering Marty’s saying to her, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.”  Lucy, Baltimore-born and for forty years a teacher in the public schools of that city, was trying to take the country out of the girl Ada no longer was.

Lucy said, “You may sit wherever you like.”

But, of course, nothing could have been less true.  If given her own choice of a place to sit, Ada would have stayed in the kitchen, where Jane was turning the yams in their glaze of butter and sugar.

“Then I’ll sit here,” Ada said, moving toward a very old Windsor chair with the patina of age and its frailty.

“That will be all right.”  The words came slowly, as though Lucy, knowing Ada’s weight, would have preferred to have her sit on the davenport.  But then, speaking crisply, she said, “Read this,” and left Ada on her own.

The magazine that Lucy handed to Ada was a monthly publication intended to advertise the virtues of that branch of Protestantism of which the Wertz sisters were members, and Ada dropped it, unopened, on the neat pile of magazines from which Lucy had taken it.  That done, she sat down in the old Windsor chair and turned a critical eye on her surroundings.

The room was one she had known in childhood and remembered with great affection, because at that time a favorite aunt and uncle had owned the house and during her mother’s illnesses had offered Ada the solace she needed.  Later, when her mother had recovered, Ada went to visit Uncle Nathan and Aunt Elizabeth with her parents.  On those festive occasions, she had been allowed to stay in the kitchen while meals were being prepared and, best of all, encouraged to feel that her being there was helpful.  “Will you bring the balloon-backed chairs from the parlor? Aunt Elizabeth would say if her sons were at home from the city and extra chairs were needed for the table.  Or in warm weather, when milk and butter had to be refrigerated in the spring ditch, she would say, “Run for the butter and cream, Ada.  The dinner is almost ready.”

It seemed to Ada that all that was bright and warm in her memories of childhood had happened in this room.  Now the room – with its newly plastered white walls and precious Persian rug – was bright without being warm.  It was extraordinarily neat.  But, remembering it as it had been seventy years ago, she resented this neatness.  Both the piano and the bookcase were gone, along with Uncle Nathan’s Boston rocker, where Aunt Elizabeth sat to mend his socks by the light of a huge kerosene lamp.  Gone, too, was the horsehair sofa – that wonder of slippery elegance – where Ada herself sat while her cousin Mordecai played the piano.  The room had held a round stove, with nickel-plated extensions to warm cold feet.  And Ada had not wanted to be in the kitchen.

Her wait, happily, was not long, and when she joined Lucy and Jane in the dining room her plate had been filled.

“We prefer chicken to turkey,” Jane said.  “We hope you do, too.”

“I like both.  And this looks lovely,” Ada said.

“Harvey liked ham, “Lucy said.  “What did Marty like?”

“Hamburger with cream sauce,” Ada said.

“Bless his heart.”

Seeing that the sisters had closed their eyes and bowed their heads in the silent blessing ordinarily asked by them, Ada inaudibly said, “Dear Lord, bless this house and help me to get home.”

When their plates were as clean as good appetites could make them, Jane passed the fruitcake and Christmas cookies, while Lucy brought hot water to make instant coffee in their expectant cups.  Meanwhile, Ada wondered who now alive in this world could bake mince pie the way her mother had.

Later, when the table had been cleared and Ada spoke of leaving, Lucy said, “Why, child?  You’ve hardly said a word.  You must tell us how Peter Pup is.”

“Peter Pup is fine.”

“And you?”

“I’m lucky to be here.”

“Aren’t we all?”  Lucy said.  “It’s so beautiful here.”

Jane, with a faraway look in her eyes, agreed, and said, “Yes, it is beautiful here.  I was born in the middle class and expect to stay in it.”

Taken by surprise, Ada laughed.  “Middle class” was a term she seldom used, and if anyone had asked her where in America’s complicated society she belonged, she almost certainly would have said, “I don’t know.”

Once, years ago, at a picnic on the church lawn, after telling Ada that both of her parents had migrated from Berlin to Baltimore, Lucy asked, with an anxious look, “You are German, aren’t you?”

Ada said, “My father told me that we can’t measure a snake while it’s running.”  Remembering her rudeness on that occasion and hoping to make amends now, Ada said to Lucy, “I caught fire this morning.”

“How, child?” Lucy and Jane said together.

“I was burning trash where I always do, and watching Peter Pup herding Mr. Murdough into his truck, when the fire took hold of my jeans.”

“What did you do?  Did you roll on the ground?  Did you call Mr. Murdough?”  They spoke as one person and that one Lucy.

“I smothered the flame with my hands.”

“How could you?”

“Easily.  It was a small flame, and I was lucky.”

“Yes, you were lucky.”

“And now I really must be going.  I’m expecting Christopher to call.”

“We’ll call tonight to see how you are.”

Ada wanted to tell Lucy that another interrogation on the subject of her health would be an invasion of privacy but found herself saying, “Thanks for the lovely dinner.  It made a perfect day.”

“Come back soon,” Lucy said.  “Be sure to drive carefully.”

On the ice of the Wertz sister’s driveway the wheels of Ada’s car spun for some time before she reached the sun-dried road.  She was still ten miles from home and knew that snow had drifted into the road along the way.  There was one small plain where, having had previous experiences with snowdrifts, Ada expected her car to stall, but when she got there, instead of a snowdrift she found two neat piles of snow, with the road, clear as could be, between them.

Seeing the green truck up the road, she knew that the man leaning on his shovel in the truck’s shadow was Mr. Murdough.  He was smiling in the complacent way that Marty smiled when, another day of teaching behind him, he walked from his parked car across the lawn toward their back porch.

Ada stopped her car.  “What do I owe you, Mr. Murdough, for opening the road?” she asked.

“That’s what neighbors are for.”

“In that case, thank you very much.  I want to be home by the time Christopher calls.”

“You’ll have no trouble from here on.”

“You’re a saint.”

“Any time you need help – day or night – call me,” Mr. Murdough said as Ada’s car gathered speed.

Words like “That’s what neighbors are for” were part of the local language and not to be taken without a grain of salt.  They were, however, a comfort to hear.  At home, Peter Pup would be waiting, and that, too, was a solacing thought.

When Christopher called, Ada was resting in the kitchen with the dog.  When she told Christopher that on that very day both Mr. Murdough and a fire had visited her, he asked, “Was the fire Mr. Murdough’s fault?  Did he push you toward the trash pile?”  Christopher’s voice suggested a blend of genuine concern and amusement.

This was a form of banter she had used when Christopher was a child and he, out of a sense of loyalty – or was it fear? – still used.

“Have you seen a doctor?” Christopher wanted to know.

“On Christmas?”

“How is your health, Mother?”

“You know my heart is damaged?”

“I know.  Dr. Hutchinson told me.”

“And there is lung damage, too, and a considerable loss of memory.”

“The way you describe it, it almost sounds like fun.”

“But none of my doctors look amused when they see me.  Have I lived too long?”

“Certainly not,” Christopher said with conviction.

“That’s nice to know.”

“We’ll talk again on New Year’s Day, Mother.  In the meantime, don’t stand too close to the fire.”

“Thanks for being a good boy, Christopher,” Ada said, and settled the receiver back in its cradle.

Peter Pup, relieved of the obligation to eavesdrop, went to his nest and, with a deep sigh, curled up to sleep.  Ada, after going to the window and making certain that it was the evening sun and not a brush fire burning among the gray trees beyond the old fir, turned on her radio and sat down to hear the last of the Christmas music.  A shadow of the barn lay on the field, where fringes of dry buck grass moved like the gentle flame that had felt like the sting of a yellow jacket, and, like the pain of a yellow jacket’s sting, was soon gone.

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