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“WHEN I die,” said Calliope Marsh, “don’t you get anybody that’s always treated me like a dog and put them on the front seat. Make ’em sit back.”Then she looked at me, her rare and somewhat abashed smile on her face.“Birds and stars and children and God in the world,” she said, “and hark at me talking like that. Honest, I don’t care where you seat ’em.”
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“NOW, THIS ONE—WHO’LL BID ON THIS ONE?”
“When I die,” said Calliope Marsh, “don’t you get anybody that’s always treated me like a dog and put them on the front seat. Make ’em sit back.”
Then she looked at me, her rare and somewhat abashed smile on her face.
“Birds and stars and children and God in the world,” she said, “and hark at me talking like that. Honest, I don’t care where you seat ’em.”
That is like Calliope. And that is like the village. Blunt and sometimes bitter speech there is, and now and again what we gently call “words”; but the faith of my experience is that these are facile, and need never trouble one. These are born of circumscription, of little areas, of teasing tasks, of lack of exercise, of that curious mingling which we call social life; but any one who takes seriously our faint feuds or even our narrow judgments does not know and love the Middle Western villages, nor understand that seeds and buds are not the norm of bloom. Instance, if you will, this case and that to show the contrary. But the days of pioneering, when folk drew together in defense, left us a heritage which no isolated instances can nullify. On the whole, we are all friends.
There could be no better basis for the changes that are upon us. The new ideals of the great world are here, in our little world. Though there is an impression to the contrary, the Zeitgeist is not attracted exclusively to cities. From design in our County Fair fancy work to our attitude toward the home, new things are come upon us. To be sure, we do not trust our power. We cling to our “Well, you can’t change human nature” as to a recipe, though it does change before our eyes. If it were only that impossible plaques and pillows have given place to hammered brass and copper, our disregard might be warrantable. But now when one praises home life, home cooking, home training, home influence, we are beginning to say: “Whose home?” And the sentimentalities do not give place to reason without healthful cause. And when of late, from the barber’s children’s lunch basket, the young professor of our village took out the heavy, sunken biscuits of the barber’s new wife and threw them in the ash box, even the barber’s wrathful imprecations could not draw our sympathy to the side of the hearth, where once it would have stood upholding domestic unsanctities.
To be sure, in the village the old confusion between motherhood and domestic service still maintains. But both in cities and in villages perhaps it is to-morrow rather than to-day that we shall see women free from kitchen drudgery, and home economics a paid profession, such as nursing has lately become. Though when one of us said this, at a meeting of the Friendship Village Married Ladies’ Cemetery Improvement Sodality, one of us rejoined:
“What! Do you mean that a womanly woman wants any occupation besides housekeeping? Why, I love my dishpan!”
And the burst of merriment which followed was almost a surprise to those who laughed, and to whom this extreme statement had unwittingly revealed the whole absurdity.
Already in the village it is almost impossible to get maids, even though many have entirely ceased to say “hired girl.” Night after night we scan the Friendship Village Daily Paper (who shall read that name and not admit that we live close to the essentials?) and see the same half dozen “Wanted ... for General Housework” appeals drearily repeated. And while some of us merely wonder how “Mis’ Whatever is getting along, and the weather what it is, and her baby not through the second summer,” there are those of us who feel secret thanksgiving in the fact that we, too, are painfully playing our part in forcing the recognition of domestic service as an eight-hour-a-day profession. And “But who would answer the bell evenings?” and “Why, none of us could afford to keep help then!” sound as unreasoning as they did when apprentices first changed to clerks.
Even the village theology broadens before our eyes. Few can be found who do not admit the anomaly of denominationalism, even while they cling to it. And it is no longer considered reprehensible to state openly, as well as to believe secretly, that the truth about living which Jesus taught has been told in certain forms whose ancient interpretation no thinking person holds. Something of the glory of the God-ward striving of all religions is felt, here and there, in the village, and now and then, in a village sitting-room, you come on someone who is cherishing a vision like that of John on Patmos, and saying nothing.
To be sure, one village theologian was heard to cry:
“Empty or full, I tell you them churches are all necessary, every one of ’em. And if we had more kinds of ’em, then they’d be necessary too.”
But there seemed to be something the matter with this. And on the whole there is more food for thought in another observation from among us:
“We always used to think Drug-store Curtsie was an infidel. And, land, there he is making the best State Senator we ever had. I guess we exaggerated it some, maybe.”
We are beginning to be ashamed of charity and to see that our half dozen dependent families need not have been dependent, if their own gifts had been developed and their industry had not been ill-directed or exploited. And if that is true of the Rickers and the Hennings and the Hasketts and the Bettses and the Doles, we begin to suspect that it may be true of all poverty. We are beginning to be ashamed of many another inefficiency and folly which anciently we took for granted as necessary evils. Of his own product the village brewer says openly: “The time is coming when they won’t let us make it. And I don’t care how soon it comes.” And this in the village, where we used to laugh at Keddie Bingy, drunken and singing on Daphne Street, and whose wife we censured for leaving him to shift for himself!
We are coming to applaud divorce when shame or faithlessness or disease or needless invalidism have attended marriage, and for a village woman to continue to earn her livelihood by marriage under these circumstances is now to her a disgrace hardly less evident than that of her city sister. We continue to cover up far too much, just as in the cities they cover too much. But we do mention openly things which in the old days we whispered or guessed at or whose peril we never knew at all. And when, by a visiting lecturer, more is admitted than we would ourselves admit, we are splendidly, if softly, triumphant with: “That couldn’t have been done here twenty years ago.”
To be sure, with some of the new terminology, we have had desperate battle.
”I don’t like them eugenics,” one of us said, “I know two of ’em that’s separated.”
Yet on the whole we tell one another that our new state law is “going to be” a good thing.
Inevitably, then, romance among us is becoming something else. The village girl no longer waits at the gate in a blue sash. There are no gates. She is wearing belts. And I heard one of the girls of the village say:
“A girl used to act so silly about being happy. What did she mean by that—being made love to forever by somebody forever in love with her? Well, I want something more than that in mine.”
And there, in her vague, slang speech lay the outline of the shadow that is pointing women to share in the joys of the race and the delight of a chosen occupation. And though not many of us here in the village will say as much as that, yet genetically the thing goes on: Women choose occupations, develop gifts, sail for Europe, refuse “good offers” even if these do hold out “support,” or come out with fine, open hatred of the menial tasks which their “womanliness” once forbade them to disavow. And beyond, in all relevancy, there opens the knowledge that motherhood is a thing to be trained for, as much as stenography!
Yet meadows sweet with hay, and twilights, and firelight, and the home (around the evening lamp) have not passed; but they lie close to a Romance of Life now coming fast upon us, away here in the village—a Romance of Life as much finer than sentimentality as modern romance is saner than chivalry.
In spite of our Armory and our strong young guard, we are quite simply for peace, and believe that it will come. And because we have among us a few of other races whom we understand, race prejudice is a thing which never troubles us; and I think that we could slip into the broadened race concept without realizing that anything had happened. The only thunder of change which does not echo here is the thunder of the industrial conflict. But although most of the village takes sides quite naïvely with the newspaper headlines, yet that is chiefly because the thing lies beyond our experience, and because—like the dwellers in cities—we lack imagination to visualize what is occurring. As far as our experience goes, the most of us are democratic. But when there arises an issue transcending our experience, our tendency is to uncompromising conservatism. And there is hope in the fact that politically many of us are free and think for ourselves, and smile at the abuse that is heaped upon great leaders, and understand with thanksgiving—away here in the village—how often the demagogues of to-day are the demi-gods of to-morrow.
We well know that with all this changing attitude, we are losing a certain homely flavor. Old possibilities, especially of humor, no longer have incidence. Our sophistication somehow includes our laughter. In these days, in what village could it happen, at the funeral of a well-beloved townsman, with the church filled to do him honor, that the minister should open his eyes at the close of the prayer, and absently say:
“The contribution will now be received.”
Yet that and the consequent agonized signaling of one of the elders are within my memory, and are indelibly there because they occurred at the first funeral in my experience, and I could not account for the elder’s perturbation.
Or, where among us now is the village dignitary who would take the platform to speak at the obsequies of a friend and would begin his eulogy with:
“I have always had a great respect for the deceased, for—[pointing with his thumb downward at the coffin] for that gentleman down there.”
Or, when a deacon with squeaking shoes is passing the plate, in what modern village church is to be found the clergyman who will call out:
“Brother, you’ll find my rubbers there in the lecture room. You best slip ’em on.”
Or the deacon who would instantly reply, overshoulder:
“I’ve got a pair of me own,” and so go serenely on, squeaking, to the last pew.
Yet these happened, not long ago, and we smile at the remembrance, knowing that just those things could not take place among us now. New absurdities occur. But there is a different humor, even of misadventure and the maladroit. Instead of deploring the old days, however, I think that nearly all of us say what I have heard a woman of ninety saying—not, “Things are not what they used to be in the old days,” but:
“Well, I’m thankful that I’ve lived to see so many things different.”
That is the way in which we grow old in the little towns of the Middle West. We are not afraid to know that old ways of laughter and old flavors of incident depart, with the old ills. Since disease and marching armies and the like are to leave us, humor and sentimentalism of a sort and gold lace of many sorts must likewise be foregone. We say: “The day is dead. Long be the day.” May we not boast of it? For such adaptation would not be wonderful in a city, where impressions crowd and are cut off. But it stands for a special and precious form of vitality, in little towns.
It is for this acceptance of growth that our days of pioneering together and our slow drawing together of later years form a solid basis. For we are knit, and now the fabric is beginning to be woven into a garment. Some are alarmed at the lack of seams, some anxiously question the color, some shake their heads and say that it will never fit. But there are those of us here in the village who think that we understand.
And now we are beginning to suspect that there is more to understand than we have guessed. For there was someone “From Away” who came to us and said:
“Your little town is a piece of to-morrow. Once a village was a source of quiet and content and prettiness. Once a village was withdrawn from what is going forward in the world. But now the village is the very source of our salvation, social and artistic. It is not that we are finding humanity at its best in the villages, but that there humanity is at the point where it is most in type. And in this lie the hidings of our power.”
We listened, not all of us believing. We were used to being praised for our cedar fenceposts, our mossy roofs, our bothersome, low-hanging elm boughs, even, of late, for our irregular streets and our creamy brick. But in our hearts we had been feeling apologetic that we had not more two-storey shops, not more folk who go away in Summer, and not even one limousine. And now we were hearing that we are playing a part social, artistic, which no city can play!
It is true that from the days of those old happenings which I have been recounting, down to now, the form of our self-expression has changed somewhat, its quality, never. Always we have been ourselves, simply and unreservedly. Not boldly ourselves, for we do not know that there is anything to be bold about. But in the small things, quite simply ourselves. And once I would have called that a negative quality....
But what of this salvation, social and artistic, and how are these to be fostered by our one characteristic? And with that, the cries of the world, from art, from life, are in one’s ears: Against imitation, against artificiality, against seeing the thing as a thousand others have seen it and saying it as a thousand others have said it, against moving in a mass which has won the right to no social adhesion, but instead stupidly coheres, and does its thinking by bad proxies. And we—who do already let ourselves be ourselves—who knows what contribution we may be bringing, now that there have come upon us these new reactions to convention, these slow new freedoms of belief?
There in the cities, humanity is in the melting pot, we say; and the figure is that of countless specializations dissolved in one general mass. We revert to type individually, but we advance to type collectively. Unquestionably this collective advance is a part of experience. But it is not an ultimate of experience. Somewhere there beyond, shining, is a new individualism, whose incarnations shall flow to no melting pot, but instead shall cling together, valued for their differentiation, and like a certain precious form of life, low in the scale, shall put out a thousand filaments, and presently move away together, a unit.
Already the individual experiences this progression—that is, he does if he does!—and, through his own unique value, wins back in later life to that simplicity which is every one’s birthright. It is Nietzsche’s threefold metamorphosis of the spirit: First the camel, then the lion, last the child. What if, standing in that simplicity, at the point where humanity is most in type, the village does open the social and artistic outlook of To-morrow?
Some of us believe. Some of us say: “What if the federation of the world is to begin in the little towns? What if it is beginning there now....”
“A village is nothing but a little something broke off from a city,” says Calliope Marsh, “only it never started in hitched to the city in the first place. And that makes all the difference.”
It is Calliope Marsh who tells, in her own speech, these Neighborhood Stories. And if she were given to selecting texts, I think that she would have selected one which says that life is something other than that which we believe it to be.
Portage, Wisconsin,August, 1914.
I never had felt so much like Christmas, said Calliope Marsh, as I did that year.
“I wish’t,” I says, when it got ’most time, “I wish’t I knew somebody to have a Christmas tree with.”
“Well, Calliope Marsh,” says Mis’ Postmaster Sykes, looking surprised-on-purpose, the way she does, “ain’t there enough poor and neglected folks in this world to please anybody?”
“I didn’t say have a Christmas tree for,” I says back at her; “I says have one with.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that difference,” she says, “I’m sure.”
“I donno,” I says, “as I know either. But there is a difference, somewhere. I’d kind of like to have a tree with folks this year.”
“Why don’t you help on your church tree?” Mis’ Sykes ask’ me. “They’re going to spend quite a little money on theirs this year.”
“I hate to box Christmas up in a church,” I says.
“Why, Calliope Marsh!” she says, shocked.
I didn’t want to hurt her feelings—I ain’t never one of those that likes to throw their idees in folks’s faces and watch folks jump back. So I tried to talk about something else, but she went right on, trying her best to help me out.
“The ward schools is each going to have a tree this year, I hear,” she says. “Why don’t you go in on your ward, Calliope, and help out there? They’d be real glad of help, you know.”
“I hate to divide Christmas off into wards,” I says to her.
“Well, then, go in with a family,” she says; “any of us’ll be real glad to have you,” she adds, generous. “We would. Come to ours—we’re going to have a great big tree for the children. I’ve been stringing the pop-corn and cutting the paper for it whenever I got an odd minute. The Holcombs, they’re going to have one too—and Mis’ Uppers and Mis’ Merriman and even the Hubbelthwaits and Abigail Arnold, for her little nieces. I never see a year when everybody was going to celebrate so nice. Come on with one of us, why don’t you?”
“Well,” I says, “mebbe I will. I’ll see. I don’t know yet what I will do,” I told her. And I went off down the street. What I wanted to say was, “I hate to box Christmas up in a family,” but I didn’t quite dare—yet.
Friendship Village ain’t ever looked much more like Christmas, to my notion, than it did that December. Just the right snow had come—and no more; and just the right cold—and no more. The moon was getting along so’s about the night of the twenty-fifth it was going to loom up big and gold and warm over the fields on the flats, where it always comes up in winter like it had just edged around there to get sort of a wide front yard for its big show, where the whole village could have a porch seat.
You know when you live in a village you always know whether the moon is new or to the full or where it is and when it’s going to be; but when you live in a city you just look up in the sky some night and say “Oh, that’s so, there’s the moon,” and go right on thinking about something else. Here in the village that December everything was getting ready, deliberate, for a full-moon Christmas, like long ago. The moon and the cold and the snow, and all them public things, was doing their best, together, for our common Christmas. All but us. It seemed like all of us humans was working for it separate.
Tramping along there in the snow that night, I thought over what Mis’ Sykes had said, and about all the places she’d mentioned over was going to have Christmas trees. And I looked along to the houses, most of ’em lying right there on Daphne Street, where they were going to have ’em—I could see ’em all, one tree after another, lighted and streaming from house to house all up and down Daphne Street, just the way they were going to look.
And then there was the little back streets, and the houses down on the flats, where there wouldn’t be any trees nor much of any Christmas. Of course, as Mis’ Sykes had said, the poor and the neglected are always with us—yet; but I didn’t want to pounce down on any of ’em with a bag of fruit and a box of animal crackers and set and watch ’em.
That wasn’t what I meant by having a Christmas with somebody.
“There’d ought to be some place—” I was beginning to think, when right along where I was, by the Market Square, I come on five or six children, kicking around in the snow. It was ’most dark, but I could just make ’em out: Eddie Newhaven, Arthur Mills, Lily Dorron, and two-three more.
“Hello, folks,” I says, “what you doing? Having a carnival?” Because it’s on the Market Square that carnivals and some little circuses and things that belongs to everybody is usually celebrated.
Little Arthur Mills spoke up. “No,” he says, “we was just playing we’s selling a load of Christmas trees.”
“Christmas trees,” I says. “Why, that’s so. This is where they always bring ’em to sell—big load of ’em for everybody, ain’t it?”
“They’re going to bring an awful big load here this time,” says Eddie Newhaven—“big enough for everybody in town to have one. Most of the fellows is going to have ’em—us and Ned Backus and the Cartwrights and Joe Tyrril and Lifty—all of ’em.”
“My,” I says, “what a lot of Christmas trees! Why, if they was set along by the curbstone here on Daphne Street,” I says, just to please the children and make a little talk with ’em, “why, the line of ’em would reach all up and down the town,” I says. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Little Lily claps her hands.
“Oh, yes,” she cries, “wouldn’t that be fun? With pop-corn strings all going from one to the other?”
“It would be a grand sight,” says I, looking down across the Market Square. There, hanging all gold and quiet, like it didn’t think it amounted to much, right over the big cedar-of-Lebanon-looking tree in the Square, was the moon, crooked to a horn.
“Once,” says Eddie Newhaven, “when they was selling the Christmas trees here, they kept right on selling ’em after dark. And they stood ’em around here and put a little light in each one. It was awful nice. Wouldn’t it be nice if they’d do that all over the Square some time!”
“It would be a grand sight,” says I again, “but one that the folks in this town would never have time for....”
While I spoke I was looking down across Market Square again toward the moon hanging over the cedar-of-Lebanon-looking tree.
“There’s a pretty good-looking tree there already,” I says idle. “What a grand thing it would be lit up,” says I, for not much of any reason—only to keep the talk going with the children. Then something went through me from my head to my feet. “Why not light it some time?” I says.
The children set up a little shout—part because they liked it, part because they thought such a thing could never be. I laughed with ’em, and I went on up the street—but all the time something in me kept on saying something, all hurried and as if it meant it. And little ends of ideas, and little jagged edges of other ideas, and plans part raveled out that you thought you could knit up again, and long, sharp motions, a little something like light, kept going through my head and going through it.
Down to the next corner I met Ben Cory, that keeps the livery-stable and sings bass to nearly everybody’s funeral and to other public occasions.
“Ben,” I says excited, though I hadn’t thought anything about this till that minute, “Ben—you getting up any Christmas Eve Christmas carols to sing this year?”
He had a new string of sleigh-bells over his shoulder, and he give it a shift, I recollect, so’s they all jingled.
“Well,” he says, “I did allow to do it. But I’ve spoke to one or two, and they donno’s they can do it. Some has got to sing to churches earlier in the evening and they donno’s they want to tune up all night. And the most has got to be home for family Christmas.”
“There ain’t,” I says, “no manner o’ doubt about the folks that’d be glad to listen, is there, provided you had the singers?”
“Oh, sure,” he says. “Folks shines up to music consider’ble, Christmas Eve. It—sort of—well, it——”
“Yes,” I says, “I know. It does, don’t it? Well, Ben Cory, you get your Christmas-carol singers together and a-caroling, and I’ll undertake that there sha’n’t nothing much stand in the way of their being out on Christmas Eve. Is it a bargain?”
His face lit up, all jolly and hearty.
“Why, sure it’s a bargain,” he says. “I’ll get ’em. I wanted to, only I didn’t want to carol ’em any more than they wanted to be caroled. I’ll get ’em,” he says, and gives his bells a hunch that made ’em ring all up and down Daphne Street—that the moon was looking down at just as if it was public property and not all made up of little private plans with just room enough for us four and no more, or figures to that effect.
I donno if you’ve ever managed any kind of a revolution?
They’s two kinds of revolutions. One breaks off of something that’s always been. You pick up the broke piece and try to throw it away to make room for something that’s growing out of the other part. And ’most everybody will begin to tell you that the growing piece ain’t any good, but that the other part is the kind you have always bought and that you’d better save it and stick it back on. But then they’s the other kind of revolution that backs away from something that’s always been and looks at it a little farther off than it ever see it before, and says: “Let’s us move a little way around and pay attention to this thing from a new spot.” And real often, if you put it that way, they’s enough people willing to do that, because they know they can go right back afterward and stand in the same old place if they want to.
Well, this last was the kind of a revolution I took charge of that week before Christmas. I got my plans and my ideas and my notions all planned and thought and budded, and then I presented ’em around, abundant.
The very next morning after I’d seen the children I started out, while I had kind of a glow to drape around the difficulties so’s I couldn’t see ’em. I went first to the store-keepers, seeing Christmas always seems to hinge and hang on what they say and do. And I went to Eppleby Holcomb, because I knew he’d see it like I done—and I wanted the brace of being agreed with, like you do.
Eppleby’s store was all decorated up with green cut paper and tassels and turkey-red calico poinsettias, and it looked real nice and tasty. And the store was full of the country trade. The little overhead track that took the bundles had broke down just at the wrong minute, and old rich Mis’ Wiswell’s felt soles had got stuck half-way, and Eppleby himself was up on top of a counter trying to rescue ’em for her, while she made tart remarks below. When he’d fished ’em out and wrapped ’em up for her,
“Eppleby,” I says, “would you be willing to shut up shop on Christmas Eve, or wouldn’t you?”
He looked kind of startled. “It’s a pretty good night for trade, you know, Calliope?” says he—doubtful.
“Why, yes,” I says, “it is. But everybody that’s going to give presents to people’ll give presents to people. And if the stores ain’t open Christmas Eve, folks’ll buy ’em when the stores is open. Is that sense, or ain’t it?”
He knew it was. And when I told him what I’d got hold of, stray places in my head, he says if the rest would shut he’d shut, and be glad of it. Abigail Arnold done the same about her home bakery, and the Gekerjecks, and two-three more. But Silas Sykes, that keeps the post-office store, he was firm.
“If that ain’t woman-foolish,” he says, “I donno what is. You ain’t no more idee of business than so many cats. No, sir. I don’t betray the public by cutting ’em off of one evening’s shopping like that.”
It made a nice little sentence to quote, and I quoted it consider’ble. And the result was, the rest of ’em, that knew Silas, head and heart, finally says, all right, he could keep open if he wanted to, and enjoy himself, and they’d all shut up. I honestly think they kind of appreciated, in a nice, neighborly way, making Silas feel mean—when he’d ought to.
It was a little harder to make the Sunday-school superintendents see the thing that I had in my head. Of course, when a thing has been the way it has been for a good while, you can’t really blame people for feeling that it’s been the way it ought to be. Feelings seems made that way. Our superintendent has been our superintendent for ’most forty years—ever since the church was built—and of course his thoughts is kind of turned to bone in some places, naturally.
His name is Jerry Bemus, and he keeps a little harness shop next door to the Town Hall that’s across from Market Square. When I went in that day he was resting from making harnesses, and he was practising on his cornet. He can make a bugle call real nice—you can often hear it, going up and down Daphne Street in the morning, and when I’m down doing my trading I always like to hear it—it gives me kind of a nice, old-fashioned feeling, like when Abigail Arnold fries doughnuts in the back of the Home Bakery and we can all smell ’em, out in the road.
“Jerry,” I says, “how much is our Sunday-school Christmas tree going to cost us?”
Jerry’s got a wooden leg, and he can not remember not to try to cross it over the other one. He done that now, and give it up.
“We calc’late about twenty-five dollars,” says he, proud.
“What we going to do to celebrate?”
“Well,” he says, “have speaking pieces—we got a program of twenty numbers already,” says he, pleased. “And a trimmed tree, and an orange, and a bag of nuts and candy for every child,” he says.
“All the other churches is going to do the same,” I says. “Five trees and five programs and five sets of stuff all around. And all of ’em on Christmas Eve, when you’d think we’d all sort of draw together instead of setting apart, in cliques. Land,” I says out, “that first Christmas Eve wouldn’t the angels have stopped singing and wept in the sky if they could of seen what we’d do to it!”
“Hush, Calliope,” says Jerry Bemus, shocked. “They ain’t no need to be sacrilegious, is they?”
“Not a bit,” says I; “we’ve been it so long a’ready, worshiping around in sections like Hottentots. Well, now,” I says, “do you honestly think we’ve all chose the best way to go at Christmas Eve for the children, filling them up with colored stuff and getting their stummicks all upset?”
We had quite a little talk about it, back and forth, Jerry and me. And all of a sudden, while I was trying my best to make him see what I saw, I happened to notice his bugle again.
“There ain’t no thrill in none of it,” I was saying to him. “Not half so much,” I says, “as there is in your bugle. When I hear that go floating up and down the street, I always kind of feel like it was announcing something. To my notion,” I says, “it could announce Christmas to this town far better than forty-’leven little separate trimmed-up trees.... Why, Jerry,” I says out sudden, “listen to what I’ve thought of....”
A little something had come in my head that minute, unexpected, that fitted itself into the rest of my plan. And it made Jerry say, pretty soon, that he was willing to go with me to see the other superintendents; and we done so that very day. Ain’t it funny how big things work out by homely means—by homely means? Sole because the choir-leader in one choir had resigned because the bass in that choir was the bass in that choir, and so they didn’t have anybody there to train their Christmas music, and sole because another congregation was hard up and was having to borrow its Christmas celebration money out of the foreign missionary fund—we got ’em to see sense. And then the other two joined in.
The schools were all right from the first, being built, like they are, on a basis of belonging to everybody, same as breathing and one-two other public utilities, and nothing dividing anybody from anybody. And I begun to feel like life and the world was just one great bud, longing to open, so be it could get enough care.
The worst ones to get weaned away from a perfectly selfish way of observing Christ’s birthday was the private families. Land, land, I kept saying to myself them days, we all of us act like we was studying kindergarten mathematics. We count up them that’s closest to us, and we can’t none of us seem to count much above ten.
Not all of ’em was that way, though. Well—if it just happens that you live in any town whatever in the civilized world, I think you’ll know about what I had said to me.
On the one hand it went about like this, from Mis’ Timothy Toplady and the Holcombs and the Hubbelthwaits and a lot more:
“Well, land knows, it’d save us lots of back-aching work—but—will the children like it?”
“Like it?” I says. “Try ’em. Trust ’em without trying ’em if you want to. I would. Remember,” I couldn’t help adding, “you like to be with the children a whole lot oftener than they like to be with you. What they like is to be together.”
And, “Well, do you honestly think it’ll work? I don’t see how it can—anything so differ’nt.”
And, “Well, they ain’t any harm trying it one year, as I can see. That can’t break up the holidays, as I know of.”
But the other side had figured it out just like the other side of everything always figures.
“Calliope,” says Mis’ Postmaster Sykes, “are you crazy-headed? What’s your idee? Ain’t things all right the way they’ve always been done?”
“Well,” says I, conservative, “not all of ’em. Not wholesale, I wouldn’t say.”
“But you can’t go changing things like this,” she told me. “What’ll become of Christmas?”
“Christmas,” I says, “don’t need you or me, Mis’ Sykes, to be its guardians. All Christmas needs is for us to get out of its way, and leave it express what it means.”
“But the home Christmas,” she says, ’most like a wail. “Would you do away with that?”
Then I sort of turned on her. I couldn’t help it.
“Whose home?” I says stern. “If it’s your home you mean, or any of the thousands of others like it where Christmas is kept, then you know, and they all know, that nothing on earth can take away the Christmas feeling and the Christmas joy as long as you want it to be there. But if it’s the homes you mean—and there’s thousands of ’em—where no Christmas ever comes, you surely ain’t arguing to keep them the way they’ve been kept?”
But she continued to shake her head.
“You can do as you like, of course,” she said, “and so can everybody else. It’s their privilege. But as for me, I shall trim my little tree here by our own fireside. And here we shall celebrate Christmas—Jeddie and Nora and father and me.”
“Why can’t you do both?” I says. “I wouldn’t have you give up your fireside end of things for anything on earth. But why can’t you do both?”
Mis’ Sykes didn’t rightly seem to know—at least she didn’t say. But she give me to understand that her mind run right along in the self-same groove it had had made for it, cozy.
Somehow, the longer I live, the less sense I seem to have. There’s some things I’ve learned from twenty-five to thirty times in my life, and yet I can’t seem to remember them no more than I can remember whether it’s sulphite or sulphate of soda that I take for my quinsy. And one of these is about taking things casual.
That night, for instance, when I come round the corner on to Daphne Street at half-past seven on Christmas Eve, I thought I was going to have to waste a minute or two standing just where the bill-board makes a shadow for the arc-light, trying to get used to the idea of what we were doing—used to it in my throat. But there wasn’t much time to spend that way, being there were things to do between then and eight o’clock, when we’d told ’em all to be there. So I ran along and tried not to think about it—except the work part. ’Most always, the work part of anything’ll steady you.
The great cedar-of-Lebanon-looking tree, standing down there on the edge of the Market Square and acting as if it had been left from some long-ago forest, on purpose, had been hung round with lines and lines of strung pop-corn—the kind that no Christmas tree would be a Christmas tree without, because so many, many folks has set up stringing it nights of Christmas week, after the children was in bed, and has kept it, careful, in a box, so’s it’d do for next year. We had all that from the churches—Methodist and Presbyterian and Episcopal and Baptist and Catholic pop-corn, and you couldn’t tell ’em apart at all when you got ’em on the tree. The festoons showed ghostly-white in the dark and the folks showed ghostly-black, hurrying back and forth doing the last things.
And the folks was coming—you could hear ’em all along Daphne Street, tripping on the bad place that hadn’t been mended because it was right under the arc-light, and coming over the hollow-sounding place by Graham’s drug-store, and coming from the little side streets and the dark back streets and the streets down on the flats. Some of ’em had Christmas trees waiting at home—the load had been there on the Market Square, just like we had let it be there for years without seeing that the Market Square had any other Christmas uses—and a good many had bought trees. But a good many more had decided not to have any—only just to hang up stockings; and to let the great big common Christmas tree stand for what it stood for, gathering most of that little garland of Daphne Street trees up into its living heart.
Over by the bandstand I come on them I’d been looking for—Eddie Newhaven and Arthur Mills and Lily Dorron and Sarah and Mollie and the Cartwrights and Lifty and six-eight more.
“Hello, folks,” I says. “What you down here for? Why ain’t you home?”
They answered all together:
“For the big tree!”
“Are you, now?” I says—just to keep on a-talking to ’em. “Whose tree?”
I love to remember the way they answered. It was Eddie Newhaven that said it.
“Why, all of us’s!” he said.
All of us’s! I like to say it over when they get to saying “mine” and “theirs” too hard where I am.
When it was eight o’clock and there was enough gathered on the Square, they done the thing that was going to be done, only nobody had known how well they were going to do it. They touched the button, and from the bottom branch to the tip-top little cone, the big old tree came alight, just like it knew what it was all about and like it had come out of the ground long ago for this reason—only we’d never known. Two hundred little electric lights there were, colored, and paid for private, though I done my best to get the town to pay for ’em, like it ought to for its own tree; but they was paid for private—yet.
It made a little oh!
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