The Christmas Letters

BOOK: The Christmas Letters
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The Christmas Letters

A Novella

LEE SMITH

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

For my family

Contents

1. Letters from Birdie

2. Letters from Mary

3. Letter from Melanie

Also by Lee Smith

Praise for
The Christmas Letters

1. Letters from Birdie

Dec. 24, 1944

Dear Mama and Rachel,

It is the day before Christmas and though I know I should be so happy with my own sweet angel baby Mary who lies right here beside me as I write this letter, I will tell you the truth. I am weepy, and cannot hold back my tears. Why do you reckon this is so, when Mary and me have everything we need here?

Why, we have got a room of our very own nestled up under the eaves of Bill’s parents’ house, it is a nice little room too, with a low roof that slopes up to a point at the top and the prettiest wallpaper featuring a trellis design covered all over in the most beautiful morning glories you can possibly imagine. They are a deep purply blue, and the trellis is white, it is lovely beyond belief. You know I have always been partial to morning glories. Also in this room there is a big iron bed painted white, a rocking chair, a night table with a funny green lamp that has a yellow lampshade with ball fringe all around it, and a little homemade desk where I now sit to write you this letter. There is also a washstand with a Blue Willow pitcher and bowl and an old black-painted trunk where I can lay my Mary down when I change her diapers. She has a little bassinet as well,
very old, it has been in Bill’s family for years and years though nobody knows where it came from.

So Mary and I are well equipped, and should not want for a thing in the new year of our Lord 1945, not a thing in the world except to come back to West Virginia, which we cannot do.

It is so different here, all flat brown fields which stretch out from this farmhouse in three directions as far as the eye can see. But in the fourth direction, South—now this is the view from our little round window—there is the wide dark Neuse River moving slowly and mysteriously toward the Ocean which I have not yet seen and can scarcely imagine though Bill has promised to take us when he comes home. And way across the river, there’s the town. I can see it better at night when its lights make a pretty reflection in the water, like jewels. In fact the name of the movie theater in town is the Bijou which means jewel if I am correct. It is the colored lights of the Bijou which twinkle in the water come dark, how I love to look at them.

Still I wish I could have come back up home to have my baby, and stayed with you all until Bill gets out of the War, but he would not hear a word about it, not a word, saying that “No,” his own parents would take good care of his wife and baby. Well, it is the other way around, if you ask me, since Bill’s mother is sick so much. Mrs. Pickett is a woman who was beautiful once upon a time, I know it is
true for I have seen the pictures. I need to remember that she got spoiled because she was the only child of wealthy parents, and had her way in everything, that this was her parents’ house and farm which Bill’s father is fast running into the ground, according to all. Come to mention it, I’m finding out that Mr. Slone Pickett has got a reputation around here as a lifelong ne’er-do-well, and a gambler and drunkard besides.

I must say that Bill did not breathe a word of all this to me, and in fact I wonder if he even knows the extent of his father’s Reputation. But it may have been that Mr. Pickett minded his P’s and Q’s better when Dennis and Bill were here working with him, and has only hit this new low since their departure for the War.

I hasten to add that Mr. Pickett does not bother
me
in any way, in fact he is charming to a fault, and seems devoted to little Mary. He likes to bounce her on his knee and sing aloud, “This is the way the Lady rides,” etc. But he is seldom here, always gone off “seeing to business,” as he puts it, which means sitting around with the other old fellows at Bryce’s Tavern across the river, playing cards and talking, or out in his car visiting people. Mr. Pickett loves to go visiting, and I must say I cannot blame him too much, as Mrs. Pickett is not very good company. But this leaves it all up to me, for Mrs. Pickett is quite demanding and it takes both me and old Lorene working double-time just to pacify her.

Mostly she lies in bed reading magazines and romance novels, with her teeth took out and laid on the bedside table. First she wants one thing then another. She eats about 8 little meals every day instead of 3 like normal people, because of an ulcer, she says, and everything has to be just so. For instance you have to cut all the crusts off the bread or she will not eat it.

I don’t think I’ve ever described Bill’s parents to you. In appearance Mrs. P. is tall and thin with arms and legs like pipe cleaners, an unusually large head, big blue eyes, and skin so white it looks like milkglass. By contrast, Mr. Pickett is still a handsome man, with thick white hair and eyebrows, though his belly hangs over his belt making him look a little like Humpty Dumpty. He dresses up every day fit to kill, he is quite the dandy. He would
die
if he knew he looks like Humpty Dumpty.

I must say it is a surprise to me that my Bill ever issued forth from this unlikely Union, as Bill is such a plain and straightforward fellow, so likable and easy-going, or so it seems to me, though I swear I have nearly forgot his face now as he has been gone already for longer than I knew him before the War.

I have thought and thought about that day we met, until I wonder if I really remember it at all, or if it is merely a story I made up and now play again and again in my mind like a movie over at the Bijou. I don’t know if I have
told you all the particulars of it or not, but I would like to, and I hope you will not mind me going on at length, for I miss you so much, and love to think of you reading this long letter from me.

You remember that I had come down to North Carolina on that trip with Adelaide Harper to visit her Aunt and Uncle who planned to travel down the Neuse for five days on their new houseboat, and Adelaide was to come with them, as the trip would be Educational. Remember how much I loved Adelaide, Mama, and how I begged to come? Do you ever wish you had said “No,” I wonder now, and do you ever think about where I might be instead, and what I might be doing? Instead of nursing a baby, I mean, on a lonely farm in the middle of brown fields gone to seed down here in North Carolina? For I do wonder about these things. I have time now to wonder, and think on everything, and I find myself thinking, “Oh, but if—” or “If only—” as it has struck me that our whole lives may be so determined, in the twinkling of an eye. Oh but I cannot imagine my life if I had never met Bill at all, this is the Truth.

I will never forget the day the houseboat ran against the bridge, that sudden awful Storm, almost a hurricane they said it was, and we were forced to seek shelter in the empty barn not a mile from where I now sit to write you this letter, and before we could properly get our wits
about us, here came Bill to save us and bring us home. I remember that it was almost dark and we were so scared, Adelaide and me all hugged up together as tight as you please and crying to beat the band, when Bill appeared in the barn door with a smile as bright as the lantern he held in his hands.

“Now, girls, it can’t be all that bad!” he said. “Isn’t that right, Ma’am?” Now he was addressing Adelaide’s Aunt. “For here you are, safe and sound after all, and the storm has passed, and you’re to come along home with me and get some supper and dry your clothes.”

And so we followed him out across the great dark flooded fields, sinking to our ankles in water, which mattered not a whit at that point as we were soaked through and through already. Bill talked to Adelaide’s Uncle on the way, telling all the particulars of the Storm and the havoc it had wrought all up and down the river, while Adelaide and I held hands and strained to see Bill’s shape in the gloom ahead. I have to say, I was pretty much taken with Bill from the get-go, as you used to say, Mama. Still, I thought that if he were to take notice of either of us, it would be Adelaide of course, for she was the pretty one with the curly blond ringlets admired by all.

When we finally got to Bill’s house, it quickly became apparent that his grand invitation was ill-considered, for there sat his Mother wrapped up in a shawl by a sputtering
oil lamp, and no supper either visible or forthcoming. I saw the situation and took charge, since Adelaide’s Aunt had to go lie down immediately and Adelaide herself did not know how to do anything of that nature. And you know how I have always loved to cook.

“Do you have any cornmeal?” I asked Bill’s mother, who had not the foggiest notion.

But Bill found the cornmeal for me, and some Bourbon Whiskey for Adelaide’s Uncle, and then the lights came back on and I set to work in earnest, wearing by now an old flannel nightshirt belonging to Bill’s Father, and going barefoot in the kitchen. By and by Adelaide and her Aunt reappeared, wearing some of Mrs. Pickett’s clothes, and her Uncle cheered up under the influence of the Whiskey, and the whole evening began to take on a festive aspect. As for myself, I could scarcely cook, for I kept stealing glances at Bill.

“Ah, now he will fall in love with Adelaide,” I thought, when they two fell into conversation, for he had not said one word directly to me. Anyway I boiled potatoes and fried up some corn dodgers the way you taught me, Mama, and then I asked for ham and was told to go down to the cellar to get it, and did, still barefooted. I recall how cool and damp the bricks felt to my feet. But what a surprise when I turned around to find Bill right there, right behind me, he had followed without a word.

“Now what is your name again?” he asked without
preamble and I said, “Mary Bird Hodges,” though I scarce could talk, and he said, “And are you spoken for?” and I said, “No,” forgetting all about William Isley in that instant, and Bill said, “Well, then,” and picked me up and kissed me hard, and I saw Stars, I swear I did, before my very eyes, and could not breathe when he set me back down. Then all of a sudden we fell to laughing, we were
both
of us laughing like crazy, for no reason at all, and on and on until we had to sit down on the floor, we were so out of breath. Then Bill leaned over and kissed me again, just a little kiss, and by the time we had got ourselves back together and gone upstairs with the ham, we had an understanding, or I
felt
we had an understanding, and both Adelaide and her Aunt later said it was plain to them as well, that we were glowing, and apt to break into giggles when nothing was funny that anyone else could see.

So this is the exact circumstances of how we met, which I take great pleasure in remembering over and over alone in my little room with my little Mary, and in writing to you. For it is my fondest hope, Rachel, that you will one day meet a man as fine as Bill, and fall in love as I have done.

You know the rest, how he came up home to call on us, and stayed a week, and then came back and talked me into eloping, which I know you have never forgiven me for yet, Mama, I reckon I cannot blame you. But I
had
to have Bill, that was all there was to it. And there was problems with
Mr. and Mrs. Pickett, Bill did not say what at the time, but now I see that she would have opposed the match, thinking nobody in this world is good enough for her or hers. Well, be that as it may, I could not have done otherwise. I would have followed Bill anywhere on the earth. I hope you have come to understand this, and are thinking about me more kindly than at first. This course has not been altogether easy for me either, as I am trying to tell you. It is not a bed of roses by any means.

And now I fear that this farm is teetering right on the edge of Ruin, though no one has discussed it with me of course, nor will they. But Mr. Pickett is evading certain creditors, of this I am sure. With Dennis God knows where in the Pacific and my own poor Bill off in New Guinea, both so far away.

Oh, who can know the Future? Who would have ever thought to find me here, or my best friend Adelaide dead of pneumonia, all these long months? It breaks my heart to think of Adelaide, as it breaks my heart to think of the mountains, and all of you.

I just know that Granddaddy will shoot off the gun on Christmas morning, that you will cook a hen for dinner, Mama, Daddy will make the eggnog, and Great-Aunt Lydia will give everybody those awful-looking crocheted placemats again that she has been making for years and years. It makes me laugh to think about them! I send a
special hug to the little Twins, and love to Daddy, and to everybody. I trust you are all well, and have a fine holiday, and that you miss me too, at least a little, and think about me down here in North Carolina so far from home. Oh, now I am crying again. But I have made my bed and I will lie in it the way I was taught, you may rest assured of that. I will do you proud.

BOOK: The Christmas Letters
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