The following short work of fiction, a slice-of-life piece, was never intended for publication. I wrote it a year ago as a creative exercise and have opted to present it now because it introduces Hettie Steward, the main character in Angel of Mercy, along with many of her friends and family members.
Christmas Eve 1913
The Steward household was busy with the clatter of voices while the air was filled with the delicious scents of the season. In the kitchen, Lucretia Steward was issuing orders to the various members of the household, her cheeks flushed, and her cadence quick:
“Benjamin. Ida, Walter and Mabel will be here at six. The Bartlettes will be here at eight. Hettie should be home any moment. I’ll be happy when she’s finished with this nursing sister business.”
“Children, don’t forget that the boxes of fudge for your grandmother, aunts and uncles need bows.”
“Mrs. Norris, please check the meat in the fireless cooker.”
“Alice, remove those cosmetics. You have too many on. I am not raising a clown.”
“Adelaide, go change your clothes.”
“Tommy. Thomas! Turn off the Christmas lights. It’s not dark yet. You’re wasting hydro.”
“Freddie. Freddie?! Where is Freddie? Well, never mind, I need to go upstairs and get ready.”
As Hettie approached the house a snowball hit her face. She shrieked both in surprise and from the stinging pain of cold. When she again was able to see, she saw a figure behind a tree. Freddie. She quickly scooped up two handfuls of snow and lobbed them at her brother. The first snowball missed, hitting the tree, but the second hit him in the shoulder. He shouted as if he had been hit by something extremely painful then threw two snowballs in return.
After several moments of joyful ruckus, Lucretia appeared on the porch. “What on earth is going on? Two adults behaving like children. Get inside before the neighbors see.”
Hettie and Freddie grumbled to themselves, then quickly went into the house.
“Mother, may Hettie and I throw a New Year’s party?”
The siblings’ faces were red as tomatoes, and their clothing was covered with snow as if it had been dumped on them. Lucretia laughed.
“It’s hard to say no when you look so ridiculous. Yes, you may hold a party, but one that’s not too large or expensive. Now go change before you catch your death.”
At sundown, the family gathered in the sitting room to decorate the tree. Bowls of popcorn, cranberries and gingerbread men were set out on the table. The women took yarn and needles and began making garland while the men strung the gingerbread.
Ida, Walter, Mabel and their spouses had arrived along with Ida’s three little girls whose eyes were large with wonder at the sight of the evergreen slowly transforming into a Christmas tree.
“I brought the horse and sleigh tonight. I couldn’t control the motor car,” Walter said, making a serpentine motion with his hand. “It was sliding all over.”
“Sliding?” Hettie gave Freddie a glance that seemed to say they should borrow the car tonight. “Sounds like an amusement park ride.”
Freddie nodded, smiling.
Lucretia placed herself in their line of sight as if she knew they were up to mischief. She opened a box which contained their most precious Christmas ornaments — the expensive, imported ones made of glass. There was one for each year of Lucretia’s and Benjamin’s marriage along with eight more, one for each child. When this year’s ornament was introduced, it was given a prominent place on the highest branch.
Before anyone realized time had even passed, the doorbell rang. Everyone left the sitting room and crowded into the foyer to welcome their guests.
Hettie blushed as her fiancé, Geoffrey Bartlette, appeared in the threshold. “Freddie and I are throwing a New Year’s party,” she told him. “You and Maeve and your brothers must come. It wouldn’t be any fun without you.”
“Of course,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”
Once pleasantries were exchanged, the group again entered the sitting room. Mrs. Norris brought in sweets and a pot of hot chocolate. The Bartlettes ooohed and aaahed at the tree. It was nearly finished. All that remained was the star.
Every year, Benjamin selected who would have the honor of placing the star. He tried to be fair in his selection, but the older children had had the honor more than once. This year, he selected Hettie, which was no surprise. This was her last Christmas with the family before marriage. He did the same thing over the past two years with Walter and Mabel and with Ida in 1905.
As Hettie stood on a kitchen chair, Geoffrey remained nearby protectively, ready to catch her should she slip. But there were no accidents, and Hettie placed the glass tree topper in seconds. Everyone applauded.
“Time to go caroling,” Walter said, and the young men and women scattered to get ready.
Many of the Steward children looked forward to caroling all year long, more than decorating the tree, Christmas dinner or gifts, and they rushed to get bundled up. Benjamin, Lucretia and Mrs. Bartlette stayed behind with the girls while everyone ventured out. The group exited via the front door and hurried to Aunt Bertha’s and Uncle Steven’s house.
Uncle Steven, scarcely 10 years older than Ida, was a surrogate brother to his sister Lucretia’s brood. He joined them caroling every year, the last of the previous generation to do so, and always led the group. Aunt Bertha stayed at home with the children, waving goodbye from the porch, her eyes twinkling and her lips pink, remembering all those times she had gone caroling with her husband.
“All right,” Uncle Steven said, “we’ll take the usual route and start with Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
On the count of three, the singing began. The neighbors came outdoors to welcome them.
The group sang in joyful voices. It was cold, but they didn’t mind.
“‘Peace on earth and mercy mild….’”