Saturday, October 27, 2007

Venture Magazine, December 18, 1955, by Marcella Clarke Armstrong

As she notes in her journal entries, our grandmother pursued creative writing training and joined a writers' group when the Armstrong family lived in California. She published some of her short stories including this one in Venture Magazine. The full text is below. As with many things, she was characteristically humble about her writing. Years ago, I was excited to learn that she was a published writer because I was a professional writer too--a newspaper reporter at that time. She was dismissive about her published stories, as if they weren't very significant. I was more proud of her than she probably realized.

For Junior Highs
December 18, 1955

An Angel at Work
By Marcella Clarke Armstrong

“Why aren’t you dressed, Virginia?” Mrs. Holmes’s voice edged sharply, impatiently. She looked up through the well of the high stairway to her daughter above.

“Oh, I don’t know. I thought I might stay home.” Ginny leaned over the railing, her chin on her arms. Now that she was fifteen, she should make up her own mind. Wasn’t that reasonable?

Her mother had disappeared, and Ginny sank again to the top step, he dark eyes filled with memories. She hadn’t always had to worry about clothes. Form the pedestal of fifteen years, she looked down and back to Christmas Eve services when she was a child. In white silk dress, scattered about with rosebuds, she had lisped the tiny greeting from the first graders. And the next year a long white nightgown had been sufficient to draw applause. But now she was too old for speaking pieces and not one cared how she looked.

Rudely, Don pushed by her, smelling of soap. Down the bannister he glided. “Com on, Sis,” he called as he landed. And her father’s voice from below questioned her right to decide.

“What’s this I hear about your staying home?” The words were stern, warning her that she’d better get ready. Ginny recognized the tone.

“I just don’t want to go. I can celebrate Christmas here.” She added the last to give her independence the build-up that it needed. If she as much as breathed the real reason, her father was sure to blow up and there’d be a dreadful scene.

“You’re making us all late. Get into some clothes.” Then his voice changed and became kinder. “Virginia, we want to be together on Christmas Eve. We can’t go without you. Have you forgotten that Bill Todd and Judy Stevens will be there? And a lot of others are home from college.”

A silence followed in which Ginny sat huddled, retreating into the shadows on the stairs. She has forgotten that the college kids were home. That made it impossible. She just couldn’t go.

“Why aren’t you coming?” Again her father’s impatience boomed from below.

Frantically she thought. “Well, if you must know—I haven’t anything to wear. I never have anything as nice as the other girls.” Ginny had risen and had come down a few steps ready for the impending, inevitable battle. She had always loved her father. Why was he so stubborn? She grasped the railing to withstand the shock of his reaction.

He was silent. After a moment, he said quietly, “I don’t want to ruin this evening for our family, but I do know that your closet is full of dresses.”

“But they’re old. Everyone’s seen them. Jane has a new velvet dress for tonight. Barbara’s mother bought her a knitted dress. Francie has a cashmere. I’ve worm everything I have!” Ginny’s white face under the soft brown bangs and short hair was not Ginny’s at all. Hardness and snobbishness had no right there.

Don, wise at thirteen, had thrown himself into a chair, waiting until this was over. He now rose, a little bored and advised, “Well, you keep your coat on then.”

A sizzling, hissing sound made them all look at the girl above, It was Virginia trying to find words.

“Why, why—that coat! I’m so ashamed of it. I wouldn’t keep it on if—if—Oh!” She turned and ran up the stairs. The brief run along the hall ended with the slamming of a door.

Soon another door closed firmly. The sound of the car backing our of the snowy driveway made Virginia raise her head from her bed and listen. They had left her alone on Christmas Eve. Her wild sobbing now protested against the unfairness of her parents, the party she had missed, the cruelty of life.

Some time later, enveloped in a scarlet quilted robe, Ginny wandered into the living room. The now outside gave a twilight felling in the room. The Christmas tree was a shadow in a corner. She inserted the plug into the wall socket and the tree emerged into sheer beauty.

“Jeepers,” Ginny said aloud. She sat down on the nearest chair, pulled her feet up under her, and stared at the quiet glowing of the transformed tree. Gradually the individual ornaments began to bring back other times. The gold tinsel she had chosen in the ten cent store years ago. Donnie had made the silver fan in kindergarten. The Santa she had colored. She guessed these things never stopped being—well, precious to he mother and father, no matter how worm out. They still helped to make the tree beautiful.

Suddenly Ginny slid to the floor and carefully reached toward a branch where a little figure rested. Slowly she lifted it out and held it in both hands. The little angel she had always loved, her blue dress faded, the tiny stars all erased. But the shining face and smooth gold hair, the erect and happy figure charmed her again.

Ginny sat a long time holding the image, thinking of the time when it was new. The Italian woman had been so old and wrinkled, sort of like a dried grape, selling little figures in the snow. It had been several days before Christmas, she remembered, for she had kept it wrapped until just the right moment on Christmas Eve. She had held onto her mother’s hand in the street and has shyly pointed to the blue angel. It had looked so cold.

Now the little dress was faded and part of it had chipped off. She had worn the dress so long—

Footsteps on the porch startled Virginia. She waited until she heard a soft knock. She shouldn’t go to the door for she was alone in the house. She put the angel on a bit of snow under the tree and sat, not moving. The knock came again, this time on the window, and as Virginia looked, a little flattened nose was pressed against the pane and two dark eyes reflected the color and wonder of the tree.

Ginny jumped to her feet and opened the front door, letting in the joyous notes or carollers down the street, of sleigh bells riding high, and the cold misery of a child who grasped a wreath of evergreen.

“This is the last one. I’ve sold all the others. Won’t you buy it, please won’t you?”
came a scared, muffled voice. The child was breathing fast, his gaze clinging to the colored balls and the tinsel.

Virginia took the wreath, led him over to the tree, and left him standing while she went in search of money. He was in the same position when she returned. Into his pocket she thrust a dollar and onto each cold hand she pushed a warm red mitten, her skating mittens, lined with fur. As he felt their warmth, his eyes turned to her. A smile so warm and bright lighted the boy’s face that Ginny stared unbelieving. She filled his pockets with candy. She couldn’t think of anything else to do.

After he had gone, Ginny again picked up the angel. She sat thinking. She wished she had given the boy more. That smile of his! It would have made everyone happier if she had smiled tonight. A faded angel and a ragged child where making her ashamed. Ginny knew now that velvet and cashmere were only substitutes for a bright shining light inside you. The thing is to make people forget how you’re dressed and to love the real you.

Of course, you couldn’t be queer, she thought. But dresses a year old wouldn’t be queer, maybe.

When the family came home, the Christmas tree was sending out a vivid welcome. A small table with clean white cloth was set with four saucers and four cups. Hot chocolate steamed from them. In the center was the blue angel. And Virginia was carefully dressed in—why, no one could afterward remember. She looked so shining that you didn’t even notice.


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