Ma Bentley’s Christmas Dinner
“Go out for Christmas dinner—Pa and I? Not if I know it,” said Ma Bentley, who for thirty-five years had cooked turkey and plum pudding in the manner of a priestess performing a hallowed rite. But the family insisted, and in the end she realized that mothers don’t always know best.
L . F. DIAZ
EVERY Christmas, after the guests had gone home and the house was hushed to silence, practically the same scene was enacted by Ma and Pa Bentley.
It was Pa’s habit to go down to the basement for a last look at the furnace, Ma, after she’d feasted her eyes on the happy confusion of the warm, pine-scented rooms, would make her way upstairs. Pa usually found her seated at her dressing-table, taking down her hair.
“Tired, Ma?” he’d ask solicitously. And because she was tired,—for, after all, fiftysix years have a way of making themselves felt—but especially because she knew what he’d say and she wanted to hear him say it, never tired of hearing it, Ma would sigh consciously: “It’s been a hard day, but everybody had a good time, I think.”
“How could they help it, with you at the helm?”
It was worth being tired to hear him say that and to feel that Christmas had once more drawn the family together. In these days of restlessness, the home, Ma Bentley sometimes feared, did not mean to the young folks what it had meant to her in her girlhood—there were so many attractions beckoning them away! But the thought did not hold long.
“Make the home pleasant and cheery, welcome their friends and don’t nag at them, and they’ll find it hard to break away,” she often said, talking things over with her husband.
THIS year, during October, influenza had laid hold of Ma Bentley and her recovery was slow.
“Get a girl to help you,” Pa Bentley urged about the second week in November, when people were beginning to wonder what they’d give each other this Christmas. “You can’t manage the Christmas dinner alone. As it is, you complain every year.”
Ma Bentley bristled, she didn’t want help.
“While you’re fussing, teaching a strange girl your ways, you could do the work twice over yourself. Hazel and Alice will help with the dishes as usual. That’s enough.”
“It’s not enough.” Pa retorted obstinately. “Cooking for fourteen or sixteen is no joke. Alice must help you since Hazel can’t, and you won’t listen to sense.”
Ma Bentley’s smile held a mite of guilt. Deep in her heart, she knew she liked to manage without help. Every year, sitting around the Christmas table, stretched to its full capacity, the family would wait in breathless silence till Ma appeared, brows puckered with housewifely concern, carrying the huge turkey, Hazel in her wake with the vegetables. Then what a babel of voices!
“Ma’s the champion cook!”
“East, west, this turkey’s the best!”
“A manager? I’ll say she is. Show me such another, if you can!”
Beaming, Ma Bentley would take her seat. It was as if their praise crowned her. She could not bear to miss one mite of it.
“Alice’s housework is just as important as Hazel’s office. Don’t you fuss, Ira. I’ll manage.”
Shelooked around with calculating eyes, her
mind placing a wreath here, a bell there. Full well, she knew that a day’s march could offer no cheerier sight than her three adjoining rooms in their Christmas finery
The tree would stand on a sheet in the end room, a-glitter with balls and a-fire with candles, its foot disappearing under off-shaped parcels. In charity to the grandchildren’s agony of suspense, the looped-up arch curtains would be let down till the six o’clock Christmas dinner was over.
The second room always looked homey, with its litter of music, the hospitable jumble of cushions on the lounge, the sociable angle of its chairs. But it was in the diningroom that Ma Bentley gloried—in the deep oak panellings and the floor of satin smoothness against an Oriental rug; in the oak built-in buffet and the old-fashioned stained glass panels topping the long windows. In her mind, Ma Bentley saw her Christmas table, white and red and brilliant with silver and glassware. In fancy, her eyes ran round the table, the first look for Pa, as was natural after thirty-three Christmases spent together. And Pa was worth a look any day, with his beaming ruddy face, topped by the thick white hair that somehow managed to look young. Alice next, and her husband Garth and their two boys; twenty-two-year-old Hazel, tall and strong and colorful as a field poppy; then correct, keenfaced Dean, who, although only twenty-six, had already done well for himself in his chosen profession of architecture. Ma had felt sorry at one time that he hadn’t wanted to go into Pa’s hardware store, but things had panned out right, after all.
THIS was what Christmas meant-—Pa and Alice and Garth and their children, Hazel and Dean, all gathered round the family table, bound by ties of love and remembrance and habit. It had a broader meaning even, for most every Christmas some one of the children would ask leave to bring a guest.
“So and so is away from home—'doesn't know many in the city —”
“You tell him his welcome’s ready!” Ma Bentley would cry, and there would be an added package at the foot of the Christmas tree.
Many had joined the family circle in this way. Garth had come for years; he and Alice had been child sweethearts. Last year Dean had brought Phil and now Hazel and he were engaged. A fine, steady fellow, Phil, who’d make her a good husband. And it really seemed as if Dean, the fastidious, had at last met a girl after his own heart. As usual he’d shown sense, for a sweeter little bundle of love than Wilma Hastings it would be hard to find.
“Ira,” said Ma Bentley, “I must speak to Dean about asking Wilma and her people over for Christmas. That will mean four more—Mr. and Mrs. Hastings and Wilma and Brenda—five maybe, for Brenda’s sure to have a beau—”
“You’re bent on killing yourself!” fumed Pa Bentley. “If folks can’t put themselves out a bit one day in the year, it’s a pity!” retorted Ma with spirit.
So, just before she set to work making her Christmas puddings and cakes, Ma approached Dean on the subject of asking the Hastings over for Christmas dinner.
“It's early yet, of course, she said. “But folks make engagements long ahead for Christmas and I’d like to be sure of them.”
She couldn’t help smiling as she looked at Dean, shuffling uncomfortably and quite unlike his usual precise, composed self. This was what love did to folks, even the ones that had themselves best in hand! But then Dean spoke, and for a moment she thought she’d heard wrongly.
“What did you say?” she asked dully.
But though Dean had the grace to look ashamed of himself, he repeated his words.
“The Hastings have asked me over to their place for
It was almost unbelievable! Ma Bentley sank heavily on a chair, pressing her lips firmly together to keep them from twitching.
“Oh, Dean!”That was all she could say, and for a moment life lost its flavor. The soft gray clouds that would presently sprinkle down more snow changed to shrouds over the sloping white lawn; from the window, the line of bare trees that bordered the avenue seemed to nod a doleful accompaniment to her thoughts. Dean was explaining. He was unusually voluble and, against his habit, was gesturing excitedly.
“Now, Ma, don’t you get ideas into your head. Don’t go thinking I care one whit less for you and Pa, but you see -—it’s this way—a fellow can’t very well refuse-—” Christmas dinner without Dean! Ma Bentley hadn’t yet adjusted her mind to the idea when Hazel, on her return from the office, sprang another mine on her! Hazel was late, usually. Her office •didn’t close till six, and it took her half an hour on the street car to get home. Ma was bustling about the steaming kitchen. She had put a sliver of wood under the door leading into the dining-room, so that the table could be seen, invitingly laid with pretty china and shining silver. Hazel ran upstairs as usual to freshen up a bit, then she slipped into a bungalow apron, ready to help her mother. From the second room, the hum of voices came -to them with whiffs of tobacco and the rustle of newspaper. Pa and Dean were sharing the evening paper as they waited for their dinner. To-night, Ma didn’t step as briskly as usual; her feet lagged and she was conscious of looking tired.
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Ma Bentley’s Christmas Dinner
Continued from page l1
“You do too much,” said Hazel in her quick, decisive way. “And it won’t be long now before Christmas is on us and that means a lot of work. Ma!”
“Well?” said Ma. “No, I don’t do too much. Most women work in their own homes.”
“There’s a limit. You look fagged out. About Christmas, now. I have an idea.” “What is it?” Ma bristled up; she couldn’t help it. Somehow, she sensed trouble.
“Let’s cut out the big dinner and make it merely an evening affair. There’s hothing in the meal itself, is there? It’s all in getting together.”
“Nothing to our Christmas dinner!” Ma couldn’t have kept the horror from her voice if she had tried. She didn’t try.
“Oh, you know what I mean. See how long it takes to get dinner ready and it’s eaten in no time! Suppose we all met here at, say, half past six and had a lovely long evening and the gifts and refreshments as usual-—wouldn’t that be nicer?”
Ma was vigorously pounding potatoes. She stopped short, turning her face away so that Hazel might not read what she felt was written on it.
“Hazel! Have you and Phil planned on doing something different this year?”
Hazel looked as foolish as such a capable, graceful girl could possibly look. Actually, she let a spoonful of carrots fall to the floor as she transferred them from saucepan to vegetable dish.
“Why, I-—we—” She hesitated, the color glowing more richly on her rounded cheeks. “That is, we thought, Phil and I, that it would be fun for the two of us to go off to a restaurant Phil’s heard of—an Italian affair-—”
“Eat messy macaroni instead of my Christmas dinner!”
“You wouldn’t like it, I know, but they’re to have a special programme on for Christmas and I want to hear it. A great idea would be for you and Pa to go out to a hotel for dinner and then all of us meet here in the evening.”
“Go out for Christmas dinner—Pa and I? Not if I know it!” cried Ma Bentley. “Besides, Alice and Garth and the children will be here as usual.”
“Only the other day Alice was saying she’d like to stay home one Christmas for a change,” remarked Hazel, as she carried dishes to the table. “So long as we’re all together part of the time, what does it matter where we eat7”
“Alice said that—•!” Ma Bentley’s mind could travel no further at the time. She felt faint and something inside her hurt so much she just couldn’t find words. She laid her apron on a chair and.slowly followed Hazel into the dining-room. “Come on, you two!” she called. “Dinner’s ready.”
During dinner the talk did not lag. Ma kept up her end with determination. She mustn’t let on she felt hurt. Pa talked, too, but with a slight constraint that implied knowledge of the new plans. Afterwards, in their own room, Pa and Ma compared notes.
“What did you say to Dean when he told you?” asked Ma Bentley.
Pa exploded. “I told him it was a d—— Hem! I said it was all nonsense. What did you aay to Hazel?” “Almost nothing,” replied Ma quietly.
There was a silence, then Pa burst out: “I tell you, Ma, what’s at the bottom of this. They want to save you work, that’s what.” A note of relief had crept into his voice, but Ma Bentley shook her head.
‘If that was it, they’d have proposed having help. They ¡never said a word—”
Pa was tugging away at his tie; a vicious toss landed it on the floor.
“But, then,” Ma went on. “I suppose it’s only natural the young folks should want something newer in the way of a celebration.”
“I’m not going to make myself or my home over for anybody,” declared Pa Bentley with heat.
“I wouldn’t ask you to. What I mean is we mustn’t argue with them. They don’t think less of us—it’s only that young people like novelty. Now, Ira, if Alice really wants to stay home, you and I had better go out for our Christmas dinner as Hazel suggests. We couldn’t have it at home alone; we’d feel too badly.”
“Yes.” Pa Bentley, his back to her, was folding his waistcoat very carefully.
CO NO more was said about the Christ^ mas dinner, and when Alice ’phoned —Ma Bentley could understand why she ’phoned instead of coming over—Ma answered her cheerily. It was quite natural, she said, for Alice and Garth to want to eat Christmas dinner at their own fireside. Yes, Pa and she had decided to have the big meal of the day at Band’s hotel in Pine Street. Hazel had planned it all. They were to set out at one o’clock, have dinner, spend the afternoon at a matinee—Dean said he’d get good seats for them at the Orpheum where there was sure to be a good show—and then come home about six for a snack and the nice long evening with the family.
“Be sure and put the children to sleep in the afternoon, Alice, so they won’t be too tired at night,” Ma recommended, and Alice’s voice was not quite steady as she promised she would. So, to keep her from feeling remorseful, Ma called out gaily:
“Hazel and Dean and Phil are planning wonders for the decorations!”
It was not so difficult to be cheery over the telephone, but the days that usually flew at this time of the j ear in the bustle of preparations, dragged sadly. Ma F entley’s mince-meat was ready in shining jars in the store-room, but there were no cakes and puddings to make, though she did stir up a couple to have bandy for New Year.
The young people really did work wonders with the decorations. Every evening for a week beforehand, they were at it, until it seemed to Ma Bentley that no matter where you raised your eyes they met streamers or bells or holly or mistletoe or a combination of all these.
And when Christmas morning came round, the Weather Man seemed to have entered into the conspiracy to make the home look cheerful, for the sun gilded everything it touched, and what with the blue sky and the dazzling snow outside and the green and scarlet of the decorations in the three rooms, it would have been a sour soul that wouldn’t have opened its doors to the Christmas spirit!
CO MA and Pa Bentley talked with ^ animation as they made themselves ready for their outing. It seemed strange to Ma to wear the same dress she’d been to church in for her Christmas dinner; usually she wore something dressy, for her husband and children liked to see her looking nice. She laid out the rich lavender silk she had had made specially for Christmas, so it might be ready for the evening. It cheered her to see it lying on the bed, beside the silk hose, her satin slippers waiting at the foot.
“Ready, Ma?” Pa Bentley called out impatiently from the foot of the stairs. “The car’s at the door.”
Ma went down, and there, on the porch, were the folks grouped to see them
off before starting themselves. Suddenly Ma Bentley felt homesick; it seemed as if she simply couldn’t drive away to eat her Christmas dinner in a strange hotel, but she choked back the feeling and called out:
“Why, Pa and I might be going on a second honeymoon!”
And they drove off with the young folks laughing and waving.
The Bentleys didn’t say much on their way to the hotel, though Ma did try to keep up her end by commenting on the beautifully decorated store windows they passed, and on the brisk way people walked, as if they were anxious to get home—and then she stopped short and Pa muttered: “Pesky nonsense!” Ma Bentley didn’t resent it, for she knew he was not referring to her remarks.
Once she drew her breath in sharply. Four people, each laden with parcels, were making their way up steps leading to a house, a father and mother, likely, with their children. As the car sped past, the youngest piped out: “Grandma said I could have two helpings of turkey!” The snow all around the house was dotted with bits of fir. Ma Bentley drew Pa’s attention to a house opposite.
1 here were plenty of fir branches in the hotel lobby, plenty of Christmas streamers and bells, too. It made a person feel right at home, Ma Bentley said. The clerks were all smiles and geniality, and as Pa and Ma stepped out of the elevator into the basement restaurant, a burst of music greeted them.
“I’m glad we came here, Ira,” chattered Ma Bentley. “Isn’t this a pretty room! I’ve seldom seen anything I like better than this beam ceiling with the tiled posts supporting it. They look like brick, don’t they? And the walls the same way!”
Pa Bentley growled out that it might be all right, but give him his own home. Another year he wouldn’t let anybody persuade him into foolishness of this kind.
“Here’s a nice corner table,” said Ma. “Right near the open fireplace. I declare those great logs look right cosy!”
The huge room was as cheerful as pennants and flags and bunched red and green lights and a huge revolving Christmas tree could make it. Waitresses in little bits of lacy aprons and a sprig of holly in their fly-away caps, tripped jauntily in and out of the maze of tables to the accompaniment of music.
“Wish they’d shut up,” muttered Pa ungratefully. “I like to eat my dinner in peace.”
The fruit cocktails were delicious, so was the cream of tomato soup they chose. As for the turkey—
“I might have cooked it myself,” declared Ma Bentley. “It’s so tender and juicy and the gravy’s so good!”
“Talk sense,” said Pa briefly. “This turkey can’t touch yours.”
He was quite serious, save for little crinkles of humor at the corners of his eyes which seemed to say: “There! Are you happy now?” Ma looked at him searchingly, but he was attacking his turkey with relish. Her eyes went to his plate. The tiny mound of cranberry sauce that had accompanied his portion of turkey was intact. Always a favorite trick with Pa, that, keeping what he liked best for the last if there wasn’t very much of it. He was inordinately fond of cranbeiry sauce, and at home she piled two generous spoonfuls beside his first helping of turkey. She looked round; everybody seemed to be busy with his own concerns, so she deftly transferred her portion of cranberry sauce to Pa’s plate.
“I’d rather have my turkey without it,” she fibbed.
Later, she caught herself saying, as she did at home: “Have another helping, Pa.” Then she remembered that he couldn’t.
The dinner was over at last, and they hurried to the Orpheum. Here again the theatre was warm with color and buzzing with joyous excitement. The curtain rosemm on a sparkling comedy which, at its conclusion, drew loud applause from the good-humored audience.
“How did you like it?” asked Pa Bentley.
“It was very amusing; didn’t you think so?”
“The dinner must have disagreed with me, I guess.” The little lines around Pa’s whimsical eyes seemed deeper than usual. “To be honest, I’m not enjoying this much, and I don’t believe you are, either!”
“Oj., Ira!” said Ma Bentley, “Don’c feel so badly. The children will all be with us to-night and we’ll have a lovely time. They didn’t mean to hurt us.”
“Maybe not,” answered Pa grimly. “But they’re drifting, Ma, and neither we nor the home mean as much to them as I thought we did.”
The lights had been turned low as pictures were about tobeshown. Ma Bentley laid her arm over her husband’s.
“I know,” she murmured. “It hurts. It seems as if all the years we’ve been trying to build a home have been wasted.”
A moment later she said; “How would you like to go home right now. Ira?”
“Let’s!” cried Pa boyishly. “I’ll finish dressing up the tree.”
“And I’ll set out the refreshments for to-night.”
So, feeling rather guilty, because Dean had paid good money for these seats, Ma Bertley stole after Pa, echoing his sigh of relief as they left the building.
The road home seemed very long. As they turned into their own avenue, Ma Bentley caught herself bouncing up and down in her seat in the car, like a young girl driving to her first party.
“I declare I feel as if I’d been away a year!” she said, laughing nervously.
But it was hard to smile when they reached the house and compared its deserted appearance with the bustling life that had always filled it on this day. It stood as proudly as ever on its sloping white lawn, a massive red-brick house, wide steps leading to a roomy porch. But where were the merry voices that made pandemonium every year at this hour, when the bustle of cooking the Christmas dinner was just starting? Three o’clock on Christmas Day and silence in the home? It was dreadful.
“Let’s go the back way, Ira,” said Ma Bentley rapidly. “I want to run up to our room, and the back stairs are quicker.”
“Suits me,” Pa was very busy at the wheel. “I can get to the furnace at once.”
One had to feel one’s way along the back hall. As her husband disappeared down the basement stairs, Ma Bentley ran up to her room. But only for the time necessary to lay aside her outdoor wraps. She wouldn’t let herself sit down and think; there wa„ plenty to do if she wished the evening to stand out against whatever entertainment the day had provided for the young people. She went downstairs into the quiet kitchen. The door leading into the dining room was closed. Because the stained glass window-panels darkened the room and just now she ached for brightness, Ma Bentley pressed the button that would flood the room with light, then she pushed back the door.
For a second she stood there, mouth wide open, the foolish tears that she had not been able to quite keep back rolling down her cheeks.
The table, stretched to the full capacity of its three extension leaves, gleamed like a huge jewel with the sheen of silver and the fire of transparent glassware. Sixteen hospitable chairs were drawn around it. The central decoration of holly was there as usual, a vivid note against the dazzling white of the napery, and flanked at each side by red and yellow fruit in plain brown baskets.
As Ma Bentley stood gaping, one hand on the door, the other pressed hard to her cheek, she heard the front door open; heard feet on the porch, stamping off the snow; heard Hazel’s clear laugh, Alice’s voice—
The next moment they were all trooping in, Alice and Garth and the children, Hazel and Phil, Dean with his arm through Wilma’s as if he couldn’t let go of her even for a second. And each one of them carried a hamper. Even Buster, his chest thrown out and his little legs wide apart, struggled manfully with a large brown paper parcel.
“Mercy on us!” Pa, his coat over one arm and his hands grimy with coal dust, had just appeared in the kitchen. “What’s all this? What’s all this?”
Then babel broke loose.
“Oh, Ma! Oh, Pa! You’re home three hours too early!”
“We thought we’d have dinner almost cooked by the time you got back.”
“We’ve got the biggest turkeys—two of them—you ever saw!”
“Wait till you see the salad Wilma’s brought,” boasted Dean. ‘ Her folks are coming, too.” Then he stepped forward. Dean was always spokesman for the family.
“We’d better explain. In November we all got together and decided it was about time we stopped letting Ma work herself to death every Christmas. But you know, Ma, when it comes to work, you’re a difficult one to stop! So we thought of this plan to get you and Pa away while we cooked the Christmas dinner. We’re to have it at half-past six.”
Alice was leading the children through the kitchen to the back stairway.
“You go on up to Aunt Hazel’s room for a nap, as Grandma said.”
Coming back, she threw her arms around Ma Bentley’s neck; they were soon joined by Hazel, but Dean, leading Wilma by the hand, brushed them aside good naturedly.
“They’ve had you for a good many years,” he said. “I’m bringing you a new daughter now.”
Ma Bentley simply couldn’t keep her mouth still. She was so happy it would break into smiles. And soon the kitchen was astir; pans and kettles hissed and sang on the range; aproned figures flew here, there, everywhere. And as for the noise!
“Ma, how much sugar would you put into this sauce?”
“Ma, do you think I’ve beaten this batter long enough?”
“Now Ma’s here, we’ll have a dinner fit to eat!”
How they went on! Never before had Christmas seemed to be so much each one’s own particular concern; never before had one and all thrown themselves so wholeheartedly into its spirit. Every moment Ma’s smile grew broader. Suddenly an illuminating thought caused her to catch her breath.
“From this year on, children,” she said, speaking rapidly, “we’ll all work together at Christmas. It’s lots more fun.”
What a dinner that was! The sixteen chairs were all tenanted, for Hazel had asked a stenographer friend from the office, and Dean had invited a man to meet her. The grandchildren, refreshed by their nap, were as good as cherubs and looked as pretty. As for the young folks it was a treat to look at them and a treat to hear their laughter.
Sitting at the head of her table, conscious of looking well in the lavender silk. Ma Bentley smiled at the happy faces. Then, with a sigh of sheer content, she met Pa’s understanding look.
MUCH later, when the warm, pinescented house was hushed to silence Ma Bentley, seated at her dressing-table, taking down her hair, turned as her husband entered.
“Tired, Ma?” he asked solicitously. From force of habit Ma caught herself beginning; “It’s been a hard day—•” She stopped abruptly. “The first part was hard, I’ll not deny it. As for the rest—” Tears came with her laughter. “With the children all so happy to help, I—it’s hard to explain, Ira. I’ve always felt that we were building the home for them, you and I, but this year I feel that they’re back of us; that we’ve building it all together. It’s been the happiest Christmas of mv life!