They clicked the first day of kindergarten. Fay fell in love with Helen’s long golden hair and sunny way of approaching life. Every time she looked at Helen, Fay saw a princess straight out of a castle. When she wasn’t with her friend, Fay repeated Helen’s last name over and over, expecting magic to burst forth any moment. Wondergem, Wondergem, Wondergem.
Shortly before Christmas, Helen said, “My Sunday School teacher is having a Christmas party. Will you come?”
A big grin spread across Fay’s face. “Sure, Helen. Is it at the Methodist Church?”
“No, it’s at my teacher’s house. She lives on the corner across from the school.”
“I know that house. The big one. Pass it every day on the way to school.” Fay touched Helen’s arm and said, “I’ll be there.”
Pleased as she was with the invitation, fear began to sap Fay’s being. Her life had been trimmed by the Great Depression, WWII, and four sisters. Dad hankered for a son and wouldn’t stop until he had one. More kids meant a more closely cropped life. Fay also knew that her church, the Church of God, across the street from the teacher’s house, was a plain sort compared to the fancy Methodist church on the other side of town.
A mixture of anticipation and queasiness filled Fay’s heart, as she walked up the steps to the teacher’s house. Through the window, she saw a tree covered in colored lights and glittering ornaments. Dazzled by the sight, her breath vanished.
Fay could never count on a tree at her house. Maybe Dad would buy one, maybe not. For sure there would be few or no presents under it. The kids would hang Dad’s long socks on the fireplace come Christmas Eve. In the morning, there would be an orange in each toe, a variety of nuts choking the rest of the stocking. They’d spend Christmas morning cracking the mysterious shells, rough and smooth, with a silver cracker and dig out the meat with matching silver picks. That is, if Mom could find the set. In between the search and the find, there was sure to be hollering and yelling.
Fay sucked in one more glimpse of the tree, then timidly wrapped on the heavy wooden panel.
“Hello,” said a large woman, as she swung open the door. “And, who are you?”
“I’m Fay Miller. My friend Helen Wondergem invited me to your Christmas party.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “Well . . . come in,” She turned to a tall skinny woman and said, “Helen invited her to our party.” Fay wondered if the invitation had been a mistake. The way the women hesitated moved her to the edge of suspicion.
“We’re glad you’re here,” said the large woman who took Fay’s coat and put it on top of the coat pile.
Fay gawked at the shimmering glow of candles on the dining room table; their shine blended with the fading afternoon light. She looked around for Helen, spotted her in a fluffy party dress, a red ribbon in her hair. Fay’s mind flitted to her wearable cotton dress. She walked quickly toward Helen.
“Hi Helen,” she said. “This is a beautiful party.”
Helen whirled around and said to the women, “This is my friend Fay. I asked her to come.” She paused, then added, “We go to kindergarten together.”
The skinny woman added another chair to the table and said, “Find a seat, boys and girls. I have something to do. I’ll be right back.” Moments later she returned, placed a decorated plate and a ruby glass in front of Fay’s place. She also nestled a package wrapped in newspaper under the tree.
“We’ll open our gifts after we say grace and have our cookies and punch,” said the large woman. The children dutifully bowed their heads and joined the women in giving thanks for their blessings, including this special Christmas party. Fay wondered what would be more fun, the cookies and punch or the gift.
When the children had their fill of frosted cookies piled high with decorations and drank more than one glass of punch, the skinny woman said, “Please sit in a circle on the living room floor.”
After the kids settled down, the skinny woman handed Fay the bulky package wrapped in newspaper. Her hands touched the stiff paper. A red tinge crept up Fay’s throat and warmed her face. The two women gave the other children thin packages wrapped in sparkly paper, tied with a shiny bow. The sight of the glistening wrapping paper shriveled Fay’s spirit.
When the children were given permission to open their presents, they carefully resisted tearing the paper. Fay lifted her head and painstakingly removed the newspaper. Oohs and aahs burst from the other kids’ mouths when they saw their thin story books filled with brightly colored pictures. Fay’s heart sunk into her gut when she realized her thick book didn’t have any pictures.
She wrapped her arms tightly around her body to stop the flood of tears that was wresting up from her innards. No one noticed when Fay slipped from the circle, grabbed her coat, forced her arms into the holes. She ran home as quickly as she could, her coat front flapping in the cold wind.
Fay rushed up the back steps, through the closed-in porch that held the milk separator, and into the kitchen. Her mother was leaning over the wood stove, steam rising from the reservoir at the back where dinner was cooking. Mom turned and said, “Hello.” Before she could ask about the party, Fay said, between strangling sobs, “Everyone’s book has pictures. Mine doesn’t have any. Not a one.”
Mom scooped Fay up. She carried her into the dining room where they settled into a rocking chair.
“Oh, look, Fay, this is a fairy tale book. Let’s read one of the stories.”
As Mom began to read, Fay’s sobs disappeared in the magic of the unfolding words. When the wonder-filled tale was over, Fay clutched the book to her chest. “We have lots more stories to go, don’t we?”
“Yes, we do. Soon you’ll be able to read this book on your own. Now, I’ve got to get back to fixing dinner.” She hugged Fay and pressed a kiss on the top of her head. A smile gathered on Mom’s tired face as she walked slowly toward the kitchen.
Fay’s heart sang. Spending time alone with Mom was rare. She felt like she would burst with happiness. Soon she’d be able to read this book on her own. That was a horse of a different color. She no longer minded that the book didn’t have any pictures. The ones she drew in her head were just fine.
Fay L. Loomis was a nemophilist (haunter of the woods) until her hikes in upstate New York were abruptly ended by a stroke. With an additional nudge from the pandemic, she lives a particularly quiet life. A member of the Stone Ridge Library Writers and the Rat's Ass Review Workshop, her poems and prose appear in a variety of publications, including upcoming pieces in Kaleidoscope, Bindweed, and Green Silk Journal.