Chapter One of The Christmas Box: The Widow's Mansion
It may be that I am growing old in this world and have used up more than my share of allotted words and eager audiences. Or maybe I am just growing weary of a skeptical age that pokes and prods at my story much the same as a middle-school biology student pokes and prods through an anesthetized frog to determine what makes it live, leaving the poor creature dead in the end. Whatever the reason, I find that with each passing Christmas the story of the Christmas Box is told less and needed more. So I record it now for all future generations to accept or dismiss as seems them good. As for me, I believe. And it is, after all, my story.
My romantic friends, those who believe in Santa Claus in particular, have speculated that the ornamented brown Christmas Box was fashioned by Saint Nick himself from the trunk of the very first Christmas tree, brought in from the cold December snows so many seasons ago. Others believe that it was skillfully carved and polished from the hard and splintered wood from whose rough surface the Lord of Christmas had demonstrated the ultimate love for mankind. My wife, Keri, maintains that the magic of the box had nothing to do with its physical elements, but all to do with the contents that were hidden beneath its brass, holly-shaped hinges and silver clasps. Whatever the truth about the origin of the box's magic, it is the emptiness of the box that I will treasure most, and the memory of the Christmas season when the Christmas Box found me.
I was born and raised in the shadow of the snow-clad Wasatch range on the east bench of the Salt Lake Valley. Just two months before my fourteenth birthday my father lost his job, and with promise of employment, we sold our home and migrated to the warmer, and more prosperous, climate of Southern California. There, with great disappointment, I came to expect a green Christmas almost as religiously as the local retailers. With the exception of one fleeting moment of glory as the lead in the school musical, my teenage years were uneventful and significant only to myself. Upon graduation from high school, I enrolled in college to learn the ways of business, and in the process learned the ways of life; met, courted, and married a fully matriculated, brown-eyed design student named Keri, who, not fifteen months from the ceremony, gave birth to a seven-pound-two-ounce daughter whom we named Jenna.
Neither Keri nor I ever cared much for the crowds of the big city, so when a few weeks before graduation we were informed of a business opportunity in my hometown, we jumped at the chance to return to the thin air and white winters of home. We had expended all but a small portion of our savings in the new venture and, as the new business's initial returns, albeit promising, were far from abundant, we learned the ways of thrift and frugality. In matters financial, Keri became expert at making much from little, so we rarely felt the extent of our deprivation. Except in the realm of lodging. The three of us needed more space than our cramped, one-bedroom apartment afforded. The baby's crib, which economics necessitated the use of in spite of the fact that our baby was now nearly four, barely fit in our bedroom, leaving less than an inch between it and our bed, which was already pushed up tightly against the far wall. The kitchen was no better, cluttered with Jenna's toy box, Keri's sewing hutch, and stacked cardboard boxes containing cases of canned foods. We joked that Keri could make clothing and dinner at the same time without ever leaving her seat. The topic of overcrowding had reached fever pitch in our household just seven weeks before Christmas and such was the frenzied state of our minds when the tale of the Christmas Box really began, at the breakfast table in our little apartment, over eggs over-easy, toast, and orange juice.
"Look at this," Keri said, handing me the classifieds:
Elderly lady with large Avenues home seeks live-in couple for meal preparation, light housekeeping, and yard care. Private quarters. Holidays off. Children/infants welcome. 445-3989. Mrs. Parkin
I looked up from the paper.
"What do you think?" she asked. "It's in the Avenues, so it has to be large. It's close to the shop and it really wouldn't be that much extra trouble for me. Whats one extra person to cook and wash for?" she asked rhetorically. She reached over and took a bite of my toast. "You're usually gone in the evenings anyhow."
I leaned back in contemplation.
"It sounds all right," I said cautiously. "Of course, you never know what you might be getting into. My brother Mark lived in this old man's basement apartment. He used to wake Mark up in the middle of the night screaming at a wife who had been dead for nearly twenty years. Scared Mark to death. In the end he practically fled the place."
A look of disbelief spread across Keri's face.
"Well, it does say private quarters," I conceded.
"Anyway, with winter coming on, our heating bill is going to go through the roof in this drafty place and I don't know where the extra money will come from. This way we might actually put some money aside," Keri reasoned.
It was pointless to argue with such logic, not that I cared to. I, like Keri, would gladly welcome any change that would afford us relief from the cramped and cold quarters where we were presently residing. A few moments later Keri called to see if the apartment was still vacant and upon learning that it was, set up an appointment to meet with the owner that evening. I managed to leave work early and, following the directions given to Keri by a man at the house, we made our way through the gaily lit downtown business district and to the tree-lined streets leading up the foothills of the Avenues.
The Parkin home was a resplendent, red-block Victorian mansion with ornate cream-and-raspbeny wood trim and dark green shingles. On the west side of the home, a rounded bay window supported a second-story veranda balcony that overlooked the front yard. The balcony, like the main floor porch, ran the length of the exterior upheld by large, ornately lathed beams and a decorative, gold-leafed frieze. The wood was freshly painted and well kept. A sturdy brick chimney rose from the center of the home amid wood and wrought-iron spires that shot up decorously. Intricate latticework gingerbreaded the base of the house, hidden here and there by neatly trimmed evergreen shrubs. A cobblestone driveway wound up the front of the home, encircling a black marble fountain that lay iced over and surrounded by a snow-covered retaining wall.
I parked the car near the front steps, and we climbed the porch to the home's double door entryway. The doors were beautifully carved and inlaid with panes of glass etched with intricate floral patterns. I rang the bell and a man answered.
"Hello, you must be the Evanses."
"We are," I confirmed.
"MaryAnne is expecting you. Please come in."
We passed in through the entry, then through a second set of doors of equal magnificence leading into the home's marbled foyer. I have found that old homes usually have an olfactory presence to them, and though not often pleasant, unmistakenly distinct. This home was no exception, though the scent was a tolerably pleasant combination of cinnamon and kerosene. We walked down a wide corridor with frosted walls. Kerosene sconces, now wired for electric lights, dotted the walls and cast dramatic lighting the length of the hall.
"MaryAnne is in the back parlor," the man said.
The parlor lay at the end of the corridor, entered through an elaborate cherry-wood door casing. As we entered the room, an attractive silver-haired woman greeted us from behind a round marble-topped rosewood table. Her attire mimicked the elaborate, rococo decor that surrounded her.
"Hello," she said cordially. "I am MaryAnne Parkin. I'm happy that you have come. Please have a seat." We sat around the table, our attention drawn to the beauty and wealth of the room.
"Would you care for some peppermint tea?" she offered. In front of her sat an embossed, silver-plated tea service. The teapot was pear-shaped, with decorative bird feathers etched into the sterling body. The spout emulated the graceful curves of a crane's neck and ended in a birds beak.
"No, thank you," I replied.
"I'd like some," said Keri.
She handed Keri a cup and poured it to the brim. Keri thanked her.
"Are you from the city?" the woman asked. "I was born and raised here," I replied. "But we've just recently moved up from California."
"My husband was from California," she said. "The Santa Rosa area." She studied our eyes for a spark of recognition. "Anyway, he's gone now. He passed away some fourteen years ago."
"We're sorry to hear that," Keri said politely.
"Its quite all right," she said. "Fourteen years is a long time. I've grown quite accustomed to being alone." She set down her cup and straightened herself up in the plush wingback chair.
"Before we begin the interview I would like to discuss the nature of the arrangement. There are a few items that you will find I am rather insistent about. I need someone to provide meals. You have a family, I assume you can cook." Keri nodded. "I don't eat breakfast, but I expect brunch to be served at eleven and dinner at six. My washing should be done twice a week, preferably Tuesday and Friday, and the beddings should be washed at least once a week. You are welcome to use the laundry facilities to do your own washing any time you find convenient. As for the exterior," she said, looking at me, "the lawn needs to be cut once a week, except when there is snow, at which time the walks, driveway, and back porch need to be shoveled and salted as the climate dictates. The other landscaping and home maintenance I hire out and would not require your assistance. In exchange for your service you will have the entire east wing in which to reside. I will pay the heating and light bills and any other household expenses. All that is required of you is attention to the matters we have discussed. If this arrangement sounds satisfactory to you, then we may proceed."
We both nodded in agreement.
"Good. Now if you don't mind, I have a few questions I'd like to ask."
"No, not at all," Keri said.
"Then we'll begin at the top." She donned a pair of silver-framed bifocals, lifted from the table a small handwritten list, and began the interrogation.
"Do either of you smoke?"
"No," said Keri.
"Good. I don't allow it in the home. It spoils the draperies. Drink to excess?" She glanced over to me.
"No," I replied.
"Do you have children?"
"Yes, we have one. She's almost four years old," said Keri.
"Wonderful. She's welcome anywhere in the house except this room. I would worry too much about my porcelains," she said, smiling warmly. Behind her I could see a black walnut étaèe with five steps, each supporting a porcelain figurine. She continued. "Have you a fondness for loud music?" Again she looked my way.
"No," I answered correctly. I took this more as a warning than a prerequisite for cohabitation.
"And what is your current situation in life?"
"I'm a recent college graduate with a degree in business. We moved to Salt Lake City to start a formal-wear rental business."
"Such as dinner jackets and tuxedos?" she asked.
"That's right," I said.
She took mental note of this and nodded approvingly.
"And references." She glanced up over her bifocals. "Have you references?"
"Yes. You may contact these people," said Keri, handing her a scrawled-out list of past landlords and employers. She meticulously studied the list, then laid it down on the end table, seemingly impressed with the preparation. She looked up and smiled.
"Very well. If your references are satisfactory, I think we may make an arrangement. I think it is best that we initiate a forty-five-day trial period, at the end of which time we may ascertain if the situation is mutually favorable. Does that sound agreeable?"
"Yes, ma'am," I replied.
"You may call me Mary. My name is MaryAnne, but my friends call me Mary."
"Thank you, Mary."
"Now I've done all the talking. Have you any questions that I might answer?"
"We'd like to see the apartment," Keri said.
"Of course. The quarters are upstairs in the east wing. Steve will lead you up. They are unlocked. I think you will find that they have been tastefully furnished."
"We do have some furniture of our own," I said. "Is there some extra space where we could store it?"
"The doorway to the attic is at the end of the upstairs hall. Your things will be very convenient there," she replied.
I helped myself to a cracker from the silver tray. "Was that your son who answered the door?" I asked.
She took another sip of her tea. "No. I have no children. Steve is an old friend of mine from across the street. I hire him to help maintain the home." She paused thoughtfully for another sip of tea and changed the subject. "When will you be prepared to move in?"
"We need to give our landlord two weeks notice, but we could move in anytime," I said.
"Very good. It will be nice to have someone in the house for the holidays."
Copyright © 1993 by Richard Paul Evans