And, until all five children grew too old, and too impatient, to listen to our father reading aloud, he would begin a few weeks before the day to read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” with its worthy message about greed, reinforced by terror—the withered ghost of Christmas to Come made it hard for me to walk up the long dark stairs to bed—and its hearty enjoyment of freezing weather and roast goose, neither transportable to the gloomy damp of a Kentucky December.
My mother’s birthday fell on December 24th, Christmas Eve; she would be 104 years old had she lived past 91. And, since her birthday had always been overshadowed not only by the presence of six siblings, five of them girls, but by the excitement of the season, my father decided at some point after their marriage to make her birthday a special occasion.
Cake and ice-cream and a special Cordie-cooked meal alone would not suffice, and she would not have enjoyed having friends in to make note of her advancing age. So the five of us children were persuaded, or if necessary, dragooned, into producing a truncated version of “A Christmas Carol” which I, as the writer in the family, was charged with shortening.
This didn’t intimidate me since I had already successfully shortened “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” for my summer grade-school performances in the amphitheater my paternal grandfather had constructed on the foundations of a burned country club.
Shortening the story was not the problem. Forcing my increasingly resistant older brothers to learn a few of their lines and consent to put on costumes and perform was much more difficult, especially since the plum part of Old Scrooge was always claimed by my father. The two younger children in the family probably played urchins; I don’t remember.
It seems that my father cast me as Mrs. Cratchit, not a particularly glamorous role as far as I could see, since it required wearing an apron and running around with food. I decided to upgrade the lady by dressing in one of the skin-tight 1920’s silk dresses some relative had left in the attic closet.
The dress was so tight I had to steal my mother’s pale-pink Playtex rubber girdle, dragging it on with the help of talcum powder before I get the dress up over my hips.
On the night of our performance, after Christmas Eve dinner and church, my oldest brother was most likely hung over and ribald, and no one but me had learned the lines. The result was chaotic.
At a dramatic moment, I raised my arms in expostulation and the silk gown split from my hip to my knee, revealing the pink rubber girdle in all its glory, to my brothers’ guffaws.
If only our mother had been in attendance, I might long since have forgotten the embarrassment. But my father’s old friend and political colleague, Adlai Stevenson, about to run for president on the Democratic ticket, was seated beside my mother. A courteous man, he probably suppressed his laugh; Mother and he might have contented themselves with a wry smile.
The debacle came to a conclusion as I hurried off stage and Father was heard clanking car chains in the basement as the Ghost of Christmas future rattling his shackles.
Now that my three sons are long grown, I wonder what it would have taken, when they were teenagers, to force them into such a production, and whether I would ever have had my mother’s presence in her velvet tea-gown as she sat beside a man who was about to run for president.
One thing for sure: I would not have raided the attic for a skin-tight silk dress.
[Engraving by John Leech (1843) from Victorianweb.org, which includes many fine engravings of his and additionally a dedicated Dickens’ “Christmas Books” collection page for engravings by Fred Barnard.]