Mama and the Magic Bag
The following story, adapted for present-day narration, appeared in its original form in the Relief Society Magazine, later in Leon R. Hartshorn's Memorable Christmas Stories.
The howling wind made our house rock and creak. As it made its way down the stovepipe, puffs of smoke from our potbellied stove filled the room. It also rattled the window, and Mama had to stuff rags into the cracks to hold back the snow that came in.
I wanted to hold tightly to her skirt, but she sternly let me know that I had to let go so she could move about. She paused only long enough to scrape the frost from the glass pane, and then she cried again. Mama cried a lot those days. Papa said she was homesick, but one night, after they had put me to bed, I heard her tell him, "There's no use our staying in this desolate place. Now that the cattle are sold, we can go back to Utah and live like other people."
But Papa wasn't about to leave land he had traded for and told her, "Canada is a coming country; already it is fast being taken up by homesteaders."
It was nearly dark that Christmas Eve when Papa and the boys came in, stomping snow from their boots and shaking it from their clothing. Mama lit the lamp, and we had just started supper when I asked, "Is it time yet to put the nails in the wall for the stockings?"
"Get your brothers to hammer them in behind the stove so that what Santa puts in won't freeze," she said, looking directly at Papa. That was when I asked my oldest brother if he thought Santa Claus could make it through the snow. With a twinkle in his eye, he assured me that he would.
After the nails were in, I ran to get the stockings and began hanging them up. As I reached to mount the last one, I burned my arm on the back of the stove. Knowing that I was hurting, Papa swooped me up into his strong arms and began comforting me. Mama didn't say anything but reached for the "magic bag" on top of the cupboard. Then, taking me from him, she applied salve that smelled like camphor and wrapped my arm with a clean white cloth.
After drying my eyes and kissing my cheek tenderly, she put me in the big rocker. "You'll be all right now," she said. "Just think about Santa." Somehow that made my arm feel better, and I nearly fell asleep from the aroma of the brown bread that Mama had just baked to go with the stew she was making for supper.
The boys scraped some frost from the little window of our house after we had eaten, and Papa announced that the storm was over. "Well, after three days it ought to be," Mama said, glancing at Papa again as through the storm was his fault, too.
We had just settled down for story time that evening when a knock came at the door. Papa opened it, and a large man in a fur coat and hat came in. He was not only covered with snow, but icicles hung from his eyebrows and mustache.
"The name's Armstrong," he said. "My wife needs help, and I can't get through the drifts to Kimball for Mrs. Talbot in time. I was told that your wife had some training, and I came to ask for her help."
Mama took down the magic bag, and I followed her into the bedroom where she hurriedly combed through her long black hair and pinned it in a bob on top of her head. After putting on a clean white apron, she let me kneel beside her while she said her prayers.
Papa helped Mama into his big fur coat, then put my brother Lorin's overshoes on her feet. She fastened a wool scarf around her head and followed Mr. Armstrong out into the cold.
I cried when Papa put me to bed that night. It was sad not having Mama home with Santa coming. The room was still dark when I awoke and saw light shining through the curtain over the doorway. I jumped out of bed and ran into the room that served as our kitchen, the boys' bedroom, and as a living room for our family. But before I could get to the stockings, a blast of cold air rushed into the room. With it came Mama and Mr. Armstrong, and they were covered with snow. They said that the horse couldn't pull them and the buggy through the deepest drifts, so they had to get out and walk. She looked pale and tired.
My brothers soon located their Christmas skates, and beneath my stocking was a Little Red Riding Hood doll. As pleased as I was with my doll, I momentarily lost interest in it when I heard Mr. Armstrong say that Mama had given them a beautiful baby boy for Christmas. Although I played happily all morning with the doll, I couldn't keep my eyes off that magic bag on top of the cupboard.
We had our dinner of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and creamed carrots, topped off with Mama's suet pudding and its special sauce. But we barely choked it down because, while we were eating, Mama was telling us about the Armstrongs. They had no Christmas dinner—only potatoes, cabbage, and eggs (if their hens cooperated). The severe frost and early snow had ruined their crop before it could be harvested.
After the dishes had been cleared away, Papa brought our team and sleigh around to take Mama back to see how Mrs. Armstrong and the baby were doing. We got to go, too, and what a ride we had! When the horses lunged through the deep snow, snowballs from their hooves flew back into the sleigh. Those drifts were so high that we bounced right over the top of them, then were jarred each time the sleigh hit bottom.
The Armstrongs' house looked like two boxes with a lean-to porch in the middle. In the part where we entered we found four huddling children. "You better keep your coats on," the oldest boy told us. "There's not enough wood for both stoves, and Mama and the baby have to be kept warm." Cold though it was, Mama had me remove my hood and mittens. While obeying her, out rolled the two shiny red apples that I had brought with me. I was afraid Mama would scold me, but she smiled when I handed them to the little Armstrong girls.
Mama didn't stay with us long but took her little kettle and the magic bag and disappeared into the other part of the house. When Papa came in, he was carrying a large box. The first thing he did was take out Mama's big roaster pan. Then he began piling wood and chunks of coal into the stove for a nice warm fire. I helped the little girls cut out paper dolls from a catalog, and my brothers played marbles with the boys.
Before long Mama returned and told us that we could see the baby, and we eagerly followed her through the other door and into a bedroom. The new baby was in a cradle that had been fashioned from a wooden box. He had a red face, but he didn't have a halo around his head like the Christmas baby in the Bible story.
On the way home Mama said, "This has been a beautiful Christmas day!" When we got back to our place, Ray brought in the coal, and Papa built our fire back up. "What's for supper, Mama?" my brother Lorin asked.
"Well, we can have sandwiches from the leftover roast beef," she replied. "I don't think so," Papa answered. "I took it and the gravy over to the Armstrongs, but we can have the rest of the pudding and the sauce."
"Oh, no, we can't," Mama said. "I gave that to Mrs. Armstrong." Then Papa said, "Well, boys, there's still the nuts and candy in your stockings. I guess it really doesn't matter now if you spoil your appetites."
"But we don't have them anymore," Ray admitted. "We gave what was in our stockings to the Armstrong children."
That evening was spent joking around, telling riddles, and genuinely enjoying each other's company during our supper of bread and milk. But after that, whenever anything was misplaced around our home, someone invariably said, "Did you give it to the Armstrongs?"
Mama never cried by the window anymore because she was too busy making carbolic salve, camphorated oil, liniment, and canker medicine from the recipes Grandpa had brought across the plains with him in that magic bag. She said that they were given to him by his Welsh ancestors, and he gave them to her when we left for Canada.
From that time forward, Mama went through all kinds of weather to help children with things like croup, pneumonia, and broken bones, and she left babies right and left at ranches and on homesteads, even crossing over the boundary line into the Indian reservation.
Mama found the recipe for happiness in her magic bag that Christmas Eve—lots of faith with lots of work makes everything turn out right. And she always said, "Never feel sorry for yourself because there is always someone who is worse off than you are."