Elizabeth Enright is a favorite author of novels for children, perhaps best known for her four books about the Melendy family, which I’ve written about HERE and HERE. There are other books of hers I like just as much, including her Newbery Award winner, “The Sea Is All Around.” In 1947 she wrote a short Christmas story for “Woman’s Home Companion” magazine called “A Tree for Lydia.” In 1951 it was published as a small book intended to be a Christmas present for children, price one dollar. My copy is show above. It’s just 4 by 5 inches and 40 pages with charming illustrations by the author, but my copy has a stiff binding, and I can’t open it far enough to scan them without fear of breaking it, so I’m not going to do that. The book has never been reprinted. Copies can be found from rare book dealers for about $50, and for such a short book I’m not sure it’s worth it to most readers, unless you’re a dedicated Enright fan like me.
So, I’ve decided to type out the entire story here for anyone who wants to read this 1940s New York City tale. It’s undoubtedly a copyright violation, but I won’t be making any money from sharing it, so I’ll take my chances. Hope you enjoy reading it.
A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR LYDIA by Elizabeth Enright
Lydia first learned about Christmas when she was one year old. Draped over her mother’s shoulder she drooled and stared, and the lights of the Christmas tree made other lights in her large tranced eyes and in the glaze of spittle on her chin.
When she was two years old she learned about Santa Claus. She paid very little attention to him then, but when she was three she talked about him a lot and they had some difficulty persuading her that he and the infant Jesus were not father and son. By the time she was four she had come to accept him as one of the ordered phenomena that ruled her life, like daytime and nighttime: one seven o’clock for getting up and another seven o’clock for going to bed. Like praise and blame and winter and summer and her brother’s right of seniority and her mother’s last word. Her father did not exist in her field of magnitudes; he had been killed in Cassino the winter she was born.*
[*note: the World War Two Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, 1944]
“Santa Claus will come,” Lydia said, and knew it was as true as saying tomorrow will come. “He will bring a Christmas tree. Big. With lights. With colors.”
When she was four, her brother Eddy was nine and had long ago found out the truth concerning the matter. No mote of illusion deceived his eye when he passed the street-corner Santas at Christmas time, standing beside their imitation chimneys, ringing their bells; he saw them for what they were. He saw how all their trousers bagged and their sleeves were too long, and how, above the false beards tied loosely on like bibs, their noses ran and their eyes looked out, mortal and melancholy.
“You’d think the kid would catch on,” Eddy said to his mother. “Gee, when you notice the differences of them all.”
Lydia believed in every one of them, from the bell-ringers on the street corners to the department-store variety who always asked the same questions and whose hired joviality grew glassy toward the evening. She had faith in the monster idol in the store on Fourteenth Street which turned its glaring face from side to side and laughed a huge stony machinery laugh all day long, filling the region with sounds of compulsive derangement. For Lydia, the saint was ubiquitous, ingenious, capable of all, and looking into the different faces of his impersonators she beheld the one good face she had invented for him.
“Eddy, don’t you tell her now, will you?” his mother said. “Don’t you dare to, now. Remember she’s only four.”
Sure, let the kid have her fun, thought Eddy, with large scorn and slight compassion. He himself remembered long-ago Christmas Eves when he had listened for bells in the air, and watched the limp shape of his sock hung up over the stove.
“How can he come in through the stove, Mum?”
“In houses like this he comes in through the window. Go to sleep now, Eddy, like a good boy.”
Eddy went to public school in the daytimes and Lydia went to a day nursery. Her mother called for her every evening on the way home from work. She was a thin dark young woman whose prettiness was often obscured by the ragged shadows of irritation and fatigue. She loved her children, but worry gnawed at her relations with them, sharpening her words and shortening her temper. Coming home in the evening, climbing up the stairs to the flat with one hand pressing the bags of groceries to her chest, and Lydia loitering and babbling, dragging on her other hand, she wished sometimes to let go of everything. To let go of Lydia, perhaps forever; to let go once and for all of the heavy paper grocery bags. It would be a savage happiness, she felt, to see and hear the catsup bottle smashed on the stairs, the eggs broken and leaking, and all the tin cans and potatoes rolling and banging their way downward.
They lived in a two-room flat with linoleum on the floor and a lively corrugated ceiling. In the daytime, from noon on, the rooms were hot with sunshine, but in the morning and at night they were as cold as caves unless the stove was going. The stove and the bathtub and the sink were all in the front room where Eddy slept. Sometimes at night the bathtub would gulp lonesomely, and the leaky tap of the sink had a drip as perfect in tempo as a clock.
Lydia and her mother slept in the back room, a darkish place, painted blue, with a big dim mirror over the bureau, and a window looking onto a shaft. The toilet was by itself in a little cubicle with a window also looking onto the shaft. When the chain was pulled it was as though one had released a river genie; a great storming and rumbling rose upward through the pipes, shaking all the furniture in the flat, then there was a prolonged crashing of waters lasting for minutes, and at last the mighty withdrawal, thundering and wrathful, growing fainter at last, and still fainter, till silence was restored, docile and appeased.
Sometimes when Eddy was alone and the stillness got to be too much for him he went into the water closet and pulled the chain just for the company of the noise.
He was often alone during the first part of his vacation. At noon, wearing his blue and gray Mackinaw and his aviator’s helmet with the straps flying, he came stamping up the stairs and into the sun-flooded crowded little flat. Humming and snuffling, he made his lunch: breakfast food, or huge erratic sandwiches filled with curious materials. When he was through he always cleaned up: washed the bowl or dish and swept up the breadcrumbs with his chapped hand. He had learned to be tidy at an early age, and could even make his bed well enough to sleep on it.
In the afternoons and mornings he voyaged forth with Joey Camarda, and others, to the street for contests of skill and wit. Sometimes they went to the upper reaches of the park with its lakes, bridges, battlegrounds and ambushes. Or rainy days they tagged through the museums, shrill and shabby as sparrows, touching the raddled surfaces of meteorites without awe, and tipping back their heads boldly to stare at the furious mask of Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“He isn’t real. They made him out of pieces of wood, like,” Joey said. “Men with ladders made him.”
“He is, too, real,” Eddy said. “He walked around and ate and growled and everything. Once he did.”
“Naw, he wasn’t real. Jeez he couldn’t be real. You’d believe anything. You’d believe in Santy Claus even.”
Christmas and its symbols were more and more in their conversation as the time drew near. They speculated on the subject of possible gifts to themselves. Joey said his uncle was going to give him roller skates and a real Mauser rifle.
“It’s one he got when he was in It’ly. What are you going to get, Eddy?”
Eddy said he thought he’d probably get a bike. It was just as likely that he would be given a bike as that he would be given the new moon out of the sky, but having made the statement, he went on to perfect it. He said that it would be a white bike with red trimming and a red piece of glass like a jewel on the back of it, and two raccoon tails floating from the handlebars.
“There’s going to be two kinds of bells on the handle bars. One will be kind of a si-reen.”
“Will you let me ride on it sometimes, Ed?”
That night he rode the bike all around the flat with the raccoon tails lying out on the speed-torn air. The taillight blazed like a red-hot ruby, and the siren was as terrible as human voice could make it.
“Watch me now, I’m taking a curve,” shouted Eddy, “Eee-ow-oooo-eee. Just missed that truck by half an inch!”
Lydia sad safely on the bed in the back room questioning him as he flashed by.
“Is it a plane, Eddy?”
“Is it a car?”
“Is it a—is it a train?”
“No. Gosh, it’s a bike. Look out now. I got to make that light. Eee-ow-ooo-eee!”
“Eddy, will you please for pity’s sake shut up!” cried his mother. “I can’t hear myself think, even!”
He came to a stop. “Gee, Mum, what are you cross about?”
She didn’t look at him; she pushed the potatoes and onions around the frying-pan with a fork. Then she shook salt over them, and spoke from a certain distance.
“Eddy, you kids don’t get a tree this year.”
“Heck, why not? What did we do? Why not?”
“I can’t afford it, that’s why!” she cried loudly, angry with him because she was hurting him. Then she lowered her voice. “They don’t want me back at the store after Christmas, they told me today. They don’t need me any more. I don’t dare to get you any presents even but just the things you have to have like socks and mittens.” She looked at him. “Maybe some candy,” she added.
A stinging hot odor arose from the frying pan to join the robust company of cooking smells from other flats on other floors: herring and chili and garlic and pork.
“Gee, Eddy, I’m scared to spend another cent. How do I know I’ll get another job?”
“What are you going to tell Lydia? She talks about the Christmas tree all day long.”
“She’ll have to do without, that’s all. Other people have to do without.”
“But, gee, she talks about it all day long.”
His mother threw down the fork and whirled on him.
“I can’t help it, can I? My God, what am I supposed to do?”
Eddy knew better than to go on with it. He leaned against the sink and thought, and when they ate supper he was kind and forbearing with Lydia who was both hilarious and sloppy. After a while his kindness became preoccupied, like that of one who drinks secretly at a spring of inspiration, and when Lydia had gone to bed he made a suggestion to his mother.
“I have an idea. If we put Christmas off for a few days, maybe a week, I can fix everything.”
His mother, as he had expected, said no. It was this response on the part of his mother which was the starting point of all his campaigns, many of them successful. He leaned against the sink and waited.
“What good would it do? And anyway what would Lydia think!” she said.
“Tell her Santa Claus is late. Tell her we made a mistake about the day. She’s too dumb to know the difference. Everyone’s dumb when they’re four.”
“And anyway, it seems kind of wrong.”
“What would Jesus care if we put his birthday off a couple of days?”
“Oh, Eddy, don’t be silly. There won’t be any more money than there is now.”
“No, but I got an idea. Please, Mum, please. Please.”
Eddy knew how to pester nicely. He had a quiet attentive way of looking and looking at one; of following one with his eyes and not saying anything, the request still shimmering all around him like heat-lightning. He waited.
His mother hung up the wet dishtowel and turned the dishpan upside down. She looked into the little mirror above the sink and looked away again. Then she sat down in the rocker and opened the tabloid newspaper.
“Oh, all right,” she said. “For pity’s sake, Eddy. What do you expect, a miracle?”
“Isn’t there ever any miracles? Anyway I’m not thinking about a miracle, I’m thinking about something smart,” Eddy said.
Christmas came, and for them it was a day like any other, except that their mother was at home. But it was easy to explain to Lydia that this was because her job at the store had ended for good, just as it was easy to explain Lydia’s own absence from nursery school by the simple method of rubbing Vick’s ointment on her chest. Eddy thought of that one, too.
“Gee, Eddy, I hope you know what you’re doing,” his mother said.
“I do know,” Eddy said.
“You should at least tell me what you’re going to do.”
“It has to be a surprise for you, too,” Eddy said, not so much because he wanted to surprise his mother as because he knew if he revealed his plan he would come in contact with a “no” which none of his stratagems could dissolve.
“It will be okay, Mum.”
“And when is it to be, if I may ask?”
“On New Year’s Day, I guess,” Eddy said, and went in search of Joey Camarda whose help he had enlisted.
On New Year’s Eve, early, he shut Lydia and his mother into their room.
“No matter what noises you hear, you don’t come out, see? Promise.”
“But, Eddy, I don’t think—”
“Well—” his mother conceded, and that was as good as promising. She went in and shut the door, and before the extraordinary sounds of toil and shuffling commenced in the hall she was lost in the deep sleep of the discouraged: that temporary death which is free from all the images of fear or joy.
At midnight the city woke up and met the New Year with a mighty purring. In the streets people blew horns and shook things that sounded like tin cans full of pebbles. Lydia woke up too and thought that it was Santa Claus.
“I wanna get up, Mum. I wanna see him.”
“You lay down this minute or he won’t leave a single thing. He doesn’t like for people to be awake when he comes,” said her mother crossly, clinging to the warm webs of sleep.
But Lydia sat up for a while in her cot, rocking softly to and fro. Through the crack under the door came a fragrance she remembered well from Christmas a year ago, and the Christmas before that.
In the morning it was a long time before Eddy would let them out of their room.
“Eddy, it’s cold in here,” said his mother.
“I wanna see the tree, I wanna see the tree,” chanted Lydia, half singing, half whining. “I wanna see the tree, I wanna see the tree.”
“Heck, wait a minute,” said Eddy.
“I wanna see the tree, I wanna see the tree,” bayed Lydia.
There were sounds of haste and struggle in the next room.
“All right, you can come in now,” said Eddy, and opened the door.
They saw a forest.
In a circle, hiding every wall, stood the Christmas trees; spare ones and stout ones, tall ones and short ones, but all tall to Lydia. Some still were hung with threads of silver foil, and here and there among the boughs the ornaments for a single tree had been distributed with justice; calm and bright as planets they turned and burned among the needles. The family stood in a mysterious grove, without bird or breeze, and there was a deep fragrance in the room. It was a smell of health and stillness and tranquillity, and for a minute or two, before she had thought of the dropping needles and the general inconvenience of a forest in the kitchen, Eddy’s mother breathed the smell full into her city lungs and felt within herself a lessening of strain.
“Eddy, Eddy, how? How?”
“Me and Joe Carmarda,” Eddy whispered. “We went all around last night and dragged them out of gutters. We could of filled the whole entire house with them if we wanted to. Last night in here it was like camping out.”
It had been like that. He had lain peacefully in his bed under the branches, listening to the occasional snow-flake tinkle of a falling needle, and to the ticking of the leaky tap, hidden now as any forest spring.
“Eddy, honey, look at Lydia.”
Lydia still looked new from her sleep. She stood in her flannel nightgown with her dark hair rumpled and her eyes full of lights, and her hands clasped in front of her in a composed, elderly way. Naturally a loud exuberant girl, the noise had temporarily been knocked out of her.
“All the Christmas trees,” she remarked gently.
“Gee,” said Eddy. “Don’t get the idea it’s going to be this way every year. This is just because he was late, and it’s instead of presents.”
It was enough for Lydia, anyone could see that. In a way, it was enough for Eddy, too. He felt proud, generous and efficient. He felt successful. With his hands in his pockets he stood looking at his sister.
“All the Christmas trees,” Lydia said quietly, and sighed. “All the Christmas trees.”