Short Story: The Gift

(Based on the tea set I found- see post below. As far as I know the historical facts are true)

The water is already cold in the basin.  There are a few pockets of warmth left under cups that are pulled to the surface for a delicate scrub.  This is the Aunties tea set, and although she has been here a year, she still feels that her actions are being judged; if  she makes a mistake she and her mother and brother will be thrown out of her Aunties home.

Mother and Guy have gone to town to buy some books for school, and to get a few groceries for tea.  Aunt Lizzie is visiting neighbours.  That left Aunt Mary, who had been upstairs for the longest time, and was in the sitting room- no doubt by the fire.

‘Her Aunties:’ she only groups them together in her head.  In speaking she addresses them as Aunt Mary and Aunt Lizzie, but they seem so much together it is hard to imagine them apart and individual.  They are her mother’s aunts, the oldest sisters and nearing middle age by the time her mother was a girl.

Her first time meeting them (for her mother had always exchanged weekly letters) was when she came to Kingston to see her cousin Bee married.  She remembered it with fondness because she was the flower girl, and been given a new white dress lined with lace, and a hat with blue flowers for the occasion. One of the Aunties had scolded her for skipping in the house, “Young lady!  This is not a barn!”

After that, she had always felt as though she was being judged by them- sized up and always lacking.  Now she was in their home.  Forever- or so it felt to an eleven year old girl.

The house was nice enough- slightly smaller than her home in Gananoque, but that really didn’t matter.  It even had a title “the Cottage.”  Ever since she was a very little girl she would listen to her mother read letters from the Aunties at the Cottage.  She imagined  the house tucked into a dense woods, and her Aunties looked like the sweet old ladies in one of her storybooks papa bought her. Who did she think delivered the mail to this forest cottage?  Oh, no matter now- she knew better.  The Cottage was one of a row of five gabled houses overlooking the lake and protected by a stone wall. She and her brother shared a room upstairs- it was frightfully cold at night, even with the pipes that were supposed to send warm air into the rest of the house.  On some nights, when it was really cold mother would bring up a hot water bottle that she and Guy would share.

She even made a friend- Lorraine Shortt- her best friend who lived just up the street.  She had been introduced to her at tea- the First Year.  The year they came down to Kingston- the year that everything changed.

Lorraine lived at a place called Copsworth, a beautiful house with marble mantels and a fireplace for nearly every bedroom.  She had her own nursery. They had taken to each other right away, and had been together daily ever since- they were to play this afternoon. They had created pet names for each other “pussy,” and “chickie.” She had started it- didn’t many other storybook characters have pet names for each other?  Certainly they did in “Little Women.” Now those names bonded them, it was their secret; something they would write to each other or call each other in private.

The dishes were done now; her hands were a little numb from the cold water.  Now begins the process of drying them- leave them on the table and Aunties will put them safely away.

“Marjorie!” it is Aunt Mary, “Marjorie. Come here girl!” It’s a fact that every half deaf person thinks that everyone else is deaf too.

Obediently she steps down from the stool. She is small for her age. One friend of her mother said she looked like a pixy.  Her complexion- fair with brown hair and blue eyes would certainly add to the impression. If she is like her mother she will only be about five foot when she actually does grow.  Why do we have to be so small?  I wonder what papa…She silences the thought before it has the chance to formulate.  Too raw.  Too real.

She turns from the kitchen into the sitting room where her Aunt Mary is sitting by the fire; her spectacles on, cheeks sunk in, and the usual long black dress that the Aunties are famous.  She is attempting to sew something.

“Come here child. What took you so long?” She puts her sewing aside on the arm of her chair. Youth looks at age, and there is a softening a recognition somewhere between the seventy years that separate the two.

“I have something for you.” Aunt Mary says as she reaches for a parcel wrapped in lace cloth sitting on the table.

“Come closer.” Gnarled hands unwrap the white cloth- a stark contrast on the black dress. Unveiled is a woven box that has the shape of a clover, it looks old, no larger than an extended hand.

Mary sensing the moment slowly takes off the lid, the puff of white tissue paper expands. Slowly and with care a dainty dish, then a cup, and a teapot appear- gently placed on the table.  A dainty pink floral design are painted on each piece.

“These where mine and Lizzie’s.  Momma bought them for us when we were around your age.  Your momma played with them when she visited us, and your cousins too.  I dare say, you will be the last child we have in this house, and due to your father’s passing…” she peers through her spectacles at Marjorie to see the effect her words are having.  The little girl’s eyes are wide and amazed, but there is a shadow of emotion as well.  Yes indeed, it will take a long time before the pain truly subsides;  so young to lose a father – we have so much in common.  This gift was a good idea- she had consulted Lizzie about it before, and both thought that this would be a good time.  Marjorie was old enough to know the responsibility of a special gift, and tragic enough to need the comfort.

“Now, let me see you put them away safely.”  Marjorie slowly and with reverence wraps and places each  piece back in the small basket.  Her Auntie watches her with interest; what will the future bring to this little fatherless one, no dowry, will she be a spinster- pray not that.

For Marjorie, this task is a judging of whether she is worthy or not to be entrusted with such a gift.  Finally done, she stands back.

The old lady hands her the box, “Why don’t you take them to Lorraine Shortt’s today?”   A moment passes as each takes in the other, and Marjorie falls at her Auntie’s lap and hugs her legs.

“Oh, thank you Aunt Mary.”  Her face pushed up against black material that smells of soap and age.

“Get up dear.  What a fuss your making,” but the old lady looks pleased.  Marjorie takes the tea set upstairs, for a second look; who cares if it is cold! Won’t Chickie be surprised!

Mary places the sewing on her lap, she can barely see to mend anymore. Ah to be young, she thinks; to have so much in life before you, what excitement.

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One Response to Short Story: The Gift

  1. Steven M. Blois says:

    I am thinking about the mystery of afternoon Tea, which I capitalize intentionally, knowing it to be a ritual of importance, more important than just having a cup of tea, or playing house. What does the ritual mean to Marjorie? To the family? Is it tied to the importance of the tea set as a symbol, or can it be? I ask this because I like the emotional appeal of your story: the worry of acceptance, the mystery of passing a test aunt mary’s need to give something as a right of passage and healing, but why Today? (which i also capitalize intentionally)  Because Marjorie did the dishes? Because she has shown obedience and  repsponsibility? Has something happened to force home the realization of her need for friends or the deflection of the pain of losing her father?  In terms of short story conventions, what actions has the character taken, or what forces have acted on the character to bring about change or growth (conflict resolution). So this brings me back to Tea. And why Today? The story starts with Marjorie washing up her auntie’s real set in prep for Tea. 

    I like your wandering narrative stance which allows you to tell much of the story through Marjorie’s eyes, while wandering into the minds of other characters like Mary. Could you strengthen the ending to show how
    The tea set might brighten Marjorie’s world, open up possibilities in her young mind, or secure her a future? I’d like to see more depth of reaction, or action on Marjorie’s part at the close to Strengthen aunt mary’s observations “oh, to be young…” Playing at Tea with Lorraine? Conversation, imagination blossoming by playing tea with dolls as  young girls do with such wonder and expression…

    A few editing nits:
    She turns from the kitchen into the sitting room where her Aunt Mary is sitting by the fire; her spectacles on, cheeks sunk in, and the usual long black dress that the Aunties are famous.  She is attempting to sew something.

    (Something is missing from this paragraph, ‘famous for?’ Also, delineate who she is, aunt Mary I suspect, but clarify it.)

    These where mine and Lizzie’s
    (Were)

    tragic enough to need the comfort.
    (‘and in enough pain to need the comfort’)

    Love it. Keep working it over. Play “tea” for a bit with a certain young daughter and see where it takes you in relation to developing this story.

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