Authors: Reba White Williams
The twentieth has arrived, and it began with a special breakfast: pancakes and bacon. We each gave Coleman a small present to unwrap at breakfast. She has a new green winter coat—I gave her green knitted gloves to wear with it, and Ida gave her a little purse to keep her church money and a hanky in. Dinah gave her
, a book Dinah loved and was sure Coleman hadn’t read. Coleman is so excited today I think she may float away like Mary Poppins.
I devoted most of the morning to helping the Byrd girls get ready for the school party, while Ida worked on the dinner for tonight. But after the school party work was done, I turned to the dining room tables. We borrowed a table and chairs from the church so we can have two tables in the dining room, and I used some of Olivia’s best linens, with holly berries and leaves embroidered on them. The centerpieces are red candles and magnolia leaves. The tables look nice, even if the china doesn’t match. The sitting room looks good, too—Ida was absolutely right to get another tree. This one is so fresh and smells wonderful, a true Christmas smell. Of course, Ida and her helpers have been cooking all day, so the house smells like gingerbread and cheese straws and angel food cake.
Molly and Elaine and I filled the goody bags and packed up the refreshments for the school party. Ida was cooking up to the last minute—I had to shoo her out of the kitchen to get changed. I was worried we’d be late, but we got to the school right on time. Neither of us wanted to miss seeing Coleman’s reaction to her party, or her classmates having a good time.
The last day of school before Christmas is always fun, but this year it was the best ever, because of Coleman’s birthday. We got to wear our new Christmas corduroy dresses, and had a real good breakfast, and we ran to school, carrying our Secret Santa packages in a brown bag.
The schoolroom looked pretty ‘cause we started decorating it right after Thanksgiving. We’d put up a little pine tree, and everybody made ornaments for it, and we’d drawn Christmas pictures and stuck ‘em up everywhere. We sang Christmas songs, and Miz O’Quinn read us Christmas stories. Coleman and I liked the one about Tiny Tim the best. The morning went real fast.
The grade mothers brought in chicken salad sandwiches and potato chips and milk for our lunch, and as soon as we finished, in came Miss Ida and Aunt Polly with Coleman’s party—the cupcakes, and the punch, and the goody bags, and Santa Claus.
First thing Santa did was give out the Secret Santas. I got a pretty shell picture, and Coleman got an angel Christmas ornament made out of a pinecone. Everybody loved our pet presents, but ‘course we didn’t let on they were from us.
I’ve never seen Coleman look so happy; I thought she’d bust when we sang “Happy Birthday.” She was thrilled to pieces with the goody bags, too. She stood up in front of class and said, “This is my first birthday party ever, and I don’t think anybody anywhere ever had a better one. Thank you for bein’ part of it!” I near ‘bout cried, and Aunt Polly’s eyes were watering, too.
When school was out, Coleman and I had to go straight upstairs and rest. I was plumb tuckered out and didn’t wake up till Aunt Polly called us to get dressed for the party.
Nothing could have gone better than Coleman’s dinner. The big surprise was Coleman’s angels—they are all people of color. Mrs. Kahama’s family comes from Tanzania and is decidedly black; Mrs. Shah, who was born in New Delhi, and Mrs. Lopes, who’s Guatemalan, are shades of brown. I think most people might have mentioned their color when talking about them. Not Coleman. Of course, I realized she was color-blind in the best sense of that expression when she didn’t notice there were no white people at the Byrds’ church. But I was still surprised by the angels.
Anyway, the angels couldn’t have been nicer, and they were dressed so beautifully they put the rest of us to shame, even though we all had on our best bibs and tuckers. Mrs. Shah wore a green and gold sari, and gold bracelets and earrings; Mrs. Lopes, an embroidered blouse and skirt in every color of the rainbow. I saw Mary Louise eyeing Mrs. Kahama’s red-and-green print caftan and turban, and I whispered: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ garments.”
She laughed. “‘Judge not that ye be judged.’ I knew exactly what you thought when Coleman’s guests arrived. Are you worried about what the neighbors will think about your ‘colorful’ visitors?”
I knew she was teasing, but I blushed. Coleman’s angels are so exotic, they’d stand out anywhere, but in our little town, they’re like flamingos in a flock of sparrows. People here never have seen anything like them, and they will certainly talk. I do wonder what the neighbors will think and say. But I wish I didn’t. Why can’t I be like Ida, who never has cared what others think, if she’s sure she’s doing right? I pray the Lord will forgive me and help me to stop worrying about what others think of me and mine.
Coleman’s angels. They’re pretty as pictures and ‘bout the nicest people I ever met. They really love Coleman, too—they hugged her and petted her all night, and she just about purred.
When I saw how fancy the angels’ clothes were, I was real glad we had new dresses, and that the house looked nice. And I was proud as a peacock over Miss Ida’s dinner—she’d fixed all Southern specialties: crab gumbo to start, and braised quail medallions, and wild and white rice mixed, and a mixed greens soufflé. There were two angel food cakes for Coleman’s birthday cakes—one with chocolate pecan frosting and white candles, and one with peppermint frosting and red candles. After dinner when the grown-ups were havin’ coffee in the sitting room, Molly and Elaine, who’d been servin’ dinner, passed trays of chocolate fudge and divinity fudge, and Miss Ida introduced ‘em, sayin’ they were chefs-in-training and had helped make everything we ate, and everybody applauded.
I enjoyed talking to the angels. They asked all about Coleman, how she’s doin’ in school, an’ what she does for fun. I loved telling ‘em about her, and about Miss Ida and Aunt Polly, and our town. I wanted to know about them, too, but they didn’t say much, except how good the food was, and how pretty the tree was an’ all. I wonder, do they know Coleman thinks they’re angels?
I heard Coleman ask Miz Kahama if she liked angel cake and Miz Kahama laughed and said yes, it was her favorite. Coleman said it was her favorite, too. And they got to discussin’ divinity fudge, and why it was called that, and Miss Ida said we always serve heavenly hash during Christmas week; she thinks Coleman will probably like that, too. Coleman asked if Miss Ida and Miz Kahama think they eat those things in heaven. Miz Kahama said she thought not—in heaven they prob’ly didn’t need to eat—and Miss Ida just smiled and nodded. Coleman didn’t say anything, but I remembered how she’d talked about the angels on earth eating angel cake, so I know what she was thinkin’: Were all these heavenly and divine dishes meant for angels on earth? And the rest of us got to enjoy them, even if we weren’t angels?
I thought about askin’ Granny Byrd, who was watchin’ everybody like a wise ol’ owl, but she’s too scary, so I asked Aunt Mary Louise. She shook her head. “I don’t know a lot about angels,” she said. “But God made all things, including good food, for all His people.”
“But do you think these ladies, Coleman’s friends, are angels?” I asked.
“Oh honey, I don’t know. But remember how Coleman said she knows they’re angels because of how they behave? And Granny thought that was a good way to recognize them? I think that’s right—if you see people acting like angels—well, they probably are, at least right then. And you can surely tell who
an angel by the way a person acts.”
I just can’t make up my mind about whether Coleman’s friends are angels or just real nice ladies. I saw how Aunt Polly and maybe others were surprised when Coleman’s friends weren’t white. Did they think all angels are white? Are maybe all angels colored? I had a lot of questions for Coleman.
When we were in bed, the first thing I asked was if she’d ever met a white angel.
“Not to say ‘met.’ But I’ve seen ‘em,” she said.
“How did you know? Did they have halos or wings?”
“No, I told you before—I could tell by their deeds,” she said.
“Have you seen any angels since you came to live here?”
“No, but I reckon they only turn up when they’re needed. And I don’t know of anybody ‘round here needin’ an angel, mostly ‘cause there are a lot of good folks lookin’ after others here.”
She was quiet then, and I thought she was asleep, but after a little bit she said, “I know one thing: angels come in every color. I saw ‘em in New Orleans.” Then she did go to sleep, but I lay awake a long time ponderin’ angels. When I finally slept, I woke up in the night, hearin’ music—“Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” It must have been a radio somewhere far off.
Everything seemed to peak on December 20th, and although every hour each day since has been busy, I’ve felt a little let down. But the Christmas Eve service was joyful, and when we came home, we opened all the presents under the tree and went to sleep filled with gratitude in the certain knowledge that the Lord is come. On Christmas Day, we attended a lovely early morning service and hurried home to put the finishing touches on Christmas dinner—as I’d hoped, it was to be traditional. I was looking forward to turkey, dressing, and everything that goes with it.
When our driveway came into sight, three cars were parked there: Mr. Sherrill’s Lincoln, Rena’s beat-up old VW Bug, and a blue Chevrolet I didn’t recognize. Oh my goodness, who in the world could it be? Had the children invited someone and forgotten to tell us? Whoever it was would see our table set for six and know we’d forgotten! I was worried whoever it was would have hurt feelings, and rushed in to see what I could do to make it right.
I knew ‘zackly what Aunt Polly was thinking, but we hadn’t asked anybody, and when we got inside, Miss Rena and Mr. Sherrill were sittin’ in front of the fire sippin’ the red wine he always brought, even though none of us drink it. (He knows Miss Rena loves it, and I’ve been thinkin’ for a while that he’s sweet on her. Coleman thinks so, too, but we’ve never said anything ‘cause Miss Ida doesn’t like us to gossip.) But there was nobody else with ‘em. “Whose blue car is that?” I asked.
“Yours and Miss Polly’s and Miss Ida’s,” Mr. Sherrill said.
I looked at Coleman, who was grinning like a chessy cat. “You bought it?” I asked.
“Of course not,” Aunt Polly said. “Mr. Sherrill is teasing us.”
“No ma’am, I’m quite serious,” Mr. Sherrill said. “Coleman decided you need a car. She says you still keep up your driving license and could drive it today. Is that right?” (That was true—I’d seen her license.)
Well, we had a to-do with everybody talkin’ at once, mostly Aunt Polly fussin’ and sayin’ the car was an extravagance, and that Coleman needs the money for college, and then sayin’ it all over again.
Miss Ida was real quiet, and I was pretty sure why. She knew Aunt Polly wanted a car mighty bad. She’d had one in Raleigh and loved it, but they’d had to sell it a long time ago. But she agreed with Aunt Polly that Coleman would need the money later on. She couldn’t make up her mind what to do about the car.
I don’t know how it might have ended, but Mr. Sherrill had thought it all out, and ‘bout that time in waltzed Aunt Mary Louise, who knew all about the big surprise. “Congratulations, car owners!” she said and handed packages to Aunt Polly and Miss Ida. They opened ‘em up, and Aunt Mary Louise ‘splained they were drivin’ gloves. Then she made a long speech about how the car would save us money, ‘cause we’d be able to go to far-off markets and buy cheaper cookin’ and sewin’ supplies, and pick up things ‘stead of payin’ for delivery—and pretty soon she’d talked ‘em into doing what they wanted to do, and they gave Coleman big hugs, and Aunt Polly looked over the moon, and I think she wanted to go for a drive right away but was too polite to say so.
Aunt Mary Louise said she couldn’t stay because she had to get back to her family, but she sat down to have a glass of Mr. Sherrill’s wine, and Coleman and me and Aunt Polly and Miss Ida had cranberry punch, and we all wished each other Merry Christmas. Then Miss Rena said she’d just been waitin’ for Mary Louise to come to show us all somethin’, and she stuck out her left hand and she had a ring on her finger bigger than Miss Seaman’s—and we were right: Miss Rena and Mr. Sherrill are getting married, and they want Coleman and me for bridesmaids!
Well, we all got excited all over again, and after more hugs and congratulations, Aunt Mary Louise sat down at the piano and played and sang “Joy to the World.” I thought I’d bust.
We finally got the meal on the table and said the blessing. We had so much to be thankful for, I probably could have eaten cardboard and been happy. But it was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in my life. Happiness is the best sauce, of course, and we mostly talked about a happy subject: the wedding. Ida is to make the cake and cater the reception, which will be right here in our house, and I’m to make Rena’s dress and those for the girls. They’re going to be married on Valentine’s Day in the Presbyterian Church, and I couldn’t help remembering how bad last winter was, and how different this one is. For once I don’t dread January, February, and March. Thanks be to God for His many gifts.
I kept thinkin’ about the wedding, and I turned to Miss Rena and said, “It’s real romantic getting married on Valentine’s Day, but I’d enjoy it any time. Still, it’s ‘specially good that you’re marrying when none of us is doin’ much, what with the produce stand being closed an’ all. It’s downright disheartenin’ when we’re not busy.”
Coleman spoke up. “The wedding will be exciting and fun, but you’re wrong about nothin’ to do. We’re goin’ to be busy as bees.”
“Doing what?” I asked. “First I’ve heard about bein’ busy that time of year.”
“That’s ‘cause we’ve been so wrapped up in Christmas, we haven’t talked about it. But I’ve been studying what we need to do next, and we need to write us a cookbook. I figured out just how to do it. We’ll make a lot of money, and Miss Ida will be famous, like she should be. We’ll call it
Miss Ida’s Southern Kitchen