Sunday, January 3, 2021

Auld Lang Syne


A short story by Mary M. Isaacs.

“All beautiful the march of days/As seasons come and go.
The hand that shaped the rose has wrought/The crystal of the snow,
Has sent the hoary frost of heav’n/The flowing waters sealed,
And laid a silent loveliness/On hill and wood and field…


………………….

Rose peered through the small window in the heavy wooden door of the old church. No taxi yet, just gently falling flakes of snow in the late afternoon light; she was glad the snow had held off until after the service was over. It would be a light snowfall, though, like the recent ones, and she could have walked to the church service; it was only a few long blocks, after all, and there was no ice. But Mrs. Evans had insisted that she take a taxi there and back, and Rose had agreed in order to give her neighbor peace of mind. Not like last year, after that memorable Advent service—and she smiled to herself as the memory flooded back. Joe had walked her home that evening, through the fallen snow. But Joe wasn’t here today to hold out his elbow for her arm to guide her steps home. She missed him, and wished he was there.

It was New Year’s Eve. The special late afternoon church service—sparsely attended because it was mid-week, with a big night to come—had ended a little while ago. Although the congregation was small, those who attended sang whole-heartedly, Rose among them, in honor of the coming new year. The priest announced that there would be a special ringing of the church bells at midnight, to mark the passage of the old year and the arrival of the new.

Rose had stayed to help straighten up the prayer books and hymnals and collect any leftover bulletins for the trash. The man who usually did that was unable to get off early from work, so she had volunteered to take his place. While she was busy, the other attendees had left, calling out New Year’s greetings to each other. Now she was alone—well, not quite. Members of the altar guild were setting up for the coming Sunday morning service. She would have liked to offer to help them, or even just observe with questions, as she hoped to join that group in the new year. But Mrs. Evans was waiting for her at home; they were going to have New Year’s Eve dinner together. Mrs. Evans was cooking the meal and Rose knew that food preparations had started hours ago. So she had called a taxi and was now waiting for its arrival.

While she waited she thought of Joe. Ever since that Advent service, a year ago, he had been part of her life–a special part. Slowly at first: properly, carefully. He had spoken to her at the church’s coffee hours, listened to her choir rehearsals, sat with her when the choir wasn’t taking part in the service. He walked her home in bad weather. When she volunteered for church clean-up days, he volunteered also. And then he invited her for lunch at a café—and a visit to a museum—and a warm spring day at the zoo. Over the months, they spent more and more time together. He told her about his job, his family, his dreams. She listened with interest and encouragement. He praised her singing and told her that that was the first thing he ever knew about her: her beautiful voice in the church choir. She had blushed when he spoke well of her voice, but he had been so kind, so sincere. They had spent time together increasingly through the year—and now she missed him at this special church service. But Joe had gone to his family’s home for Christmas. He had planned to be back by New Year’s, but an unexpectedly heavy storm in the area where his family lived had changed those travel plans.

A car pulled up to the curb, interrupting her memories. Rose could see that it was from the taxi company she had called. She pulled her knit cap down more snugly and slung her handbag over her shoulder. Opening the heavy door, she stepped outside and took hold of the stair railing firmly. She slowly descended the stairs and carefully crossed the sidewalk. The steps weren’t slippery at all, but Rose didn’t want to chance a fall in the fading light. She climbed into the taxi, gave the driver her address, and then took out her wallet. It wasn’t going to cost much, as she was going only a short distance, but it was nice not to have to walk. She’d have to thank Mrs. Evans for insisting that she ride!

When the taxi arrived at her apartment building, Rose handed the driver her fare, with a tip folded inside. As she pulled on the door handle, the driver got out, surprisingly, and came around and helped her out of the taxi. “It’s getting a little dark. Gotta see you safe to your door—bad night to call for an ambulance, New Year’s Eve and all!” he said cheerfully. He escorted her up her building’s steps and then said, “Good-bye—Happy New Year!” She returned the greeting and then watched as he got back into his taxi and drove away. When she could see the car no more, she opened the glass door and went inside.

She pulled off her coat and cap in the entryway. Carrying them, she went up the short flight of steps to the first floor where her apartment was located. Before she reached her door, however, she could smell something good coming from across the hall, from where Mrs. Evans lived. Rose smiled as she anticipated another traditional, old-fashioned holiday meal like her grandmother used to make. As soon as she unlocked her door and went inside, she turned up the heat and switched on some lights; her apartment was cold and dark. She was thankful that she would not have to spend New Year’s Eve alone; she would be having dinner with a friend.

“O’er white expanses, sparkling pure/The radiant morns unfold;
The solemn splendors of the night/Burn brighter through the cold.
Life mounts in ev’ry throbbing vein/Love deepens round the hearth,
And clearer sounds the angel hymn/‘Good will to all on earth.’ “


Right after Christmas, Rose had realized that the caregiver who usually helped her older neighbor hadn’t been around for a while. She wondered why that was, as Mrs. Evans definitely needed regular help. Rose had gone across the hall to her neighbor’s apartment and asked about the caregiver directly.

“Oh, Julia can’t come for a while. Her husband slipped that day we had some ice on the ground, and sprained his ankle. She has to stay home for a while and take care of him,” her neighbor had replied in response to Rose’s question.

“Who has been helping you with cleaning and laundry?” Rose had asked.

“Well, no one, really. I clean up as best I can…”

Both women had looked around the small apartment then. Rose noticed the dust and the unswept floors and then thought quickly. “Maybe I can help you, Mrs. Evans, until Julia is able to come back or you find someone else. And what about food? How have you been managing without her doing your grocery shopping?”

Fortunately, Mrs. Evans told her, the caregiver had just done the weekly shopping before her husband’s accident, so the refrigerator and pantry cupboards were reasonably well-stocked. “And I am still able to cook, although I’m not good for much else!” she added, laughing.

“I have an idea, Mrs. Evans,” Rose had said. “Why don’t we eat together until Julia’s husband is better and she can come back? You can cook our meals, and in return I’ll clean your apartment, go grocery shopping for us both, and do your laundry along with mine. How does that sound?”

“What a dear girl you are, Rose. You won’t mind spending your time with an old lady like me? What about your young man?”

Rose had blushed a little. “Joe flew home to spend Christmas with his family. He would have been back by now, but some big storms shut down the airport there. So—you don’t have someone to help you and I’m home all day for a while, too. My school is closed for the holidays, so I don’t have to go to work for at least another week. Let’s share our responsibilities and keep each other company until Julia gets back.” They both agreed to this plan, and their friendship had grown deeper through the unexpected adversity.

………………….

Rose hung up her coat and cap in the entryway closet and then went into the kitchen. Earlier that day she had made an apple pie and had left it to cool while she went to the church service. Along with some ice cream that she had on hand, it would be a splendid dessert treat for their New Year’s Eve dinner. She hadn’t told Mrs. Evans of her baking plans—it was going to be a surprise. She’d offered to bring a salad, which she now proceeded to assemble. There was still some fresh fruit from her last shopping trip; she’d use it all and make a colorful, beautiful salad. After New Year’s Day she could go to the local grocery store, for herself and for her neighbor. There was plenty of food for tonight and tomorrow. Rose was grateful for whatever was put on the table—she wasn’t picky. She was just thankful for God’s provisions to her, through Mrs. Evans and their friendship.

While she was finishing the salad, she heard her apartment bell ring. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and went to the door. She called out, “Who is it?” as her parents had requested that she do, instead of opening her door to just anyone who might be there. Slightly muffled sounds came through the door, and she recognized her neighbor’s voice.

She had barely started opening the door when Mrs. Evans began to speak. “Oh, Rose, I’m glad you’re home safe from church. I worried about you the whole time you were gone!” A short, elderly woman stood there, smiling up at the girl. “You took a taxi back, too, right?” and she stepped inside as Rose opened the door wider for her.

“Yes, Mrs. Evans, I did–and the driver was very nice. Because it was getting dark, he helped me up the stairs to the door of our building.”

“Oh, my, that was thoughtful of him,” said the older lady. Then she closed her eyes briefly and sniffed the air. “What smells so good?” And she looked up at Rose with a twinkle in her eye.

“Surprise!” said Rose, “I made an apple pie to top off our dinner tonight. And I have some vanilla ice cream, too.”

“Oh, thank you, Rose! That will be a special treat for celebrating the New Year! I expect your pie will be delicious. I’m sorry your young man can’t be here to enjoy it with us.”

Just at that moment, the phone in Rose’s kitchen rang. She looked puzzled. “I guess that’s my parents calling on the landline. They insisted I have one, in case of trouble with any of our cell phones, but I talked to them before I went to church. Strange…” And she went to pick up the phone. As she got closer, she saw the last name on the display. “Oh!” she said, in a surprised and delighted tone of voice. “I think it’s Joe!”

Mrs. Evans turned and walked back to the apartment door. “You’ll want some privacy,” she said. “Let me know when you finish your call. Dinner is almost ready to put on the table. Don’t forget to bring that pie and ice cream!” She went out into the hall and closed the door behind her.

Rose smiled gratefully as she picked up the receiver. “Hello?” she said eagerly. The phone crackled in her ear and she moved it away an inch or two until the noise stopped. Then she spoke again. “Joe? Is that really you? I’m glad you called.”

His voice came through, broken up a little by static. “Rose? I’m calling from my parents’ phone. Can you hear me? I can barely hear you.”

She smiled at the familiar tones of his voice. “Yes, Joe, I can hear most of what you are saying. But why are you calling from their number? What happened to your cell phone?”

“The cell towers are down here, because of the storm, and your cell phone wasn’t picking up,” he replied. “Good thing I had your other phone number! Otherwise I couldn’t have gotten through at all.”

“I’m glad you did, too. I thought it was my parents calling—but it’s you…” and she smiled again. “Are you having a good time with your family? I went to the New Year’s Eve church service this afternoon—I missed you being there, Joe.” She added shyly.

There was a sudden burst of static, making it hard for her to hear him. Then all at once his voice came through clearly. “…how is the weather there, Rose? Are you okay?”

“Yes, Joe, I’m fine. The weather isn’t bad here at all, not like where you are.”

She heard crackling on the line, and then his voice again. “…wanted to be there…talk to you tonight, but…storm…”

“I’m sorry you’re not here, too, Joe, but I’d rather know that you’re safe. Anyway, you’ll be back soon, after the storms stop. We’ll see each other then.”

More static interrupted the connection. She strained to hear his voice, which cut in and out. “…wanted to ask…this year…not much time left.”

Rose smiled. “No, just a few hours. But why is this year so important? Next year is just tomorrow. It’s not a long wait.”

“…don’t want…wait…ask…this year.” There was a silence on the line; Rose thought she heard him take a deep breath, but it could have just been the bad connection. “Rose…I love…marry me?”

The phone popped and crackled and she strained to hear his words. She held the phone tighter than before, as if she could get closer to him to hear what he was saying. “What did you say, Joe? The connection is so bad…”

“Will you marry…?” and then his voice was cut off.

“Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” she said, desperately hoping that one of her words would make it through the static. But there was silence from the other end. “Joe? Can you hear me? I love you too, Joe! Yes, I will marry you! Are you there, Joe?” The silence continued, interrupted by crackles and hisses—and then the line went completely dead.

Rose held the phone to her ear a while longer until she remembered that he’d never get through again unless she hung up. She put down the receiver and gripped both hands together, watching the display. She waited a long time, but nothing happened. Oh, Joe! she thought. Did you hear me at all? Did you hear me say ‘yes’? She looked up at the clock on the wall. It was still this year! There were a few hours left before midnight. Maybe he would be able to get through again soon. Tears filled her eyes and started to fall—tears from a mixture of joy and frustration.

At that moment, her apartment bell rang again. Rose walked unsteadily to the door and opened it, tears still rolling down her cheeks. Mrs. Evans started speaking again before the door was open. “I just wanted to see if you’d finished your call…” and then she saw the girl’s face. “Rose! Oh, my dear, what’s the matter? Tell me…oh, no–did something happen to Joe?”

“No, no, Mrs. Evans, Joe is all right. It’s just…that…that…he said…he asked me to marry him, Mrs. Evans! But the line went dead! I don’t know if he heard me say ‘yes’.” And Rose broke down crying. “I don’t even know if he heard me say I loved him!”

The older woman put her arms around Rose and held her in a warm embrace. “Of course he heard you, dear. Everything is going to be all right, you’ll see. Oh, I am so happy for you! Joe is a fine young man—so nice and polite and caring. You are just right for each other! Take this,” she said briskly, handing Rose a handkerchief from her pocket, “Now let’s go ahead and have our dinner. We’ll move everything over here, to your apartment! Then you can hear if your phone rings–if he calls, we’ll just stop eating while you talk! And if the bad weather there blocks any more calls, then it’s no good worrying about it and sitting around doing nothing but waiting. We’ll have our lovely New Year’s Eve dinner and maybe watch a holiday movie. Then it will be close to midnight, and time to celebrate! And what a lot there is to celebrate, to be sure.”

Rose dried her eyes and mopped her face. “Thank you, Mrs. Evans. You make me feel much better. Your plan sounds just fine. Shall I come with you to bring the dinner over?”

“We’ll take turns, dear, so one of us can answer the phone here if it rings. Let me go first and bring some of the food—then you can get the place settings and the tablecloth. It shouldn‘t take too many trips to bring everything over here. Then we’ll have our blessing and get started. I want to get everything out of the way so I can have a piece of that lovely pie you made!”

Rose laughed then, just as Mrs. Evans had hoped. “We’re not going to hurry through your delicious meal just for a piece of pie! Dessert comes last,” and she watched the older woman go across the hall.

In a short time, everything for the dinner had been brought over from Mrs. Evans’ apartment and set up on Rose’s dining table. Both women sat down and then joined hands; Mrs. Evans asked Rose to lead them in a blessing for the meal. Rose began and her neighbor joined in, both women singing the words to the tune of the Doxology, singing from their hearts: “Be present at our table, Lord/Be here and everywhere adored/These mercies bless and grant that we/May strengthened for thy service be. Amen.”

They talked steadily through the meal. Mrs. Evans gently led Rose to recalling things about Joe and sharing her thoughts and hopes for the future. The phone didn’t ring during dinner but talking about Joe helped Rose to relax and stop worrying, which was what her neighbor intended. They finally reached the end of the meal, and Rose brought in the apple pie and ice cream. Both women had two servings of the dessert, and then sat back in their chairs, completely full and satisfied.

“What a very nice meal we just had!” The older woman smiled lovingly at the younger one. “Thank you so much for sharing your food and yourself with me, dear Rose! I haven’t had such a lovely New Year’s Eve in a long, long time. “

Rose smiled back at her and then said, “I’ll help you carry the leftovers home to put in your refrigerator, Mrs. Evans, but leave the dirty dishes here. I’ll wash them and bring them over to your apartment tomorrow.”

The women took turns carrying food to the other apartment, and then they both rinsed the dishes and stacked them on Rose’s kitchen counter. Afterwards, they settled into the living room and watched “Miracle on 34th Street” with much enjoyment. Both had seen the old movie many times before and shared their favorite parts with each other. When the movie was over, it wasn’t yet midnight, but Mrs. Evans decided it was time for her to go home.

“I can hardly keep my eyes open! Too much pie, I guess,” and she winked at Rose. “You’ll have to see the New Year in without me.” She stood up, and Rose accompanied her to the door. When they got there, Mrs. Evans gave the young woman a big hug. “Happy New Year, dear. May it be filled with happiness and blessings—like you’ve given me.”

Rose kissed her cheek. “Good night, Mrs. Evans, and Happy New Year to you, too! Sleep well–I’ll see you in the morning for breakfast.” And she watched the older woman cross the hall and go into her apartment safely. When the door had shut, and Rose heard the bolt being drawn into place, she went back into her apartment and started washing the dishes. She fully intended to stay up until long past midnight, just in case Joe would be able to call, so she decided she had enough time to wash and dry everything and tidy up for the night.

When she finished in the kitchen it was close to midnight. She went to the living room window, opened it partway, and stood there, breathing in the crisp, cold air. Although she was a couple of blocks from the church, she knew she was usually able to hear the bells, and she really wanted to hear them this night, ringing in the New Year. But instead, she heard a different kind of ringing. It was the phone! She ran to it, hoping that it wasn’t her parents, although she wouldn’t mind wishing them a happy New Year. But it was Joe, calling again! She grabbed up the receiver, her heart pounding.

“Hello?” she said breathlessly. This time there was no static. Joe’s voice sounded clear and she could hear every word.

“I didn’t imagine it, did I, Rose? You really said ‘yes’?”

She burst into tears. “Yes, Joe, I really said that! I love you, Joe. I’m so glad you were able to call again tonight!”

“Dear heart, please don’t cry. I wish I was there, but it’s almost midnight and this phone call will have to do… Rose, I have a ring here for you. Hold out your left hand.” Rose quickly switched hands holding the receiver and did as she had been asked. “Imagine this, Rose: I’m putting the ring on your finger right now. I love you and I want us to be together forever.”

“I love you, too, Joe. It’s a beautiful ring, and it fits perfectly.” She smiled through her tears as she made the gentle joke–which wasn’t a joke at all, of course. It had always been a perfect fit between them; she knew that he’d understand what she was saying.

“Rose, I’ll be there as soon as I can be. As soon as this storm eases up and the planes are flying again. The weatherman says three days, maybe. But that’s a long time…” his voice trailed off briefly. “I’ll call you every day, Rose. Don’t go outside if the weather gets bad there. Do you have enough food? Has the power stayed on the whole time so far?”

“Yes, Joe, everything is fine here. My neighbor Mrs. Evans and I have been sharing our meals and spending time together. Between the two of us we have enough food to get by for a few more days, and we keep each other company. She’s nice, Joe. And she likes you…”

“If she’s sharing with you, being there with you, I like her, too.”

Rose looked at the clock again. Was it midnight yet? No, it was still this year, but just barely; the second hand glided toward the twelve. She smiled and waited silently through the last few seconds. The church’s bells would ring loudly and joyfully when the time was up, and she would hear them clearly, just as she was hearing Joe’s words clearly this call. She was filled with happiness.

Seven…six…five…four…three…two…one… She took a deep breath as she heard the pealing of the bells through the open window. “It’s midnight now, Joe. Happy New Year! God bless you!”

“A happy and blessed New Year to you, my dear love—no, to us!” he responded. “I’ll be there with you soon.”

Her heart soared and sang along with the bells.

“…O God, from whose unfathomed Law/The year in beauty flows,
Yourself the vision passing by/In crystal and in rose,
Day unto day shall utter speech/And night to night proclaim,
In everchanging words of light/The wonders of your name.”



………………….


Hymn lyrics from “All Beautiful the March of Days” by Frances Whitmarsh Wile, ca. 1907 (usually sung to the tune of “Forest Green”).


………………….

Mary M. Isaacs — copyright, 2020

To enjoy and support works by Mary M. Isaacs, she has three volumes available at present. This story is in the Hidden in Plain Sight collection.

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