Dust Jacket Information
"A sympathetic and lovely story." --The Seattle Times
ON THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, a snowy night with wind in the forecast, Janet Raft arrived at Agatha McGee's house on River Street.
Janet's father helped her out of the car, carried her suitcase up onto the front porch and took off his cap before he rang the doorbell. Facing Miss McGee always made him nervous. Thirty years ago Miss McGee had been his sixth-grade teacher at St. Isidore's Elementary, and he remembered how cross she used to become when he dotted his e's or failed to memorize his catechism or forgot the square root of something. He remembered, too, the summer he returned home to Staggerford from the Army and Miss McGee hired him to paint her house and how worked up she got when he dribbled paint. He dribbled quite a lot of it. "Look here, Francis," she kept saying--everybody else in town called him Frank-"you've got paint on my window glass and paint on my stone foundation. Why, you've even got paint on my geraniums." And now after all these years of falling short of Miss McGee's expectations, he was presenting her with his daughter Janet-seventeen, unmarried and nine months pregnant.
Agatha McGee opened the door. She was a slight, white-haired woman in her middle sixties. The smile she wore this Christmas Eve was two parts festive and one part grim.
"Come in, Janet, and please hang your coat in the closet over there. Come in, Francis, and set her suitcase over there at the foot of the stairs. Goodness, aren't either of you wearing anything on your heads? It's a night for catching cold, Janet, and a cold is the last thing you want in your condition. Now turn around and start right home, Francis, you've got twenty miles to drive and the radio says practically every road in Minnesota will soon be drifting shut."
Mr. Raft did as he was told, but on his way out the door Agatha called him back.
"Aren't you going to kiss your daughter good-bye?"
He stepped into the living room once more, gave Janet a peck on the forehead, then paused for further instruction.
"That's fine, Francis, now be off with you. I'll keep you posted by phone."
We haven't got a phone, but the neighbors do. Janet knows the number."
"Very good, and Merry Christmas to you and the girls."
"Same to you." He put on his cap and fled across the porch and down the steps and into the swirling night.
Agatha closed the door and regarded Janet, who had hung up her coat and was standing awkwardly beside her suitcase. She wore maternity jeans and a summery, short-sleeved maternity top. Her brown hair curled at her shoulders, and her brown eyes were cast down. She folded her hands over her middle as though to hide the great part of her that protruded into the room. She was feeling as uneasy as her father had felt, for she, too, having gone through the sixth grade under the command of Miss McGee, would have preferred staying in someone else's house. But when Dr. Maitland had asked Janet if she had friends in town, she couldn't think of any. "Well, your time is near and there's bad weather coming and I can't have you stranded in the country," the doctor had said. "I'm sure Miss McGee will take you in. She speaks of you as one of her most promising students." There had been a hint of regret or resignation in the doctor's voice; promised unfulfilled-that might have been the implication. "Her house is only a block and half from the hospital," he had added.
Now, installed in that house, Janet said, without raising her eyes, Hello, Miss McGee."
Please look me in the eye and say that, Janet."
She did so. It had been a long time since she had looked this closely at her old teacher, whose eyebrows were the color her hair used to be: gingery. She looked slighter than ever these days, her shoulders narrower, her face paler, her eyes sharper. She wore a simple yet rich-looking lavender dress with a standup collar and tiny cameo earrings. This was no classroom outfit; she was dressed this way, Janet assumed, for midnight Mass.
"Hello, Miss McGee."
"Oh, that's ever so much better. You see, this is no time for hangdog expressions. This is a time for strength. You're about to give birth in a blizzard, and the poor baby's father is a thousand miles away and God knows if he'll come home and marry you, and furthermore if you insist on keeping the baby you've got years of great responsibility ahead of you. So promise you'll refrain from self-pity. Promise you'll be strong."
Janet gathered her strength. "I promise." She smiled a small, bright smile.
"Wonderful. Now I'm happy you've arrived safe and sound. You're a bit late, you know. I was afraid you were stuck in a ditch."
"We opened presents before I came, and I guess it took longer than we planned. I'll show you my presents. They're in my suitcase."
The suitcase was heavy, and Janet shared the weight with Agatha as they climbed the stairs to the room Agatha let out to lodgers from time to time. They set the suitcase on the bed, and Janet opened it and drew out her gifts-a hankie, a bracelet and a paperback book from her three younger sisters. "And wait till you see this-it's from Dad and my Aunt Marge and Uncle Bert." She carefully unfolded a lacy white baptismal dress. "For the baby."
Agatha took the dress and shook out the folds. She held it at arm's length. "My, how exquisite. How beautiful."
"Dad and my Aunt Marge said I should ask you to be the baby's godmother."
"Oh? But that must be your decision, Janet, not your father's or your aunt's."
"But I agree with them. I'm having it baptized Stephanie if it's a girl and Stephen if it's a boy. Stephanie was my mother's name."
"And the baby's father? Have you consulted him about this?"
"Oh, yes, Eddie says it's fine with him." This was a lie. The thought of Eddie Lofgren caused her cheeks to color slightly as she gazed past Miss Mc Gee and recalled that parched week last spring when Eddie turned up at the Lofgren farm down the road from her own and took her on dates to the movies. Eddie had been born and raised three hundred miles south of here, in Omaha, but Janet knew him from the several summers when he had come to spend a month or so with his cousins on the farm. Last spring he had turned up wearing an Air Force uniform. It was late March. Janet's father and all the other farmers were talking of nothing but the dry season-the winds were blowing the fields away-but Janet by all that fret, for she busy learning sex from Eddie, though not enough about its precautionary aspects. She loved sex. She loved Eddie. For two weeks Eddie lover her, he said. Then he was gone, to an airbase in Greenland, and Janet was pregnant. Her father was enraged. He swore he'd take his shotgun after that black hearted bastard in the pansy-blue uniform, never mind if he was in Greenland or Timbuktu, but Janet argued against vengeance. And so did her aunt and uncle. Being with child had caused Janet neither panic nor grief, only an occasional day of vague sadness. It was her destiny, she knew, to have a husband and children, and if the order was reversed, so what? She was determined to be a doting mother. Anyhow, fatherless babies were not a rarity among her friends and relatives. Aunt Marge, in fact, had given birth twice before she had married. Time passed, and her father's anger cooled. Now, with the birth imminent, it disappeared.
Agatha draped the baptismal dress respectfully over her arm. "Tomorrow I'll press out the wrinkles."
"Will you be godmother, Miss McGee? We'd all be so honored."
"Yes, indeed. And I'm the one who is honored."
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