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Historically Speaking: Little grains of fire

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption on the back of the postcard reads, "Christmas Card of Hawkins Apple Orchard" — date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

Last week I shared with you one of Ernestine Chesser Williams’ memories that she left to the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. It is part of her collection of stories that she wrote after she was 90 years old called, “Long Ago And Far Away.” I promised to share a Christmas story from that collection this week, so here it is. It’s an amusing story, I hope you enjoy it.

This story was told to Ernestine by her mother. The names of the people have long since been forgotten, but the story is written as her mother told it to her, about a Christmas dance out in the ranch country of southeastern New Mexico, long, long ago. It will bring a smile to your face.

“It was Christmas time and everyone was going to the dance at the big ranch house — that is everyone except Lucetta. Lucetta couldn’t go. Neighbors would come from miles around on horseback or in buggies or wagons. There would be loud ‘hellos,’ and friendly handshakes, and calls of ‘Merry Christmas!’

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“The big rock house would be aglow with kerosene lamps and lanterns hanging all around. Sweet scented juniper logs would burn lustily in the fireplace, their pungent fragrance filling the air.

“Lucetta looked at her face in the old scarred mirror that hung above the wash bench. There was a discolored splotch on her forehead and dark circles under her blue eyes. Her normally rosy cheeks were sallow — a sickly pale color. Struggling wisps of blonde hair had come loose from the pins and hung limp about her face.

“Her faded cotton ‘Mother Hubbard’ dress hung loosely from her shoulders in a shapeless fashion but did not conceal the bulge. Lucetta was going to have a baby. An expectant mother couldn’t ride on horseback to a Christmas dance on a cold winter night.

“Lucetta wanted a baby. She and John had been married during the Christmas season just a year ago when she was only 17. They have made their home in the claim shack where John had filed on a section of land. John was a good man. He not only worked on his own land, but worked part time for the big ranch. He was at work now. Lucetta was at home alone with her thoughts.

“She thought about the Christmas dance last year when men impatiently tapped their boots on the floor while the fiddler resigned (rosined) his bow and the guitar picker tested his strings. The familiar dance tunes were ringing in her ears.

“‘Put Your Little Foot’ kept coming back again and again. She hummed the tune. In the old truck in the corner were the slippers she had worn for her wedding. She dug them out but she couldn’t put them on. Her feet were swollen. She caressed the shiny black patent leather, sighed, rewrapped the slippers in the tissue paper, and put them away. Her feet were no longer little.

“The rollicking tune of ‘Little Brown Jug’ seemingly floated in on the cold crisp air. She awkwardly pretended to dance the polka for only a step or two. Her heavy body couldn’t move to the tempo. ‘Over The Waves Waltz’ replaced the lilting tune of the polka. Again she hummed the tune and waddled more than waltzed across the floor and sat down exhausted.

“She remembered the midnight supper. The frosting air was permeated with a tantalizing aroma of barbecue, which had been roasting over the pit of coals for many hours. And there was delicious cakes and pies the neighbors had brought. She thought of the pickles — the big wooden keg of salt pickles. Her mouth watered. Why carrying a baby caused a craving for certain foods was a mystery, but it was true. Right now she wanted a pickle. Oh! How she wanted a pickle!

“John had said he would ride over to the big house and greet friends, pay respect to the host and hostess and visit for a little while. Lucetta agreed he should do that.

“Lucetta, with a slight smirk on her face, fancied she could hear the gossipy old women whispering about her. They would say she was ‘in a family way’ or in a ‘delicate condition.’ Why couldn’t they come right out and say she was going to have a baby, and her condition certainly wasn’t delicate. It was grotesque. They would pretend to be embarrassed and would shyly speak to John.

“‘How is Lucetta?’ they would ask.

“‘Oh, just fine,’ John would reply.

“She wasn’t just fine; she was miserable. As the day wore on, she began to feel sorry for herself. She was too young to have to stay home from the Christmas celebration.

“Lucetta’s imagination ran rampant. She could see the big branch of mistletoe hanging above the door. The custom was to kiss whomever stood under the mistletoe. She imagined she could see John walk leisurely across the porch, stop and lean on the door facing underneath the mistletoe. Those silly, giggling girls would all rush up and kiss him. Kiss her John while she stayed home and carefully tended his unborn child! Jealousy enveloped her.

“While getting out John’s best pants and pinstripe shirt, Lucetta saw the dress she had worn the year before. It was a colorful, printed calico with leg-o-mutton sleeves, low neck, fitted waist, and full ruffled skirt. She held it up to her bulging body and wandered if ever again she would be able to wear a pretty dress.

“Lucetta consoled herself saying she really did want a baby — someone to have around and to love when John was away. She laid out John’s best clothes and then shined his boots.

“In the late afternoon, Lucetta turned the hind quarter of a young buck deer that was roasting in the oven of the wood-burning kitchen stove. She stirred the beans in the iron pot and made a pan of biscuits. John’s supper was ready. He would never know the thoughts that had tortured her mind all day.

“Lucetta carried in a washtub, placed it in the corner and put an extra bucket of water on the stove to heat for John’s bath. She again checked his clothing — clean socks, underwear and — right then a devilish prank crowded all other thoughts from her mind.

“She quickly sorted through the few little boxes of spices on the shelf and found the one she was looking for. She picked up John’s long winter underwear and sprinkled a generous amount from the little box into the seat of his drawers.

“John came in from work as expected, ate his supper, bathed and dressed. Again and again he apologized, saying he was sorry to leave Lucetta alone. He assured her he would pay his respects and come home early, but she knew how he loved to dance.

“He was a striking figure — tall and straight with dark wavy hair. Her John was a handsome man. She kissed him goodbye and watched him ride away into the cold night.

“Lucetta smiled to herself — an impish smile. She knew when John danced a polka, he’d became warm and began to sweat, that ground red pepper she had sprinkled in his underwear would burn his tender flesh like little grains of fire. She didn’t doubt he would be home early.”

Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.