The Smell of a Mothball
Mrs. Fruens used to pull her wagon from the store to her home a mile away. Summer and winter she was always dressed in black: shoes, socks, dress, and sweater. Her brown grocery bags leaned like tired sentinels against the sides of her squeaking wagon.
One day as my brother Stew and I were splitting kindling and gathering icicles for a family frolic, we spotted Mrs. Fruens on her way to the store. “Wouldn’t she be surprised if we chopped kindling for her monkey stove while she’s gone,” Stew burst out. The idea took hold immediately; we leaped on our bikes and sped to her yard.
Mrs. Fruens lived in a one-room frame house. A bed, table, chairs, a little carved hutch for knicknacks, a wall basin plumbed for cold water, and a stove for heating and cooking were all she had. Her husband had died thirty years earlier—shortly after they came to America.
Working quickly, we split and stacked a knee-high pile of wood, then hurriedly swept bark and twigs into a bucket for tinder. But we weren’t soon enough. Before we finished, we heard the squeaks of wheels coming down the street. I was anxious; Mrs. Fruens had been taunted and teased too much. Boys had thrown rocks and cans on her roof at night to frighten her. I was afraid we would not be welcome in her yard. Reaching the gate, she looked at us warily. Then her eye moved to the stack of kindling and the tinder bucket. She glowed. Thrusting her key into the lock, she set her bags inside, then hugged us. It embarrassed me, but it did feel good. Taking us by the hand, she exclaimed, “You good boys. You very good boys. You cut me kindling for a week.”
As we walked to the gate, she scurried into the house and emerged with a colorful can of hardtack candy. Smiling her toothless smile, she held out the can, which smelled of mothballs from having been stored in her closet with her woolens. “Take some,” Stew whispered, “or she’ll be hurt.” She threw us a kiss as we left. We pedaled home in silence.
At home, the kitchen was filled with smells of Christmas. A single candle had been placed near a note, and stretched across the table was a toboggan. We could hardly contain our excitement. We had secretly wanted a toboggan for years.
The note read: “To my boys who do the things I am unable to do. Love, Daddy.” Father had been ill for several months and died the following Easter. His chores had fallen to us.
It was a memorable season. We used the toboggan many times in heavy snows. We rode it hard—even damaging it so that the following season it retired to the rafters of the garage.
Years have passed, the toboggan is gone, and the neighborhood has changed. A freeway runs near the spot where Mrs. Fruen’s house stood. But my mind often floods with the memory of a grateful old woman and two zealous boys chopping wood. That wood has given warmth many times. Once when chopped, twice when burned, and again and again whenever I pass by or smell the odor of a mothball.
Where Should I Spend Christmas?
I was homesick. But Christmas was only two or three weeks away and then I would be home! I had already made arrangements for my ride; I could wait it out. It was 1952, and I was a student at Brigham Young University. I remember standing all alone in our upstairs apartment, leaning on my orange-crate dresser (a student status-symbol in those days) when these words came to me: “Go to Aunt Sylvia’s for Christmas.” What a strange thought. The mind plays strange tricks. Maybe this was one of those times when a thought darts into the mind like a busy fly only to buzz off again. But no, this was different. This thought did not leave. But I didn’t want to go to Aunt Sylvia’s for Christmas. I wanted to go home!
Maybe I should tell you a little about Aunt Sylvia. My sister had spent a Christmas with her when she was a student at BYU, and she had ended up peeling a gunny sack full of onions. Aunt Sylvia was head cook for a hospital in Idaho, and she was a strict taskmaster. I have never seen anyone who could work faster and harder than she.
She loved to play too, though, I had to admit. One time when I was small she came to visit. She was getting ready to go to bed when she called out from the bathroom, “Who wants a gum drop?” My dad called back, “I do.” In she sailed without her dentures and planted a big toothless kiss on his cheek. She was Santa Claus, St. Valentine, and the Easter Bunny all rolled into one sweet, generous lady. But I did not want to go to Aunt Sylvia’s for Christmas!
I put the thought out of my mind. But at least twice more it came sailing out of the blue to hit me as before. And it nagged at my conscience. “But why?” I asked myself over and over. Aunt Sylvia had not even hinted that she wanted me to come. Of course, she would like to spend Christmas with some of her family. I knew that. Only the one year that my sister had gone to Idaho to visit her did she have family to spend Christmas with. She had never married and had no kin in the state.
Finally I made a bargain with my conscience—if I received a letter asking me to go, or got any other indication that I should, then I would. If not, I would go home to Wyoming. My conscience kept its vigil, but I ignored it. The morning I was to leave for home I went downtown to buy and mail Aunt Sylvia a present and Christmas card. I stood on the street corner in the cold gray December morning, waiting for the store to open. “I could still change my mind,” I thought. “I could walk down to the bus station and get a ticket.” I shoved the idea away, found a card that told how much I loved her, bought some perfumed lotion, and sent it off. Later that day I went to Wyoming.
Christmas was nice. I decided that my troubled thoughts had been nonsense. It was over too soon, though, and I was back at school again. Sometime the next week I got a letter from my mother:
“Dear Carol, We got word today that Aunt Sylvia has leukemia. She found out the day before Christmas. The doctors say there is nothing they can do to stop the disease. She said the twenty-fourth of December was the saddest day of her life—the only time she had allowed herself to cry since she was a kid.”
A couple of weeks later I went up to Idaho Falls and gave some blood for Aunt Sylvia. In February I sang at her funeral. I was particularly touched by the little girls she had taught in Primary who came to see her for the last time, and the little crippled lady who told us how proud she was to have Aunt Sylvia accept her to work in the kitchen. But somehow a pint of blood and a song could never make up for the day I didn’t spend with her.
She Shared Her Poverty
It was a cold winter day in February when I knocked on Sister Chandler’s door. “Hello,” I called, opening the door a little in case she couldn’t hear me. “Are you napping?”
Sister Chandler moved slowly from her kitchen to answer the door. She was small and bent, and walked with a slight limp. Her long cotton dress was stained, as always, from carrying coal to her pot-bellied stove, which demanded constant attention to keep her small home warm. Her white hair, also coal stained, framed a face tired from seventy-nine years of troubles. But it was also a serene face, because as long as she had a winter’s supply of coal and a little food she had everything she needed to be happy.
I remembered how I had stared in disbelief when I first learned that she lived on a meager $59 a month. There were only two rooms in the house. The first room housed the temperamental stove, a double bed, a worn-out couch, and a set of broken dresser drawers. The other room, the kitchen, had a small cook-stove, a table and two chairs, and a side shelf for pots and pans and the storage of a little food. When we first met her she had no running water and no bathroom.
During the years my husband had served as her home teacher, we had visited her often. When we visited in the evening the house would invariably be dark. The one bare light globe would turn on when we knocked and turn off immediately when we began to drive away.
Sister Chandler had joined the Church as a new bride—her husband was already a member—and she recalled the days when there was no branch or stake. Their only contact with the Church was an occasional traveling missionary or two. But she had always remained faithful and once related how her testimony had sustained her through the deaths of her two daughters during the influenza epidemic of 1918.
In the few short months I had been Relief Society president I had never heard her complain about her circumstances nor ask for any help from the Church. But we helped her with food when her money ran out, and near the end of the month, a week or so before her Social Security check came, I always tried to look in on her to see how she was doing.
Now Sister Chandler’s eyes were sparkling at having a little company. “Come in!” she said. “I was just having lunch.” She was shy; she always spoke just above a whisper.
“Please don’t let me stop you. I’ll just visit with you while you eat,” I said.
I took her gently by the elbow and we began to walk slowly toward the kitchen. As we passed the bureau she stopped to get something out of the top drawer. I took a quick glance at the “lunch.” It consisted of a little flour and water that had been made into a kind of white gruel, nothing more.
“Sister Chandler, is that all you have in the house to eat?”
“Yes, that’s all, but no matter. My check will be here in a day or two. Please, will you take this to the bishop?” She thrust a wrinkled tithing envelope into my hand. “I didn’t have home teachers this month and I can’t get to church myself anymore. It’s my tithing. Please take it to him.”
I stood staring at the gray envelope. Everything inside of me wanted to cry out, “No, no. The Lord doesn’t expect you to pay tithing!” But one small voice deep inside whispered, “Don’t deny this soul the blessings.”
I fought back the tears as I quickly said good-bye and dashed to the car to arrange for some groceries for her.
Sister Chandler is gone now, but I will always remember the great lesson she taught me about sacrifice and devotion—it was easier for her to go hungry than to neglect her obligations to the Lord.