Release date: April 21, 2020
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 304
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The Moment of Tenderness
She couldn’t sleep because tomorrow was her birthday. Tomorrow she would be a year older and it was Sunday and Mother and Father would be with her all day long and perhaps she could go skating with Father on the pond in the park if it was still frozen and there would be presents and she could stay up an hour later. She lay in bed staring up at the pattern of light on the ceiling from the rooms across the court, from the rooms of the people who hadn’t gone to bed yet. Cecily slipped out of bed and stood by the window, shivering with cold and an ecstasy of anticipation. In one of the windows was the shadow of someone undressing behind a drawn shade, someone pulling a dress over her head, and then a slip, and bending down to take off shoes and stockings. What was she thinking while she got undressed? What did other people think? What did other children think when they weren’t with Cecily? And that was funny. Cecily had never realized that they thought at all when they weren’t with her. She felt very strange, and puzzled, and cold. She turned away from the window, shivering, suddenly frightened, because people must think when they get undressed at night, not only people across the court but strange people on the street, people she passed walking to the park and the children who played in the park. She turned on the light and stood in front of the mirror, looking at herself, frightened because people thought while they were getting ready for bed and didn’t think about her because she wasn’t the most important thing in their lives at all. All the people she passed in the street didn’t know who she was and wouldn’t remember that they had passed her, a little girl with long fair plaits. That was frightening. That was the most frightening thing she had ever known. She did not know why she had thought of it. Perhaps because tomorrow was her birthday. But if that was what happened to you because you had grown another year older, she did not want any more birthdays even if they meant presents and a party. She stared hard at the thin little face in the mirror for comfort, because here she was, and she was Cecily Carey, and this was her world. It was her world because she had been born in it, bought from a balloon man and guaranteed absolutely, Mother had told her so, and Mother and Father were hers and Mother and Father were the most important people to everyone in the world but she was the most important of all to them. She was Cecily Carey, bought from a balloon man with white hair and red cheeks and blue eyes, Mother had told her so—she was Cecily Carey and she was very frightened because the world had changed all of a sudden and it wasn’t hers anymore and she didn’t know who owned it.
She started to cry, and she ran and got back into bed and cried loudly, shivering and frightened. And no one came. Someone had always come when she cried. Mother had come and held her and comforted her and brought her drinks of water. She cried and she cried and no one came.
“Mother!” she called. “Mother! Mother! Mother!” She kept on calling, shrilly, and by and by the door opened and Mother came in and her face was very tired and drawn and she looked different. “Mother!” Cecily sobbed, “Mother!”
Mother sat down on the bed and held her close. “Hush, darling,” she said, “hush, Cecily. You mustn’t make so much noise.” And her voice was different, too. Or was it because of the world being different? Cecily didn’t know and she was frightened.
“Mother,” she sobbed, but more quietly. “Mother, who does the world belong to?”
“What, baby?” Mother sat huddled on the bed, and she swallowed strangely when she spoke.
“Who owns the world, Mother?”
“God owns the world, dearest.”
“Did he make it, too?”
“Yes, my sweet, God made the world, and he made you, too.”
“Did God give me to you?”
“But I thought you bought me from the balloon man.”
“The balloon man got you from God.”
“Oh. And it’s God who owns the world? Not anybody else?”
“No, dear. Nobody else owns the world.” Mother was stroking her head, running her fingers through the long fine hair, but she was looking at the door as though she were listening. “Are you all right, now, darling? Will you be quiet and go to sleep now if I leave you?”
“Is it very long till morning? Is it very long before it’s my birthday?” Cecily asked, becoming drowsy as the thin gentle hand ran over her forehead and back through her hair.
“The sooner you sleep, the sooner it will be your birthday,” Mother answered, and kissed her, and stood up. “Will you be quiet now, baby?”
“Yes.” Cecily snuggled down into the pillow sleepily, and watched Mother slip out of the room, and she was frightened because Mother swayed as she walked. But she was sleepy and tomorrow would be her birthday and she would have lots of presents and Mother and Father would be with her all day because it was Sunday.
She woke up very early because she always did on her birthday, and all the fears of the night before were gone and instead she had the lovely birthday feeling of anticipation and happiness and excitement and mixed up with it a new feeling as though she was going to make a marvelous discovery. She slipped out of bed and caught a glimpse of herself in the long mirror on the closet door that she had stared into the night before. She didn’t run out of the room and into bed with Father and Mother right away, as she usually did on her birthday and on Christmas, but wandered slowly over to the mirror. She stood with her feet on the cold floor just off the edge of the rug and stared into the face of a pale child with wide eyes and a nightgown like hers. And all of a sudden she wasn’t thinking at all. The child in the mirror was someone and she was someone and she wasn’t sure who because she didn’t know either of them and they weren’t the same person, and she wasn’t there at all, because she wasn’t thinking, because her mind was quite blank. And then something in it seemed to go “click.” This is me. I am Cecily Carey. I’m me, I’m me, I’m really me, and this is what I look like standing on the floor with my feet just off the edge of the rug, staring into the mirror in my room. This is my birthday, this is the birthday of Cecily Carey, and I’m a real person just like the people across the court, like the one who got undressed with the shades drawn last night, like the people I pass on my way to the park, like Mother and Father and Binny and Cook. I am me, I am Cecily Carey and no one else, and no one else is me. The world is God’s and God made the world and the balloon man got me from God and gave me to Mother and I am me because he guaranteed me absolutely.
But it was all very confusing, staring at yourself in your mirror standing with your bare feet on the cold floor just off the edge of the rug so that they ached because it was winter, staring at yourself in a mirror and getting lost someplace and then seeing yourself again and being different. It was all so confusing that she wished it hadn’t happened and she was frightened and wanted to cry, only then she remembered it was her birthday and she was getting to be a big girl and it was bad to cry on your birthday or do anything naughty because then you cried or were naughty every day for the rest of the year. She was always good on her birthday. She would not cry. She would not cry. She would not cry. And she would have lots of presents and Mother and Father would be with her all day because it was her birthday and it was Sunday.
She slipped her feet into her slippers and pulled her bathrobe clumsily around her and was all ready to run into Mother and Father’s room and get into bed with them and open her presents sitting up in between them, as she always did, when the door opened and Binny came in. Binny came in and it was still early and Binny didn’t usually come in at all on her birthday. But she stood there in her blue serge dress and her face was solemn and she had forgotten to put on her white apron.
“Hello, Binny. It is my birthday.” Cecily could tell by the sudden movement of Binny’s face that she had forgotten, and that was as frightening as finding out that the world didn’t belong to her, as frightening as having Mother not come when she cried. “It’s my birthday,” she said again, but she almost asked it, as though she weren’t sure.
Binny’s face twisted a little, and she said, “Happy birthday, darling. Supposing you get up now and see your birthday presents after you’re dressed. You’re getting to be a big girl.”
“But can’t I get in bed with Mother and Father and open my presents there like I always do?” Cecily asked. “I’m not too old for that, Binny.”
“Don’t you think it would be fun to get dressed first?” Binny pleaded, and got some clean underclothes out of the bureau.
“I want to get in bed with Mother and Father and open my presents there,” Cecily said, and stamped.
“Oh, oh, and you mustn’t stamp on your birthday,” Binny said.
Cecily’s lips began to tremble. “Please, Binny, can’t I go and get in bed with Mother and Father the way I always do?”
Binny shook her head helplessly. “Well, your mother and father aren’t here just now, Cecily,” she said.
“But where are they? It’s my birthday! Where are they?”
“Well, your mother didn’t feel very well last night so they went to see someone about it to make her feel better.”
“Will she come back soon?” Cecily asked anxiously.
“Oh, yes, she’ll come back soon,” Binny said reassuringly. “You get up and get dressed now and you can open your presents while you’re having breakfast.”
“Will Mother and Father be here by then?”
“Well, maybe they will,” Binny said, “but maybe they’ll have to wait for the doctor. That’s why your mother gave me the presents to put on the breakfast table for you, in case they didn’t get back on time.”
“Are they going to see Dr. Wallace?” Cecily asked.
“Yes. They’re going to see Dr. Wallace. Such a nice man. You like him a lot, don’t you, Cecily?”
“Oh, yes. Will he come back with them and bring me a present, too?”
“Maybe he will,” Binny said. “Come along, Cecily, let’s get dressed. You want to see your presents, don’t you?” She slipped a woolen shirt over Cecily’s head.
Cecily stepped onto the floor to slip into a pair of bloomers. “Ow! The floor’s so cold, Binny,” she said.
“Oh, and you shouldn’t be stepping on the floor.” Binny picked her up and stood her on the bed, kissing her harshly.
It felt all wrong to sit at the breakfast table and look at a pile of presents beautifully tied up and not to have Mother and Father there. Cecily didn’t want to open them, she didn’t quite know why, so she drank her orange juice and started her oatmeal. Binny came in and stood behind her chair.
“Aren’t you going to open your presents, Cecily?” she asked.
“I’d rather wait till Mother and Father get back.”
“Well, maybe they won’t be back till after you’ve finished your breakfast.”
“I’d rather wait.”
Binny stood behind her chair and watched her for a moment. Then she picked up the presents and put them in a neat pile on the sideboard. “You better open them after breakfast. Then we’ll go to the park. We’ll go to the museum and you can go in the Egyptian tombs, if you like.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere till Mother and Father get back,” Cecily said, her face clouding angrily.
Binny spoke sharply. “Maybe your mother and father won’t get back till lunch and your mother told me to take you to the park if they were late.”
Cecily stood up and stamped determinedly. “I won’t go till they come back,” she said. “I won’t go!” she screamed, “I won’t go!” and the tears began to roll down her face. She ran over to the pile of presents and began to throw them on the floor, sobbing with anger and fear. Binny went over to her quickly and picked her up and carried her into the living room. She sat Cecily down on the couch and went back into the dining room. Cecily could watch her through the glass doors to the dining room, picking up the presents, smoothing their rumpled wrappings and laying them back on top of the sideboard. She came back into the living room and sat down beside Cecily, putting her arm about the child’s shoulders. “Don’t you want to open just one of your presents now?” she pleaded.
Cecily stood up and stamped again. “I won’t! I won’t! I won’t!” She looked over at Binny and there she was sitting on the sofa with tears streaming down her lined cheeks. Cecily stared at her for a moment in appalled silence; then she turned and ran into her room, slammed the door, and flung herself upon the bed, gasping but tearless. Because she couldn’t cry any more. She tried and the tears wouldn’t come. She was so frightened that all she could do was to lie there with big choking sobs trying to tear out of her. It was her birthday and Mother and Father weren’t there and Binny was crying. That was the most dreadful thing of all, because Binny didn’t cry. If Binny was crying there must be something dreadful the matter. Had Mother and Father both died in the night and been taken away? She remembered a dreadful story one of the children in the park had heard from a nurse about a little girl whose mother and father had died and been taken away in the night and she never saw them again or knew what had happened. Was that why Mother had seemed so strange last night, because she was dying? Binny had said that Mother didn’t feel well. Was she afraid to say that she was dead? Cecily stretched out stiff on the bed and tried to feel dead, too, to check the sobs that kept coming and that seemed to tear at her throat and hurt it. But they wouldn’t stop. She got up and stood in front of the mirror again, watching herself, with her face all blurred and blotchy from crying, and screwed up into a strange shape with the effort not to sob. If Mother and Father were dead, what were they thinking now? Did they remember her or had they forgotten her? Why didn’t they come? Did the people in the rooms across the court know that she was unhappy? Were they thinking about her birthday presents?
But they couldn’t be. Nobody knew, nobody cared.
(“Mother, who does the world belong to?”
“Who owns the world, Mother?”
“God owns the world, dearest.”
“Did he make it, too?”
“Yes, my sweet, God made the world, and he made you, too.”)
If God made the world and he made Cecily, perhaps he might care a little even if the people in the rooms across the court didn’t. She went across the room and knelt on her bed and said, “Now I lay me” and “Our Father” and “God bless” the way she did at night to Mother and Father, and it didn’t seem to do any good at all because she said it every night when everything was happy and it was just something comfortable to do, like pulling the blankets around your neck on a cold night. God who made the world was so big and if he made the people in the rooms across the court and the people she passed on the way to the park, did he really have much time to pay attention to her? Perhaps the balloon man who sold her to Mother would care, so she prayed, “Dear balloon man, please make Mother and Father not dead and taken away in the night but make them come back quickly so I can open my birthday presents.” Then she lay down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling and waited. She pretended she could see the square of light with the three lines of shadow across it that lay in the center of the ceiling when she went to bed at night and she tried to count in English and French and German as far as Miss Evans, who came every morning, had taught her, and by and by her eyes grew heavy and closed.
When she opened them again, Father and Dr. Wallace were standing in the doorway.
She jumped off the bed and rushed over to her father and butted her head against him. “Father—” she whispered. “Father, why weren’t you and Mother here when I woke up? Why weren’t you here? I thought you were dead.”
Father picked her up and swung her onto his shoulder. “Why, kitten, whatever made you think of such a dreadful thing?”
“You weren’t here when I woke up and you always are on my birthday so I can open my presents in bed with you, and Binny said Mother didn’t feel well and you’d gone to see Dr. Wallace. Where’s Mother? Father, where’s Mother? Is she dead?”
Father swung her down and stood her in front of him. “Somebody’s been putting very funny ideas into your head, my darling,” he said. “Mother isn’t dead. She just isn’t very well and so she’s in bed in a place where Dr. Wallace can take care of her and make her get better.”
“But I want her!” Cecily said shrilly.
“Darling,” Father said, tilting her head back so he could look down into her eyes, “Dr. Wallace and I have come to take you to see Mother for a little while if you promise to be very quiet.”
“I promise,” Cecily whispered.
And Dr. Wallace said, “All right, baby, come along and we’ll take you to see Mother, but only for a few minutes. She didn’t sleep much last night, you see, so she’s very tired today and wants to sleep.”
“But it’s my birthday.”
“If you’d like to go to the movies, Binny will take you this afternoon,” Father said.
“I don’t want to go to the movies.”
“What would you like, then, kitten? Would you like to go for a ride on the Fifth Avenue bus? Or would you like to go see the Statue of Liberty and ride in a little boat?”
“Well, what would you like to do, baby? You may do anything you like.”
“I’d like to be with you.”
Dr. Wallace bent down and took Cecily’s hand. “Listen, chicken,” he said. “This is just as tough on you as it can be. It’s a rotten shame that your birthday should have to be spoiled, but you’ll just have to be a brave girl and make the best of it. Mother wants Father to be with her because she doesn’t feel well, just the way you would if you were sick. You see that, don’t you?”
“But I’ll tell you what we will do. My birthday comes in the middle of July, and I’ll lend it to you this year if you like.”
“Oh, you couldn’t do that! I couldn’t take your birthday!”
“Well, let me share it with you, then. That would be fun, wouldn’t it? We could have a birthday together. Would you like that?”
“That’s a girl. Now you run and put on your coat and hat and we’ll go see Mother for a little while.”
“All right.” Cecily slipped her hand out of Dr. Wallace’s and pulled her coat off the hanger. “Would you get my hat, please?” she asked. “I can’t quite reach it.”
Dr. Wallace picked her up. “Certainly I won’t get your hat. You’re big enough to reach your own hat. Can you get it now, chicken?”
“Yes, thank you.” She pulled her hat off the shelf and stuck it on the back of her head. Dr. Wallace put her down and held her at arm’s length. “You’re growing fast, young lady. Can you button your coat yourself?”
“Yes.” Cecily pulled her coat together quickly and struggled with the buttons. “I’m ready.” She took Father’s hand and they started out, Dr. Wallace following. “Where’s Binny?” Cecily asked. “She isn’t crying, still, is she, Father? She isn’t still crying?”
“No, dear. She’s in the kitchen with Cook,” Father said, and slammed the front door.
They took a taxi. Cecily sat very still in between Father and Dr. Wallace, staring hard ahead of her, her mind confused and numb with the strangeness of the day, and was frightened because the people they passed in the street didn’t know she was frightened. The taxi stopped in front of a tall, clean building, and they went in, and up, up, up, in the fastest elevator Cecily had ever seen, and down along corridors that seemed filled with people in stiff white dresses, holding trays or wheeling little carts filled with white towels or strange-looking silver things, people in white dresses walking rapidly, silently. Then Dr. Wallace pushed open a door at the end of a corridor, and there was Mother lying in a white bed and smiling. Cecily stood in the doorway, solemn-eyed, uncertain.
Mother whispered when she spoke. “How’s my baby?”
Father pushed Cecily towards the bed and she ran to it, flinging herself against it.
“Steady there, chicken,” Dr. Wallace said.
“Shut up, Nick,” Mother whispered, and put her arms around Cecily. “Look how you have your hat on, baby, all crooked. There, that’s better. Did you like your presents? Did you like what Mother gave you?”
“I—I haven’t opened them yet,” stammered Cecily, clambering up onto the bed and lying against Mother, knocking her hat half off.
“Didn’t Binny tell you to open them at breakfast?”
“Yes. But I thought maybe you were coming home. Are you coming home soon, Mother?”
“Of course, darling. Aren’t I, Nick?”
“If you don’t talk and behave like a good girl,” Dr. Wallace said. “Come along, chicken, you’d better go home now.”
“But I just got here!”
“I want your mother to sleep so she can come home soon. You go on back and open your birthday presents. I’m not going to give you mine, though, until we share our birthday together. Will you say goodbye now, and be a good girl?”
“Yes.” Cecily kissed Mother quickly, slipped down from the bed, and stood beside Father, holding his hand tightly.
“Come along, darling,” he said, and then, to Mother, “I’ll be right back after lunch, dear.”
“Goodbye,” Mother said, and closed her eyes. Dr. Wallace opened the door and pushed them out.
“See you this afternoon,” he said to Father, then bent and kissed Cecily on the top of her head and slipped back into the room with Mother again.
Father straighte. . .
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