Through the hard work of our archivist Heidi Johnson (and other's, I'm certain), St. Scholastica is blessed with a digital publications archive, a wealth of information, stories, old advertisements, and a look at life at the school from days gone by. In honor of the Christmas holiday that is approaching, I've selected a story from one of our oldest publications, Villa Sancta Scholastica Quarterly, a journal of essays, short stories, poetry, editorials, and other pieces produced by students and staff when The College of St. Scholastica was a small department of a boarding school for girls.
I find this story compelling because it comes to us from a young girl, attending boarding school in the midst of a great and terrible war. It was less than a year later that the great flu pandemic struck, killing millions of people worldwide. America was in the midst of a dramatic change from a primarily agrarian and rural lifestyle to a primarily industrial and urban lifestyle. The human longings that are expressed in this short tale are universal, ones that all of us have experienced, and because of that, this story speaks to me from across the years. I hope that you enjoy it as well.
The Grey Sweater
When the call for volunteers came in that memorable year when the United States declared that a state of war existed between that country and Germany, Phil Preston enlisted. In fact he made up his mind to enlist two days after the declaration of war came.
His had been a sad life up to this -- there was no mother to whom he might confide his trouble and he was a boy who longed for sympathy. His mother had died just when Phil needed her most and his father was not the kind that compelled confidence. He was cold, stern, unemotional. He was too much engrossed in business to see beyond his factory and his help. He was a self-nmade, self-confident man whom life's hard ways had made absolutely unfeeling. And so Philip grew up, a lonely boy. How often he thought of his mother and almost always he pictured her to himself in the attitude of a real mother, listening to her boy's troubles. Usually he was seated at her feet, pouring out to her willing ears the day's happenings. She, on her part, seemed to understand by a word or even a glance the troubles of a boy. But these dreams were as volatile as air and into thin air they vanished and the boy was lonelier than ever. Thus at the age of nineteen he was a tall, lank, sad-hearted boy. It was no wonder then that when war was declared he gladly enlisted. There would be no one to miss him; school had lost its charm; he would be quite as well off there as working in the large munition factory owned and operated by his father. Soon he went over-seas to England and then to France, to help win the great war.
Every woman was knitting, old and young, rich and poor. In a small cottage in one of the great cities that have sprung up so rapidly in the Middle West a woman sat plying her needles back and forth. Her face showed that she was slightly past middle age. Hers was a sweet, sad face; lines of trouble there were but it was evident that trouble in visiting her had softened and not hardened her heart. Her needles were plied fast and the grey sweater which she was knitting seemed to grow with marvelous speed. Soon it would be 'finis'. A smile hovered about her thin lips as she knitted on and on often as she held the knitting up after completing four or five rows, she pressed it to her heart as if she were fondling a little child.
It was about the hour for the evening meal when a young girl of perhaps eighteen tripped into the cottage. She had the same sweet expression of countenance but time had dealt less severely with her and as she stood there in the evening light, she was what an artist would term beautiful.
"Mother, darling," she said, "I am so happy. I have saved eight whole dollars and may I give it to the Red Cross? Just think my eight dollars may help some poor boy, a boy who may be just like our own Phil would have been had he lived."
At the mention of Phil the older woman's face grew sadder and her eyes filled with tears.
"Oh, Margaret," she said, "God is good. Perhaps he just took him away from us before this great war. My daughter, do all you can for the dear lads who are fighting in a foreign land. Save your money for them and pray that the God Who claimed our own Phil may give them strength of arm and courage that will make them win in this terrible conflict."
By this time the girl was sobbing softly on her mother's shoulder. The two remained thus for some moments; their sorrow was too great for words.
It was Christmas Eve and even in the cold, wet trenches the spirit of Christmas could be felt. The wind was bitterly cold. The men drew their coats as tightly as possible around them. It had been a hard day over the trenches, through the barrage again and again, into the enemy trench and then the return home with a companion, almost a brother to you, left behind. Truly war is hell! But wars will be as long as human nature is grasping and sordid and unjust and egotistic and perfidious. Wars will be as long as all do not realize that might is not right. But to our trench again! The Christmas mail had been brought up! Joy! Letters! Boxes from the dear old home! The joy of the men was pathetic. In spite of the cold, cigarettes were lighted, or a pipe that breathed of home was well stuffed and protected against the wind until a good draught was produced. In a corner of the trench sat a lone figure. He seemed to be entirely forgotton. Captain Murray came up at that moment and noticed the dejected figure. "It must be awful," he thought, "to have no one to think about you. I guess there are some extra boxes up there at headquarters. I'd give up my own best to make that lad happy." Thinking thus, the big, good-natured man hastened off to find what he could. The night grew steadily older. It was an hour later when the officer returned with a medium-sized box. The wrapper told of many openings and severe censorship.
He quickly strode to where the figure sat, "Phil." Phil instantly rose and gave the military salute. "Phil, my boy, here's a box that came for you this morning."
At first the youth's face lit up but the light soon died out. "I'm afraid, Captain Murray, it does not belong to me. Perhaps the name has been erased, you see. I, well, you see, I haven't anyone who could think of me. It's this way--"
The captain interrupted. "Yes, yes, lad," he said, his voice showing some emotion. "It's yours, take it and with it receive my best wishes for a Merry Christmas. God bless you."
And the captain abruptly turned on his heel and left the bow. For a few moments Phil stood motionless. Then his thoughts showed themselves in words, spoken half aloud. "From a true heart: 'God bless you.' Did he really say those words to me?" Then he became aware of the presence of the box and gently untied it. He removed the cover.
A warm knitted sweater revealed itself. As Phil lifted it out of the box, his eyes shone. He fingered it at first as if it were not real, touching the sleeves, the collar, the pockets, every part of it. Suddenly his fingers stopped at the upper left hand pocket and from out of it he drew a piece of paper. Pulling out a flash lamp, he read eagerly. "My dear, dear boy, please when you wear this sweater think of a mother who longs for her only son whom God was pleased to take. I have thought of you at every stitch and when you receive this, won't you please write? Who knows but that some day we shall meet. I want to know you by your letters if we do. May courage and perseverance be yours until this conflict is gloriously ended.
From your Mother, who will pray for you."
Phil stood silent and motionless. The sensation was new and strange and somehow it felt so good. He was loathe to break it. Then his throat suddenly felt rather choky and before he knew it, he was crying. The tears seemed to relieve the queer feeling that had taken hold of him.
All next day he was cheered and comforted by the fact that he had found some one who cared for him. The sweater seemed nearer and dearer to him than anything he had ever owned before.
By mutual agreement Christmas was observed as a day of rest from slaughter but on the following day the angel of peace had to depart and the slaughter began again. Forward the men rushed with great shells tearing the earth between them and their objective and still on! Thicker the shells fell as they neared the enemy. When the smoke cleared away a great gap had been left in the line! Phil lay on the ground; a piece of shell had shattered his right leg. The pain was intense. Suddenly the light left his eyes. His comrades rushed on over him! Soon consciousness returned with the sensation that he was being packed in hot irons. He was too weak to even notice where he was until a man's voice roused him. "It may not have to be amputated unless poisoning sets in," the voice said.
Slowly it dawned upon him that he had been wounded and for his country! Then the sleepy feeling returned and though he could have fought it, he did not think it worth while. That burning was not so intense if he let himself doze off. Again he was awakened by a voice speaking directly into his hear; it said, "Is there anyone you would wish to inform of this?"
The thought of the sweater came to him. What if it had been lost! Surely his only comfort would not be taken away so soon! The nuirse brought the garment.
"This was found on you," she said.
He took the letter from the pocket and pointed to the address. Then the burning increased until he could stand it no longer and again unconsciousness came to relieve him. The days dragged on. Amputation had not been necessary. He would, however, be lame forever as the surgeon said. The struggle was a hard one. Often he was tempted to give up and just die. Then came the thought of the mother who had knitted the sweater, the mother who was waiting for him.
One day a long envelope was handed to him. He was unable to open it, so great was his eagerness. The kind nurse opened it and read what put new life, new hope, new vigor into Phil, read what he had up to this time been living for.
"When you are strong enough, my boy, come to us. We are waiting for you." The same pleasant sensation he had had on that Christmas Eve came over him.
He grew stronger day by day for was he not going home to someone that loved him?
At the same little cottage of the same great city stood the sweet-faced woman and the girl. Their faces both told what was in their thoughts.
"Oh, mother," said the girl, "what if he should not come? Or what," and her voice grew a trifle sad, "if he would not like us."
"Don't, Margaret, don't, for he is going to be our Phil."
Suddenly they both started; coming down the street was a tall, thin young man. He walked very slowly and somewhat laboriously until he reached the cottage. Then his lameness was forgotten in his eagerness. Just one moment he hesitated and then he saw that look in the sweet face of the woman which he had always dreamed of. He flew into her arms and as she said over and over, "My boy! My boy!" he mormered, "Mother!"
Margaret turned and through tears made her way into the house. She was not wanted to complete the happiness for a mother had found a son; a son, a mother. Their joy was perfect.
--Frances Moore, Acad. III.
I can't help but remember that, just as in this story, this Christmas finds us again a nation at war, as we have been for the past 9 years. On this joyous occasion, let us remember the brave men and women who are away from their families, fighting for their country, and pray that they come home safely and soon.