We were six imperfect children and one imperfect dog, and we lived with our parents in a ranch house built in an old apricot orchard in a California valley.
Our father traveled a great deal as a consulting economist. Our mother, no less of an economist, stocked the pantry with preserves and filled a huge freezer with bargains and pies made from summer apricots. She excelled at casserole making, checkbook balancing, and the management of children and leftovers. She could sew anything: curtains, quilts, matching poodle skirts, or doll clothes. We did our part, taking turns setting the table or clearing and doing dishes. We pasted green stamps in books and, on Saturdays, swept or weeded to earn an allowance. Charts on the kitchen wall marked our heights and our progress toward goals, such as eating vegetables or doing homework.
Magazines inspired Mom. They came every month, promising “better” homes and gardens or “beautiful” houses. They lay on a round marble coffee table in the living room and then piled up on Mom’s desk, earmarked for decorating schemes, landscape designs, or dinner party plans that spurred Mom’s creative efforts. The siren call of the magazines to make our home live up to the ideal was never stronger than in December.
Preparations began before Thanksgiving with a day of silver polishing in which we all took part, standing around a newspaper-covered table in the kitchen with sponges and tubs of smelly pink goo to spread on utensils, gravy boats, and trays. We polished the silver once a year. Mom worked at polishing our behavior and appearance every day.
We were used to these efforts to improve our character, but all that changed in our last Christmas in our ranch house because of the P’s. They appeared mysteriously one afternoon for each of us to discover. Sister Three of the long, blonde curls, cowboy boots, and musical ear made the discovery first, noticing a P red-inked on a square of yellow paper in the middle of the entry mirror above a bench that collected clutter.
“Mom, there’s a P on the mirror,” she called.
“Don’t leave anything in the entry,” came the reply from the kitchen.
“Is it P for ‘practice’?”
Sister Two, at thirteen, drifted in next, preoccupied with concern for her drama teacher who lived by himself and didn’t seem to have anyone to care for him. She found a P on a yellow piece of memo paper from Dad’s office, taped to the mirror in the bathroom we girls shared. She went to her room, still thinking about her teacher and resolving to pray for him.
I arrived later, my arms filled with books, pep-club posters, a soiled gym uniform, and a heavy purse; my head filled with David G., a boy in my chemistry class who had, in defiance of his girlfriend’s wishes, walked with me to French class that day. I found the P on the entry mirror when I dumped my books on the bench, and another P at the end of the hall, and the one on the bathroom mirror when I turned on the lights and licked the tip of my finger to wipe away the mascara shadows under my eyes.
In our room I asked Sister Two, “There’s a letter P in the entry, one in the hall, and one on the mirror. Do you know what they’re for?”
“Prayer,” she said.
Prayer did not seem like the answer to me, so I found Sister Three at the piano. She said “practice,” but that did not seem right either. I headed for the kitchen and found Mom at work under a P on a yellow square pinned to the curtains above the sink. She wouldn’t tell me what they were for, but asked me what I thought. I said “posture,” an element of my appearance that definitely needed improving. She smiled and told me to keep guessing. I went to set the table.
At dinner that night, we pestered mom with our guesses. Peas, potatoes, pride, prayer, practice, piano, popcorn. Dad, presiding with good humor, once he learned that the P did not mean “pregnant,” guessed “patience” and assumed Mom would tell him later. Packages, presents, politeness, pancakes, peace. Our lone brother grumbled that the P’s meant “private property” and glared at the two youngest, who had entered his room. Mom, pleased with the P’s, only smiled more and said less.
By the end of the first week, the P’s had established a presence of their own. Mom seldom reminded anyone of anything. The P’s had taken over. Sister Three was perpetually at the piano working on “Silent Night” or “We Three Kings.” Sister Two experimented to find the right cookies to bake for her teacher. I stood up straighter whenever I saw David G. After we went to bed, Mom sewed clothes for our Madame Alexander dolls and Christmas outfits for us. We visited Santa in a San Francisco department store and squeezed into our station wagon one night for a drive to the tree lots and to see the lights. We decorated the tree and lay in the dark on the living room rug listening to a recording of The Littlest Angel. Cards piled up in a basket in the entry.
As the big day drew near, we prepared for visits from neighbors and Dad’s business friends and from our elegant aunt and perfectly turned-out cousins. Our new outfits were ready, and Mom put up her best decorations, but the red P’s on the yellow squares of paper remained, as plain and humble as the stable, the straw, and the kneeling animals of the first Christmas.
I was not there for the conversation that ended the reign of the P’s. I heard about it much later when I was a mother myself, but I can imagine the scene of Mom and her friend Doris, sitting in the living room, drinking coffee, the magazines on the table between them. Perhaps Doris turned the pages with perfectly manicured nails.
Mom, with great eagerness revealed that the P’s had been for her, not for us. She had never imagined the transforming power of the P’s. She meant only to change herself, to take a step toward that elusive goal of being a better parent. It was a Christmas miracle, she thought, that in her effort to remind herself to be less busy and more loving, something extraordinary and wonderful had happened. The whole family had been transformed.
I do not know what Doris thought of the unexpected power of the P’s. I know only what she said to Mom that day: “Too bad, Anne, they make your curtains look like hell.”
The P’s disappeared as mysteriously as they had come, before any of the expected guests arrived, and long before the Christmas things were put away that year, most of those treasures lost in the next year’s move to a new, grander house. The magazines came there, too, and followed mom to her last house. We found stacks of them, preserved and earmarked, after she passed away. Being her daughter, I keep my own treasure trove of magazines, inspired, as Mom was, by visions of a beautiful home for the holidays.
But the P’s left their mark, too, the invisible mark of Christmas as a time of yearning for one’s better self, a time of spiritual renewal and transformation that touches us no matter how busily we bake and shop and decorate in pursuit of a glossy perfection.
Tacked up in our hearts is a yellow square of paper with a red P, a reminder to Praise.
When a husband is needed by Christmas, a trusted slender volume for ensuring a merry match is indeed a gift! In this Regency delight from beloved, award-winning author Kate Moore, a spirited governess joins a gentleman spy on a daring mission: finding a mate for a jilted debutante—while drawing dangerously close to each other.
Behind her seemingly dependent role as an unpaid caretaker—of both children and dogs—Harriet Swanley has, in fact, astutely avoided a forced marriage. But hers is not the only secret under wraps: Charles Davenham is working covertly to unmask a Russian agent—until the younger sister he’s always protected comes to him, recently rejected and clutching The Husband Hunter’s Guide to London. The little handbook would be a godsend, if only the distraught girl didn’t mangle all of its good advice! If Harriet can help Charles find a love match for his sibling, perhaps, in this season of good tidings, a long-buried attraction can set their own hearts aflame.
About the Author
Kate Moore is a former English teacher and three-time RITA finalist, Golden Heart, and Book Buyers Best Award winner. She writes Austen-inspired fiction set in nineteenth-century England or contemporary California. Her heroes are men of courage, competence, and unmistakable virility, with determination so strong it keeps their sensuality in check until they meet the right woman. Her heroines take on the world with practical good sense and kindness to bring those heroes into a circle of love and family. Kate lives north of San Francisco with her husband, their yellow Lab, visiting grandbabies, and miles of crowded bookshelves. Kate’s family and friends offer endless support and humor. Visit Kate at katemoore.com and on the social platforms below.