The talent auction where my sister Sue impulsively bid $20 to hear our own mother do an imitation of Jessie Evans Smith’s singing was my earliest memory of our building fund projects. Several years later, I baked over one thousand cornmeal muffins for another project. Large building fund projects were just a part of being an active member of the Church before other methods of financing building projects were established.
By 1970, when I was seventeen, we’d built the first phase of our building (font, kitchen, classrooms, and multipurpose area), nearly depleting the building fund even though many hours of labor had been donated. The multipurpose area was too small almost as soon as we moved in. So even with our depleted fund, we started on the second phase, a chapel.
By the end of October the chapel was completed, but $7,000 was still outstanding. The ward leaders decided not to use it until it was paid for, set Christmas as the goal for occupancy, and bolted the doors.
One Sunday dad stayed long after Sunday School. By the time we sat down to dinner, our stomachs were growling in unison. Dad and mother, Haydn, Laird, and Brandt sat on one side of the table, with Sarah, Sydney, Sue, and me on the piano bench. McCune was away at college. Then dad prayed, alluding mysteriously to goals and a new opportunity. As we fell to eating, dad announced that a family council would convene when the meal was over.
He began it with an announcement in his I’m-not-saying-this-twice voice. “The ward council has met and settled on a plan to pay for the chapel by Christmas. If we make it, we’re planning a special service in the chapel on Christmas morning. Part 1 is to raise $2,000 at a $20-a-plate Thanksgiving dinner. Elaine, I wonder if you’d consider accompanying me? We’d love any of you children to join us, but you must pay your own way. Part 2 is to raise the other $5,000 by giving all the money we would ordinarily spend on Christmas to the building fund.”
Five-year-old Sydney broke the silence. “How will Santa Claus know not to come?” After that, it didn’t seem appropriate to ask “if,” and we voted unanimously to support the plan.
As Thanksgiving got closer, the aroma in our home was as enticing as ever because Mother had been assigned to make the pumpkin pies. Haydn at thirteen was the only one of us to go to the dinner with mother and dad, and was the youngest in the branch to pay for his own meal.
When McCune came home from college, he spearheaded a family pep rally and brainstorming session. Brandt thought of ingenious ways to get money from mother and dad for jobs we ordinarily did for free. Mother suggested that we hire out as neighborhood odd-jobbers. McCune volunteered to write our relatives about our project, suggesting they send money in place of gifts. Laird thought we could still make gifts for each other using household materials and scraps. Sue thought we should give gifts of love by doing things that the receiver would ordinarily have to do, such as taking out the garbage for Brandt, practicing the drums for Laird, or trying to get a date for me. It began to look like we could have a semblance of Christmas after all.
Within the next few days I noticed Laird and Brandt disappearing into the basement to emerge hours later wearing secretive smiles. Laird declared, “No one can make me tell what I’ve been doing in the basement with wood, glue, and raw kidney beans.” Sarah and Syd invaded the scrap drawer, pirating ribbons, bows, and scrap paper, while Sue and I secluded ourselves in the sewing room.
It must have been McCune who first thought of the dollhouse for Sarah and Syd. Dad came up with the wood scraps, the know-how, the paint, and the patience. Mother provided the blueprint and artistic vision. When we got started, the girls’ bedtime got earlier as everyone else’s got later. Their complaints competed with the boys’ pounding in the garage. Mother taught Sue and me to be meticulous as we made drapes, lamps, and bedspreads to scale.
Meanwhile we collected money from babysitting, odd jobs, newspaper routes, housecleaning, and snow shoveling. We never knew how the building fund drive was progressing, and until Christmas Day we didn’t know if we’d raised enough. But I remember putting my $40 in a donation envelope and proudly giving it to our branch president, satisfied that I would never have spent quite that much on Christmas.
Christmas Eve, always a night filled with family traditions, found us acting out the Nativity story. After reading the second chapter of Luke, we had family prayer and unceremoniously hustled Sarah and Syd off to bed, with sad predictions about how tomorrow would be different from all other Christmases because there wouldn’t be any presents.
Dad and the boys carried in the dollhouse and placed it on the window seat where they would see it first thing from the stairs. It was two stories high with a flight of stairs, wallpaper in the bedrooms, furniture varnished and upholstered, and a bright red roof. Mother stood back, directing us on the exact placement of the tiny furnishings. We proudly surveyed our handiwork and unanimously decided that a more wonderful dollhouse couldn’t be found in any store. Dad wryly concurred: “I can’t think of any store that would sell a dollhouse like ours either!”
Our Christmas Eve sleep was deep, undisturbed by extravagant expectations.
We awoke to “Joy to the World” and dad marshalling the boys out of their bunks. In bathrobes and in order, youngest to oldest, we pranced around at the top of the stairs, while downstairs dad made an elaborate and noisy pretense of checking the living room and making sure that each string of lights on the tree was lit. While coming slowly back up the stairs, dad admonished us to be sure that each gift had our name on it before we ripped it open. Then he led us, very deliberately, down the stairs, stopping every step or two to give additional advice designed, we knew, to drive us crazy.
When the little girls caught sight of the dollhouse, they squealed and established immediate ownership of a bedroom each, and ran back upstairs to get their dolls.
With great effort, we persuaded them to join us in our living room so we could open presents, an amazing abundance of them in homey, homely birthday wrappings.
Between each round of presents, we sang a Christmas carol—picking the shortest songs and accelerating the tempo. The basement mystery was solved when I opened Laird’s six-sectioned letter holder (with four sections for all the free things I sent for) decorated with a background of glued-on kidney beans and my name traced in white rice. Brandt had made a wood-on-wood wall plaque. If I would but take the trouble to paint the wood butterfly blue, it would blend nicely in my yellow and orange bedroom.
By the time the mound of used and reused wrapping paper was over Sydney’s head, it was time for church. I dressed with care and then combed the girls’ hair, while they pranced with excitement and bombarded me with questions. “Could I take a doll’s bed to church? I won’t look at it once, I promise.” “Will Reagan feel bad if I tell her we got a dollhouse?” “What if the church is all locked up?” “Do you think they’d let us in even if there was only $6,999.50?”
In the car, we urged dad to hurry and insisted that the trees outside just weren’t going by fast enough. By the time the fifteen-minute trip was over we fairly burst out of the car and raced to the doors.
There was the chapel—doors wide open, shiny, beautiful, and ours. Members of the branch greeted each other like the brothers and sisters we had truly become. Even with all the excitement, it wasn’t hard to be reverent as we left the foyer and entered the spacious chapel.
During the service we all took turns expressing our feelings and experiences. From the eighty-year-old grandmothers down to the five-year-old boys, we all had had a wonderful Christmas. We had given ourselves, in honor of our Elder Brother, the best Christmas ever.