I was eight when Mother and Papa took me to hear Handel’s Messiah for the first time. In the fall, when my governess moved on, Papa had enrolled me in Miss Beauville’s School for Young Ladies. By Christmas I was thoroughly disenchanted with the whole idea of what it meant to be a young lady. Up until now, Mother had taught me what it meant to be a well brought up little girl, and that seemed sufficient to me.
For the second time we were going to miss Christmas at the ranch. Mother said it had been a busy year, moving into the new house and getting settled, and she wasn’t about to pack our trunks for a month’s stay at the ranch. Papa agreed with her as he always did. So instead of bringing home tickets for our customary compartment on the train, he bought tickets to a performance of Handel’s oratorio instead.
As it happened, he brought home the tickets on the same day I brought an invitation to a party hosted by my classmate Amanda Cummings. It would be a ‘formal affair’ including a sit-down dinner followed by the arrival of ‘select young gentlemen’ for dancing. Mother rolled her eyes and tucked the heavy vellum card into her pocket. “That’s the silliest thing I ever heard of,” she said more to herself than to me.
“Then I can’t go?”
“Certainly not! Select young gentlemen, my foot! Eight-year-olds dancing!”
Relief flooded me. I vacillated between liking and barely tolerating Amanda. Mother tipped my face upward with one slender finger. “Surely you don’t want to go, Kate.”
“Certainly not!” I replied, trying to sound just like her.
She laughed, that head-thrown-back hearty laugh which warmed me from my toes to my nose. “What a sensible little girl you are.” She held out her hand. “Come, Kate. Mrs. Bonds and I are about to frost some sugar cookies, and you may help.”
I barely had time to wash my icing-flecked face and hands and change my dress before Papa arrived. It was my parents’ custom to spend a half hour alone in their room before dinner, so I helped Mrs. Bonds set the table and then sat down on the stairs to wait for Mother and Papa to emerge.
Nothing was said about the invitation until we settled into the parlor after dinner. I had just opened my grammar book to prepare the next day’s lesson when Papa said, “Kate, your mother tells me you’ve been invited to a party at the Cummings’ home.”
“Do you want to go?”
“It doesn’t sound like much fun.”
“And she’s having boys come over after dinner. They’ll probably be just like Trevor.” (Trevor was my brother Hart’s son, just over a year younger than me.)
Mother looked up from her embroidery. “Now, Kate, you and Trevor have become better companions of late.”
“Well, in the matter of the party,” Papa continued, “since you don’t want to go, you’ll accept our decision that you won’t be allowed to go. Such things are for much older young ladies and gentlemen.”
“I’ve already made plans for that night anyway.”
I jumped up from my chair and went to stand beside him. “What, Papa?”
“We’re going to hear several combined choirs from around the city sing Handle’s Messiah at the Presbyterian Church. I purchased our tickets today.”
I loved music, but I didn’t know what Papa was talking about.
“When you finish your lessons tomorrow night, I’ll tell you about Mr. Handel.” He took my face in his hands and kissed both cheeks. “Now go back to work.”
Before I went upstairs to bed, Mother brought out one of her best note cards and dictated what I should write to Amanda.
Miss Katherine Forrester regrets she will not be able to accept Miss Amanda Cummings’ kind invitation for Friday, December twenty-first. Then I addressed the envelope as Mother instructed and handed it to Papa.
Two days later, Amanda confronted me in the cloakroom as we put away our wraps and lunch boxes. “Why aren’t you coming to my party?”
“Papa has tickets for Handel’s Messiah at the Presbyterian Church.”
“Do you have to go?”
“I want to go. Did you know Queen Victoria was so moved by the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ that she stood up while it was sung?”
Amanda looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. “So what?”
I already knew it was useless to try to explain anything to her. “Nothing,” I said, “except that since Queen Victoria stood up, everyone always stands whenever it’s sung.”
Amanda rolled her eyes. “You’d have a lot more fun at my party.”
I picked up my book bag. “You have a good time for me, and I’ll enjoy the music for you.” Leaving her standing in the cloakroom, I hurried away to our first class of the day.
On the afternoon of the concert, Mother laid out my clothes—a velvet dress just the color of our Christmas tree in the parlor and a white fur headpiece which matched the little muff for my hands. She undid my thick auburn hair from its braid, brushed it, and tied it up in rags so it would be curly enough to wear loose.
Then I followed her to her room and curled up at the foot of the bed while she took out her own dress, a russet taffeta trimmed with velvet, and also Papa’s best black suit and silver cufflinks. “Are you going to wear your pearls tonight?” I asked.
“I believe I will. Would you like to get them out for me?”
I hopped down and made a beeline for the small jewelry chest on her dressing table, lifted the gray suede bag from a drawer in the chest, carefully opened the drawstring at the top, and slid the lustrous strand onto the dresser scarf without touching it. “Tell me the story again, Mother,” I murmured, stepping back to watch the lamplight make the white spheres gleam.
She smiled. “Early in my marriage to Spencer Bancroft, we had to work very hard to build the ranch into what it is today. Amos worked side by side with us and helped me take care of Cary and Hart. Regina wasn’t born yet.”
I climbed back onto the bed and snuggled down in anticipation.
“Then things began to get better, and one Christmas Spencer went to Fort Worth on business and brought back the pearls for me. He actually hung them on our Christmas tree so they’d be the first things I’d see on Christmas morning. I was so happy I cried, and he said if I didn’t stop crying he’d have to take them back.”
“But he didn’t.” I closed my eyes and tried to picture the scene.
“No, he was just teasing me. I loved them and wore them every chance I got. When Regina was a little girl like you, she liked to take them out for me and hear the story.” Mother sat down on the edge of the bed and cuddled me against her. “You understand why they will go to her someday, don’t you, Kate?”
“Because she’s the oldest girl, and because Spencer Bancroft was her papa.”
“And I’ll have the emerald pendant Papa gave you when you were married.”
“Yes, and someday you’ll give it to your daughter.” Mother rose. “Now let’s go down and set out a light supper. Remember your father is taking us to eat dinner at a new restaurant when the concert is over.”
Papa had asked Mr. George if it would be convenient for him to drive us to the concert in the buggy kept at the livery stable. We would take a cab home after dinner because Papa didn’t want to keep Mr. George out late and away from his family. I saw Papa hand him a white envelope after he helped Mother and me into the buggy. “Always be sure to show your appreciation for services rendered, Kate,” Papa had said earlier as I watched him slip several bills into the envelope.
The concert was even more glorious than I’d anticipated, and when the entire audience rose as one body for the singing of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, I tingled all over.
When we left the church, a light snow had begun to drift down from the moonlit sky. I walked between Mother and Papa, my hands warm inside the little fur muff, as we started in the direction of the restaurant where our dinner waited.
As we approached the second corner, a high sweet voice met our ears. “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd…” I looked around to see where the music came from and spotted a small boy standing beneath the street lamp. He wore a thin, tattered jacket and knee pants which didn’t quite meet his stockings. In his bare hand, he held a cap as an invitation to passers-by to drop in a coin.
We stopped to listen as he sang the entire selection perfectly on key, enunciating the words so clearly in the cold air that they seemed to join the swirling snowflakes around us. When he finished, he met my eyes in silent entreaty.
“That was beautiful, son,” Papa said and reached into his pocket.
The boy didn’t speak, but the corners of his mouth turned up in a slight smile.
“Where did you learn to sing that particular piece?” Papa asked.
The boy shrugged. “I just heard it.”
“You learned it from just hearing it?”
The boy shrugged again.
“Do you live near here?”
A shake of the head.
“No, of course not,” Papa murmured to himself. Even I realized that such a ragged boy wouldn’t live in this fine district of the city. “Where do you live?”
The boy seemed to hesitate before he said, “Down by the docks.”
“With your family?”
The way the boy dropped his eyes told me he was like so many of the children I’d seen around Papa’s bay front office, rootless, without anyone to care for them.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Joe.” He shifted nervously in his worn-out boots.
Papa pulled out a generous handful of coins and dropped them into the waiting cap. “Thank you for a lovely interlude on our walk,” he said. Then he ushered Mother and me on down the street.
Our dinner, which Papa had ordered in advance, awaited us in the warm dining room. As the attendant took Mother’s cloak, then mine, and then Papa’s overcoat, I thought of the little boy in his inadequate clothing. Though I’d been hungry before we came, the rich dishes didn’t seem as appetizing as they might have. Mother and Papa didn’t eat much either and declined dessert with their coffee.
The doorman hailed a cab for us, and the sound of the horses’ feet on the cobbled streets lulled me into a cozy state of drowsiness. Papa carried me upstairs, and after Mother had helped me into my nightdress, he came back to say goodnight.
“Papa, a shepherd always makes sure his sheep get enough to eat, doesn’t he?”
“If he’s a good shepherd.”
“In church tonight I saw a colored glass window with a picture of a shepherd holding a lamb.”
“Jesus, the Good Shepherd,” Mother said.
I yawned, fighting sleep and the unsettled feeling growing inside me. “Pastor says we’re Jesus’s lambs.”
Mother and Papa glanced at each other in the way they always seemed to communicate without speaking.
“So why doesn’t Jesus take care of all His lambs if He’s a good shepherd?”
Papa took a deep breath. “I think, Kate, He expects us to help Him out.”
“You gave Joe a lot of coins. If I see Joe again, I could give him my pocket money, couldn’t I? I don’t need it for anything.”
“An excellent suggestion, Kate,” Mother said. “Now goodnight, darling. Sleep well.” She kissed me.
Papa bent to kiss me, too. “You are loved,” he said as he did every night. As he let Mother precede him through the door, I heard him say, “I’ll make some inquiries on Monday.”
That night I dreamed of Handel’s soaring music. From the center of the robed choir, Joe’s pinched face peeked out as he sang, “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd…”
I never had the chance to share my pocket money with Joe, but I never forgot the ethereal music flowing past his chapped lips. Then one day while working my rotation in the charity ward of the hospital where I trained, I heard the familiar words…He shall feed His flock…and hurried toward them. A well-dressed young man stood in the center aisle between the beds, his rich voice filling the room with Handel’s music.
When he’d finished, those patients who were able applauded enthusiastically, and the rest smiled. I introduced myself and thanked him for coming. “Do you do this often?” I asked.
“I’ve been away at Julliard,” he said, “but Galveston is my hometown. I felt I wanted to give back while I was here.”
“My music education was paid for by an anonymous donor. I can’t thank him personally, only share what he gave me the opportunity to do with those who are like I was once.”
Something stirred in my memory as I waited for him to go on.
“I lived near the docks, if you want to call it living, and sang on street corners for something to eat.”
My hand flew to my mouth. “Joe!”
His face registered surprise. “Joseph Kublinsky. Have we met before?”
I smiled. “I’m going off duty now. Do you have time for a cup of coffee?”
As we started toward the staff lounge, I no longer wore my white coat but rather a green velvet dress, and carried a small fur muff instead of the tools of my medical trade. The hospital corridor faded into a cold street corner where snow swirled around me as I stood between Mother and Papa listening to an angel sing. The Good Shepherd had indeed fed His lamb and I knew exactly whose hand He had used.