Magazine | December 31, 2017, Issue

Before You Say No . . .

A correspondence, nonfictional, between a young boy, a housewife, a headmaster, and the young boy’s brother

March 7

Dear Mrs. Heath:

I wish to ask you a great favor. My brother David goes to Cranwell and he says they go easier on brothers, so I might have a chance to get in even though my grades aren’t so terribly good. But I need three letters of recommendation and I have one from a priest and one from a nun and my father says he thinks the third one better be from someone who is not a priest or a nun. You are not a priest or a nun but yet you know me intamitely from me having delivered your paper even that bad day right after Christmas when their was no school and the Times boy didn’t deliver his customers, and from those Catholic Christmas cards you always buy, and from the jack lantern pumpkins I helped you carve three years in a row, and the Easter Eggs, and a lot of other things. (Like the time I picked up John when he broke his arm and taught Priscilla how to ride a two-wheeler.)

Before you say no, I did break the trampoline but I didn’t honestly know how heavy I was, because I grew very suddenly and the only reason I was always on the roof was because of my gliders which you said I could get if they were on the roof, and the time you wouldn’t let me come in your backyard for three weeks that time, Catholic Word of Honor, John started it and it was not my fault because Scout’s Honor, I only gave John the most compleatly gentle kind of tap so he would go home so Georgie Cunningham wouldn’t beat him up, because you know how Georgie is when he gets mad. Because John threw a mud ball at him on his bicycle. Not that you were wrong, but that I’m explaning now, because you were so mad then you wouldn’t give me a chance to explane, because John got their first and he fed you a lot of garbage. But I still like John, he is a fine young boy, he has been well brought up by his Mother.

But even if sometimes you don’t get along with me too well, I always think of you as my “Oldest Friend” so I hope you will do me this great favor of writing me a letter of recommandation.

Thanking you for your trouble,

Respectfully yours,

Peter Bailey-Gates

P.S.: Thank you for the pennies of which I already had the 1926 San Francisco mint but I did not have the 1921 Denver. Do you have a 1905 Indian Head, I will pay one nickel, clear profit of four (4)¢?

Respectfully yours,

Peter Bailey-Gates

March 7

Dear Peter:

I would be glad to write you a letter of recommendation to Cranwell, and I am very flattered that you asked me. Of course, I will have to tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, so I hope nobody will be careless enough to allow my letter to fall into the hands of the police. I can’t tell you how much I would miss you if you had to spend the next ten years in a reformatory.

Respectably yours,

Mrs. H.

P.S.: No, I haven’t got a 1905 Indian Head, which saddens me very much, but what saddens me more is the fact that even after three years’ acquaintanceship you don’t know me well enough to realize that I also know that this particular penny is worth $6! You and your 4¢ profit — hah! I’ve told you and told you about my high IQ. Don’t you believe me? However, just to show you I bear no grudge, I will give you my duplicate of the 1911 no mint mark — for free yet!

Respectably yours,

Mrs. H.

P.P.S.: Don’t worry about my letter. I will bet you one dollar (from me) to one doughnut (from you) that you will get into Cranwell — not because you’re such a hot-shot, you understand, but because if I’m crazy enough to like you, your priest and your nun are probably suffering from the same form of insanity. On the other hand, they may know you even better than I do, God help them!

Respectably yours,

Mrs. H.

March 9

To Whom It May Concern:

Peter Bailey-Gates has been in and out of my house almost daily for the past three years — by “almost” I mean those short sentences of exile which I have been unkind enough to impose upon Peter — and in that time I have come to know him very well indeed: as friend, paper boy, fellow penny-collector, and combined decorator, waiter, and entertainer at my younger children’s birthday parties.

I have found Peter to be unfailingly good-humored, well-mannered, and considerate — all of which qualities stand him in good stead in his relations with the public, which are many and varied. I am sure that no boy in New England, much less in West Hartford, has been engaged in so many intricate business enterprises as Peter Bailey-Gates. I have bought, hired, subscribed to, invested in, paid and been paid interest on fully a dozen of his ventures in the last three years — not even counting his snow-shoveling, leaf-raking, apple-picking, and garbage-can-toting, for which my own young sons are recruited. Peter’s financial sense is, however, no deterrent to his feeling for what is fitting and proper: When he washed the car of the 70-year-old spinster who lives nearby, for instance, he was careful to explain (lest I should find out, I suppose!) that he had refused payment only because she had “no man to make money for her”; again, when he asked me to take an ad in his projected Colony Road News and I was so irreverent as to reserve two inches of space for the slogan “hooray for mrs. heath,” Peter offered to refund my dollar because he had caused my ad to appear as “compliments of a friend.” I must, however, state categorically that Peter has faithfully and conscientiously fulfilled his share of every and any contract between us, whatever it may have been. (And the fact that one or two of these contracts have been rather clearer to Peter than to me has been indignantly attributed by my own children to my habit of doing jigsaw puzzles, reading, watching television programs, and saying “Uh-hunh” simultaneously, when I should have been listening. My husband affirms this judgment.)

Lest my young friend sound barely lower than the angels, I must add that his fertile imagination combined with his 13-year-old’s sense of humor has led, on occasion, to my addressing him with words harsh and unkind (“You know perfectly well that when I told you last Tuesday you could climb up on the roof to get your glider, I didn’t mean you could buy ten more gliders and aim them at the — and by the way, I hope you didn’t buy them with the lottery money for the bicycle horn — when are you going to have that lottery, anyway? I bought those tickets six weeks ago!” And much more). These irrational, if predictable, crises of the adult world leave Peter possibly repentant, probably remorseful, but certainly unruffled. He is more sophisticated today than three years ago, when, at the age of ten, he frequently urged me not to get my liver in a quiver. Today, when Peter and I have what he refers to as “a difference of opinion,” he retires with complete equanimity to his own backyard until such time as my ill-humor subsides. My change of mood is apparently picked up by Peter’s extrasensory perception within the hour, for whenever I decide that the time has come for forgiving and forgetting, he appears at my front door within 15 minutes, to assure me he has forgiven and forgotten. By way of proof (or penance?) he then resumes without rancor his status as our daily visitor.

Needless to say, our friendship is steadfast.

Aloïse Buckley Heath

(Mrs. Benjamin Wild Heath)

March 15

Cranwell Preparatory School

Office of the Principal

Mrs. Benjamin Wild Heath

29 Colony Road

West Hartford, Connecticut

Dear Mrs. Heath:

I am very grateful to you for your detailed and colorful description of Peter Bailey-Gates.

Many of Peter’s accomplishments can be put to good use at school. Leaf-raking and snow-shoveling are part of the punitive curriculum. Endowed with all the energy which you describe, I am sure that Peter will be an early candidate for demerits.

We will try to keep pace with Peter. What substitute we will have when the occasion arises for Peter to “retire to his own backyard” we will try to figure out during the year.

Sincerely yours,

Charles E. Burke, SJ

(Rev.) Charles E. Burke, SJ


March 15

Dear Mimi and Dad:

Please excuse the paper, for I’m in study hall, and since something happened tonight, which made me feel pretty proud of my little (little? Ha Ha) brother Peter, I thought I’d tell you about it, unless you already know. This has also changed practically my entire attitude toward Father Burke who has practically never been known to crack a smile in the memory of the oldest graduate.

Not more than five minutes ago, during the break between study-hall hours, Father Burke called me and showed me a letter which Mrs. Heath had written to him about Peter. It described Peter to a tee. All of the letter was praiseworthy about him, and had been written just about Peter and nothing else. Father Burke was astonished and asked me if it was all true, and I told him it was, and he said in that case Peter gets in!! . . .

Say hello to the little kids for me please, and tell them “Big Dave” will be home soon.

Love and prayers,

Your son David

March 15

Dear Pete — Boy, does Mrs. Heath sure have your number. Father Burke said he can hardly wait to get you up here to knock it out of you. Love and Kisses.


– A Christmas story by the late Aloïse Buckley Heath is a National Review tradition.

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