It was black velvet, the old top hat, worn and tattered over time, yet loved by it’s wearer. The gift seemed small and light to the postman, but he delivered it like all the rest. It went to a little flower shop on the East side, Matilda Mae’s.
Gingerly the old woman opened it, and smiled at the contents. She only worked part time, retired, her daughter now ran the store. It wasn’t even Matilda’s regular day, but a feeling had brought her in this morning.
“Mae, who on our list just requested flowers without specifics?” Her daughter looked at the list, there was two people. One was a young man, and the other was Mr. Murphy, the president of the bank.
“Murphy, yes that’s the one. We’re going to do an old time bouquet, something very special. Poinsettias and roses, yes I think a few pink daisies for an offset color.” “You’re using that hat as the base? It doesn’t look like much Mom.” “Trust me dear, as an old friend would say, it’s a proper topper.”
Off it went, in half the time, to the most worried man in town, Calvin Murphy. Both of the flower shop’s patrons had sent flowers to girls, but love had arrived late in the banker’s life. The problem was the woman that he had fell in love with.
Our story goes back a week before the flowers, but not before the owner of the hat’s intervention. He had decided to play matchmaker in not two, but four lives. After all, it was the Christmas season where he felt that all living should be doing just that, they should be all living.
Celeste Ivans was the owner of the Meridian Grand Hotel, a wonderful old establishment built by her Grandfather. It had seen better days, Celeste had inherited it from her Aunt. She was determined to make it a success. As a result, she worked day and night, a perfectionist, people had mistaken her for a cold woman. They nicknamed her the Abominable Snow woman, Abominable for short.
She had walked into the bank in her finest clothes, with her most precise manners to bluff for a loan. It had almost worked. Her act intimidated the loan officer, but when he brought the request for final approval, Calvin denied it. It was at the same time a decision he was both thankful for and regretted, as soon as he saw her.
Calvin was 41, Celeste was 39, neither had ever found time for love, but it was trying to catch up to them. In Calvin’s case, it didn’t have to run very fast. He was smitten at the first sight of her auburn hair, green eyes, and smile.
She didn’t seem as impressed, he still had his hair, but it was a dull brown compared to hers. There was beginning to be more white than brown, but he tried to ignore it. He knew that his blue eyes would never match the sparkle in her eyes.
What he did not know was that she left the bank very taken with the man who refused to loan her money. At the same time furious, with him for saying no, and herself for liking him at all. Celeste was determined that she would show Mr. Calvin Murphy no mercy, pay him no mind, and eliminate his smile from her thoughts.
Two days later, it was still fighting it’s way to the forefront of her mind, as was Calvin. He knew that he could not loan the bank’s money on a bad investment, so he thought a visit to the location may prove him wrong. “Good morning, my name is Calvin Murphy. I would like to see the owner of the Meridian Grand.” “We just call it the Grand to save time. I’ll let her know you’re here.”
Scott Withers, the desk clerk and bell boy went to find her. His youthful step was preoccupied, thinking of how to ask his girl Lauren a question. In a few days he would get his answer, and they would leave the city, and its broken promises behind them. “Miss Ivans, a Mr. Calvin Murphy to see you.”
She washed the black off of her hands from trying to fix a vacuum cleaner from housekeeping. Absentmindedly she fixed her hair, and checked the mirror. Caring a little more for her appearance than she would admit to herself. “Good afternoon Mr. Murphy, what do I owe this visit to?”
“I was hoping to get a tour of the Grand, perhaps it would enable me to change my mind in regards to the loan.” This garnered him his first genuine smile from the lady. Off they went touring the Grand, Celeste moving at a rapid pace, with Calvin struggling to keep up.
“This is the Grand’s kitchen, Grandfather and Uncle Alonso would prepare the special dinners. At one time, the Grand hosted the city banquet’s that Mayor Flowers would give every Christmas for the less fortunate.” He watched her as she described those days with all the joy and excitement of a five year old.
When the tour ended, he hadn’t the heart to tell her that his banker’s mind hadn’t changed concerning the loan. Yet, the man in love was not ready to give up either. So he latched on to the one string of hope that she had provided him.
“Did you say this was once used by Mayor Flowers?” “Every year of his three terms, he fed not only the homeless, but those that were too proud for a handout. He was smart, never calling it a charity dinner. Instead, the Mayor, I’m told at Uncle Alonso’s suggestion, called it a Celebration Banquet.”
“It was, he said, every citizen’s duty to attend this event. If they did not join in fellowship at the table of community on this special season, they were negligent in their patriotic duty.” She laughed. “Instead of allowing their pride to keep them hungry, he used it to feed their self-worth and their stomachs.”
Celeste knew a thing or two about skipping meals to make the ends meet herself. “Miss Ivans, while I can’t authorize the bank to generate a loan under the normal parameters, I have an idea. I’ll warn you now, it is a long shot, and we very well may not win. If you’re willing to try though, I will see to it that we do everything within my power to bring it about.”
“Of course, how do we proceed?” “First, we meet for dinner …” Celeste held up a hand, her anger returning. “Mr. Murphy, I am not stupid. If this is some sort of attempt to string me along for a date.” Calvin was in love, but he was also a man of honor. It was his turn to be angry, the owner of the hat began to wander if getting these two together was even possible.
“My good lady, I’ll thank you to know that I have never manipulated a client in my entire career. If you had let me finish, I was going to say that we will have dinner with Mr. Prescott. He is the President of the Historic Society, as well a personal friend. If we can secure a historic status for the hotel, the bank would give a restoration loan on his recommendation alone.”
Celeste was embarrassed at her assumption, and ashamed of her behavior. “I’m sorry Mr. Murphy, it’s just that I’ve met so many people with ulterior motives, I tend to suspect that everyone has them.” “It’s quite all right, where shall we eat?”
She thought a moment, “Why not here, in the grand ballroom. Give the man a preview of what this both was, and could be again.” “I like it. If I could take the liberty, here is my personal check for two hundred dollars, this will cover all the expenses. I look forward to a successful event ma’am.”
As he left he thought, ‘Why did I talk like something out of the 1800’s? She’s going to think I am an old banker.’ He looked at himself in the mirror, he looked like an old banker. That afternoon he bought a new suit, new shirt, tie, and shoes.
“Well, you look like you actually remember how to smile, it suits you by the way. He likes it too.” Her cousin and contractor Grace Tackleford quipped as Celeste twirled her hair. Grace was more a silent partner than a paid employee, she was also the only one who could see passed Celeste’s cold facade.
“I’m too old for that now. Maybe five years ago, but not now.” Grace laughed. “Tell that to Great Aunt Lucille. She married Great Uncle George at fifty, and they’re celebrating their thirtieth next month. The only thing old is your thinking, he’s cute.”
Celeste spent the next few minutes listening to herself argue why her cousin was wrong. The only thing she hadn’t argued about was how cute the man was. No matter how much she tried, she couldn’t bring up a valid point concerning that one.
“Norman, just keep an open mind would you please? The Grand Hotel is a ….” “A relic of the past is what it is Calvin. It’s dark, it’s old, and it’s taking up space. Do you realize what a new hotel in the heart of the city near the park could do for the economy?” “That would make a great opening at your next historical society meeting Mr. President.”
The two men argued all the way to the hotel. “All I’m saying is the historical society has to care for meaningful history. This place hasn’t been anything meaningful in years. The Flowers dinners were wonderful, they fed my Grandparents, but there are buildings in the city with tons of more historic value than this one.”
“Will you at least listen?” They stopped a block away. Norman asked Calvin the question that he wasn’t ready to answer. “Why this building really? Why this cause, why this…? It’s Maggie Pratt all over again, only instead of a near sighted sister, this one has a hotel in tow.”
It was Calvin’s turn. “The last time I looked you have been married to that near sighted girl long enough to pay off a fifteen year mortgage, and you bought the house on your second anniversary! Your wife was the only good part of that deal, in case you forgot.”
“I remember Maggie hurting you, but …” Calvin stopped and looked at his best friend. “I don’t know what this is, but at the very least I’m helping a nice person. If my hopes aren’t too high, then it could be something more.” “Then, let’s go see a hotel.”
Celeste didn’t have a lot of money, but she did have Uncle Alonzo’s flair, and his old vintage Christmas lights. Grace had spent a few days repairing the wiring in them. When the two men arrived, they were met with 800 lights, strategically placed on the outside of the building.
Celeste doorman, Ed Lahr stood out front in his old green and gold uniform. “Welcome to the Grand!” The discarded style, plus the lights, made it seem like a trip back in time. They were ushered into the Grand Ballroom where a single dinner table had been placed in the corner of the room.
Grace had given Celeste a surprise of her own that afternoon, when the Connecticut men delivered the twelve foot tree. It was placed in the center of the ballroom, the lights were new LEDs, but the ornaments were old. As the soft light played on them, Scott Withers sat, in a rented tuxedo, at an old piano singing the melodies of Christmas.
He had a beautiful voice. It was a mixture of Nat King Cole and Mel Torme, he performed in a jazz style. The smile on his face was fake, he was a very bitter young man. His black hair, blue eyes, and acting skills hid the hurt that was in his heart. Two years earlier, the young man had a passion for performing, but no longer. Scott was a busboy in a rundown hotel, going nowhere.
His plan was to marry his girl, go back to his hometown, and start over. Lauren had to practically threaten him to go through with performing tonight. She worked for the accounting firm Celeste had hired to help her manage the books. It was Lauren who had got Scott his job.
As the music played, Celeste met them from the center of the room. “Hello Mr. Murphy, Mr. Prescott, I am Celeste Ivans, and this is The Grand.” The glare from the fireplace added an echo of light that bounced off the corners of the room. “Norman please, and my banker friend here is Calvin. If we are to save this building, we’ve got to be on a first name basis.”
While the night was wonderful, filled with laughter, food, and music, something kept bothering Calvin. He realized his friend was being nicer than he let on during the trip over. When they had finished the meal, before dessert, Norman’s cell rang.
“Yes honey. He did what? How much hair did he? Is she crying? He is? Oh . . . she hit him with the dinosaur? Ok, I’ll be home in a few minutes to help weather the storm. I Love You.”
Norman excused himself as he got up to leave. Calvin whispered in his ear. “You con artist, you could have said I have to go.” “I was going to, but the twins really did just have a fight. It’s Christmas vacation, schools out, and they’re going crazy.”
He turned to Celeste. “I think we can save this hotel, though not the way you both intended. It’s not historic enough I’m afraid, but I have a friend who has a history with this hotel. He might be willing to loan half the money you need, provided the bank will put up the rest.”
Calvin smiled. “I think my board will approve that, but we’ll have to meet.” Norman nodded. “I’ll set up one, if you don’t mind it being on Christmas Eve. He doesn’t get in town until the twenty fourth.” “That’s no problem for me.” Celeste added. “Wonderful, we’ll have our family Christmas here, that way he can see how lively the Grand can still be.”
Norman left, and the two sipped coffee while they ate their Blackberry Cobbler. Suddenly Calvin laughed. “That’s what I haven’t been able to place all evening. It’s as if it we were in the song.” Celeste looked at him with a questioning expression, and he explained.
“On the way over, I saw a Christmas tree in the park. ‘There’s a tree in the Grand Hotel, and one in the park as well.’ The lyrics from It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” Scott overheard and transitioned to the song. “My Grandfather loved that song. He said it was referring to a hotel in Canada, but he adopted the song as his own.”
Calvin commented on the singer’s voice. “He’s very good.” “Yes, but I’m afraid we’re going to lose him. He has tried for two years to make it on Broadway, and hasn’t. He’s going to move home after the first of the year. He’s hoping his girl will move with him. I’m torn over it, she’s my accountant.”
“If she loves him, she’ll either follow, or he’ll stay. They tell me that, at the end of the day, love will win out.” “You sound like you wouldn’t know yourself.” “Not from personal experience I’m afraid, I tried once, when I was young, but she had other ideas. What about you?”
“No one ever seemed interested enough to try. I know it’s a little old fashioned, but I’m afraid I’m a little past that stage in my life.” “I wouldn’t say that, at least not in your case, you are a very attractive lady.”
Having said this made Calvin uncomfortable, so he changed the subject. “It’s Christmas, let’s see if we can go about keeping your crooner and your number cruncher.” He walked over to Scott as Celeste tried to hide a smile. “My name is Calvin Murphy, I’m the president of Third Fidelity Bank. I have a friend who knows a producer. I can’t promise anything, but if you’re interested I can give him a call.”
Scott wasn’t about to turn one last chance down, even though he wasn’t expecting anything. “Yes sir, I’d like that, thank you. What can I do for you?” Calvin smiled as he returned to his seat. “Play that song again.”
“You made him, and his young lady happy.” Celeste said as he was sitting down. “I just hope it pans out. I know what a huge disappointment deferred dreams can be.” Celeste looked at the sad, but handsome banker’s face. “You know forty one isn’t ninety, and if I could return your earlier comment. You have a handsome face.”
Calvin smiled. “Thank you, but I think I’ve got too much white in my hair for the display in the store windows. They like the younger models these days.” “So you’re encouraging me to enter the cold world of dating while you stay safely hid away. That’s not very fair.”
“It isn’t is it? Of course I’m a banker, we advise people how to invest their money, not ours.” Calvin would have asked her out, but he felt it would have verified her first, mistaken opinion of him. Celeste would have said yes if he tried, but she wasn’t about to take the first step.
Grace, a good cousin, had eavesdropped through the entire dinner. At least as much as you could from the adjoining kitchen. She knew two stubborn, frightened people when she saw them. Looking at her fellow busybody she said “Lauren, these two are going to need help.”
The next morning, while Scott was working the front counter, the two women met in the kitchen once again. “How are we going to get those two together?” Lauren asked, her mind preoccupied with her boyfriend’s future.
“In a story, usually there is either another person interested, or one has to rescue the other one.” Grace said, trying to remember an old movie ploy that would apply. “They’re already trying to rescue the hotel which isn’t helping, and we can’t just manufacture another guy or girl. It has to be something different for these two.
Grace almost spilled her coffee. “There is, when we were kids, the one way to force her to try something, was…” Lauren laughed. “Let me guess, to tell her she couldn’t do it?” “Exactly, instead of trying to push them together, we strongly agree with them that they are too far apart.”
The two were almost giddy plotting, unfortunately someone was beating them to it already. Jonathan Sparrow sat in Calvin’s office. He was the Chairman of the board for the bank. “Of course the board will agree to this deal with Norman’s investor.”
“As for the other, you’re smart not to let Norman trick you into asking her out. Dating someone you’re in business with, even as an adviser, is messy. Plus, you’re like me, you’re set in your ways. Adjusting to dating now wouldn’t be easy. You might not have the patience to change.”
It was that last prickly sentence that did it. Mr. Sparrow had challenged Calvin’s manhood by saying he couldn’t change. He was dialing the florist before Jonathan left the building. Just as Jonathan was texting Norman. “We may trick him into being happy yet.”
A visitor was arriving at the Grand, a very special one. “Hello young man, my name is Walter J. Snow. I’m the producer that Calvin had mentioned.” “Mr. Snow, I thought you weren’t to arrive until Christmas Eve.” “Normally I don’t, but I had some business that had to be finished early. I understand you’re thinking of leaving the city?”
“Well, yes sir. I’ve tried for two years to make it, and so far nothing.” “I see. Can you and your Fiancé meet me for dinner tonight?” “My girlfriend and I can, I haven’t asked her to marry me. I was thinking about it, how did you know?”
The bald headed, chubby man laughed. “Any young man who has a pretty girl is thinking about marriage. Plus, I’m married to a wonderful woman, but I use to be a bachelor. Last, you didn’t have a wedding ring, and yet you’re too sharply groomed to be unattached.” Scott smiled.
“Tell me Scott, is Miss Ivans available?” He lead Mr. Snow to Celeste’s office. “Hello Mr. Snow, Scott told me the good news. How can I help you?” “Well, actually he only told you part of the good news.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “Really, what’s the rest?” “Miss Ivans, your Grandmother was a friend of my family. When she and your Grandfather bought this hotel, my family were frequent guests. I would hate to see it close. I will supply the money you need, I have only one requirement.”
“What’s that?” “I would like to try out my new show here. The cast would have rehearsals in January and debut in February. I would like to turn it into an anomaly, an off Broadway resort if you please.” Celeste was amazed. “Do you think it would work? I mean if it did it would give us exactly what we need.”
“Yes, a continuous revenue stream, and a reason for people to flock to your hotel. Although, I’m afraid it may cost you your clerk and bell boy. If he’s as good as I’ve heard, he won’t want to star in the show and work the front desk.”
“Mr. Snow, that would be perfect, but why would you take such a risk? Surely you have access to theaters with hotels across the street?” The likable old man smiled with his eyes. “A friend of mine has a saying, you can’t be happy by yourself. You have to bring people with you to be truly happy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment.”
As Mr. Snow left, his statement went through her mind, ‘you can’t be happy by yourself.” She was thinking about that sadly, when the flowers arrived. The card read, “Celeste, I would very much like to ask you out, but I don’t know how. I would have last night, but I chickened out. If there’s any chance this feeble attempt will work, could you call when you get these?”
She startled herself by laughing, ‘Her brave man had forgotten to sign the card.’ ‘Her brave man’ she mentally repeated. “Apparently I’m as pathetic at this as he is.” She murmured, grabbing her coat.
He was attempting to read a contract when she walked in his office. Calvin had been attempting to read the same contract for two hours. “Calvin, the next flowers you send me, sign your name.” “Does that mean you’re not ashamed to date a man south of his prime with more white than brown in his hair?
“You said that before, but do you remember the next line in the song? It’s something about I don’t mind the snow.” With that, a first kiss happened in the office of the President of Third Fidelity Bank. It was, I believe, the inaugural first kiss to ever occur in that particular financial office.
Celeste had left the door open, so a crowd of congratulatory bank clerks had soon gathered. “We thought he’d never get a girlfriend.” “I tried to set him up with my Aunt, but he said no.” Finally, the oldest clerk there, semi-retired Mrs. Gray, took pity on Calvin’s ego. “It’s so wonderful to see a young couple so very much in love.”
That night Mr. Snow and Norman met with Scott and Lauren. “Hello, you know my colleague Mr. Prescott.” “Hello sir.” “Hello, but I’m afraid I must be blunt Mr. Withers. It’s my understanding that the only thing keeping you here is the possibility of this show. How do we know you’ll commit to it once you have it?”
Scott, shocked replied. “I honor my commitments Mr. Prescott.” “If that’s true, then what about your commitment to your young lady?” “Lauren and I are going to be married. I was never going to leave her.”
“Did you tell her that? Did you consider how taking her away from everyone and everything she knew would affect her happiness?” Lauren spoke up. “Mr. Prescott, I’m happiest wherever Scott is. I would have went with him, as soon as he asked.”
Mr. Snow, who had been silent, leaned in. “I think what my colleague, and your young lady, need to know is why you hadn’t asked?” The young man, angry, embarrassed, and confused, pulled out a ring. “I bought this months ago, before I ever gave up on this city.”
“I would have left two weeks after I bought it, if not for Lauren. I hadn’t asked because I couldn’t make myself. If we stayed, I was asking an accountant to marry a hotel clerk. If I ask with the idea of leaving the city, I would have been asking her to give up all her dreams, and I couldn’t do that. She’s why I hadn’t ask yet, I wanted to find a reason to give her to say yes.”
“You stupid, shallow man! I will say yes because I Love You, not for a job, or a place. I love you, although I’m a little mad at you right now.” Norman looked at Mr. Snow smiling.
“Perhaps we can alleviate that anger some what. I must explain that I am in the business of making people happy. It was at my request that Norman spoke the way he did.”
“I wanted to be sure that there was no doubt, in either of your minds, who and what priorities were important. I need caring people who think long term. Now that I know I have them, how would you like the lead in my show?” “I would love that, what is it?” “It’s a musical about the life of Irving Berlin.”
Many questions were asked that night, but not the one Lauren had been waiting on. That would have to wait until Christmas Eve, when Scott proposed at Lauren’s family Christmas gathering. He sang her the song from the final act, “Reaching For The Moon”, albeit with some creative lyrics. Scott had to substitute December for June.
She said yes, as did another woman that night, in the ballroom of the Grand Hotel. Calvin proposed by the fire, as “Its Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” played on his iPhone. Grace, her family, and all the cousins laughed in glee. Calvin and Celeste would go on to marry, and run a very successful resort.
Scott and Lauren would spend many wonderful years at the Grand, only leaving for business reasons. Broadway called. Celeste didn’t mind, it was their show that took him there. Thanks to Mr. Snow, they were full partners. Norman stayed behind to manage their friend’s interest.
As for Mr. Snow and his hat, they mysteriously disappeared on Christmas Eve. Hitching a ride with an old friend, the matchmaker changed hats sitting in the sleigh. As he did, something else changed. The kind, chubby, bald headed man turned soft, white, and snowy.
Traditions are important, he believed in them, so this one was no different. As they flew towards the moon, and the black velvet hat returned to his head, he repeated his first words. “Happy Birthday!” That’s snowman for “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”