Monday, December 09, 2013

Memories of Christms Past

I've been struggling to both find time and ideas for posts.  This is a composite vignette of all my favorite memories from going into town for Christmas as a child.  I first published this five years ago.  I hope you don't mind the rerun.

Who among you remembers when shopping was a main street adventure rather than a mall experience? Maybe you grew up in a town with a vibrant downtown. Maybe you were like me and grew up in a smaller place and traveled to town for shopping on High Street. The town we went to was 7 miles away and it was always an event when we drive in, partly because of the the excitement of going to town, partly because we had so many relatives connected to downtown. Of course, in December there was the added fun of seeing all the decorations and visiting Santa's shack.

Often the adventure would start when we arrived in town and went to the newspaper offices to visit Nana, who was telephone switchboard operator there. First of all, it was a thrill to think we could stride right into the offices at such an important place and be ushered around to the desks of so many people to say hello. Second, it was always nice to be greeted excitedly by Nana. There was never a time she didn't squeal with delight to see us. I was also always amazed and impressed by what she did behind her switchboard. It was a huge wall filled with plugs that she'd pull out and push into different spots in order to connect callers to the person they wanted to talk to. She'd be taking calls through her headset and her hands would fly across the board even as she continued to talk to us in between. Between her ability to know where each plug had to go, doing it quickly, keeping up a conversation with us, and knowing how she could whip through a crossword puzzle, the Jumble puzzle, and the Cryptoquip in the paper each day I was sure she was some special kind of genius. On our way out Nana might give us a piece of candy from a bowl on her desk or maybe give my brother and me a little money to spend on a treat when we shopped with Mom.

From the newspaper offices we'd walk the two blocks to where the big action was, High Street. High Street was always an amazing sight to me. Our town's main street was short and narrow, just wide enough for two lanes of traffic and no parking. We had only recently gotten a traffic light at the second end of it. I could easily walk from one end to the other. High Street was longer than I'd want to think of walking as a child and it was wide enough for 3 lanes of cars with parking on both sides. All sorts of stores and shops lines both sides of the street. At one end was the diner. At the other was the library and hospital. My little town had no library or hospital. High Street had to be special to be so big and have so many important sorts of buildings and businesses on it.

Our next stop would be to Mr. Reuben's store where my other grandmother, Mom-mom, worked. It was a small women's clothier. Whether it was Mr. Reuben or Mom-mom who saw us first we'd be greeted warmly. Mom-mom would beam proudly while Mr. Reuben remarked about how my brother and I had grown and ask us how we were doing in school. He always seemed as happy to see us as our grandmother was. Mom-mom would introduce us proudly to anyone else in the shop she knew. Since she had worked in the same shop for 30 years she knew quite a few people. We'd be gathered up in hugs and kisses before heading back onto the street.

A trip to High Street almost always meant a stop at the New York Store. This was a local department store with three whole floors! Now you have to understand to a kid from the country a store that big was most impressive. There was a Sears on High street that was newer and had a bigger floor but even in the Sears customers never left the ground floor. At the New York Store we could explore the ground floor or go down the creaky wooden stairs to the basement or climb to the second floor. The New York Store seemed to have all sorts of things you couldn't find in other places and all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. Mom would pay for whatever purchases she had there. By then we'd be begging to go to Town Toy.

If the New York Store was impressive for its wide array of wares Town Toy was kid heaven simply because it was the only place I had ever been that was entirely devoted to toys. I couldn't imagine so many toys and here were piles and piles of them all under one roof. Mom usually made us endure whatever other shopping had to be done before we were allowed to enjoy this particularly favored destination.

We didn't get to High Street often so when we did there was usually a visit to the shoe store in order. How many pairs of Buster Browns did we go through in our childhood? I was especially hard on my shoes because my favorite playground apparatus was the swings. When I needed to stop I'd drag my toes in the dirt on each downswing to slow myself. I went through the toes of shoes so fast my mother threatened to buy me steel-toed shoes. I do recall Mom walking me past the work boots on one trip and asking me if that's what I really wanted to wear instead of my pretty shoes. The salesman would measure my feet and bring out boxes of shoes to try on, carefully preparing them before sliding them gently on my feet and squeezing the sides or pinching the toes to see if my foot rested in them properly. I liked the Brannock device. It fascinated me that someone could use this funny metal thing so deftly to know what size shoe I should wear.

After seeing our grandmothers and walking through the New York Store, the shoe store and Town Toy my brother and I were getting tired but there were more places to go and things to see. Fortunately, there was a bus service in town. This was more evidence to me that we were in a big, important place. No buses ran in my little town. My Uncle Duke drove buses for the city so Mom would find his line and we'd take a ride on "Uncle Duke's bus," as if he personally owned it. We always hoped there were seats near the front so we could sit right behind him and watch him closely. It was very impressive that he could maneuver this huge vehicle all around the streets and know where to go. I was sure I'd get lost or crash into something if I had to do his job. It felt good to rest on the bus before Uncle Duke dropped us near to our next destination, the library.

Aside from the toy store my other favorite place was the library. It was so big. I was just amazed that there were so many books in one place. Of course we had a library at school but this was just so much larger and had so many grown ups coming in and out. It had a lovely little children's section that was bigger than the one at school. It made me feel good to know that this building full of grown up books had a special place for kids. I liked that no one hurried me along too. During library day at school we only had so much time to pick a book before we had to line up and I'd always get lost in the stacks trying to decide what I wanted. At the library on High Street I wasn't being rushed. I could take out a bunch of books and look at them before getting more to look at and finally deciding what I wanted to take home. Oh bliss!

By now it was getting late and we had two more stops to make. We'd trudge back from the library and take a small break part of the way when we stopped at great-great Uncle Lloyd's general store. Uncle Lloyd was a tall, thin man with a long, lean, smiling face. The apron he wore at the store and the broom he carried to keep the worn wooden floors clean seemed to mirror his lankiness. He'd owned and run this little store for decades. He was a kind man and gave many a young person their first job. Unfortunately, by the time I was a child his business was waning quite a lot and he was sliding into senility. He was easily taken advantage of by the people he hired who began stealing from him. I prefer to remember his happy smile and the meticulously kept old fashioned store.

After visiting Uncle Lloyd we'd have renewed vigor as dusk was falling and the Christmas lights flickered on up and down High Street. We knew there was one last stop and this was the one we'd most been waiting for, the one we'd pestered Mom about since we'd arrived in town. Up ahead of the side of the main intersection was a red shack with a Christmas tree, a candy cane fence around it, and a tall red and white striped pole. Santa's Shack! We'd get in line for our turn to sit on Santa's lap and have our picture taken. The earlier visit to Town Toy had allowed my brother and me to refine our wish list. When it was finally our turn to go inside and see Santa we were ready. We'd each have our turn then both sit on his knees for the picture before being given a candy cane to take home.

Our trip to High Street was over and we'd head back to the car carrying the day's purchases, books from the library, and sucking our candy canes. During the drive home my mind would swirl with the images of switchboards, city buses, huge libraries and toy stores, creaky wooden floors, doting shop owners, a wide street, and Santa himself....perhaps a sugarplum fairy or two tiptoed in as well...but High Street was special enough when I was little.

What retro Christmas memories do the rest of you have?


joeh said...

Well worth re-run status.

I'm just not sure Christmas for today's children is as special as it used to be...I hope I'm wrong.

Secret Agent Woman said...

I'm glad you re-ran it, because it must have been from before I found your blog.

I don't really have memories of shopping when I was that young. My early Christmas memories have more to do with the magic of the tree and Christmas parties at school.

Anvilcloud said...

When I was young, going downtown was the only place to shop, even in a big city like Montreal. Of course, when we moved to the burbs, that changed. My uncle worked in a large department store, and we'd visit him, but we'd also love to go up and down the elevators and escalators.

Bijoux said...

Our town had four department stores with the most magical, animated window displays. One store had a North Pole with fake snow, trees, elves, etc. that you walked through on your way to see Santa. Wonderful memories.

Gail Dixon said...

I really enjoyed reading about your special memories, especially your Nana at the switchboard. When I was a teenager malls were just coming into popularity, so most of our shopping was done at the outside strip center or the standalone JCPenney or Sears. To this day I still prefer the outdoor strip center shopping experience.

Stephen Hayes said...

This was a wonderful read and it really deepened my Christmas spirit. Thanks for sharing this.

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

Thanks for the great word picture tour.

Hilary said...

Lovely memories, Lime. You provided beautiful images and warm fuzzies with your words.

Like Anvilcloud, my youth was spent in my native Montreal. Two specific Christmas memories were must-dos every years.

Downtown was the place to see the best dressed window in the city. Ogilvy's department store does Santa's workshop or Christmas town like no other. Throughout the Christmas season, there were (and presumably still are) crowds in front of their window.

Another ongoing tradition, all year long was their bagpiper who played daily. I believe he used to play just before store closing but I also remember him playing during the noon hour.

Another Christmas memory was a very small street in my neighbourhood called Brodeur Avenue. Its unofficial claim to fame was how every house on the street went all out with Christmas lights. It was probably only a half block long, with between two and three dozen homes but it dazzled the eyes with brilliant colour and dancing lights. We always made a point of driving down it each holiday season.

Those are my memories which your fine story evoked.

Suldog said...

As a child, the only place to go Christmas shopping for anything of consequence was downtown. Malls weren't even something that entered our thoughts.

In Boston, the big place was Jordan Marsh, a huge old-style department store. Anyone of my age would readily tell you they never envisioned a day when Jordan Marsh would NOT be around (it was taken over by Macy's, curse them and their progeny for the next hundred generations.) It was the store where we visited Santa and toured through "The Enchanted Village" (an animatronic display that basically kept the kids entertained during the long wait to see Santa.) A visit to Jordan Marsh was an essential part of the Christmas season.

Suldog said...

By the way, one part of this, having nothing to do with Christmas per se, caught my attention. The paper in which I am most often published, the Boston Herald, runs both the Jumble and the Cryptoquote every day. I'm proud to say I do both!

Kat said...

What beautiful memories. Thank you for sharing them with us. It is worth the reread. :)
My mom was very secretive about the Christmas shopping so we didn't do that all together as a family. We did have a small mall but we also had a downtown with a Prange's store that had amazing animated window displays. It was awesome.

Anonymous said...

Funny - I was looking through blog posts of December's past the other day, wondering if I could find a decent repost. I ran out of bizarre vintage ads for the 12 days of shopping thing. Oh well...