Ever have a longing so deep and sweet that you thought you would just weep if what you were wishing for didn’t come true, and soon? Remember the anticipation you experienced when the stores in your small town or city began to change out the items in their windows; ole everyday dishpans, clothes line rope, percolators, and seat covers became a magical Toy Land! Western Auto Store pulled tires and wrench sets, hubcaps, and brooms from their big double plate glass windows and filled them instead with shiny Western Flyer bikes, Betsy-Wetsy dolls, Red Ryder BB guns, and one special doll house that had two stories, red shutters and a green roof.
The store on the corner, where you only went to get a coke and toasted cheese sandwich, all of a sudden was transformed into a fairy land. The Rexall Drug Store had fluffy “snow” piled high against its single window, and sparkling tinsel hung from white branches where gift sets of Evening in Paris were tied with satin ribbons; everything a deep blue, the color of water under ice, or bridal white and silver, everywhere, silver. Did you press your nose against the cold window? Leave your breath against the glass? Maybe you stepped inside onto the black and white tile floor. Your nose wrinkled with an assault of powdery smells. The tiny silver compact you dared pick up was round, shiny and cold to your touch. The liquid gold in a crystal bottle labeled “Chanel” caught your eye. “Someday,” you thought. A shiver of pleasure ran like an electric current up your spine. Your senses had been tuned to Christmas!
I was seven years old when the first memories of Christmas became etched in my “forever brain.” I stood at that automotive store window, wishing so hard for the big white colonial dollhouse that my head hurt. A bell jangled insistently, and the sound of metal against metal added to the pain. I thought I was going to faint. Maybe my head would explode and I would be taken to heaven by one of the white angels in the Rexall Store window.
The lady with the Salvation Army cap and the funny little black metal bucket, filling up with change, asked, “You alright, honey. Where’s your momma?” The clanging in my head stopped, but I didn’t know the answer to either of her questions. I was inside that window, inside that dollhouse; I was rearranging furniture at that very minute!
Momma was just inside the store, of course, having warned me not to lollygag, but to come inside and warm up while she paid on her Lay-a-Way account. She could see me from her spot at the high counter with the fancy brass and black cash register I usually loved to be near when a sale was made. “Ching,” it would sing out; the bottom drawer all covered in scrolly silver leaves and stuff, popped open just enough for the clerk to grab it and pull it fully open with two fingers. The “Sale” sign and the dollar amounts could be viewed in the long rectangular glass at the top. She would wind a little arm on the side after making change, more jingling, then push the drawer back in with one fluid motion.
Lay-a-Way. Every payment momma made I dreamed was for that metal dollhouse with the rose bushes painted on the side of the front porch. Every visit to Western Auto was one closer to the day a big box with a giant red Christmas bow would appear under our tree. The tree that we would pull from a pasture near my grandaddy’s farm. It wasn’t his land, but the farmer friend didn’t mind us cutting his scrub cedars. However, this year the bull in that first pasture minded! One of my uncles all of a sudden grabbed me up in his arms and off we went at a dead run. Good thing Mitch ran track at Sunflower Jr. College. I do remember that the little tree we finally took home was growing right next to the barbed-wire fence.
I loved collecting the mistletoe the uncles shot from trees with their rifles. I waited safely behind them and then was allowed to race to the site where a great bunch of the beautiful parasite had landed. At first sight, its berries disappointed me because I confused them with those of the Holly; I expected bright scarlet ones like we colored on mimeographed sheets at Church Street Elementary. But then I saw that they were like the pearls displayed in the jewelry store down town. Every one, perfect, plump, round and white.
So, the Lay-A-Way was not a doll house, a BB gun, or even a baby doll that cried and wet. I’m not sure if I remember what I got for Christmas that year. Wait. Skates, I think. Yes! And I wore the metal wheels off those suckers. To school, to the library, to my friend’s house on the next street. Down to the Rexall for a coke and grilled cheese. To the Lyric Theatre and the Saturday Matinee. I was barely eight years old and I had the run of that small town.
What better gift is there for a child than that? Freedom without fear. Cool. Very cool.
Note * I still have the big metal skate key. I do. I think I’ll tie a red ribbon on it and hang it from my Christmas tree this year.