I always knew that Santa Claus was a wonderful fantasy. Mama never took me to sit on his lap, at least not that I can recall. Perhaps she wanted to protect me from the disappointment of a nearly giftlessgiftless," because I usually got something practical--a new pair of oxfords from Schiff's Shoes, a cozy flannel nightgown from Grant's, or a blouse from Kresge's dimestore. It was never anything frivolous such as a transistor radio from Sears'. Christmas morning. I say "nearly
My gifts to Mama were handmade in the early years. After all, one would have to collect a ton of empty bottles to get anything really nice. I was in junior high when I decided that she deserved something better than a potholder woven on a borrowed toy loom or a boot-scraper crafted from pop bottle lids nailed to a small square of plywood. (After all, we lived in the heart of downtown New Castle, Indiana, so we seldom had mud on our shoes, and any snow that might be on them would melt away long before we had trudged up the three flights of stairs to our apartment.) But what could I get her, and how could I pay for it?
I began to walk the aisles of the stores looking for just the right present. One day I decided to go into Mary Woodbury's, the finest ladies' apparel shop in town. How brazen of me to even walk through the heavy brass and plate-glass door! The floor was carpeted in some plush stuff. My oxfords sank in up to the laces. Soft music played in the background. An intoxicating fragrance filled the air. I inhaled deeply, trying my best to be quiet about it. It would never do to sniff loudly in Mary Woodbury's.
I couldn't stand there and take root in the rug, so I forced myself forward to the perfume counter. Mama liked perfume, though I'd never known her to wear anything but Coty's L'Oreal, which was sold at the corner drugstore.
"May I help you?"
I turned to see a well-dressed sales clerk with meticulously coiffed hair. At least, I assumed she was a sales clerk. Could it be Mary Woodbury herself? Suddenly I felt like a ragamuffin who had wandered in off the street . . .which was exactly what I was.
"I . . .uhm . . ." Quickly, I picked up one of the perfume bottles. "Can you please tell me how much this is?"
"Yes, miss. That would be eight dollars." I gulped and hoped she hadn't heard. "Shall I wrap it for you?"
"Uh . . .no, thank you. I think I'll keep looking."
Next to the perfume was the hosiery counter. I walked over to take a look. The clerk stayed right with me. She showed me a pair of Van Raalte nylons that came in a box with tissue paper. How elegant! How perfect for Mama! And they were . . .possible . . .if I really saved. A mere two dollars and ninety-nine cents.
The junior high had no cafeteria, so Mama gave me a quarter everyday for lunch at one of the numerous hamburger joints within walking distance of the school. Doug's, with it's killer hamburgers and steaming chili, was my favorite. Both the burgers and the chili were fifteen cents apiece. During this parsimonious time, I got one or the other and drank water. Thus I was able to stash a dime per day for the Van Raaltes. As Christmas drew closer, I skipped lunch all together. The thought of Mama's getting all dressed up to go somewhere, slipping on those luxurious stockings, and asking me to fasten the clasp of her double-strand graduated pearls (a remnant of more prosperous years) helped me forget my growling stomach.
Two days before Christmas, I walked into Mary Woodbury's and up to the hosiery counter with cash in hand. The same clerk came up to me.
"I would like one pair of the Van Raalte hose, size 9, in taupe, please."
I could have sworn the clerk was pinching back a smile, but she may have just stifled a burp. "Would you like that gift-wrapped, miss?"
I stood on tiptoe and leaned over the counter so that only she could hear me. "Is that extra?"
"Then, yes, please."
On Christmas morning, Mama ever so delicately loosened the tape of the silver-wrapped Van Raalte box, pausing only to notice the embossed Mary Woodbury's sticker near the bow. Memories of those afternoon hunger pangs vanished in the light of her smile. It was absolutely delicious.