A Time Long Gone: Christmas at the General Store

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(Published in the Bellevue, Iowa, Herald Leader on December 26, 2007)

The wind had stopped howling.  Snow was piled high outside.  Mom gathered my pink snow pants and coat from the peg rack, found where I had dropped my mittens, and grabbed my boots from where I had tossed them the day before.  She gave orders as she marched to me, laden with all the bundling a five-year old needed to brave the winter in a two-block walk to the store.

“Now, Karen, see that you go straight to the store and back.  Ask Teresa to help you.  Get the mail while you’re there, just ask them for it, they’ll give it to you because they know who you are.  Do you know what you’re going to buy?”  She asked me, inserting my legs into the snow pants.

“Yep!”  I proudly stated.  “Something pretty!”

She turned to me with that gentle smile that lit up her pretty brown eyes, pulled up my snow pants and buttoned the waist.  She grabbed the boots and zipped them up, making sure my snow pants were deep inside each one.  She reached for the coat she had set on the floor, and started slipping my arm into the sleeve, “Okay.  Don’t take too long, I don’t want to send your brother for you.”

Well, neither did I.  I was five years old and having an eight-year-old brother come to fetch me was an affront to my dignity.  Besides, he’d be mad and would probably punch my arm.

Mom finished buttoning my coat.  She put the hood up, and then wrapped a scarf tight around my cheeks.  My eyes bulged.  I’d slip it back down when she wasn’t looking.

One last look from her and she was satisfied I was prepared to go out into the world.  She grabbed the eight singles out of her apron pocket, folded them carefully, and put them in front of me to see.  “This is your Christmas money now, Karen.  Don’t lose it because you won’t get any more.”

“I know,” I said, full of responsibility to be toting such wealth.

She opened the edge of my right mitten and slipped the folded currency into the palm of my hand.  “There!  You’re all set.  Don’t forget the mail.”

“I won’t!  Bye, mommy,” I replied as I opened the kitchen door and walked outside onto the porch.  I jumped off onto the sidewalk.  I heard Mom shut the door behind me after she told me one more time to be careful and come straight home afterwards

The sidewalk was shoveled, so that was no good.

I made straight for the deep snow in my neighbor’s yard and trekked deep foot holes into the new snow, pulling the scarf down and away from my mouth so I could watch my breath.  I turned the corner and headed downhill to Nemmers’ general store, keeping in the ditches and the snow.  I was feeling very grown up.  You had to cross the main street to reach the general store, and little kids weren’t allowed to do that.

When I reached La Motte’s main street, I stopped, looked for cars first, and then crossed the street — all by myself.

I tromped up the cement steps in front of the general store, grabbed the door handle and swung the door wide open.  A warm blast of air greeted my cold nose and the door slammed shut behind me.

The store was long and narrow.   To my left was a wooden counter with drawers that had glass panels in the front.  To my right was another long, wooden counter with metal boxes with combination locks.  That was La Motte’s post office.  Straight back, on the left before you got to the meat counter, was a chair and a large floor cooler full of ice cream.  Kate, a plump, gray-haired woman, was a permanent fixture.  She always sat in the same chair, knitting or crocheting. Opposite Kate was what I was ultimately after:  a glass-shelving unit full of wonderful, pretty items, just waiting to be purchased for Christmas.

I looked around for Teresa.  She walked out of the family’s private apartment through a door in the wall behind the glass shelving.  Tall, slim and also gray-haired, she was my favorite.  I walked up to her.

“Hi, Karen.  How are your mom and dad?” she asked.

“Okay,” I answered.  I tore off my mittens, proudly showed her my wad of money and announced, “I’m here to do my Christmas shopping!”  I was very excited.  I told Teresa that it was my first time all by myself, and I could pick out anything I wanted.

Teresa’s eyebrows rose at my words and she said, “O-o-o-h.”

I knew she was impressed.

She went behind the counter and asked, “Who do you need to buy for?”

I rattled off the names of seven relatives.

“Do you know what they would want?” she asked.

Teresa listened while I told her what everybody in my family liked to do.  For twenty minutes, she showed me bright combs, decorated coffee cups, shiny nail clippers, colored vases, embroidered hankies, brightly colored pens…a veritable treasure chest of wonders!   Teresa greeted people as they came and went from the store as I made my careful and well thought out choices, but she never once left my side.

Soon, the number of people left to buy for was one:  Mom. My eyes rolled over the items on the shelves, when I spotted a beautiful metal trivet. I pointed to the trivet and Teresa reached in for it, grabbed it, and gently put it into my hands.

The face was a painted ceramic tile of beautiful purple flowers with dark green leaves.

The scalloped edging folded over as legs.  I wiggled the edging back and forth.  I was completely charmed.  I looked up at Teresa with my eyes shining.  “I like it!”  I said happily, thrilled at the thought of happiness the trivet would bring my mother.

“Karen…” Teresa started to say.  She had just finished tallying the items I had chosen and a small frown creased her brow.

I stretched out my hand for her to count the money again and asked, worriedly, “Do I have enough?”   I could not imagine a Christmas without the wonderful look on my mother’s face when she unwrapped her trivet.  I waited expectantly.

Teresa didn’t pick up the money to recount it.  Instead, she continued to look at me.   I stretched my hand out further to her, since she couldn’t seem to reach it.

Her face suddenly softened.  She reached her hand out, closed my fingers over the wad of money, patted my fist, and said with surprise, “Well, what do you know?  It costs just what you have left!”

My face lit up with relief as I heard those magic words.   Teresa added the trivet to my purchases.  I followed her to the cash register at the candy counter, completely bursting with pride at having successfully completed my first solo shopping expedition.

As she began to ring up all the items from my Christmas shopping, I scanned the candies behind the glass in front of the drawers.  I pointed to some colored candy balls and asked, “How much are those?”

Teresa leaned over the counter to see where I was pointing and said, “Two pennies apiece.”

“I’m getting some if I have any pennies left,” I announced with all the seriousness great candy deserved from a five-year-old, which was pretty much.

The cash register ringed, the drawer flew open, and Teresa began to count out my change.

“One, two, three pennies.  It looks like you have enough money for that candy, and something left over.”

I slid two pennies across the counter and stated, “I want a red candy ball, please.”

“Do you want it in a bag?”

I shook my head.  “Nope,” and reached out my hand.  “I’m gonna eat it right away.”

“Okay.”  Teresa gave me the candy ball and my purchases and said solemnly, “Thank you, Karen.”

“Bye!”  I said happily, grabbing my bag of purchases and turning to go, tearing the wrapping off the candy ball.

“Karen!”  Teresa called after me.  I turned back around, candy in mid-air

“Your mom hasn’t been in to get the mail.  Do you want to take it home for her?”

“Oh, yes!”  I said, suddenly alarmed that I hadn’t remembered to ask for it.  If I didn’t return with the mail, Mom may not let me go to the store by myself again!

That was a close call.

Teresa found her brother the postmaster and asked him to give me our mail.  He put it in my bag so I wouldn’t lose it.  “There!” he said with a grin.  “Now you’re all set.”

I looked into the bag and all seemed in order.

“Thank you,” I said, remembering the manners I was supposed to never forget.  I turned to leave again.  As I opened the door, I heard Teresa say, “Tell your mom I said Merry Christmas, Karen!”

“I will!”  I shouted as I popped the hard red ball into my mouth.   I walked out, munching fiercely on my candy, mittens in my pocket and not on my hands, hood down, scarf down, tromping through the snow on the way back, clutching all the wonderful Christmas surprises I had purchased.

My thoughts were on the beautiful trivet.  I was sure Mom wouldn’t know how to fix it so it had legs, but I could show her.  She would be surprised and would tell me how smart a girl I was to figure that out all by myself.  Then she would set it proudly on the table, for everyone to see.   The other purchases I made for my family were wonderful, too.  My family would be so surprised and so happy!  I was very pleased that I had gotten everything I wanted, and enough money left over to buy a present of candy for myself.

I didn’t know I was such a great shopper.

For several more Christmases, I continued to do my Christmas shopping at Nemmers’ general store.  It was the same routine every year.  Teresa would help me, and no matter how much or how little money I had, it was always…magically…just enough.

Then the day came when I was eleven years old and the general store was too boring.  I announced to my mother that I wanted to shop at a “real” store.  Mom dutifully took me to a discount store in the nearby city, ending an era that I hadn’t a clue I was in.

It was decades before I finally understood the magic that had occurred on those Christmas shopping sprees, oh so many years ago.

Teresa took great pleasure in seeing joy on someone else’s face.  I was a little girl with little money but high hopes.  Her kind and generous spirit blessed me with awe at being able to choose from the bounty she laid out before me.  She gifted me with that full, happy feeling inside that only comes from thinking of somebody else’s pleasure first.

Each winter now, when Christmas will soon be upon us, I find myself once again hearing the howl of the December wind.  I feel the chill of it on my exposed face, and the crunch, crunch of snowdrifts beneath my feet.  I am blasted by the warmth of giving, kindness and love, and the fullness of receiving it.

Most people think the spirit of Christmas is an old man in a red suit, with a jolly laugh.

But I know better.

It’s a generous and kind, tall, slim, gray-haired woman in a silk dress.

Merry Christmas, my dear Teresa…wherever you are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

— (c) St. John 2007

 

 

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