Tag Archive | La Motte

A Time Long Gone: Christmas at the General Store


(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



Autumn in the Hamlet

Although I live in a large city now, autumn always takes my mind back to the small town where I grew up.

Our tiny hamlet was located in eastern Iowa, near the Wisconsin and Illinois borders.  My family was firmly ensconced in the slow pace of small town living in the 1940s through 1960s, when the world intruded very little and the quiet was relatively undisturbed by either traffic or current events.

Our house had a panoramic view of the entire town.  In sweatshirt weather, when the air would get so crisp you could almost reach out and snap it in two, I’d sit outside on the lawn to look upon the town, and to think.  Dusk would settle and the sky would get that purplish pink color it always gets around 5:30 PM on a late fall afternoon.  Slim spirals of smoke would curl up from chimneys and perfume the town with the scent of burning wood.  I wouldn’t notice it getting late until the ground turned so cool it started freezing my bottom.  Only then would I march inside to be greeted by the blast of heat from the furnace and the smell of dinner on the stove.  Only, we called it supper then.

There wasn’t much to my hometown, but what was there was pretty:  an oval park smack dab in the center, and when the sewer running through it was covered up, was downright enjoyable to walk through.  The hills were full of homes and trees that turned the entire valley into an artist’s palette of beautiful, lush summer greens and flaming bursts of oranges, reds and yellows.

Our little park always hosted and took great pride in Fourth of July celebrations.  For reasons beyond my comprehension, thousands from nearby communities would join us for our patriotic eating and drinking, bingo-playing, carnival gaming, and then the piece de’ resistance; a rip-roaring dance under the pavilion.  Wonderful memories, but it was the winters I liked the most.   The same pavilion was iced over as a rink for skating, and we were usually there until it got dark and the streetlights went on, a signal to return home.  Our noses would freeze, our toes would tingle, and our hands felt so numb you thought you’d left them somewhere back on the ice when you fell that last time.  The small, brick bandstand always held the manger scene at Christmas, and since the baby wasn’t placed on the straw until Christmas Eve, you could sit on the bales and gossip while you took off your skates and rubbed your toes.  The snow blanketed the trees and ground, softening our steps and our voices as we walked out of the park.

Past the park and down the road past Junior’s Tavern at the end of the street, was a circular gravel area.  A train once ran through the nearby pasture, and when I was little I had peeked into the abandoned depot sitting among the weeds.  It had smelled old, and I wasn’t interested in what it used to be; at least not until that night when I was seventeen and my impression of the abandoned building changed.

I had ventured to the dead end for the quiet solitude, to think.  The moon was full and cast a deep shadow across the gravel, silhouetting the stillness of the night.  I stared at the old depot for a long time, when passengers began to emerge from a fog into full view, getting off and on the train.  The steam hissed from the side of the train, the iron clanked in the distance and the smell of metal assaulted my nose.  Then it all faded away, and I was back to myself, staring at an empty building.  I was hooked on the place after that.

Years after I had grown up and left the town, a young man took it upon himself to refurbish the building.  He completely transformed it into what must surely have been its original dignity, so like what I had witnessed that night many years before.   Now the sweet little depot is a local attraction and open for tours on holidays. I cannot help but wonder if the young man who refurbished it had ever been there as a teenager at night during a full moon.

Up the steepest hill and to the left was my family’s home.  It was half a house, a cold-water flat with two rooms down and three up.  Since we didn’t have hot running water, we always had to heat water in a big kettle on the stove.

The kitchen was so small that the table and chairs had to be shoved up against a wall to make a walking space.  Everything was a bit snug when we sat down to a meal together, which was three times a day.  There was always a commentary on the menu.

“How come we hafta have pork chops again?  Can’t we ever have anything different?” we’d ask, no matter if we had pork the previous night or the previous year.

“Just be grateful you have enough to eat.  There are starving children in China who would really appreciate that,” Mom stated.  I always knew how smart she was by how many people she knew…even children in China.

The second floor’s corner room served as my bedroom.  Once a dressing room for a bedroom, it was only the width of a twin bed, with just enough space for one small dresser.  My bedroom claimed the only closet in the house.  That was okay, though.  We had very few clothes to wear so we needed little storage.

A bathroom replaced the outhouse when I was about four years old, but it didn’t have a bathtub, so on Saturdays Mom grabbed a huge vat, set it on the stove and filled it with water.  After the water was heated, she rolled the wash tub into the kitchen, locked the door against unexpected visitors, and called each of us one by one to our bath.  I got to go first, because I was the girl.  After my brothers and I outgrew the washtub, Mom took us to her mother’s, whose house had a bathtub.   She caught up on the family gossip while waiting for all of us to get clean.

When I wanted to play, I sought out my best friends, Dianne and Elaine.  They lived on my street and we were always together, running around the neighborhood or going to the park, and always wondering what it would be like to be all grown up.

We formed a new club of something or other every week, with the oldest (me) as president, then the next (Dianne) as vice president, and the youngest  (Elaine) as secretary.  We always started out the first meeting with a fresh pad of paper and a sharpened pencil, for meeting notes.  After diligently recording our every “motion” for an hour, we soon tired of the routine and went off to the park to swing, or on our bikes to explore.

The whole town had been our playground.  That was the good part.  The bad part was, I couldn’t go anywhere without someone knowing me, so I couldn’t get away with anything.  By the time I got home, Mom had heard all about my latest misbehavior or transgression from at least three different people, and was standing on the porch with a flyswatter, ready to beat the evil spirit out of me that disgraced her, her parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents.

There were two churches in the town.  One sat on the east side of the park, the other sat majestically atop the tallest hill.  It was the Catholics who built upon the hill.  No modest, unassuming structure for them, thank you kindly.  The imposing brick structure had been one of five:  the church, the rectory, the convent, the grade school, and the high school.  The brick convent, grade school and high school were torn down years after I moved away.

The non-Catholics, on the other hand, were satisfied with a little white, dignified wooden structure that was heated by a pot-bellied stove.  Growing up, my brothers and I were never allowed to fraternize with “those other folks”.  I only know about the pot-bellied stove because I peeked through a window on my brothers’ dare.  To this day, I still don’t know who those non-Catholics were, where they lived or went to school.

The hill down from the Catholic Church was always the best for sleigh riding.  The bottom would always be closed off after a good snow so we could get our sleds out and ride safely.  But I don’t think anyone really needed a sign.  The adults just knew to keep their cars away from the church hill after a snowfall or they would run over a sledder.  It was an okay ride if your sled stopped at Elaine’s grandmother’s house halfway down, a good ride if it stopped at Herrig’s garage as the street leveled, but a great ride if you coasted another half block to Manderscheid’s Tavern.

Once in a while I’d walk off alone to the south edge of town, traipsing through the old depot lot, heading to the pasture.  The cows were usually gone to other fields during the day, so I had no worries about disturbing cows, or being chased by a bull.

The pasture was full of adventure.  A small stream ran through it, fed by an underground spring.  I loved to grab a mouthful of the water to quench my thirst, or simply sit there and watch the sparkle on the drops as they flowed down the rocky bank and into the shallow stream.  Then I’d resume my hike and end up on a small hill that overlooked the town.  There, among the rough bushes and occasional tree, I’d plunk my behind down, grab a long piece of the rough grass, slip it in my mouth for chewing, and then relax by staring across the empty field and pondering the questions that seared through my brain.

Sitting there in the quiet of a summer afternoon, with the wild flowers peeking up and blooming in surprising places, the white clouds floating against a soft blue sky, and a gentle breeze caressing my cheek…it was impossible not to feel good.  I felt safe, and I had found divinity there, in nature and sunshine, and alone with my thoughts.

Autumn, winter, spring and summer…a town for all seasons.

And although it may have been a sweet, summer afternoon in which I found God…it wasn’t until autumn, dusk and a sweatshirt…that I found heaven.

n  © 2009 Karen St. John