by Ruthie Richardson
Christmas shopping seems to be more of a strain every year. We have more stuff than we know what to do with, and our solution is to give everyone else more stuff. When I think about the letters I used to write to Santa, I recall one that I have kept all these years. It’s dated 1955 and I asked for a walking/talking doll and a tea set. Times were just simpler.
That year, I also had my own list of Christmas presents I had to buy. I had saved my money for months so I could get the perfect gifts for my mom and dad. In those days, all your shopping could be done in the downtown business districts, and my hometown, Derry, was no exception. There were two or three streets full of stores offering most everything you can get today at the mall. My mom would take me with her grocery shopping to the A & P on First Avenue and South Chestnut Street (the Dollar General sits in this spot today). I remember the entrance was at an angle to the corner, and shared the block with Jordan’s News Stand. Mom would straighten the little artificial Christmas corsage she had pinned on my lapel and help me cross the slush-covered street. I was to meet her back there in half an hour or so. Before I even got past the Post Office on the first floor of the Cullen Building, I had to stop, as all the kids did, to go up one side of the snowy antique carriage steps, and down the other. As I passed Petraraca’s Mens and Boys Store, I would stop to gaze into the window. There, under the decorated Christmas tree, was the display of beautiful men’s clothing that I couldn’t afford. I guess I could have gotten my dad a tie, but they didn’t wear ties in the grinding department at Derry Westinghouse where he worked, and he already had several that he wore to church. Nope, a tie was not it. I didn’t know quite what ‘it’ was, but I knew I would know ‘it’ when I saw ‘it’. As I ran past the Brookline Savings and Loan building, (now Ameriserve Bank) my first stop was Tragos’ Candy Kitchen. That’s where daddy always bought his hunting license and they had lots of hunting gear in the back. The ice cream parlor was on the left and the sporting goods section on the right. I wasn’t really sure what he needed, but I loved the smell of the Hoppe’s gun oil he used when he let me help clean his deer rifle. This, however just didn’t seem to be a very personal gift, even if I enclosed a package of those little round gauze pads. Onward I would press, up the street in search of my treasures.
Chestnut Street had two-way traffic in those days and there was plenty of it on a Saturday afternoon. This meant I couldn’t cross to the Yolanda Shoppe. That didn’t stop me from straining my eyes to look longingly through the falling snowflakes at all the possibilities laid out in both of her festively decorated windows. One window display was for ladies items and the other for children’s wear. Kasperik’s Pharmacy, next door, also had a selection of ‘fine’ jewelry and cosmetics, not to mention Whitman’s Samplers, but again, it was across the street. To my ears, the sounds of the cars on those wintry streets, added to the Christmas spirit of the brightly decorated downtown. Some of them had their tire chains on and the jingle they made as they passed by reminded me of distant reindeer.
As much as I wanted to peruse these stores and all the other ones that continued down First Avenue, I wasn’t worried. The bonanza of shopping was still sitting right in front of me: the grandaddy of department stores in my 7-year-old head – G. C. Murphy’s 5 &10. Any gift I could ever imagine I knew could be found here. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the oiled floors, just like the ones at West Derry School where I was a second grader. As I pushed through the swinging doors, the icy wind made the silver icicles on the Christmas tree in the window flutter. I noticed Carlotta hard at work at the check out counter. I could also see Santa in the back on a little platform placed in front of the office. Several kids were waiting to sit on his lap but he would not be getting a visit from me today. I had bigger fish to fry.
Just inside the door was the fragrance department. The first thing that caught my eye was the fabulous display of the exotic sounding, imported scent of Evening in Paris. The dark purple bottles sat elegantly atop their satin-covered boxes. Some had a round atomizer pump with a long tassel. Tempted as I was, I didn’t feel the need to be hasty. I still had plenty of time to browse. In the back of the store was the housewares’ department. My mom was always in the kitchen. She really enjoyed baking and cooking and taking care of us. To me, she was also the most beautiful and elegant woman imaginable; therefore, to give her mundane cooking items as a Christmas gift just would not do. As I passed a rack of aprons, I noticed some ruffles protruding from the row of printed cotton and gingham ones and stopped to see what was hiding there, tucked in the back. As I pushed the others aside, my eyes were treated to the most beautiful sight – an apron made of chiffon and lace. The chiffon was a shimmery black and had a little pocket stitched on the left side at an angle. A ruffle was sewn all around the edge giving it a pouffed effect, and there was a red rose embroidered on the pocket. There were two ties of chiffon on each side that created a really big bow in the back. Now THIS was an apron. My mom would look better than Betty Furness and Harriet Nelson put together. One gift down and one to go.
I made my way up the aisle toward men’s clothing, stopping first in the shoe department to check out the new selection of Red Ball Jets and White Bucks. I found more ties, along with socks, pants, shirts and long underwear. Suddenly I spotted a stack of tee shirts. My dad wore cotton khaki or navy colored pants to work with a white tee shirt. It reminded me of a uniform, and I knew daddy would love more variety in his wardrobe, if he ever took the time to think about it. Now he didn’t have to. I would do it for him with my newly discovered stack of brightly colored shirts. They even had the required pocket for his pack of Camels. My only problem now was what color would be the most striking on my handsome daddy. It didn’t take long to narrow my selections down to the bright yellow one I finally chose. Yes, this was the gift I was searching for and I knew it would make all the other guys at Westinghouse want a shirt just like my dad’s!
As soon as Carlotta rang up my purchases, I was on my way back down the street and, in my excitement, crossing the street to the other side by myself. My mom was shocked to see me as she finished checking out her ‘order’. After a short lecture about the possibility of getting hit by a car, she let me pour the Eight O’clock coffee beans into the grinder at the checkout. Meanwhile, Margaret Yaccobucci was busy punching the prices into the old manual cash register. I remember her pulling that long wooden handle that scooped the groceries toward her. These were the days before the automated belt. I also seem to remember a stray bra strap slipping down her shoulder as she reached for each item. She would chat with me as I held the coffee bag in place, set the machine to ‘perk’ and watch the coffee grind out into the bag. That smell, to this day, is one of my all time favorites.
I don’t know what my mom really thought of that apron, but she wore it for years to prepare every festive party or holiday dinner we had. Although I’m sure it wasn’t very practical, she looked awfully glamourous in it. I have no such doubts about the bright yellow tee shirt. Daddy wore it to work only once. After that, he told me it was much too nice for work and he would wear it at home where it wouldn’t get dirty. After I was grown, he told me the story of the ribbing he took at ‘the shop’ the day he wore that shirt. It was an ongoing joke between us until his death last fall. Every Christmas, he would ask, with a chuckle, if I could find him another beautiful yellow tee shirt.
Over the years, I have given some pretty terrific Christmas gifts to people I love, but, somehow, I can’t seem to recall exactly what they were. Funny, how the details of these two purchases from the bustling Derry Shopping District of the 1950’s have stayed with me. They didn’t cost very much and were really nothing special. But I bet, if you had asked my mom and dad to list some of their most memorable gifts, these two would have been somewhere on that list.