Memories of Christmas past

Friday, December 21, 2007

As my son Gideon prepares to celebrate his fourth Christmas, I hope his memories will be happy and indelible.

I certainly have fond recollections of Christmas in Lewisburg in the Sixties and Seventies. The general themes of a small town Christmas never change, but the details alter over the years. The friends and acquaintances you ran into while shopping back then talked about places that would seem alien to today's newcomers.

"I'm still at Borden and my wife is still at Genesco," you might hear. Or "I've gone to Venus Esterbrook now." Or "I'm trying to get on at the casting plant if Nora Mills isn't hiring." Some of the shoppers might have been between jobs and bought their gifts with deposits from returnable soft drink bottles.

The crowds were less culturally diverse. Chinese food was something that New Yorkers ate, and most of us still thought that "Feliz Navidad" was Christopher Columbus' girlfriend. Many well-wishers might have been expecting out-of-town company to arrive at the old Greyhound bus station on East Commerce. Those visitors might have visited a local "beer joint" or bootlegger, but they wouldn't have found a packaged liquor store.

Recollections of holiday transportation evoke long-gone names. People tooled around town in vehicles from Burgett Motors or Sharp Buick or Carter Chevrolet. You fueled those cars with gasoline from Sinclair, Esso or Red Ace and would've thrown a fit if the attendant hadn't pumped your gas, cleaned your windshield, handed you trading stamps, and given you a personal tour of Henry Ford's home.

Most business revolved around the square, and at least four restaurants were within walking distance. You learned to plan ahead, because many businesses closed on Thursday afternoons. Shoppers had to keep one eye on the bargains and another on those darned parking meters. People hoped that they would find their first low-definition color TV from Butler Brothers under the Christmas tree. Many stores were still leery of BankAmericard and MasterCard. There were no ATMs, and cell phones for price comparisons were the stuff of science fiction.

I remember standing in line to see Santa Claus at Sears Roebuck (or "Sears Robot," as I thought it was called) when it was on Water Street. (I still have my 1968 Sears "Wish Book.") I think poor Santa was just going through the motions by the time he got to me. "You could put an eye out, kid" is not my idea of a proper response to a request for Batman house slippers.

The arrival of the Western Auto Christmas circular made me anxious to rush to the east side of the square, which was also the home of Kuhn's Variety Store and Durham's (later Rennie's) five-and-dime. Yes, the east side was truly Toyland. (Political correctness has ruined the concept of Toyland for me, however. Nowadays the song would be "Toyland, toyland, dear little girl and boy and transgendered individual land.")

If you were getting (ugh!!) clothes for Christmas, at least you knew you could find quality merchandise at M. Ginsberg Dry Goods ("Right on the square and right on the price"), The National Store (where Gentry Speed and Bernie Hensley served the public), Moss & Barham, and Rhea's Shoe Store.

You've heard of "cat head biscuits"? Peoples and Union Bank used to hand out "cat head apples" at Christmas time. Such practices faded away because of greedy people getting in line twice and bankers becoming preoccupied with a dizzying whirlwind of buyouts, mergers and name changes. ("Attention, staff, we have just been bought out by … ourselves. Please load your desks onto the U-Haul outside and send them right back here.")

If Perry Gillum and Denny Walker on WJJM-AM got you started craving Christmas songs, you could travel to Easy Pay Tire Store (located on East Commerce, where the Good Samaritan Corp. is now) for the latest Goodyear album. Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, Maurice Chevalier and heartthrob Bobby Sherman sang songs much more uplifting than today's "I Saw Momma Kissing Mrs. Claus" or "How The Grinch Stole His Sports Memorabilia Back."

I remember dear old Hardison Elementary School. I had a homebound teacher for a month, but Dr. Rutledge gave me clearance to attend Mrs. Cummings' first-grade Christmas party. Mrs. Dorothy Shubert gave us second-graders LifeSavers "books" for Christmas. Mrs. Ted Shelton's third grade class participated in a Christmas pageant in which Angie Thomas sang "O, Little Town of Bethlehem." Beautifully. One of the stated reasons for the closing of the school was that the oily floors were a fire hazard. Ironically, the county didn't have any qualms about moving the senior citizens into the structure. (I can just hear Nat King Cole crooning "Codgers roasting on an open fire…")

Sometimes the years blur together, but other memories are more distinct.

For instance, on Christmas Eve, 1971, I went with my mother to Purdom's Market No. 2 on East Commerce, where Mr. Malone sold her old-fashioned cluster raisins. This was around the year that my brother and I went to Bishop's Market, on the current Roberts & Lyons property, to buy Mom a decorative long-necked vase. These clusters reminded her of her own childhood during the Great Depression. I have the utmost confidence that someday today's kids will reconstruct childhood memories with clusters of credit cards.

Some of my memories are bittersweet. I learned that when Heil-Quaker laid off during December, Santa Claus -- for some mysterious reason -- brought fewer gifts to the children of people who worked in retail.

Then there was the year I tried getting rich selling mail-order Christmas cards, after seeing an ad in a magazine. I think I stood in front of the David Lee department store (good thing "the little general," as the radio commercials called the store manager, didn't chase me away), vainly hawking my wares like the old man in the song "Pretty Paper."

I learned (a) I should've started earlier in the season, (b) I wasn't cut out to be a salesman, and (c) if you get cold enough, flagpoles will come up and stick their tongues on you.

You don't have to embellish the facts the way I do, but I invite you to keep a journal each holiday season. It will mean a lot to you and your family in years to come.

As for 2007, merry Christmas from the Tyrees -- Danny, Melissa and Gideon.