Peggy Keener: Virgin Christmas shoppers

Published 4:53 pm Friday, December 23, 2022

Do you recall the first Christmas that the child in you became generous? I mean the first time you realized that Christmas was not all about you? (What? You mean to tell me that Christmas is about other people, too?) I clearly recall when it happened to me.

The year was 1945. My brother Neil (6) and I (7) were about to venture into Austin’s ultimate holiday headquarters—Woolworth’s Five and Dime—with the goal of each finding a wondrous gift for our mother. To our amazement, we found awaiting us a host of compelling possibilities. Aisle upon burgeoning aisle was full of reasonably priced altruistic possibilities, the splendor nearly overwhelming us.

This was the first time we’d ever gone shopping by ourselves. And, we were spending our own money! The dedication to the mission was monumental. Diligently we began the search. But, where to begin? Woolworth’s Five and Dime was huge.

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Slowly we worked our way down each aisle, scrutinizing every possibility. What would Mom absolutely love? About an hour into our quest, we found ourselves at the back of the store. This was an area to which we had never ventured. Actually, an area we had never dared to enter. It was, after all, grownup territory—scary, foreign and completely unknown to us as we had only previously purchased comic books, paper dolls, crayons and coloring books from the front of the store.

Suddenly everything changed. We were surrounded by glitz and glamour with lights glinting off of a hundred crystal surfaces. Unbeknownst to us, we had just entered the hallowed aisles of Woolworth’s Five and Dime Fine China Department. With pyrotechical sparks shimmering off of the crudely cut glass, we were awed by the grandeur.

In that moment, Neil and I knew we had just struck gold. This kind of refinement was exactly what our discerning mother deserved. This year there would be no clove-studded oranges nor glued-on macaroni art from us! No, siree!

About now you should know that Mom had a truly refined sense of style. In our home, one could see at every turn of the head, the discriminating influence of Daytons’ fine décor. I just knew that Mom’s holiday table—with its French Haviland China and Gorham sterling silver flatware—would only be enhanced by just about anything in Woolworth’s Five and Dime Fine China Department. My heart skipped a beat.

You have no idea … I tell you, no idea … how I agonized over my decision. Back and forth, back and forth I went finally slimming the choices down to my final selection. My fingers trembled as I held it to the light. Yes, this was it. Perfection.

A set of salt and pepper shakers.

They were like nothing I’d ever seen. All I knew about such things were the exquisite sterling silver capped, cut glass salt and pepper shakers that sat at each end of our dining room table. Well, those puppies were about to have company.

How to describe my choice? Now that I think back on it, I realize the glass was thick, clunky and cloudy. But did I see that then? Not on your life. What I saw was a pair of birds. Little tiny birds; one for salt and one for pepper. And on top of each peerless bird head was a beautifully sculpted red plastic screw-on cap. Honestly, the sophistication nearly laid me flat!

But, that wasn’t all. Au contraire. The birds came nestled together on their own little thick, clunky, cloudy dish. Three pieces in one! The artistry would have left anyone reeling.

In the meantime, Neil had wandered over to Woolworth’s Five and Dime Fine Arts Department where he had stopped dead in front of the sculptures. There spread out before his unbelieving eyes were works of art of such magnitude that he was left speechless. Which one would Mom love above all the others?

By now I was standing beside him with my thick, clunky, cloudy red plastic capped bird salt and pepper shakers clutched to my chest. Having just made my choice, I could feel the agony of Neil’s decision. The air in the Fine Arts Department was brittle with anticipation.

Then Neil raised up on his toes and reached over to the middle of the dazzling display. As both of our hearts simultaneously thumped, his fingers curled around it. His selection.

It was an extraordinary, unsurpassed, incomparable eight-inch plaster of Paris (did you get that … Paris, for Pete’s sake! …) second-to-none perfect replica of a deer’s head. With antlers.

Mom was about to be stupefied.

We were so tingly with excitement that we could barely contain ourselves as we counted out our coins on the Woolworth’s Five and Dime counter. Then the clerk wrapped our treasures in tissue paper. (Yes, snazzy tissue paper!) Anyone looking on would have easily recognized that we had just crossed over into adulthood.

We walked home (one mile in the snow) jabbering in our excitement. What a Christmas this was going to be. Once there, we wrapped our gifts and placed them under the tree, both in very conspicuous spots.

And then the wait began.

On Christmas morning, we were beyond containment. Neil and I barely breathed as we handed our gifts to Mom. She opened mine first. It took only a second to tell from the stunned look on her face that she adored the thick, clunky, cloudy pair of bird salt and pepper shakers. “Why,” she even exclaimed, “I’ve never seen anything like this!” Success was mine.

Then it was Neil’s turn. If excitement could be cut with a knife, then he was slicing off big chunks of it. By now a somewhat leary Mom slowly unfolded the tissue paper (tissue paper!) until at last the gift was revealed. Astonishment erupted from Mom’s dumbfounded eyes. She sat there mute. This was all Neil needed to know that his gift had left her utterly speechless. Thunderstruck?

But, there was more. Neil wasn’t finished yet. He proceeded to explain in slow clearly pronounced English—so that no mistake could be made—that there was only one place in this whole entire earth that this deer head could go. That would be directly over Mom’s bed.

Here I should explain that this bed was in the bedroom which Mom had recently redecorated with beautiful rose covered wallpaper and matching twin bedspreads. It was a designer’s dream, and I would now add, a room about as far from including a glued together, bodiless, antlered woodland creature as one could get.

What were we thinking?

In the weeks to follow, the thick, clunky, cloudy avian salt and pepper duo drifted on and off the kitchen table. As for the defunct Bambi, he simply faded into the sunset. Years later Mom told me the agony she went through over whether or not to hang the deer’s head. More than anything she didn’t want to hurt her little boy’s feelings, to say nothing of dampening his sense of style.

That shopping experience was a Christmas I will never forget. All these many decades later, I can still feel the excitement of the quest and the joy of the presentation. The outcome was of no consequence. Rather it was the fulfillment of giving to Mom that Neil and I treasured. Whatever happened to the birds and the deer head? Who knows? They will forevermore remain as two of life’s imponderables.