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Posts Tagged ‘Sears catalog’

The Thanksgiving Day newspaper landed on the lawn, causing small seismic tremors with its load of advertising inserts. Thick colored booklets from all of the major retailers spread out on the dining room table, advertising sales that would begin in the early evening and run through the night. The black ink of Friday seeped into the calendar page of Thursday, like Marley’s ghost dragging its chain of debt.

When I was a boy in south Florida, I spent each October and November poring over the Sears Christmas catalog with my brother and sister. We would lie on the floor of the old stone house hidden among fruit trees, with our heads together, skipping quickly past the clothing ads and into the bright colored toy section. There were the treasures I longed for, double holstered cap guns, space stations, baseball gloves, and plastic castles with one hundred knights on horseback, all arranged to capture a boy’s imagination. It was an early training in consumerism.

So, I thumbed through every page of every newspaper catalog Thanksgiving morning, but nothing stirred my imagination. I did not see myself in the skinny jeans or wearing the noise cancelling headphones or tapping the screen of the iPad. I did not want to wait in the late hours of the evening at the door of a big bright store with a crowd of other well-trained consumers. But I was not above it all – no, I wanted my Black Friday, too.

That morning my family got up in shifts based on age, first me, then my wife, then much later the older daughter, followed, after much coaxing, by her teenage sister. By this time, Black Friday had been ongoing for about nine hours. We thought downtown State College, with the students gone for the holiday, would be less hectic, and we were not disappointed. The sidewalks were mostly uncluttered and the shoppers unhurried. Families stopped to look in windows, nobody pushed or cursed. The clerks were unharried.

We ate a leisurely breakfast at the Waffle Shop across from campus, then wandered for an hour among the shops on College Avenue. There were many things I admired, but none that I longed for. We all seemed on the same wavelength, if I read my wife and daughters right. This year we are hoping to save toward a special trip in the future, and the British Isles seem more glistening than ear rings. We bought a few stocking stuffers and thought of England.

My mother always liked to imagine she would take her extended family on a trip to England some day. She wanted to walk among those places she had read about in novels and poetry, the Lake Country of the Romantic poets, the London streets of Dickens, Walter Scott’s misty hills. The years came and went, and she grew too old to climb the hills. It was a sad day when she told us we would have to go on our own without her. But England would remain, green and perfect in her imagination.

We ended the day, as we often do, in the library. There the gifts were all on the shelves, and we plucked them like gold apples, eager and greedy. They were gifts of the imagination for this alternative Black Friday, and we sat in the warm library and read for hours.

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Usually around this time of year I take down my old, much-used copy of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Three Stories” and read Truman Capote’s short story about his childhood in Alabama called “A Christmas Memory.” This is the story about his simple elderly cousin, who calls him Buddy, and the fruitcakes they make for strangers each year in late November.

“It’s fruitcake weather,” his friend says on a clear, cold coming-of-winter morning, and out they go to search for windfall pecans and to buy supplies to make their fruitcakes. These mornings feel like fruitcake weather to me, a coming of winter, coming of Christmas kind of weather that reminds me of my Florida childhood, of aunts and uncles visiting, and my round white-haired grandmother baking in her kitchen.

We did not have pecan trees, but there were orange and tangerine trees, and guava trees out by the fence. It is easy to climb a tree and pluck a ripe mango, and eat it with the juice dripping down your chin while your legs dangled over a thick branch down into space. Back in the little house the women relatives are getting Sunday dinner and my older sister is setting the big oak table. The men smoking pipes or cigars on the porch ask my father how the fishing has been this season in Whitewater Bay. My father, who runs a charter boat out of Flamingo down at the tip of the Florida mainland, takes fishermen from up north out to catch snook and tarpon and sometimes the giant grouper, which in those less enlightened days we called Jewfish.

At the time I am thinking of I am five years old, listening in on the elders, who seem ancient but cannot be much more than thirty or thirty-five. Even my great uncle, my grandfather’s younger brother, is only in his fifties, my own age today. Uncle Ernest has white hair and a round, jolly face. He is married to a horse faced, frightening woman with a braying voice, my aunt Amy. I am named for my great uncles, Ernest and Walter, though Walter, the charming and flamboyant brother, died years before I was born.

It’s fruitcake weather, and I remember my older brother hopping out of bed to light the wood burning stove in the living room to take the early morning chill off the air. He is eleven, a fierce warrior with palmetto swords and homemade bamboo pea shooters. To me he is the soul of competence; he can plait a lanyard out of palmetto fronds, whistle between his fingers, steer a boat, and scale and gut a fish.

My sister, who is nine, is the teacher. She reads to me from her library books about Lancelot and Sir Galahad and corrects my grammar. I am her student and the actor in her dramas. She would like to teach me to be a knight like Galahad, but the best I can do is learn to bow and gallop around like a boy centaur, swinging my palmetto branch sword.

In Florida winters, I lie barefoot in the grass and watch the clouds scoot across the sky. Christmas is coming, and I have studied the toy section of the Sears mail order catalog until the pages have worn thin. My mother measures us for pants and sweaters, and writes our sizes down on the order forms, but I am hoping for either the gigantic toy gas station with cars and gas pumps and little attendants dressed in white uniforms, or the tall castle with turrets and flags flying and knights on horseback with lances or swords held steady.

In “A Christmas Memory,” the young Buddy’s true childhood ends at the age of seven or eight when he is taken away from his beloved friend, sent away to military school, leaving his cousin and her dog Queenie to carry on their fruitcake making alone. My Florida childhood ended at about the same age, when we moved to the bleak wintry landscape of Tennessee, leaving behind my grandmother and the fruit orchard, the bamboo thicket and the palmetto swords.

It’s a coming of winter morning fifty years later. The ingredients for half a dozen fruitcakes are piled in a bowl in the kitchen. My daughters come downstairs to bring me hand colored paper angels to decorate my desk. It’s fruitcake weather, and my childhood is reborn in their eyes.

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