When I was a kid, Woolworth’s was by far my favorite store. Shopping in other places tended to be hampered by formality and by clerks hovering around waiting to tell me what they thought I should buy. At Woolworth’s, however, the clerks all stayed put behind the counters, and I could relax and go at things in my own way and at my own speed. My fellow shoppers always reminded me of sheep, grazing away in the aisles, taking their lazy fill of looking and touching, and then looking and touching some more. Nobody cared that I was just a kid.
Woolworth’s, also, was the one store where I could do more than shop, because a high percentage of the merchandise was affordable to someone who earned a salary of thirty-five cents a week for taking out the trash, drying the dishes every-other night and doing yard work in the summer. It gave me my first taste of economic independence, let me experience the satisfaction of buying stuff with my own money. In other stores, everything had to be bought with my parent’s money.
Today, I’m writing about a family heirloom that came from Woolworth’s. It came to me when my parents decamped to a retirement home, and I recently passed it on to my daughter, spinner/weaver/writer Liz Gipson, who was raised to value treasure when she receives it.
I remember my mother buying the heirloom. She was standing at a counter in Woolworth’s, picking through a jumble of tiny, white china bells, hand-painted by some enterprising Japanese artisan. Some said “Merry Christmas;” others, “Season’s Greetings.”
And one said neither…
I have a vivid image of my mother turning to my sister and I, holding up one of the tiny bells and smiling hugely. “Look!” she said. “Whoever painted it didn’t speak English, and so they created this!”
That tiny bell has always seemed a direct gift from that Japanese person to me; one person’s attempt to wish me holiday good cheer across the great cultural gap between us.
WMRA, the public radio station where I work, is in Harrisonburg, Virginia. And thanks to the community’s welcoming spirit , Harrisonburg is astonishingly multi-cultural. I’m often the only English speaker at the gym where I go to work out. I speak a little pidgin French, but no Spanish or Russian or anything else. But still, we all muddle along together, getting by on mutual respect; wishing each other well as best we are able with our make-shift means of communication.
So, in the spirit of America’s increasing multiculturalism, I would like to wish Season’s Christmas to us, one and all!