The Christmas of ’44

          “Go ahead! Put the money in the slot.”  Nana, sensing the shyness of a nine-year-old boy, nudged me ahead. I inched forward to drop her half-dollar into the dangling red pot. The Salvation Army Band, who played on the corner of Kennedy and Main Street every Christmas season, was playing Oh Come All Ye Faithful. It was December 1944, and the war news dampened the Christmas spirit. Would there even be a Christmas?  My coin clinked into the pot, and the lady in uniform said, “Thank you, son.” I quickly returned to my grandmother’s side. 

          The band wore blue uniforms. The women had prairie bonnets tied under their chin, and the red inner lining of their cape, draped over their shoulder, added a flashy accent. The men sported high-collar jackets with double rows of brass buttons.  French horns and trumpets were backed up by a bass drum and a tambourine. Smiling shoppers stopped to sing a carol or two, then added to the pot, and moved on.

          It started snowing. Dancing crystal flakes displayed their lacy beauty against the blue uniforms for a millisecond, and then whispered into the wool. Between songs, the band would stomp their feet and blow on their fingers. A trumpet flared, and the band broke onto It Came upon a Midnight Clear. Nana coaxed me ahead. We walked past the Princess Shop, and crossed Main Street in front of the New Bradford Theatre.  We were going to Olsen’s Department store. Not my favorite place.

          I enjoyed Christmas shopping with Nana, but Olsen’s was pushing it. Nothing but women’s stuff: Ladies dresses, acres of lace curtains, towels, bed linens, and house wares.

          Pausing at the curb, Nana said, “Look how pretty the street is.”  The full length of Main was aglow. Bright colored lights spanned the street forming a fairy land tunnel leading to the Emery Hotel. A Christmas tree with blue and green lights was perched on their marquee. Decorated storefronts were a cornucopia of toys, dresses, hats, suits, and stacks of colorful packages. Plaster mannequins dressed as Santa and his elves invited everyone to stop and share their alcove.

          We paused to look at Olsen’s display window. Nana said, “That’s a pretty dress, don’t you think?”

          “It is, but would mom ever wear it?”  I read the small sign, Gala Occasion Dress–$7.79.

          “That’s true. She never goes anywhere to wear that. Maybe that pretty housecoat.”

          “Yea, and it’s only $4.79.”

 A woman I didn’t know stopped next to Nana and said, “Merry Christmas, Mame.  My heavens, your grandson is getting big.” She isn’t going to pat my head now, is she?

          “Well, thank you,” Nana answered, “Merry Christmas to you too.  Is Marshall going to make it home for Christmas?”

          “Oh, I’m sorry, Mame.  I guess you didn’t hear.  I got a telegram last month.” Choking a little, she continued softly, “Marshall was killed in France.” She paused. “So I’m just going to make it through the best I can.”  Nana summoned up a weak smile and reached to touch her arm.

           “I’m so sorry to hear that.  I just wish this damned war would end. So many families have been hurt.” I had never heard her say that word. We turned and entered the store.

          1944 was bad year.  After the June landing on D-day, it seemed like someone we knew was killed or wounded every week.  Last summer, Mrs. Weisenfluh, our neighbor across the street, changed her blue star window flag for a gold one. Mom said it was because her son, Grant, was killed in the war and she was now a Gold Star Mother.

          Leaving Olsen’s, we quick-stepped our way up a crowded Main Street. Moms swung paper shopping bags while kids skipped and danced alongside. I could still hear the strains of Noel, above the rhythmic hum of tire chains on the bare pavement. The rinng, rinng, rinng changed pitch as cars changed speed, connecting links clanked in time against the tire wells.

          Nana made a quick stop at James R. Evans men’s store to put $5.00 against her account. I lingered near the front of the store, examining the smooth leather gloves with real rabbit fur lining, laid out atop the glass display counter, waiting to be petted.

          We crossed Main Street at the Square and stopped, as always, at J. J. Newberrry’s 5¢ &10¢ store for a treat. I could taste the nonpareils as I watched the candy clerk, behind the slanted glass front, dig her metal scoop into the pile of the white beaded chocolate drops. She shook them into a small brown paper bag on the scale until the needle bounced to a quarter pound.

          Nana said, “Let’s get a cup of coffee and an English muffin before we head home.”

          “Oh, that sounds good, Nana. I love those things.”  We crossed the street to go into the Emery Hotel Coffee Shop. I thought English muffins were born there. They didn’t exist for me anyplace else. Certainly, never at home.

          We were refueled by the warm coffee. I felt a little embarrassed when Nana sent hers back with instructions to “Fill it to the top and make it hot.”  The waitress was new. Those who knew her always smiled as they poured her cup, “There, you are Mame, It’s fresh, hot and topped off.”

          Still licking the butter on my lips, we hurried up Mechanic Street until we crossed the iron bridge over Tuna Creek. We stopped at the Hobby Shop, a narrow old wooden building that barely clung to the creek bank, and I pressed my nose against the window, drooling over the solid balsa model of the B-29, the newest four engine bomber. It was beautiful. With shiny layers of silver dope, cellophane windshields, decals for black tail numbers, and American stars on the wings, it looked like the real thing. I gushed on about it a bit, hoping Nana would catch my hint.    We continued on, leaning against the cold wind. I was happy to get home where I could warm my hands in front of the open oven door.

          That night, as I lay in bed, I envisioned that B-29 hanging from a ceiling string, escorted by the P-51 fighter that already flew there.  I could see them dodging flack, and crossing into Germany, to shorten the war.

          It had been a wonderful night.  But, I still couldn’t help thinking about Mrs. Weisenfluh, the lady at Olsen’s, and even my aunt, Irene. Her fiancé, Frank, was killed at the landing at Anzio last Valentine’s Day. What about their holidays? What about the GI’s who couldn’t get home?

          I pretended to be asleep when mom, on her way to bed, lingered at my bedside, kissed her fingers, and touched them to my forehead. When she left I rolled over, closed my eyes, and somehow, I just knew—our Christmas was going to be OK.

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