In the Indianapolis Woolworth’s, I bought a Davy Crockett coonskin hat for fifty cents when I was eight. It was the biggest store I’d been in by myself until the Famous-Barr Co. department store in Clayton, Missouri.

In 1956 my family moved to Maryland Avenue in Clayton, directly behind the mid-century modern Famous-Barr store. Old-growth trees, low-lying rhododendron and azaleas filled our property. Burglar-proof chain link fences adorned with honeysuckle prevented all of us on Maryland Avenue from wandering over to the store through the loading dock from our backyards.

The first time I perched on an oak branch and peeked through its leaves at windowless Famous-Barr, I imagined a space ship had landed without anyone telling us. The 1940’s modern has a molded-cement four-story curved front, made to mimic the curve of Forsyth Avenue. My ten year old feet were itching to sneak down the street and around the fence to explore the inside.

As soon as my mother discovered I’d been wandering around Famous-Barr by myself, she sent me on errands to purchase small items like buttons and thread, and birthday cards she’d never send. I spent a lot of time examining the jewelry and when I received money for my tenth birthday I promptly ran to Famous-Barr for a coveted Elvis necklace.

One day before Christmas my mother kept me home from school and sent me to Famous-Barr. I had strict instructions to buy solid red wrapping paper, solid green ribbon and scotch tape.When I arrived home, boxes were piled up on the living room floor stamped with the Famous-Barr logos. She showed me how to wrap one box and told me to do the rest.

“Do not under any circumstances look in any of the boxes,” she instructed, “Just wrap them and put them under the tree.”

Then she went to bed.

It didn’t take long before I deduced she trusted me with keeping the contents secret. Of course she expected me to look inside. Every box had clothes for me and my two sisters. Skirts, blouses, sweaters, socks, underwear, shoes, gloves and hats. My mother thought sameness was elegant. She dressed us alike, as she did the boxes. 

I was used to keeping family secrets and easily kept this one. My sisters would have been angry with me for different reasons if I’d told them. One, because I knew before she did. The other, because she hated dressing in the same clothes, and that was reason enough to resent me.

On Christmas morning there were full ashtrays and dirty glasses throughout the house from the night before. Our parents were impossible to arouse from their drunken stupor so we opened presents without them. We shuffled the garments between us to try on our respective sizes. We loved our clothes and remained dressed all day as if someone might come along and take a picture.

For many holidays since, I’ve decorated boxes and feigned excitement. But true holiday spirit left me forever on the notions floor of Famous-Barr.


5 thoughts on “Holidays Interrupted

  1. A nice memory. In Fort Worth, Texas, we had a similar store called “Leonard Brothers Dept. Store.” They carried everything the stores in the East did, and the place took up two city blocks. I remember a few Christmas Eve parties with relatives that celebrated a bit too much, but Christmas morning was always a joy, even if I knew there was no Santa Claus, which went on until I was around ten. Sometimes, I still believe, but that’s my age-arranged mind at work. Good writing; keep it up.

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  2. You truly were her confidant! Your stories are so vivid, everything comes alive from the landscape to the paper, ribbon & tape & overflowing ashtrays! Your memory is amazing!

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  3. Dear Regan,

    I almost always relate to something in your posts but somehow I never respond. Tonight I’m actually typing a response. I too have memories of Famous-Barr as a magnet filled with fascinating treasures. That came later, though, after my dad retired from the army when I was in high school. The memory you triggered happened earlier, when we lived in Germany in the 1950s. It’s the experience of wrapping your own presents to open on Christmas morning.

    My mother was too busy with her clubs and music activities to spend time on mundane things like Christmas shopping. When I was about ten, we were at the PX one day and I saw a toy I really wanted: a “veterinarian” set with six tiny rubber cages and six tiny rubber dogs. Mom: “If I get it for you for Christmas, will you act surprised?” Me: “Oh, yes, yes!”

    I should mention that I tried very hard to “make” Christmas for my family every year. I stuffed stockings with treats for my parents, then woke them up to open their stockings from “santa.” No, I didn’t have a stocking myself. I bought, wrapped, and placed gifts under the tree. Most of the presents there were for my mother—offerings from her piano students that she saved to unwrap on Christmas morning.

    So—the “veterinarian” year. Christmas morning came. We gathered around the tree. Lots of piano-themed trinkets for my mom. The usual box of cigars, tin of pipe tobacco, and can of cashews for my father. I clapped and cheered as they opened each package. Then finally I opened my one gift. Oh look—six little dogs with their very own cages. What a delightful surprise!

    As you say, for many years since I’ve wrapped presents and feigned excitement at Christmas. But mostly I wait for it to be over.

    Keep writing, Regan!


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