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.