There was a box that reappeared under the Christmas tree every year at the house where I grew up, and it happened for as long as I lived there. It took two or three years when I was a tot to notice the annual reappearance of The Buster Brown Sock Box, but eventually it became obvious that Santa Claus was decades ahead of the recycling movement.
It was a yearly curiosity, the question of who’d have a gift in that long-lived box. Because of its size and its original use, it usually held practical items, like the predictable socks for my brother or me, or new gloves to wear to church. The worn ones that were getting a bit snug in the fingers could now be relegated to school wear. New hunting socks for my dad fit the box perfectly, the gray woolen kind with red toes and a wide band of red around the top of the cuff. A book, stuffed in tight with tissue paper, was my preferred present, if the gift tag had my name on it.
Whatever was in the box brought a smile to someone in the family. As long as it wasn’t the dreaded underwear!
Santa shopped locally, like my mother, because I often recognized familiar labels on our gifts. That was one little detail I tried not to think about; it didn’t quite fit the North Pole scenario, but Christmas didn’t seem like a good time for me to get caught up in pesky details.
Santa reused more than The Buster Brown Sock Box; he recycled bows and wrapping paper and he’d probably have reused tape if he’d been able to make it stick. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to deliver gifts wrapped in paper creased with memories from years past and bedecked with ribbons that looked vaguely familiar, as if I’d met them—oh, say—about a year before.
Yes, indeed, feel free to insert a winking emoticon here.
The annual appearance of The Buster Brown Sock Box became an element of my story, a single memory that brushes aside the cobwebs of the past and teases vague recollections into the light. Dusting off my memories of Christmas in Corinth in the late ‘50s through the ‘60s and early ‘70s, I find that my musings are as sturdy as that sock box. Simple and tenacious.
Our annual visit to Toyland, upstairs over the old Mitchell’s department store at the corner of Fillmore and Wick, was the official beginning of the Santa season for me. It always began on a crisp Saturday morning, soon after Thanksgiving, when Daddy would nonchalantly saunter through the house, accompanied by the slight sizzle of the gas heaters. Almost to himself, he’d say, “I was thinking I might go to Toyland. Anybody want to go with me?”
Want to go? Out of my way. I was already pulling on my coat. Younger brother was on his own.
Around the perimeter of the second story wonderland were magical painted images of fairy tale characters. Ole King Cole was of particular fascination to me because I’d seen Nat “King” Cole singing on TV and this robe-and-crown-wearing cartoon character bore no resemblance to the crooner. Still, the similarity of names baffled me and I concluded that they must be relatives.
And there was Humpty Dumpty, in all his ovate glory, depicted teetering on a brick wall. He remained teetering, year after year, observed by walls full of his fairy tale friends. Below the painted characters, cellophane-wrapped dolls lined up on shelves, in bridal dresses and fancy outfits, while beneath them were displays of Tonka trucks, games, baby doll buggies, toy dishes, pedal cars, doll houses, and more— enough delight to leave me speechless at the abundance.
When I peer into that memory, it sparkles with such intensity that the details blur like the reflection of big colored Christmas bulbs dancing on silvery tinsel.
If I’m not mistaken, it was also in the vicinity of the old Mitchell’s store that my dad and I went to the Christmas parade, just the two of us. I can be forgiven if I mistake the exact location, because I was little, really little. Probably three years old, bundled up in my red wool coat, I clearly remember Daddy hoisting me onto his shoulders so I could see the splendor of the majorettes, tassels swinging on their white boots. The band stopped in front of us, as if on request, and I could feel the music vibrate inside my ribcage, the brass instruments gleaming below the street lights and the bass drum throbbing. The breath of the majorettes was suspended in the night air, like the memory now suspended in my mind, and I worried that their legs were cold under their short skirts.
Fast forward to school impressions. A couple of weeks ago, as I drove west on Linden Street, I turned onto Wenasoga Road and stopped to pay my respects to what remains of the auditorium of West Corinth Elementary School, the façade now crumbling as deconstruction continues on what is, to me, hallowed ground. As I write this, enough of the auditorium still stands for me to see the stage where yearly Christmas programs played out. Today the roof sags open. Overcast shadows spill across the space but it isn’t today that I see. I see the space circa 1960-66.
The stage once jutted out to either side, creating a narrow ledge in front of the flanking brick walls, where I stood and recited my memorized paragraph about Christmas in England in the sixth grade program. I wore a long dress my mother made, red with a lacy stand-up Elizabethan collar that she based on illustrations in our treasured World Book Encyclopedia. From a neighbor, she borrowed a couple of skirt hoops and situated one high and one low in a petticoat, so the silhouette of my costume was true to the era. That skirt took up the entire depth of the ledge. Yikes! I clearly recall holding my breath as I navigated my way back onto more spacious footing.
Through the gaping front wall, the crumbling hallway gives way to a tangible picture in my mind. One more time, I feel the excitement of party day and early dismissal, a child finally set free for Christmas vacation. My first grade classroom is now rubble, but I still have the dainty china boot that Mrs. Jewel Goforth, principal and teacher, gave each of her girl students for Christmas. For six years, Christmas parties played out for me down that hallway, with the anxiety about whether my teacher would like her gift, or— in the case of sixth grade— whether Mr. Victor Miller would like his handkerchiefs, because I noticed that, like my daddy, he always had one in his back pocket.
My mother was a full-time homemaker so she was usually one of the moms who brought treats for the parties and stayed to tidy up stray wrapping paper and crumbs, while the teacher helped students clear out for the holidays. I liked how it felt to help with the tasks and the slightly surreal experience of being in a school building as it emptied itself of the bustle of children and settled into the quiet of its own Christmas vacation.
The thing about growing up and growing older in the same town is that the past and present overlap at every street corner and along every sidewalk. At the corner of Wick and Fillmore, at Linden Street and Wenasoga Road. Along Waldron, Cruise, Taylor, Foote.
The store fronts in this familiar downtown, changed from my youth and continuing to change, have the stories of my distant and recent memories etched into them. The streets that I’ve driven for decades take me past images that I still see clearly, though many are only in my mind’s eye now.
Consistently, the traditions of stepping into the magical lure of Toyland, of childhood Christmas programs and parties and parades, of The Buster Brown Sock Box, anchored my Christmas experience. And, of course, there are more stories for another day, recollections that resurfaced simply because I unwrapped these few.
We all have them. Personal, potent, poignant.
One reminiscence leads to another. We can’t help it; that’s how we are wired. Stories long to be given voice and they long to be given ear. They make us human.
Somewhere a little girl would like to ask about what it was like back “in the olden days” and she very much wants us to stop what we’re doing and listen to her telling her story, too. A little boy wants the company of an adult who will slow down and hear him share his Christmas wishes, an adult who will admit that he, too, still has dreams.
Whether we are four years old or ninety-four, our narratives are the most substantial gifts we give each other. Once given, they can’t be lost, stolen, or misplaced.
They become not “my” story but “our” stories.
May we value our collective stories as the precious gifts they are, sharing thoughtfully and receiving gracefully.
Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor in Alcorn County. She contributes to the Daily Corinthian and Crossroads Magazine. She may be reached at email@example.com or (662)808-0902.
This post appeared as a column in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, December 15, 2015.