Three years ago on this site I recalled a time and place at Christmas. I humbly submit it again with some minor revisions. Not just to inflate my credits, but to honor my 91 year old mother, mired in dementia, still lively, still the best parent ever. For us it's been a year of incidents: our daughter's close call at the Boston Marathon in April, some serious medical issues for each of us, and other turns in the road.
Here's what I wrote in 2010, with a few revisions.
As an almost 16 year old there wasn't much I didn't know. I set out on a journey one late November morning to the place were everyone shopped in those days—downtown and the big department stores.
I don't remember who told me perfume was a great gift and I’m sure I never thought about what it might cost. As a teenager I was past the allowance stage and into the making money at odd jobs period of my life. Don't recall how much was in my wallet that day, other than the change I needed for the streetcar to get downtown.
I shivered in the cold northeast morning air, waiting for that telltale loud scraping sound of steel wheels fighting steel groves in the cobblestone roads of Carrick, the next little borough in Western Pennsylvania. I had walked the mile to the streetcar stop so much that I never gave it a second thought, finding a five-dollar bill on the sidewalk and thinking that I would get in trouble for keeping it—which I did of course.
The ash and snow-covered streetcar arrived and waited at the turnaround. I got on, wishing these things had real heat. The bench seats were painted wooden slats, the kind that you feel even with layers of clothes on. The trolley lurched forward, bell clanging as we headed toward downtown, Pittsburgh, the steel city, the one with the renaissance, whatever that was.
Forty-five minutes and about 20 stops later we crossed the rail bridge. I waited until I could see the marquee of the big department store, Kaufmann’s, gleaming through the soot-covered window. I got off, making sure no cars hit me—it happened to my aunt and she spent about three weeks in the hospital with two broken bones. Safely off the street I entered the large store and, for the first time since leaving home, I was warm enough to take off my coat and scarf.
Department stores put perfume counters at the main first floor entrance, although at the time I didn't know that. Confronted with row on row of glass shelves and women bustling to and fro behind the counter, I waited, hoping to get noticed. Finally, a woman about the age of my grandmother approached me, seeing that I might be a customer not just a looker.
“Yes,” she said in that “May I help you young man since you're lost” kind of voice.
“I, er, um, well, I was wondering about perfume and…”
“Gift?” she asked, cutting me off.
“Yes, it's for a special person, a really nice kind, you know.”
“Of course,” she said, turning to the counter behind her and surveying the rows of tiny boxes and bottles. “Do you have a price range that you would like to see?”
“Under five dollars is my limit,” I said, moving my hands against my hanging scarf, trying to remove the sweaty wrinkles.
“Well, let me see, maybe we can find something nice. Do you have a preference for any particular kind, any special brand?” She reached for a large bottle on her left.
“Actually, I never bought any before, so one might be as good as another. But a friend told me that Shalimar, I think that’s the name, that it was good.” I fumbled in my coat pocket for a folded piece of notepaper on which a friend, Pete, had written the name and something that started with a G.
“Oh yes, Shalimar by Guerlain is a wonderfully exotic blend of things; exquisite for any occasion,” she said. It was a speech meant for older boyfriends and guilty husbands, not me.
I asked the price; it was 18 dollars. I thanked her, turned to leave.
“Wait,” she said, “seems we are having a special, just today, unadvertised.” She peeled a small price sticker from the bottom, placed the perfume bottle in tissue paper, then a gift box, and handed it to me. “Five dollars please, that includes the tax," she said, smiling.
I thanked her again, rode home on the streetcar clutching that package tightly. My mother opened the little box Christmas Eve and was crying as she thanked me, telling me that no one had ever given her this kind of fancy perfume before.
I told her that I was the one who got the gift, once from a total stranger in that department store, and now from her.
A postscript: Mom is now 91 and her ability to recall anything from yesterday has faded. But this one sticks in both our memories--and is the essence of giving and receiving, for me and for her.