In the town where I grew up, we planned our shopping trips and errands around the odd hours that the businesses kept. The banks, stores, and offices all closed at noon on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but the retail stores stayed open until 9:00 p.m. on Thursday nights. That was the day to walk down the crowded sidewalks, stopping to chat with a neighbor, just being out and about.
We are often fooled by our cherished memories: childhood homes that mysteriously shrunk from the size we thought they were; candy bars we loved when we were 10 now taste like over-sweetened wax.
I have no delusions about my hometown, though. I’ve returned a few times to find a depressing business district. Although the city does keep the parks up and has added attractive street lamps, the main street is no longer the vibrant shopping hub it was before they built the mall outside of town.
When I was young, however, I couldn’t imagine ever moving away. The city was situated just south of the point where the river branched out, spreading east and west through the county, leaving natural parks and waterfalls within the city limits. If the river wasn’t too high, you could drive from park to park over a ford, the car’s tires cutting little wakes through the water that flowed across the pavement. You drove slowly to keep the brakes from getting wet, for you would need them on the steep hills at each end of the ford.
In town, the main street was lined with a lively mix of businesses anchored around a family owned department store. There was a Sears Roebuck and J. C. Penney, movie theaters, hardware stores, and restaurants.
My father liked to pay the bills in person each month. My mother wrote the checks and on Saturday morning, my father and I drove into town to make our rounds. Off we would go into the gas, electric, and telephone companies, then to the bank to pay the mortgage. I stood in line with him at each place, waiting our turn. Then, stamped receipts in hand, we walked to Sears, where my father left me downstairs while he went to the office on the third floor.
Sears was a major retailer then and I loved leafing through the thick catalogs that came in the mail. We always kept the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs under the sofa and I liked to pull them out to look at the toys, and dog houses, and admire the handsome male models.
The store didn’t carry as many items as the catalog, of course, but on the lower level, next to the appliances, was my favorite department. Ours was not a rural town but Sears sold western saddles in a department next to the appliances. There were a dozen or so of them displayed on (what else?) sturdy wooden saw horses.
Since most of my Saturdays were spent in our living room watching Westerns on television, I admired a handsome saddle. I loved the sound of creaking leather. When the Lone Ranger turned in the saddle to speak with Tonto, there it was! That sound! C-r-e-a-k!
The salesmen would occasionally glance my way but otherwise left me alone to climb up on a saddle and take in the smell of the leather. Then, with a firm grip on the saddle horn and my feet in the stirrups, I’d wiggle a bit to make the saddle creak and imagine myself riding down a dusty trail with Roy Rogers or Dale Evans. But without a horse beneath it, even the finest saddle can get boring after a few minutes.
I’d eventually climb down and wander over to the appliance department. I’d walk down the rows of refrigerators and open each door to see what was inside.
Today when I look at a refrigerator with the intention of buying it, all I see inside are the shelves and bins that are supposed to be there. But when I was a child, Sears would stage them with plastic food: two plastic tomatoes in one, three ears of corn in another. Maybe a large head of lettuce to give a sense of scale. I’d open door after door in search of the best prize of all: the roasted turkey! It was a golden brown tribute to molded plastic.
When my father returned, we walked to the car for the short drive to the dairy. He always saved our monthly milk bill for last so that we could stop in their restaurant before going home.
Perched on the red stools at the lunch counter, my father asked me what I wanted. I always ordered a hot fudge sundae, as did he. We would sit and talk and enjoy our sundaes. Then, bills paid and sweet tooths satisfied, we went home, where my mother usually had lunch ready. She knew why I didn’t have much of an appetite but she always indulged us on those Saturdays when my father and I paid the bills.