Back in 1968, I was four years old. My recollection of that year would prove to be the very first solid memories of my life. Because the years have worn by and so many moments of time have past I can firmly attest with reckless abandon I remember Christmas time in Cleveland.
My mother loved music. Her old 45s from the 50’s that she would pull out every Saturday to clean the house, somehow managed to get her so fired up she would jitterbug with the vacuum. Watching her as a child I thought she was nuts. After a long work week and listening to my grandmother’s report about what mischief I was able to get into I guess she needed her fast moving music with a solid beat that she could dance to.
During the holiday season many people around us enjoyed the masterful choir orchestration of Handel’s Messiah and the operatic beauty of Shubert’s Ava Maria, my mother enjoyed the Christmas songs of Bing Crosby, probably because Dad liked it. Frank Sinatra, because my Sicilian grandmother loved him. Dean Martin, because he was from Ohio and so forth. Whatever the reason these Christmas albums would soon be replaced by a new treasure with a pounding beat that had my mother dancing with even the dogs.
But for my Mom nothing said Christmas like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. His Christmas album would be the first sounds I would hear that year the day after Thanksgiving. All to coincide with the unofficial law; Getting up before the break of dawn to go shopping, and then at Superman speed race home and beat the neighbors to start decorating. I have always suspected that in the early morning outing Mom snatched up this album that would wake me from my slumber. She would neither confirm nor deny my allegations over the years.
As I wandered down the steps, I found my mother standing in the middle of the living room counting boxes and looking just as lovely as she did from the day before. Her hair still perfect, black paten leather flats donned her tiny feet. Plaid pedal pushers clung to the curve of her hips and legs to end just above her ankles. A simple yellow sweater on top, and a white fluffy toy poodle named Buffy by her side completed her look. Our older sweeter black poodle named Cha Cha was peaking out from behind one of the many boxes as if to say “help me!”
I watched as she pointed to each box. The only thing that could disrupt the vibrations of trumpets would be the abrupt cry of “Joooooooe!” No horn of Herb’s could compete with the shrilling vocals of my Mom when she discovered cherished decorations missing. Quite frankly who could tell? There were boxes every where.
She lit a cigarette and began to rev up for another shrill when my father miraculously appeared on cue with the missing items. He towered over her in his black slacks, a dark turtle neck and the ever present crew cut that I personally hated (thank goodness for the 70’s and his longer hair. To others it was still short but better than a crew cut). Relieved that the missing box was found she guided Dad reluctantly over to the sofa and politely handed him a big fat tangled ball of Christmas lights.
Peaking around the corner and the music blasting into the foyer where I stood I could see Mom give Dad one of her famous looks. I had been the recipient of the odd smile and rapid blinking of her owl size dark brown eyes that she would used to amplify her point, and it was NEVER fun, trust me. There was some solace in knowing I wasn’t the only one who could cause Mom to look like she was about to have a seizure.
“You put the lights away last year, YOU untangle them!” Her body language said it all. Arms waving and pointing, and oddly enough it appeared as if she was conducting the music coming over the Magnavox stereo console.
Dad was left with rolling his eyes in disgust and rubbing his face in defeat, and then after the exchange of looks he finally started the arduous task of pulling apart the ancient tree lights. Unfortunately, I was soon discovered peering around the corner and was put to work helping to untangle them. Ironically, I became so good at the de-tanglization of lights that as long as I lived at home it was my job every year there after. Stupid horns, I fussed. The dreaded new sound of the season had awaken me from my sleep, and I was now desperately wishing I had stayed in bed.
Over the long weekend our house was transformed into a show place which could rival that of Higbee’s grand elaborate windows. Higbee’s was the local department store downtown (in fact it was a real department store referenced in the movie A Christmas Story which was shot in Cleveland). It was the place to go for all your Christmas needs. Unless you were in our house, because we had everything or so I thought.
The master plan started with the placement of the trees, strategically arranged for optimal viewing pleasure. First the artificial tree was placed in the large picture window in the living room with enough lights on it to blind someone from the street! This fraudulent delight would be the keeper of the presents we gave to others. And this would turn out to be the only occaison we would ever used that room.
Then a fresh cut tree for the family room would arrive, with the tantalizing aroma of pine filling the house and making Mom itch like crazy. I never wrapped my head around the idea of why Mom would go through all the trouble with this tree when she was so highly allergic. However, this tree was the pinnacle of the whole house, despite all the itching. Decorated in vibrant colored lights that twinkled on and off at a fast clip, would graciuosly bounce off of each glass ornament, to deliver a cascading warm friendly glow into the humble room when she turned off all the lights. She would then reach down into the stereo and place the needle on her new favorite vinyl purchase, which was located by the itchy master piece. The tree would magically begin to keep time with the beat and dance right along with her.
We called this tree Santa’s Tree because it would be under the bobbled branches where Santa delivered his presents. I remember wondering if before he could pull out a single gift if he had to dance with Mom first. After all, the vacuum, the dogs, and the tree had to why not jolly ole Saint Nick?
With decorating completed, the next step was planning the trip downtown with two little girls for Christmas pictures. Every house had a Higbee’s Santa picture. This was the second biggest event in a child’s life next to Christmas. And I knew of not one kid in the neighborhood who enjoyed it.
Special clothing purchased just for a picture, an extra bath for no reason and a lecture on how to act. All for the 30 second pleasure of sitting on Santa’s lap and the free smell of moth balls. Once you made your departure from the man in the red suit, it was onto a cranky elf who handed you a candy cane and a plastic ring. The saving grace at Higbee’s was Santa’s Workshop just happened to be right next to the coveted toy department. Knowing this I could handle sitting on a lap that smelled like moth balls and happened to remind me of the scent from my Aunt Lena’s house.
“Bethy, let me make this clear.” Mom would begin. “You are going to smile, do not try and get your candy cane before you see Santa and for Pete’s sake no playing around in the toy department, you will hold our hands the entire time.” The odd smile and fast blinking began, and I was pretty sure I didn’t even know who Pete was. It was apparent I had garnered a reputation for dodging hand holding and running off.
The trip to Higbee’s set, and after much ballyhooing from me about an extra bath, we were finally ready for the late morning journey. My sister and I would wear our beautiful velvet dresses, with petticoats and leggings, usually white that came with the warning to me, not to get dirty. My mother made me promise repeatedly I would behave. I would promise, but there was one tiny problem, I never fully understood what her idea of behaving was.
I can recall looking forward to the car trip to the train station, because I was thrilled to be able to see another part of the city beside my own back yard. And, I was secretly glad for the break from my mother’s favorite music, too bad someone forgot to tell the radio stations of our agony with one particular record. While in angst over the music piping into the car, I discovered a really cool squeaking noise that black paten leather shoes made when rubbed together. Much to my dismay there was an odd smile and rapidly blinking eyes coming from the reflection of the review mirror. Follow by a high pitched “Quit doing that.”
We parked the car outside of the city and boarded the Rapid Transit. This was my first trip on the transit and if I squeaked my shoes one more time it would be my last.
Arriving at the Terminal Tower downtown on one of too many to count frigid days, we departed the transit, and cautiously stepped onto the platform; a large gust of wind would scurry across our path causing me to release my mother’s hand and try to hold my dress down, it proved to be a losing battle because of all the crinoline under the dress, my sister and I looked like umbrellas caught in a wind storm.
In the near empty station of the terminal (void of all rush hour traffic) I could see, there waiting for us was Dad who worked downtown, forgetting to hold my dress down (not that it mattered or made a difference) I ran at full speed to his waiting arms. Quick to hug both my sister and me, he would look at my mother, who appeared a bit exhausted from the journey and kissed her hello.
“How was the trip in?” He would ask her.
“Someone likes the sound of squeaky shoes.” As if by reflex both turned in my direction. Oops, was the only look I could muster on my face. Dad would soon be taking my hand and my sister would stay with Mom. I took this as a sign.
He would pause, just long enough in the middle of the station and kneeled down, straighten my hat that Mom chased me around the house for 20 minutes to get on my head and would give me one of the first of many little pep talks throughout my life. “Okay Bubbles let’s be good for Mom, she has worked really hard planning all this, okay?” Obediently I nodded. He continued. “Please don’t hide from Santa this year.” Do something one time, okay maybe more than once, and nobody let’s you forget it.
“But Dad he smells like…..” He would cut me off.
Laughing as he spoke “I know, I know like your Aunt Lena’s house.” Finally! There was a person over 4 ft tall and not a kid who understood my current dilemma with the odor.
A brisk walk through the station and opening the heavy brass metal doors which led us to the spectacular entrance to Higbee’s. We had finally arrived! The main floor and just about every floor were decorated in the many splendors of the season. Pine green garland with gold woven through its long streaming braids. Instead of a yellow brick road that marked your path it was deep plush scarlet carpet that would take you on your journey. Follow the red carpet and it would lead you to the Workshop!
Once on the fourth floor, I darted only one time to look at a huge rocking horse. Mom was quick to grab hold of my hand. She didn’t look angry she just simply admired the horse with me. I watched as she slowly looked around at all the other children crying and screaming. Others running at break neck speed grabbing toys off the shelves.
Harried department clerks were trying in vain to pick up the toys, placed in the wrong area by frantic parents trying to grab hold of their children, and get them to Santa. A warm smile and a little sass in Mom’s step ventured and weaved us through the chaos right on over to Santa’s Workshop to get in line. Mom was still smiling and Dad catching a glimpse of it, smiled back. As more hysertics ensued from other children and many parents looking like Mom did earlier when she tried to put that seriously ugly fur hat on my head, she appeared relaxed. Now she was laughing at the events around her and taking my hat off. Why did I have to wear it if she was going to take it off anyway?
Mom nudged me ever so gently towards an elf that looked like she was never going to have children in her life ever! Her job was to sit kids on Santa’s lap. I wondered how she was going to handle the boy behind me because he was almost as big as her. Thus the tired cranky elf placed me on Santa’s lap. He asked me what I wanted him to bring me, which I am sure was why Mom’s smile vanished and the seizure was about to start. Little girls back then didn’t ask Santa for a football.
Pictures done with only one warning from the blinking eyes, we then went into the restaurant The Silver Grille as it was called, for lunch. As I drift back in my memories, this was my favorite part because it was time the four of us were downtown together and the majestic setting of the grand old department store and the regal dressing up of the restaurant made me feel like a princess. White trees, green trees, multi-colored shiny ornaments and garland strung throughout.
Better still was ordering from a waitress wearing a pristine white apron, heavily starched white shirt, black bowtie, a pencil cut skirt and super shiny shoes. She was so neat and clean, I had to ask if her mom made her promise not to get dirty too. She let out a roaring laugh and patted me on my head. The children’s lunch was served in a really neat heavy cardboard box shaped and painted to look like a kitchen stove. My sister and I would take the boxes home and use them to play house with our dolls.
My parents held hands as they watched us eat our ice cream. As I was enjoying dessert, a startling realization hit me. Playing above our heads was music. Not just any music. The Christmas sounds of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. There was no escape and only one of us was swaying at the table. And three of us, myself included could only groan. This must have been the millionth time all of us had heard it, and there was still three weeks till Christmas.
In all honesty I hadn’t thought about those days in years. The treasured moments of a simpler time summed up in a department store and a band that wasn’t even from Tijuana.
Forty-three years later, I was transported into one of the greatest gifts my mother could ever give. Herself! Not just any version the truest most beautiful version I could have every heard. Answering my phone at work I could hear the youthful excitement in her voice. How precious it was to hear vocals so filled with an eerily familiar glee as she spoke.
“Bethy listen to what I found!” Her excitement was intoxicating after locating a CD I had bought her several years before.
By the grace of God, and holding the phone tightly to my ear breathing in every chord, we were no longer twelve hundred miles apart. We were in Higbee’s hand in hand with Herb Alpert trumpeting just for us.
I can’t think of any greater gift, with that said; Mom, get your dancing shoes out, crank up the stereo and let’s make a joyful noise because I’ll be home for Christmas! And this time when you take my hand I promise I won’t let go.
****I would like to thank two very special people who made this piece possible to give my Mom for Christmas. Jim Ballew for the graphics and emotional hand holding all while never giving up on me during the last 2 days I drove him nuts, via text, twitter and the phone. And my Dad, Joseph Pepoy who believed in my abilities to write something special for the woman we both love!
To Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass for leaving my family with memories of a lifetime.
Lastly, to Higbee’s– thanks for the memories, anyone from Cleveland will never forget the grand spectacle of Christmas this store brought to all who walked through the grand entrance.