“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” William Jennings Bryan

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December 28, 2011

I don’t tell this story too often, but today a conversation I had with a friend got me to thinking about it again. My friend felt she just couldn’t give enough presents, or a big enough present, this Christmas to be loved…

The best present I ever got was a lollipop.

Once a year, each summer for a few of my childhood years, my mom would get all us kids to dress up a bit – tie our shoes, comb our hair, find our cleanest pants, tuck in our shirts – and load us into the station wagon for the trip down the mountain, into town, and then to the railroad station.

It was small town. The buildings were made of brick that was clothed over with years of black soot from the paper mill’s smokestacks. The streets were of a grey, cracked concrete, framed by sidewalks. There were small stores: a five and dime, a news agency, a candy store, a pharmacy, clothing stores, a hardware store, etc. All the stores had displays in the dirty windows that tempted passersby’s to come inside.  The town wasn’t so small that everyone knew each other, but it was still small enough that everyone recognized each other.

Mom would drive to the center of town and at the crossroads of the two main streets make a right to the train station. The street sloped upward, crossing over a steel grate bridge that spanned a small creek, and ended, literally, at the dirt lot of the train station. There were the tracks running sideways, and beside them was an empty, long clapboard shed, also clothed in soot, that served as the station.

At sometime during my growing up years, the train station got its fifteen minutes of fame. Fighting the towns dying economy, the town leaders hired a PR firm to lure new businesses to town. The PR idea turned out to be a picture of all the townspeople gathered on the street below the tracks. The paper mill and stores closed that morning so that everyone could gather for the picture. School children were marched from classrooms to the station. There was what looked like a rolling sea of smiling people when the fire truck raised the photographer above the train station to take the picture. The picture ran as a full page ad in the New York Times with the caption “Town for Hire”. I don’t remember if anyone hired the town. But the town had fifteen minutes of fame just the same. Andy Warhol was proud of Tyrone.

But that’s not the story I am trying to tell.

At the station, while waiting for the train, my brothers and I would play on the wooden benches that lined the shed’s walls.  My brothers and I would jump from one bench to the other, as if we were jumping from ledge to ledge through some imaginary landscape that would swallow us into some bottomless chasm if we missed. My sister didn’t play. She was the lookout.

She stood in her dress on the platform looking down the tracks for a whisp of far away train engine smoke, anticipating the vibrations that the heavy train would make as it came toward the station.

My sister was always the lookout.

She was the one who would have been on the bow of the Titanic while her brothers were dancing downstairs…and had she been on the Titanic, it wouldn’t have hit that iceberg. My sister didn’t miss much.

As soon as she felt that familiar quake rolling through the platform boards, she would come get us. “The train is coming!”

My grandmother always stepped off the train in her Sunday best, even if it was Thursday. Her silver grey hair was always done up. She always wore a long, loose, billowy dress of plain color. Her lips were always dressed with red lipstick that would mark everything they touched – cups, napkins, our faces….And she always wore perfume. She wasn’t fat, but I remember her as being big, with an arthritic walk. She had long fingers covered with wrinkled skin that had been aged by years of knitting and housework. They were fingers that had never been out of work. And she had a New England accent that made me know that she was from somewhere different; a place where life was lived differently than how it was in my small, grey and sooted town.

And each time she came, she brought with her a small plain white box. A box from that far away mysterious place that I had never been to and so I could color with my own imagination in any way I wanted.

In my imagination I could picture Gommie putting on an overcoat and walking down the stairs to the street from her apartment. At the bottom of the stairs she would turn and walk up a street to a candy store and go inside where she would approach the counter. There she would look through the curved glass case that held handmade lollipops, and after a bit of hesitation, pick out lollipops for us kids. The store owner would wrap each one in white wax paper, and lay them carefully in the white box….

I am not sure if that’s how it really happened. But…

…I do know that each of us kids, now a bit unkempt from playing in the station, would get to pick out a lollipop, just steps from the train.

They weren’t round lollipops. They were sorta pillow shaped. And they each were made of many different colors twisting and flowing and sometimes tangled together, that gave each lollipop a very unique taste. They weren’t lemon or raspberry or grape…they were well, they were all kinds of flavors that melted together into a taste that was undistinguishable but original…and they were lollipops that I could get from no one else, but Gommie.

My mom, after each of us kids picked one out of the box, would ration us to one lollipop a day. Gommie didn’t buy in so much to that and would always let us sneak another when my mom was down in the basement doing laundry. When the lollipops ran out we kids knew that it would be at least another year before we could taste them again.

These lollipops became my favorite, and are one of my most favorite memories.

Lollipops. They didn’t cost much – maybe they were penny candy if they were that at all. They didn’t have sounds or flashing lights. They had no expensive wrapping. They were not big or huge or heavy. Gommie didn’t wait in line all night with frantic others for the store to open. There was no such thing as a televised Black Friday back then that proved that she was a successful shopping warrior. And the lollipops were so simple that they didn’t come with any instructions.

But then, if one really gives it some thought, any thing that is given with love doesn’t need instructions….

I tell this story to say that the present doesn’t really matter…it’s the experience that someone loves you that matters. It doesn’t take money or a holiday to show someone that you love them….all it takes is heart.

Those lollipops were my grandmother’s heart…and they were the best present she could ever give.

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