In Focus

Mary Rogers Memory from a Christmas Past

I wonder what happened to that little ring with the ruby-colored stone.

I might still have the key to fairyland, which my older sister found in a gutter one day and gave to me. I thought it miraculous that something so important could have been tossed away and then found by someone who recognized its value.

My brother said the key opened a jewelry box, but my sister, who was my senior by a decade, punched him until he admitted it opened the gates of a magical kingdom. I kept the key in a velvet pouch and even now, I might have it tucked away in some drawer, but that ring is gone except in memory.

I was 4, maybe 5, when I dropped it down the elevator shaft at the store where my father worked as a buyer and department manager. I never expected to see it again, but that was before I understood that receiving the unexpected is one of the gifts of the holiday season.

I remember that Mother had taken me to town to see the Christmas decorations. In those years, no one in West Texas used the word “holiday” to describe such adornments.

The windows at Hemphill-Wells in San Angelo were always beautiful, but during the Christmas season they were so spectacular that people came from miles around to see them — and the marionette show that the store staged each year.

I think of those holiday windows now because the nights are long and dark and I’m hungry for my mother’s Christmas custard. How could I have lost the recipe? Maybe I’ll resolve to find it in January.

January is a tyrant wringing commitment from the most reluctant hearts. But lovers know that December is a month for dreaming, a time to press our noses to some beautiful window and stand so close to the magic on the other side, we lose our own reflection in the glass.

And so I unwrap the memories and see that all the dents and dings, the sharp edges, those things that might gouge or wound, have been worn smooth by years of deliberate polishing and only the loveliest impressions remain.

I recall the crowds of people that came to see Hemphill’s Christmas windows. They lined up on the street three or four deep to see mechanical elves hammer out toys in Santa’s glittering workshop. Ranch hands in dusty boots, their sweat-stained hats pushed back for a better look, their kids clinging to their skinny legs, leaned forward to study mechanical carolers.

Everyone came: bankers, grocers, teachers, preachers, nuns from Sacred Heart, the man who owned the fillin’ station. And everyone was transfixed by the wonder of the windows, marveling aloud at the sheer creativity of the display. And each year the windows seemed more brilliant than the last.

Of course, those windows from the 1950s can’t compare to the splendid windows today’s retailers unveil each season. There were no such things as “interactive elements” then. Children couldn’t crawl through a long tube into the window as they have done at Dallas’ downtown Neiman Marcus store. No child could wave a hand at a giant snowflake that seems to drift toward him and then, by pointing, make it explode into a magical, shimmering snowfall, as they’ve done at Macy’s.

The windows in my memories were there for entertainment. Merchandise was not part of the display, but of course, Hemphill’s managers hoped the windows would lure potential customers through the doors, and if the windows didn’t do it, there was always the puppet show.

The store had a mezzanine floor where the business office, a bookstore and the boys department were located. It also had a space that spanned the width of the lovely arched windows above the main doors. Each year, this space was turned into a stage for a marionette show.

People crowded into the ground floor, which was a glittering wonderland with gigantic bows or bells or shiny ornaments on every column and sparkling “snow” mounds on display cases. The audience looked up at the stage where the puppets danced on strings.

I recall sitting on a display case for the show. Mother and Dad stood beside me. When the puppeteers took their bows and the crowd began to drift away, Daddy took my hand and led me to the elevator. We were going up to the fourth floor, the department he managed.

I skipped and jiggled, hopped and twirled with excitement. I kept taking the little ring off and on my finger. Mother wanted to put it in her purse, but I wouldn’t hand it over.

The elevator operator was a black man named Ernest who controlled the elevator with a large lever and stopped on each floor, expertly lining up the car before he opened the accordion doors and sang out the items and sometimes the specials to be found on each level.

Ernest was also a greeter who knew almost every customer by name. He knew their children, too, and their grandchildren — or their mamas.

Short and bandy-legged, his once-black eyes and hair were both graying. He wore a khaki-colored uniform and a wide smile, but I was a little afraid of him.

That day as I hopped onto the elevator, the ring slipped from my hand right into the gap between the elevator car and the floor. We all stopped and stared like folks lost on a highway searching for a signpost. But I didn’t need a sign to tell me the ring was lost for good and always.

I began to cry. Of course, tears could not bring the ring back. The elevator filled with holiday shoppers and Ernest pressed the lever and up we went. “Third Floor, Ladies Ready-to-Wear, Lingerie ...,” he sang out, and I sobbed all the louder.

Days passed; Christmas was very close. I begged to see Santa’s window workshop again, and Mother took me to town once more. No one was there that afternoon, and so I stood close and watched the elves do their work.

The scene was so beautiful, I inched closer and leaned my head against the window — and then I kissed glass. The magic was as close as heaven.

Mother laughed and pulled me away. We headed for the elevator and when Ernest saw us, his smile grew wider.

“I’ve got somethin’ for you, li’l miss,” he said. He reached into his pocket and took out a Hemphill’s jewelry box. Inside, on a pillow of cotton, was my ring.

“Ernest, how on earth did you get that?” my mother asked.

He explained how he’d crawled beneath the elevator after-hours and there, among all the things lost in that gap over all those years, he’d found this tiny, inexpensive ring with the ruby-colored stone.

“I snatched it right up for li’l miss and got out of there,” he said, and I understood that there had been some danger in such an act.

Ernest often used the word “snatched.” He’d say someone who was frustrated was “snatchin’ and grabbin’, ” or he might declare that someone was “snatchin’ and fussin’.”

I like that word. I suppose I snatched that memory right then and there and tucked it away.

I soon lost that ring for good and always. But sometimes, when winter nights are long and dark and I hunger for some sweet taste of yesterday, I hold that merry Christmas all polished and shining to the light once more, and I fall in love with the season all over again.