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TideWriters Tales
A Christmas Gift Crisis
by Catherine C. Brooks

     By 1945, Daddy was far from having many extra dollars to spend after expenses, but he wanted Momma to have a surprise for Christmas.  In their earlier years of marriage, after they had moved into their own home in 1925, he had gone to Fitchetts General Merchandise Store weeknights to fetch the mail and get any groceries Momma needed immediately—eggs paid for the groceries.  Of course, he stayed long enough to hear the county and neighborhood news.  They subscribed to the Norfolk Virginia Pilot daily newspaper to come by mail since there was no local paper delivery. 

     When Daddy’s Uncle Frank Callis, who owned the store at the time, received the fall-winter “Baltimore Bargain House Catalog,” Daddy began looking for the Christmas gift he had in mind for Momma.  He ordered early so if they were out, he’d be sure to get the next shipment.  

     The first Christmas, he ordered and received a set of china with a neat pattern around the edge, paying a bit each week out of his earnings on the gift.  With the bill paid, he’d sneak the gift home on Christmas Eve, hiding the treasure until the next morning.

     The second year, Daddy gave Momma a set of Oneida silver plate flatware in a neat pattern.  He made sure to have full service for eight with the popular serving pieces. The third Christmas, when I was a baby, he gave her a mantle clock.  After that Christmas, his fishing partner, who handled the money, was building a new house, but Daddy barely made enough to pay his mortgage.  This continued for a few years, Daddy hoping it’d improve.  Then the Big Depression hit—no sale for any seafood.  My sister had joined our family so we children received what gifts they could afford, but I don’t remember my parents buying for each other in those days.
Daddy decided it was time to change this pattern.  Momma had inherited a fair sum from a great uncle, enabling her to install a water pump with a bathroom on the second floor and running water in the refurbished kitchen.  She had moved the Empire furniture, with its high wooden arms, into the sitting room.  (A large dining room with easy chairs and a daybed around the sides.  We spent evenings and snowy days in there unless we had special quests.)  An oil burner replaced the wood heater in the almost empty room living room, where Momma had prepared for her new printed woolen rug that would cover most of the floor. The rich upholstered sofa and chairs, with her first coffee table, would be delivered the next week.  

     Momma felt fortunate that Tri-County Furniture and Appliance had overstuffed furniture on hand.  For in 1945, all stock in furniture stores had become scarce since little manufacturing of domestic goods had been possible since we declared war in December 1941.  The qualifying men served in the Army, Navy, Marines and Merchant Marines. And the women worked on farms, in factories and in government offices of one sort or another.  Momma needed a lamp table to go before the front window, but Tri-County had none.  Momma’s inheritance had improved our family’s lifestyle, but she had little left.  But she wasn’t going to put the huge oak library table back in that room.  She had found a perfect place for the piece in the long hall so she sat the new unplugged lamp on it until she found the suitable round-mahogany table to compliment the coffee table.
Daddy called me aside one day in November while I gathered eggs, suggesting I find when my Aunt Rite was going to Newport News to do her Christmas shopping.  He wanted me to see if I could go with her, finding a mahogany lamp table for Momma.  He had $25 laid aside for the gift that he’d give me to shop for her surprise.  The trip was arranged, and Momma wondered why I had to go all the way to Newport News to buy anything since I’d ordered gifts.  But I told her I hadn’t found all I wanted.

     When the appointed day came, I realized what a big responsibility I had.  I knew that Momma’s papa, my Granddaddy Richardson, always told us to buy any house hold items from Store A, which was privately owned and carried quality pieces.  Store B, which was a chain store, had better prices, but poor quality.  So I headed for Store A, explaining what I needed.  They showed me the items that they had to offer.  I saw the perfect table, but the price was $50.  When I asked if they had anything less expensive, the answer was, “No.”  I explained I only had $25, looking back at the table with longing.  There were more tables, but none cheaper than the price quoted.

     So with misgivings, but in desperation, I dragged myself to Store B.  When I stated what I needed, the salesman led me to an unusual elevator, explaining they used the large open-sided cage in order to move furniture up and down stairs on the same elevator that customers used.  He showed me the only round table in the store and stated it was $25. The color and height met my requirements, but even in the dim light, it didn’t look as large in diameter or as nice as the one in the first store. Yet I agreed to take it.  Back on first floor with the table, I paid the salesman, receiving a receipt. Then I explained I had to meet my aunt at four o’clock at another store.  She’d bring the car to pick the piece up.  

     When I told Aunt Rite where she needed to pick up the table, she showed surprise.  I knew what she thought.  So I just told her it was the only store that had the item I needed.  Not letting her know, I wasn’t too happy with my purchase, but it’d have to do.  I had snuck an old sheet out of the house to wrap the table before we placed it in the trunk.

     When I put the bundle on the unused screened porch, Daddy was there to help. He said that I’d done a perfect job, showing his appreciation with a pat on my shoulder. The table had been a bit dusty so the first chance I had I’d polish it.  With Momma upstairs in the opposite end of the ten-room house, working in her bedroom, I went to work.  I filled a clean dust cloth with some of Momma’s favorite O’Cedar® furniture polish.  Sneaking out the porch door to the porch with one end enclosed, I hid behind a curtain that hid paint cans, etc.  I dusted the curved legs first.  Then I began the top with the rimmed edge.  I almost screamed at what I uncovered—tiny white paint spots covered the top rather hit or miss.  What could I do?  I tried to remove them with a tug of my thumbnail—no luck. If I put more force, I’d take the finish off. Daddy’s elder daughter hadn’t done so well.

     I just couldn’t tell Daddy I’d goofed.  He had been so happy to have a surprise for Momma.  So the next day, I crept out into the porch at the first chance.  I rubbed the dust cloth that I’d left tucked under the old sheet over the tabletop over and over.  The more I rubbed the brighter the white dots became.  I finally gave up on the third day.  

     Momma knew something was bothering me into the next week.  I saw nothing to do but tell her the whole story.  She was happy Daddy was so caring, but she could fix the situation and he’d never know.  She had a doctor’s appointment in Newport News the following week, and a friend was driving her.  She’d take the table back with the receipt and get the money before she went to Store A.  She had enough from her inheritance to pay the difference. Since I took care of Daddy’s books and still had the receipt, he’d never know it was gone.
“Your Daddy doesn’t pay enough attention to furniture details to notice the table has been switched,” Momma said.  “I’ll still be happy Christmas morning with the last detail completed in our living room.”

     Sure enough Daddy never knew the difference, and we all enjoyed the table, which had a tilt top even though we never tilted it. It was still, sitting in front of the window on the day of Momma’s funeral.  Today, it sits before my sister’s picture window in Salem, Ohio, with a lamp on it.  I’m guessing it’s the same lamp Mother used Christmas of 1945 for the first time.

©2004 Catherine C. Brooks All rights reserved. Contact Catherine C. Brooks at 


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