One Christmas, when I was about seven, I bought my mother a plastic lily from Woolworth’s. My little plastic change purse tight in my hand, I had shopped the store with great care. When I got the lily home, I had to bend its long stem into a circle to make it fit into the flat paper bag that became the Christmas wrap. I did not make a card. The white tag stamped with gold bells and holly simply said “Mom.” I was very proud of my gift—it must have cost at least ten cents. Did I know enough to take the price tag off?
I imagine that when my mother opened her gift on that Christmas morning so long ago my older brothers and sister smothered laughter and my phlegmatic father lit another cigarette from the red and gold pack. I am sure that my mother smiled her gentle smile and kissed my head. But why do I remember the lily at this moment? Is it meant to prompt a meditation on bile-green plastic stems and waxy white petals? on death? on shopping? on death by shopping?
It was a squat yellow-brick building, quite new at the time, and took up most of the block at the centre of the very small town I grew up in, and it was a wonder to me. Woolworth’s had everything: stationery, candy, nightgowns, record albums, goldfish, bolts of gingham in every shade. Though the emphasis was on value for money, it wasn’t like a dollar store—it wasn’t tinsel on steroids. It wasn’t like Wal-Mart, a smiley-faced factory. It wasn’t like Costco with the oversized carts that remind me of the comedian who said he loved rice because it was great any time you wanted to eat a million of something. Woolworth’s was much more. It was a school.
It was there I learned comparison shopping (candy cigarettes or Pixy Stix?). I learned not to offer a finger to a hamster in a cage. I learned how it felt to be accused of stealing. (Not good. Luckily, I could show my accuser my name already inked into the mud-brown notebook.) As a thirteen year old, I daydreamed over shelves of go-go boots and corduroy bell bottoms. When I was seriously learning to be an adult, it was the place I went to help fill the Christmas stockings: silky hair nets and bobby pins for Mom and socks and a tin of Taveners fruit drops for Dad. Woolworth’s was also a community centre. There were the clerks in their smocks fluffing towels and stacking binders. There was little Roberta in a booth by herself in the restaurant, cross-eyed and crippled and not quite right but always chipper. There was Mr. V at the counter, a cup of coffee his only company, his thin hair slicked back, his face flushed, the bandaids on his nose puckered (a nose, it was speculated, he routinely shaved with a dull razor). They were familiar faces in that Wonder bread world of small town Ontario.
So why is Woolworth’s itself on my mind? Because the distant past shines more brightly the further I travel from it? Because the memory recalls a simpler past? Physics and nostalgia aside, I would swear that time did stand still for long stretches then. We weren’t always trying to accommodate a future we could not imagine. Perhaps it was the last time I felt I had everything I needed—because I did. I did not get those go-go boots, but then Barbara Hutton, the famous child of the Woolworth family, the poor little rich girl, did get every thing she wanted, and her story did not end well.
My Woolworth’s is long gone. Perhaps I should buy a plastic lily for the store itself, but what would I write on the tag? How would I spell the name? We are losing apostrophes right, left and centre. Tim Hortons lost its. So did Starbucks and Zellers. And that’s too bad. The possessive speaks to belonging, and I will always set great store by that.