The best gift I ever gave was a ladle that cost $2 and came from the hardware store.
I was in grade school when I bought it, and young enough that every purchase up until that point had been a weighted decision between 10-cent and five-cent candy. This was something new, a first, and I’d been saving up for it.
Each December the village I grew up in would host Old Tyme Christmas, a night where the few stores that flanked the main street would stay open late, and Joe the barber would play Italian Christmas albums over tinny sounding speakers and old ladies from the church would hand out syrupy hot chocolate.
There wasn’t much to buy. There was a shop where you could order from a catalogue and your purchase would show up a few weeks later, arriving from a department store in the city. There was a gallery, with paintings by local artists, a shoe store filled mostly with construction boots, a pharmacy that always had candy bars on sale, and a women’s clothing shop, where you could hide in the racks of dresses—but it was all I knew, and exciting for that reason.
Usually, after awhile, I’d go to the library and sit on the step stool in the back corner and read the same book about sharks until it was time to go home. This year was different though. I had a purchase to make, so I went to the hardware store.
It smelled of rubber and steel and my boots squeaked on the linoleum tiles. I loitered up and down the aisles with the ladle in my hand, drumming the plastic handle against my chest. I was confident my Mom could find a use for it, even if I didn’t know what it was for.
When I got to the till, I reached up and set the ladle on the counter. A man in a red vest and matching Santa cap stood behind the register.
“That’ll be all?”
“And what are you going to do with this?”
“Give it to my Mom.”
“Well, I’m sure she’ll like that.”
I doled the coins from my pocket, probably thinking, last minute, about all the candy I could buy instead, the measuring stick of every purchase when you’re a kid. The man in the red vest wrapped the ladle in white tissue.
When I walked out, I felt proud, like I’d made the right decision. The candy could wait. I put the ladle under the tree and the next week, when my mom opened it, she cradled it against her chest, like a baby in her arms. Now, decades later, the ladle still sits in a drawer in the kitchen.
A few weeks ago, I drove back through the village. My parents don’t live there anymore, and most of the people I grew up with have moved on. I was passing by, on my way to somewhere else. I didn’t get far before I turned the car around and went back. It was Old Tyme Christmas.
On the main street, kids ran up and down in howling packs and parents huddled together nearby, gloved hands holding ceramic mugs, steam drifting from the mouth of their cups. Christmas music mixed in with the chatter and the barber shop speakers sounded better than I remembered.
Now there were carollers, too, in knitted hats and bright scarves, their songbooks resting against their chests as they drank apple cider from a kettle. A horse drawn carriage was parked by the post office, a hay bale next to it.
The street lamps were wrapped with Christmas lights and the brick buildings—most of them hundreds of years old—were decorated with tinsel and tree branches and bright ornaments that hung from window sills and door frames. It was different and changed and more stores had opened, with new people occupying the spaces inside, but from the street—and at first glance—it mostly felt the same.
When I walked into the hardware store, the door chimed overhead, and my boots left snowy footprints on the welcome mat. The man at the register looked up; red vest on, Santa cap in place. He smiled and said hello, then put his head down and started folding tissue paper into squares, waiting to wrap the next gift.
Sam Riches is a frequent contributor to The Classical, where his work has been reprinted on Hazlitt and Salon. He’s also reported for the Canadian Press, and appeared on CBC North Radio One. He lives, sometimes, in Whitehorse, Yukon and sometimes in Toronto, Ontario. Photo: Waferboard