‘Tis the Season

When I was a kid, the beginning of the Christmas season blossomed on the Friday after Thanksgiving. My mom would wake us up, we would eat breakfast and then, dressed to the gills in warm clothes and hats (this was before global warming and 60F Thanksgiving Days), and we’d head down to the commuter station at the end of our street to catch the Rock Island down to The Loop.
Now if you’ve gotten this far without saying “Rock Island?” you get an extra point or two. These days the trains are shiny metal double-deckers with the word Metra streaming along the sides of their cars. If you detrain at certain stops, you sit in certain cars…a forgotten detail that almost took me to Joliet one afternoon on my way down from Chicago to my sister’s house in the suburbs. In olden times they were oblong single deck cars, I remember them as a dusty grayish hue, with steps as steep as a mountain to a child and cars that were like miniature couches you could move to that you could sit facing each other. Of course we, my sister and I, always wanted to sit near by the window so we could see the neighborhoods pass by, so we got to move the seats. And the windows could be opened! Not that we ever did, but there were little mini metal pieces that would lower the top panel. In the days before air conditioning in most commuter trains, it was a good thing. The body heat could be stifling. But I’m getting off track here. We knew we had to behave on the train. We were going down to have lunch with Dad at the First National Bank. Any shenanigans would be duly reported and we might lose our movie privileges.
Our destination was the LaSalle Street Station, a huge place with two floors, a shoe shine stand or two, massive public restrooms, and rows and rows of oak benches for people who were traveling or waiting to continue on their way on another train. Sailors, soldiers, families, all in one great room. My choral group actually sang there during the Christmas season when I was in high school…but that was later. We’d exit through a door that led to an El Stop but we’d take the platform down to the street, always dark because of the elevated steel tracks that wound around the city. I remember passing tobacco stores, lingerie shops, places you could buy luggage, all on the way to Clark Street. There we turned north and went to our first stop, a cafeteria. Pixley and Ehlers is gone by now, but they had the best sweet rolls and chocolate milk. We’d have a snack before going to let my dad know we were in the city…and possibly see my “Uncle” Bob, who worked by the huge vault.
What we did next depended on Mom. Sometimes we did some shopping, at Wieboldt’s or Goldblatt’s or Carson’s, before we met Dad for lunch. Sometimes we went to State Street and looked at the marvelous and wondrous windows at Marshall Field’s, going inside to watch the kids in line for Santa and ride the escalators up to a housewares department. We always went to Kroch & Brentano to look at books and maybe buy one. After lunch, usually in the bank restaurant but sometimes at the wonderful Forum, a cafeteria to beat all cafeterias with lines and lines of fantastic and unknown foods, Dad would go back to his work and Mom would take us to our “real” destination, a movie. Whatever was playing from Disney that year, or perhaps even a good drama, we got to see them on the Big Screen in Chicago. No ratings back then, so I suppose we could have gone to Mogambo if Mom had wanted to, but it was usually Babes in Toyland or one of the other holiday comedies. The theatres were full and the streets were more so, but everyone was in a wonderful mood. At least to my young eyes. Finally, tired and ready for a nap, we would go back to meet Dad and take the train back to our suburb, sometimes having to sit on our parents’ laps because(of course) everyone else was going home as well. That trip always signaled the start of the holidays for me.
These days, life doesn’t seem quite as simple. People are more in a hurry, some more rude than others, everyone on a deadline of some sort. Holiday sales begin in full force on Black Friday if not on Thanksgiving evening. I’m lucky to find time to watch a movie at home much less at the multiplex and working retail keeps me running at least 25 hours a week. Still, I love those memories. They help keep me sane because somewhere I believe there is another Mom who takes her children somewhere exciting (to them at least) on the day after giving thanks.

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