THROUGH A CHILD’S EYES, CHRISTMAS IN THE CITY WAS A MAGICAL EXPERIENCE

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THE VALLEY DISPATCH ,

The daily paper is running a feature asking people to share their favorite Christmas memories. (Yes, Christmas, not holiday.)

Nobody asked me but my fondest Christmas memory is going shopping with my mother in downtown Lowell. Let me tell you about Christmas in Lowell during the 1960s. I grew up in the Centraville section of Lowell. Russell’s clothing store was right down the street, on the corner of Ennell and West Sixth. It was one of the finer men’s stores in the city. The Marchand family decorated the store from top to bottom — giant Christmas trees, garland and lights. It’s where I got my winter coat. I always knew I was getting a winter coat for Christmas.

Just across the street was Fred’s Five and Ten. The kindly old Fred — I can’t remember his last name — and his tall, blonde wife — I can’t remember her name either but I can still see her seamed stockings and the high heels she wore — would dote on me as soon as I entered the store. Fred’s wife would make sure I got the best value for my meager dollar or two.

“Why don’t you get one of these scarves for your mother?” she’d offer. “And I think your father would love this after shave.”

Santa Claus would visit Fred’s on the Saturday before Christmas and the line of kids and parents would extend out the door. Funny how Fred was never around on the day that Santa visited.

I remember going Christmas shopping with my mother. We’d take the bus downtown, which to me was a world away from Centraville. Downtown Lowell in those days had the feel of a Charles Dickens novel. Huge wreaths and garland strands were draped across Merrimack Street, just as it is today. The bus would drop us off at Kresgee’s and Woolworth’s. There before us was a world of Christmas fare. Sometimes we’d get lunch at the counter. I can still see the lady with the hair net and I can still taste the French fries. Maybe top it off with a hot fudge sundae in one of those tulip-shaped, soda-fountain dishes. You know the kind.

The Fannie Farmer candy store sat at the corner of Merrimack and John streets. There, we picked up a pound of chocolate for old Mr. Lemire. Alde Lemire was a close friend of the family who lived alone on Cumberland Road. He was a distinguished looking, white-haired gentleman with a pencil-thin white moustache, who knew everything about music, authors, sports and politics. He was always impeccably dressed and smelled like Old Spice. Every year he would give me a clothing item for Christmas. It could be a bathrobe or a spring jacket. He’d always hide a five-dollar bill inside the pocket. When I was 10, he gave me a case of Rawling baseballs. And a five dollar bill.

But back to downtown Lowell. I’d shuffle along in Cherry & Webb, a women’s clothing store, and wait patiently until we got to Bon Marche, (pronounced bonn marshay.) The window displays, with moving mechanical figures in a scene out of Currier and Ives, would hold me, mesmerized, until my mother pulled me into the store. There was an elevator in the store that sounded a single faint bell when you reached your desired floor. Bon Marche had a toy department like no other, where I would stay while mom went about her business in the rest of the store.

There was no fear in those days of leaving a kid to himself. We didn’t hear too much about child abductions back then.

My mother, ever the sharp consumer, would traipse across the street to Pollard’s department store and compare prices. Pollard’s had a great toy department too, and a back door that led to an alley. Directly across the alley was a door that led to a second section of the Pollard store. The front door of that section was on Middle Street.

If mom was in the mood for a cup off coffee and a slice of pie, we’d stop into the Palmer restaurant on the corner. From there it was down Market Street to the corner of Central. McQuade’s, Martin’s and Talbot’s offered the best in fashion. I can still see the little man with the curly hair and glasses, a long cloth tape measure hanging around his neck, fitting customers as they pulled suits off the rack.

My mother loved music, everything from Elvis to Mantovani, so a stop at Record Lane or Garnick’s was in order.

With too many bags in tow to board a bus, we’d take the Diamond Taxi back home. The Diamonds were big Checker cabs that had the little foldup seats in the back. I swivel around in that seat, happy as a clam, while the cab made its way over Bridge Street and back into Centraville.

My favorite Christmas memory? Those days leading up to Christmas is what stands out. Just me and mom, talking about school, talking about my friends, our relatives, Jesus, Bethlehem, what do you feel like eating?

Christmas morning? Oh, yeah, that was great, too. But that’s a given.

Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail address is dshaughnessey@thevalleydispatch.com.