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Prompted By My Hometown

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Do they even exist anymore— those small town centers where you know everyone and everyone knows you? I hope so, for the sake of children everywhere. I was lucky, and I hope you were too. My town’s center was straight out of It’s a Wonderful Life.

________________

I can’t wait for you to see them as I do: the industrious shopkeepers, most of them married couples whose stores line our town’s main street. Many are the parents of my schoolmates. In some ways they are like parents to me, too.

If you have the time I’d like you to meet Sidney and Teresa Lieb, owners of the only deli in town. Sidney has never known a bad day. He welcomes everyone and looks, behind the counter, like he has just heard (or told) the funniest story. In counterpoint is his wife Teresa, all business behind the cash register. But beneath her gruff mien is a motherly woman who makes the best sour cream coffee cake you ever will taste.

Look now, it’s Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman, the florists. They are inviting us in. The flowers’ scent is almost too much, the air too cool–except in July, when I’m eager to visit. Mr. is dressed in his smart dark suit. Mrs. has a thick German accent, the possible significance of which I won’t understand until years later. Even to my young eyes they seem an especially simpatico couple. Their son just betrayed my brother in his final election for class president, but we have forgiven him. You can’t stay mad in a small town.

Mind your P’s and Q’s and I’ll introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Rotholz. Their elegant clothing store is plopped incongruously next door to the deli. Mr. is kind, reserved, sophisticated. I like Jack Benny, and he reminds me of him. Mrs. is dour, but I think hers is just a case of retailer’s sore feet: she usually is seated. In any case, their merchandise is so very expensive. I worry, unnecessarily as it turns out, for their survival.

Mr. Rothenberg is the pharmacist and also a parent of friends. He can’t join us right now. In fact, he never steps out from behind the cubicle where he makes up the prescriptions. Instead, let’s say hello to Phil, the warm-hearted co-owner of Macy Drug. Phil makes you feel you are the most wonderful child in the world. He actually takes the time to talk with you. (Maybe he’ll give us a candy from the dish on the counter.) In his immaculate white pharmacist’s smock Phil is so very handsome, so very nice. I’m pretty sure I want to marry him someday, or somebody just like him.

As a kid and then as a teen, I can and do stroll casually into any of these stores and think nothing of it. If, for example, I need a ride home, I ask if they have seen my mother. And if they have seen her or see her later, they do their best to connect us. They watch out for us. It is just that easy.

Would you have just a few more moments? There are others who are equally as welcoming. We’ll pick up our pace and meet Mr. and Mrs. Baker, who sell fabric for sewing; Mr. Meister, the former commercial fisherman who sells the freshest fish and the best fried clams; Mr. Smith, who owns the old-timey hardware store with its creaky floor and tin ceiling; the jeweler we call “Mr. Bluebird” after the name of his store; Peter the Swedish cobbler, whose trade looks to be on the brink; the hairstylists at Fabyan’s who send my mother home every week with blue hair; Mr. Olive, owner of the drug store where we get our popsicles (his son will become our eye doctor); Mr. Ohlin, the prosperous baker who on rare occasions pops out of his kitchen wearing his tall white hat; the dainty, elderly proprietor of The Carriage House gift shop, whose tinkling door bell announces our arrival. Her tiny glass animals and other magical wares overflow their cases in a dark subterranean room straight out of Dickens.

Believe it or not, I could go on—but I expect you need to go.

Like this story, such an idyll cannot last forever. In the mid-1960s an historic house will be bulldozed to make way for an ugly new colossus: CVS. We will have a sense of foreboding and we will be right. CVS will deal Macy Drug a death blow. It will be the beginning of a new era of rise-and-fail retail ventures. The deli will survive, but over the years, one by one, shops will close and owners will retire. Slowly but surely just about everything personal will go out of the Center.

Please forgive me. I realize I have become my father, who wistfully recalled simpler days when horses still pulled fire trucks. I understand now how he felt. I will never forget these wonderful merchants, these wonderful friends at the center of our lives.

Our town was a very very very fine town
Profile photo of Susan Bennet Susan Bennet
I'm so happy to have joined the gracious Retro family. The basics:
I have a background in marketing and museums.
I come alive when the leaves turn red.
I regret every tech mistake I have made or will ever make on this site.
I want a dog.



Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    You paint such an endearing picture of what used to be. The death of towns by strip malls and huge retailers is a tragedy. Small towns and communities where you feel you belong are the essence of human relationships. Where they don’t exist, we try to find community in other ways. When community fails, we are in big trouble. If only we could figure how to do this better on our planet.

  2. Susan Bennet says:

    Thank you, Khati. I had forgotten how much I loved these people. I treasure the memory.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Susan, I felt like I was in a Thornton Wilder play as you introduced me to these charming people and places in this endearing town center from your long-lost childhood. Your write with such fondness for all these people who did look out for one another and all the children of your town. It does have a theatrical, dream-like quality that is so desperately missing from today’s malls and cities. No wonder everyone fled to the suburbs and inner-cities were left to rot. I whole-heartedly agree with Khati’s comment – community is the essence of human experience and when it suffers or we fail at it, we are all in big trouble. That is when people turn to demagogues and false prophets who promise “they alone can fix it”.

  4. Suzy says:

    Susan, I agree with Betsy, this sounds very much like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. You describe everyone beautifully; I love your ethereal tone. I’m sad to say it did not remind me of the New Jersey town where I grew up (see my story on this prompt). You were very lucky to have a town like this.

  5. Susan Bennet says:

    Yes, thanks, I was lucky. Our town was so close to the city, I always wondered why “citification” stayed at bay. Now we’re a cut-through for speeding commuters, morning and night. Sigh. P.S. I loved your photos!

  6. Marian says:

    This is a town I wish I’d grown up in, Susan, and I loved the description of the couples who owned the stores. Mr. and Mrs. Cohen did own the United Cigar store in the town where I grew up, where we got candy and magazines, and I miss those small, all-purpose general stores. Kids today have no idea … there, I’m sounding like my father! That said, and not to inject a sour note, but smaller towns can be oppressive and stultifying if you don’t fit in. I had to move far, far away to get a clean start and be who I really was.

    • Susan Bennet says:

      I understand, Marian re some small towns. Mine was small in square mileage but big in population, so there were plenty of paths to explore.

      But….in my late twenties I moved, temporarily, to a small, pretty beach town to keep my uncle’s newspaper going after his death. (I moved into his house.) I decided my first task would be to bike around and try to collect the advertising accounts payable from local businesses. My first stop was a bar. Before I could introduce myself the owner said: “You’re the niece.” And I had only arrived the day before!

      A beautiful place it would have been to live, but not with the wagging tongues and prying eyes.

  7. This was a lovely story to read Susan! As other readers have said, it’s reminiscent of Wilder’s Our Town!

    What an enviable childhood you had in your hometown, but won’t you tell us where?

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