I probably should have saved this entry for somewhere closer to the holiday season, but Dad & I were talking about this tonight, and I wanted to put it down in writing while it was reasonably fresh in my little mind.
All families have holiday traditions, many of them unique. And I’m guessing that this one is fairly unique to the Hall clan. My father’s Aunt Ruth was a special lady. She was a bit eccentric, but that kind of goes with the territory. My brother John and I always thought that she was a bit batty, but then again, we were just kids.
Dad says that she was a very bright lady. She worked as a comptometer programmer at Campbell, Wyatt, & Cannon in Muskegon during the war years. The comptometer was a type of early computer that worked off of a hand crank. It was a highly skilled profession, perhaps even more so than today’s computer programmers or systems analysts jobs – if for no other reason than they were so rare.
She lived very frugally, so as far as family lore had it, she was “quite well off.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that she was always very kind to my brother and I. Dad says that she was also quite kind to he and his brother Ken as well. The only early photos of Dad and his brother that we have are studio portraits of them with their grandmother. According to Dad, Aunt Ruth paid to have those portraits done.
While her generosity was to be taken for granted within the family, it was her ability to never select a suitable gift that always brought howls of laughter to my brother and I – as well as all of our cousins. You could take it to the bank that her present each and every Christmas, as well as every birthday, would be the traditional “Aunt Ruth Shirt.” And while most kids, especially boys, find a shirt to be a particularly useless gift, the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” was in a class entirely by itself. For not only would the shirt be of the most unwearable color and design, the size selection process that she employed must have required all of her skill with the comptometer. Not only would the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” not fit, it would amazingly not fit any boy in the family. With six of us to chose from (cousins Bill, Charlie, Don, and Alan as well as John and I), covering a nearly 20 year range, it would seem that the basic laws of probability would require the shirt to fit one of us. But no, with unerring skill Aunt Ruth would be able each and every year to select six utterly hideous shirts that would not fit any of us.
Now this never stopped my mother, or my Aunt Donna, from applying all of their motherly powers in a futile attempt to fit a shirt to a boy. They just never understood, as we all did, that the power of the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” selection algorithm was absolute and protected us from ever having to wear one of the hideous things.
This is where the wonderful family holiday tradition part comes in. Aunt Ruth always shopped at Hardy-Herpolsheimers, which was the top-notch department store in Muskegon. It is gone now, but it was the high point of the holiday season for many. For as fans of the Polar Express book or movie can tell you, the Herpolsheimers Christmas display was holiday nirvana of the highest order. Ralphie’s fascination with Higbee’s windows in A Christmas Story could barely match the wonder that was the Hardy-Herposheimers display. I searched high and low on the old interweb for a picture of Hardy-Herpolsheimers, but the closest I could find was a hat box from the store. At least that gives some small indication of what a high-falutin’ store it was.
The holiday season was a period of high stress trauma for my mother which precluded our little band from enjoying any of the public trappings of the holiday season, so we never got to go see the display before Christmas. But thanks to the wondrous holiday powers of the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” we did get to see the displays every year.
When the great day had come and gone, and before Dad had to return to school, Mom would send us guys off to Hardy-Herpolsheimers to return the “Aunt Ruth Shirt.” This was of course Dad’s responsibility, since he was to blame for being related to Aunt Ruth. It also allowed my mother to stay home and gorge herself on whatever holiday candy remained in the house.
So off we would go, with the monstrosity of the “Aunt Ruth Shirt” in tow. Hardy-Herpolsheimers wasn’t the type of store that were typically allowed anywhere near. My mother wouldn’t be caught dead there, since they didn’t sell muumuus in the two man tent size. And Dad, while he truly enjoyed the high class merchandise, just couldn’t justify the prices there. But between Aunt Ruth’s spectacular generosity in purchasing the most expensive hideous shirts in stock and the magic of after-Christmas retail pricing, we were treated to a virtual wonderland of consumer excess. We would not only be able to purchase the shirt that mother required (“She bought you a shirt, so don’t go exchange it for something silly, get a nice shirt – just like the one she picked out, but in the right size.”), but we would have enough money left over for some good junk too.
Once we picked out the obligatory shirt, usually the cheapest t-shirt that we could find – Dad understood being a boy after all, we would begin the quest. Dad would point out to us which of the magnificent toys that we could afford with the remainder of our return money. And we always had to stop at the unbelievable display of hot roasted nuts. The smell of those nuts permeated the entire facility. We knew that Dad was a sucker for the hot roasted pistachios and that if we “treated” him to a bag he would not only share it back with us, but he would be happy enough to tolerate our hours long quest.
Now I can’t actually recall any of the treasures that we were able to purchase with the proceeds of our “Aunt Ruth Shirts.” I’m sure that if John were still with us his magnificent brain could catalog the entire haul, year by year. But alas, that’s no longer available to us. The real treasure, which remains as a pleasant memory for both Dad and I, is the hours that we got to spend together. Eating hot roasted pistachios and wandering the cavernous floors of Hardy-Herpolsheimers – bonding in the enjoyment of each other’s company and sharing the wonders of a Hardy-Herpolsheimers Christmas.
I wonder if Aunt Ruth actually planned that?