Tag Archives: Marshall Field’s

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

Hats Off to…Hats!

 

I grew up in the midst of a hat-wearing era.  If you watch movies from the 1950s, you’ll see what I mean.  In both newsreels and Hollywood films, almost all of the grown-ups–in almost every walk of life–are wearing hats.

Of course, grown-ups occasionally doffed their hats.  On a vacation, at a beach, in a theater.  But when it really counted, and they wanted to be taken seriously, they wore hats.

Although factory and construction workers wore other kinds of hats at their jobs, white-collar men tended to wear fedoras.  Footage of men attending baseball games makes clear that, even at casual events, most men were wearing felt fedoras

Women tended to opt for a variety of stylish hats, many of which look pretty silly today.  Just take a look at photos of Eleanor Roosevelt.  As the wife and later widow of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she’s frequently seen in headwear that was not only frilly but also far from flattering. (By contrast, photos of her younger self, sans hat, put her in a far more appealing light.)  Images of other women in frilly hats predominate in the photos of the time.

When did things begin to change?  Probably about the time that Senator John F. Kennedy became a popular media focus.  He was almost never photographed wearing a hat.   It wasn’t until his inauguration in January 1961, when he wore a top hat just like Ike’s, that he appeared in a formal grown-up’s hat.  (He notably doffed it when he gave his memorable speech.)

The popular TV series “Mad Men,” which appeared on TV from 2007 to 2015, illustrates this change.  When the series begins in March 1960, Don Draper wears a stylish fedora whenever he leaves the office.  But as the series moves through the ‘60s, he abandons his hat more and more.

The hat-wearing era clearly ended years ago.  Today a celebrity or fashion icon may occasionally be photographed in a trendy hat, but hats are no longer de rigueur.

I’ve never adopted the habit of wearing hats, with two major exceptions:  I wear warm fuzzy ones to cover my ears on chilly days, and I wear big-brimmed ones to shield my face from the sun.

But two years ago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco put together a brilliant exhibit highlighting the creation and wearing of women’s hats.  “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” focused on the creative artists who worked as milliners in Paris during Degas’s era, as well as on the era’s hats themselves.

The Wall Street Journal described the exhibit as “groundbreaking,” an exhibit that revealed “a compelling and until now less widely known side” of the Impressionist painter Edgar Degas.

The exhibit brought together exquisite Degas paintings and exquisite French-made hats.  Paris, as the center of the fashion industry during Degas’s era, was also the center of the millinery world.  Around one thousand Parisian milliners created a rich and diverse array of hats.  Many of these milliners worked in a network of independent millinery shops that competed with the nearby grand department stores.

Hat-making, the display and sale of hats, and the wearing of hats in belle époque Paris—all of these fascinated the Impressionist painters who focused on urban life in the City of Light.  Degas had a particular affinity for millinery, and he would often return to the subject—featuring both the creators, who ranged from prestigious designers to the “errand girls” who delivered hats to their new owners, and the elite consumers of these hats.  This exhibit was the first to display all of his millinery paintings in one place.

The exhibit also included display cases filled with French-made hats from the period, noting that they were sculptural art objects in their own right.  This headwear came from museums that collect hats as part of their costume collections.  Museums like the Chicago History Museum and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco contributed wonderful examples from this fabulous era of women’s decorative headwear.

When I saw this exhibit, I was thrilled by it.  It also became a powerful reminder of a childhood memory I’d nearly forgotten.  Standing in front of Degas’s paintings of milliners, I suddenly remembered going to a millinery shop in downtown Chicago with my mother when I was about 8 or 10.  Although my mother never had the financial assets to become an affluent consumer of fashion, she was acutely aware of fashion trends.  Within the bounds of my parents’ limited resources, Mom carved out a way to dress as stylishly as their funds allowed.

On this occasion, Mom must have felt financially secure enough to travel downtown and purchase a new hat styled just for her.  I was her lucky companion that day, creating a vivid memory of our shopping trip.

We found the millinery shop somewhere in a building on Randolph Street, a block or two west of the gigantic Marshall Field’s store on State Street.  We rode in an elevator to a floor above ground level and alighted to arrive at the cheerful shop, its big windows letting in a great deal of natural light.  Mom sat in a chair that faced a mirror while the milliner offered her several different styles to choose from.

Mom chose a white straw hat with blue flowers.  It was a delightful style that suited her perfectly.  Today I’d describe it as a cross between a cloche and a very small sunhat:  a straw cloche with a brim.  Not the kind of cloche that fits closely around the face, but one with a small brim that framed Mom’s face and set it off in a charming way.  Mom and the milliner conferred, possibly even turned to me to get my opinion, and made a final decision to select that hat, adding the lovely blue flowers in exactly the right place.

Mom clearly felt pretty when she wore that hat.  She went on to wear it many times, and whenever she did, I was always happy that I’d been with her on the day she chose it.  Even though Mom couldn’t purchase an elegant French-designed hat like those featured at art museums, she had her very own millinery-shop hat designed just for her.

She treasured that hat.  So did I.

 

 

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Do you ever find yourself saying things your parents said?

Maybe your father used some phrases you’ve caught yourself saying.  Because my father died when I was 12, I can’t recall any pet phrases he used, so I have none to repeat.

But my mother, who died when I was decades older–that’s a different story.

At the outset, you should know that Mom was very smart.  She yearned to go to college and become a teacher, but after her father died, her family didn’t have enough money to send her and both of her brothers to college. I’m sure you can guess the outcome.

Mom had many pet phrases.  More and more, I hear myself repeating them.  But not all of them.

Here are some of Mom’s best, along with the context that surrounds them:

 

One of Mom’s favorites was “Before you know it.”  She usually said it when we’d talk about something we expected to happen in the future.  For example, when we talked about a young child going off to college someday, she’d frequently say, ”Before you know it….”  Or when, in the dead of winter, we talked about how far away summer seemed, she’d say, “Before you know it…”  Her instincts about how rapidly the future would arrive were usually right.  Now I often repeat that phrase myself.

When Mom conceded that something wasn’t just right, she’d often add, “Still and all.”  I can hear her saying it over and over again.  The dictionary defines the phrase as meaning “nevertheless” or “even so.”  Although you don’t hear many people use it, still and all it’s a great phrase.  Maybe more of us could use it.

When Mom liked to be very sure of something, she’d tell me that she wanted to “make doubly sure.”  I love that phrase and really must remember to use it whenever it fits.

 

Mom had definite views about gender and gender roles. They were typical of her era, so I give her a pass on some of them. But not all. These phrases frequently annoyed me, especially as I grew older and much more wary of gender stereotypes.

For example, I’ve written previously about how she admonished my sister and me to act “lady-like.”  I’m sure she thought that was the appropriate behavior for girl children.  But although the phrase didn’t bother me when I was younger, it later began to irritate me, especially when I had two daughters of my own, and the term “lady” assumed connotations I disagreed with.  But I don’t think Mom ever changed her thinking on that.

Her views on boys were distinctly different and bordered on stereotypical.

When a little kid acted up in her presence (and it was generally a boy), she’d refer to him as a “holy terror.”  She rarely referred to rambunctious girls that way.  But she might have.  (The prime example: My older sister, who later in life self-diagnosed as being a hyperactive child.  I know her behavior often created problems for my parents.)

Mom would frequently describe little boys she encountered as “all boy.”  I’m not really sure what she meant.  And as the mother of two daughters (as she was), her choice of words always struck me as rather strange.  Were girls ever “all girl?”  When?  Why?  And what made boys “all boy” to begin with?  I never challenged her on her use of this term and would just let it go.  But it still makes me wonder how she came up with it.

 

Let’s leave the gender issue for now and move on to the weather.

Living in Chicago, where we constantly faced extremes of heat and cold, most of us welcomed a warmer day that came along in late winter.  But Mom would often say, “It’s almost too warm.”  I guess she found the occasional warm day somewhat jarring in the middle of a cold spell.  But I was always delighted by that sort of change in the weather, and that phrase often made me laugh.

 

Now, on to the subject of time.

When we traveled, especially when we were driving somewhere in a car, Mom always relished “making good time.”  She meant that we were getting to our destination efficiently!  An admirable phrase, no?

But on other occasions she’d say, “Slow down.  We’ve got nothing but time.”  I generally disagreed with this point of view.  Always pursuing one goal or another, I’ve never felt I had “nothing but time.”  Quite the opposite.  And I’m afraid I still have the same outlook today.  But…maybe Mom was right, and I should slow down!

Slowing down might keep me from meeting some of my goals, but it would probably benefit my health.  I should keep in mind that one of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs begins this way:  “Slow down, you move too fast.  You got to make the morning last.”  Thanks, Paul Simon.  Mom definitely agreed with your thinking.

Speaking of “time,” Mom also liked to say that someone who wasn’t moving fast enough was “taking her sweet time.”  An example would be an employee in a retail store who helped customers in a poky fashion.  I sometimes think of that phrase when I see a pedestrian sauntering slowly across a busy intersection–sometimes looking at a cell phone instead of the traffic.  I’m often a pedestrian myself, and I resent careless drivers who barely let me cross an intersection safely before they make their turns.  (And I move fast.)  But when I’m driving, I find “saunterers” annoying.  They’re taking their sweet time!

I don’t think I ever encountered the “sweet time” phrase anywhere else…until I recently came across it in a short story, “Something to Remember Me By,” written by Nobel-prize-winning author Saul Bellow.  The narrator describes a character he’s watching this way:  “she simply took her sweet time about everything….”

That Mom and Saul Bellow used the same phrase doesn’t strike me as bizarre (as it might strike you) because the two of them were close in age, grew up in the same neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago (Humboldt Park, to be precise), and attended the same public high school.  Mom sometimes told me that she knew the Bellow family.  So when Bellow published Humboldt’s Gift (which I confess I’ve never read), I figured he chose the name Humboldt because of his origins in that neighborhood.  Maybe everyone who grew up there during that era also used the “sweet time” phrase.

 

Mom found certain things disturbing.  She and my father always followed politics, perhaps inspiring my lifelong interest in the political scene.  But Mom could get “all worked up” when things didn’t strike her the right way.  A devotee of daily newspapers and local TV news, she continued to follow politics into her 90s.  But she increasing got “all worked up” when she listened to officeholders orating on TV, stating policies she disagreed with.

Although I never used this phrase in the past, it resonates with me more and more. If I don’t hit the mute button fast enough and inadvertently hear the current occupant of the White House or his cohorts speaking on TV, I can easily get all worked up.

 

Other things that disturbed Mom made her feel “sick at heart.”  I haven’t used that phrase, but maybe I should.  It reflects the reality that disturbing events can make us feel deeply troubled, even affecting our physical well-being.

 

Switching topics:  When I would go shopping with Mom, usually on State Street in downtown Chicago (she always called that part of town “the Loop”), Mom’s admonitions came fast and furious.  A favorite was “Watch your purse!”  So from the time I was old enough to carry my own handbag, I would clutch it close to me.  The irony is that I never was a victim, but one day a thief opened Mom’s handbag on a CTA bus, and her wallet disappeared.  I remember collecting the wallet for Mom at the Woolworth’s store on State Street when it somehow turned up, money extracted.

In a way, this outcome wasn’t terribly surprising.  Despite her fear of thievery, Mom would carry the kind of handbag that could easily be opened.  Held over her arm the way the Queen of England invariably holds hers, it had the kind of clasp that could be flipped open in a millisecond.  I’ve always preferred shoulder bags with zipper closures that I can hold next to my body, making them difficult to pilfer.  Now I frequently wear crossbody bags that discourage thievery even more.

Another downtown phrase:  In the enormous women’s restroom on the 3rd floor (or was it the 4th?) of Marshall Field’s vast State Street Store, Mom would always say “Flush with your foot!”  I guess the toilets were the kind that featured a flushing mechanism one could operate that way.  Mom’s concern with bacteria was always front and center.

 

This concern related to household matters:  When I was older and my family and I had our own home, Mom would frequently visit us there.  She almost always made clear that she disapproved of my housekeeping (which admittedly has–throughout my lifetime–been abysmal).  Mom would offer to help, but as she got older, I wouldn’t let her do anything.  Accustomed to doing her own household chores with tremendous zeal, she would throw up her hands (figuratively), and after a while she’d tell me that she was “tired from sitting.”

Mom may have been onto something.  Research has shown that simply sitting is in fact unhealthy.  Mom’s instincts were right.

Mom also insisted that my daughters help me with household chores.  She would often tell them, “You can’t be lazy.”  This phrase relates to another literary reference:  In a story written by Nobel-prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer (published in a collection of stories titled The Power of Light), Singer sets the scene in an old-world home. He quotes an elder who explains his view of miracles:  “The truth is that miracles were rare in all times.  If too many miracles occurred, people would rely on them too much.  Free choice would cease.  The Powers on High want [people] to do things, make an effort, not to be lazy.”

So it seems that Mom was borrowing the wisdom of the elders when she told us not to be lazy.

Today, my older daughter and I repeat Mom’s phrase to her two daughters, my delightful granddaughters.  Like Cinderella’s stepsisters, they would prefer to lie abed and have someone else do things like laundry and straightening up.  Let’s face it, I’m very much of the same mind.  I do as little as possible to make my home neat and tidy.

But Mom’s phrase often comes back to haunt me, and I remind myself, as well as my granddaughters, that you can’t be lazy!

 

So…when you find yourself repeating phrases your parents liked to use, remember that a great many of them have stood the test of time and can be repeated today, as well as in their day, with the same positive effect.

Don’t be reluctant to use those phrases in your own conversation.  They may sometimes seem old-fashioned, no longer worth repeating because they’re out of date.

Still and all…they may say exactly what you want to say.

And before you know it, our kids will be doing the very same thing.