By Matt Chansky
In the town I grew up in, it was common for children to roam freely without any parents, even at a young age. The town had a way of nurturing the daydreamer child where the most benign of events could be turned into memorable adventures. There was the town and then there was the outside world with its big dramas; at least that’s how things seemed to me. It was pretty natural to draw those distinctions. By the time I was ten, I had run for my life into bomb shelters in Israel. And in our dining room, I’d wrestled with an understanding of what the evening news meant by “the end of the Vietnam War.”
When I was five or so, I thought Vietnam must be at the high school just outside of town, because people told me it was far away. Then I thought it must be near Veterans Stadium where the Phillies played, because people told me it was even farther away. But by the time I was ten — I had a mature understanding of the size and unpredictable nature of the outside world. I had no adult words to verbalize it, but I felt inside that my little town, with its myriad of undramatic subtleties, was where I felt most at ease.
The town and my parents gave tacit permission to walk from my house to the small area of commerce we called Uptown. I had been Uptown many times by myself to mail letters at the little post office and especially to go to the two competing drug stores. For a time, there were two pantheons of candy and baseball cards each within a stone’s throw of each other. It was common for kids to go into any store by themselves, except one. And on a Mother’s Day morning in the mid 1970s, instead of heading to the corner drug store, I followed the large sidewalk slabs ‘round the bend and quietly ducked into this particular store a few doors up.
It had a proper name, but The Gift Store was the only way it was known to me. It was a place where a little bell rang when you opened the door and customers spoke in quiet church-like tones. Entering this store required an artful etiquette that was handed down from generation to generation. One made sure to hold onto the big brass handle attached to the old wooden door and carefully shut it to protect the vacuum of serenity inside. I stared at the door handle and the thick brush strokes of paint that swirled around the brass hardware, as if my fixated gaze could somehow help ease that door shut. No one had to tell me that a parentless child should try not to draw attention.
The store had its own unique fragrance that reminded me of grandparents, naps, and things too delicate to touch. My heart pounded in my chest despite the informal aromatherapy. The uniform of the store employees consisted of a light sweater, grey hair, and motherhood. These women gave charming little glances to children until they became a bit too boisterous. Then their parents got “the look.” Apparently buying gifts required great concentration as well as a peaceful atmosphere and the women behind the counter were like nuns protecting the sanctity within. I moved slowly with one eye watching them watch me, waiting to see if the slightest change in their expression would signal for me to leave.
I walked up and down the narrow aisles looking at little gifts and passing by all the greeting cards — careful to look with my eyes first before touching. Even the smell of the gift card paper, like the town, had its own unique and indelible quality.
I had saved up my allowance for a few months. In the little pocket of my Sears catalog jeans I fumbled with a small roll of bills until my eyes finally landed on something that looked pretty like my mom. My little boy fingers turned over this small glazed ceramic masterpiece to see the hand-written price underneath on a small circle. I was still a bit anxious about the purchase, because what if my mom just didn’t like it? And it would take almost all of the money in my pocket. I had to do some quick thinking. By my calculations, I would still have enough for a baseball card on the way home. It’s possible that the thought of baseball card bubble gum played a part in my decision to go for it.
When you are a child, you don’t know what is possible until you experience it. I thought that I would just take this gift with me in a bag. I hadn’t thought ahead about wrapping the gift. Then the woman behind the counter began to ring me up and asked me if I wanted a box. I thought that was brilliant. When she lovingly draped and tucked the tissue paper around the gift, I could feel a sense of calmness that everything was going to be alright. These people, these mothers knew what they were doing. I was being educated and soothed in this church of small gifts.
The walk back home on that warm May morning with the clear blue sky and friendly arching tree branches is something that movies often try to capture. But we owned it and lived it. These were authentic and idyllic moments in an idyllic town.
It turned out that I bought my mom a glossy off-white ceramic swan. It wasn’t until months later when she rested a serving spoon on it, that I came to know that it had a useful purpose, too.
I wrote a poem on a card for my mom. I can’t remember it exactly, but it was something very close to: “Roses are blue, violets aren’t grey, you are beautiful like Faye Dunaway.” I was immediately worried after I wrote this rhyme in ink on the card. There was no going back after that, not when you used ink. I knew the name Faye Dunaway as a movie star, but at the last minute I was very concerned that maybe she wasn’t pretty.
We had a large dining room table and my parents would sit at the respective heads of this table. I remember the blinds on the big old windows were up, ushering in rays of sunshine between the trees and bushes. This moment frozen in time was my town’s version of a Vermeer painting. Just the two of us, my mom and I, sat in the dining room with careful strokes of sunshine highlighting the sides of our bodies. From my assigned spot at the table I presented the box and card to my mother.
She began to tear up after she read the card. Now my anxiety greatened and the serenity that I felt upon leaving The Gift Store began to give way to that uncomfortable warmth you get when you realize you may have hurt someone. I took a small swallow and then asked my mom if, in fact, Faye Dunaway was pretty and she nodded her head gently.
Inside, a nervous sense of relief swelled so large that it completely filled that infinite space found in a child’s body — this space adults called “feelings.” I remember the first time I got stitches, my first kiss, and the first time I stayed up all night. This Mother’s Day was my earliest memory of being thoughtful. And in some ways, really many ways — I’ve not travelled very far from that moment in my little town.
For my mom and moms everywhere (but really both my parents for their support of my creative pursuits). And to the late Miss Baker who believed in my potential before I did. Ms. Dunaway could not be reached for comment.
Matt is a graduate of Swarthmore High School, 1984. He received a BFA from Tyler School of Art and a full scholarship and MFA from Stanford University. His artwork has been exhibited in museums, galleries, and embassies. By day he is a multiple award-winning brand designer. Matt has a number of short stories and film treatments in the works.