Before we left the hotel, my dad was careful to take one of those little cakes of soap with the printed address on the wrapper, so we could remember the name and find our room again.
It was very easy for our small family to get lost walking about the big city of Spokane; a miracle just to see the big city lights. Our tiny town in Montana had about 40 houses and few lights, no electricity at all for that matter.
The 1940 census lists my dad as a laborer. He worked for the Great Northern Railroad on the section gang that kept the 50-mile section of track from Jennings to Yaak smooth and jostle-free under the great trains.
As an employee, he was entitled to a family pass. This meant the worst possible accommodations at the worst possible time.
So it was 2 o’clock in the morning during the last Christmas season before World War II when we boarded the Empire Builder and traveled to Spokane.
And here we were at last, the three of us, gazing into the huge display window of the Tull and Gibbs department store at the corner of First and Wall in Spokane.
What was in the window? Only the most wonderful thing you can imagine.
Each year the store created a full-size mechanical display with dozens of independently moving figures. One year it was a circus with clowns and animals, and another three men in a tub on an ocean populated with fantastic sea creatures.
You could never see it all, no matter how you tried. It was a thing of wonder.
Tull and Gibbs was a very upscale store, before upscale was a word. “Spokane’s Greatest Home Furnishing Store” was the tagline. “Pianos, Phonographs, Records. Your credit is good!” the ads trumpeted.
Well, not exactly. Our credit wasn’t good. We never got to set foot inside the store with its tufted velvet settees.
But the window was there free for all to wonder at. There were permanent damp spots all around from where my nose had pressed as I watched the clowns balance and the trapeze artists swing.
“How do they do that?” I breathed.
It’s pretty fashionable these days to say that all of the wonder of Christmas is gone, lost in an avalanche of commercialism. Santa’s ditched the reindeer and drives a Subaru.
I think all of the wonder is still there, but it takes a bit of work to find it. It’s all where you look and who you spend time with. A negative outlook keeps wonder away.
For instance, I once had a short romance with a vacuum cleaner salesman (Don’t tell the kids.) He was a terrible person, but he had a great British accent. I was filled with wonder just listening to him speak.
But I began to realize his life was full of fraud and meanness. Every night he’d talk in that irresistible accent about the fools he met, and how he’d cheated them.
Finally, I said to him, “Everywhere I go, I meet wonderful people, doing terrific things, but you never seem to meet any of them. I don’t think I can afford to have you in my life.”
Toxic people kill wonder, so he had to go. I do have three vacuum cleaners, though.
And for goodness sake, turn off the TV. University of Maryland researchers proved that the one activity unhappy people consistently do more than happy people is watch lots of TV.
The study also showed that people who watch news on television tend to be more anxious and to believe less in the basic goodness of people. I think they also buy more vacuum cleaners.
On that long ago Christmas, our shopping finished, we got back on the train and went home to Warland. It would be our last Christmas in Montana.
By the next Christmas, we’d be living in a tiny apartment on the north side of Spokane, upstairs in our landlady’s house. The world would be at war and many of the lights would go out forever.
The apartment in Spokane had running water and electricity, even a shared telephone on the landing. You just touched a switch and the lights came on. The Christmas tree had electric lights.
It was a thing of wonder.
Dorothy Wilhelm is a professional speaker and writer. Follow Dorothy’s blog at itsnevertoolate.com. Contact her at P.O. Box 881, DuPont WA, 98327. Phone 800-548-9264, email Dorothy@itsnevertoolate. com.
‘24 Days to Christmas’
Email Dorothy@itsnevertoolate.com to receive a free copy of “24 Days to Christmas,” an e-publication that lists two dozen ideas for family fun and celebration during the Christmas season.