THE DIME STORE LOST ITS SPARKLE (A LEGACY STORY)
Dedicated to “Pepper”
At the core of each person, regardless of age, is the one thing, person, or place that holds some magic for your life. For some it may be only the dream of the magic; others may be allowed to realize that dream and experience the magic to its fullest. Or, as in my case, one may realize the dream, experience the magic, then have it taken away: never to be replaced.
In the forties, our small town had a very traditional town square. I loved it as all the businesses of any great consequence were aligned on the four sides of that square. One of the businesses held the greatest fascination of all. Indeed, once I had been inside, I found it was a place of genuine magic.
We often had to go to the drug store and it was usually connected to a time of illness for one of the family. These were not times I looked forward too. Usually I would prefer to sit in the car and wait for my mother to return with some foul liquid medicine for my ailment or for that of my sister. We were plagued with chronic ear infections, sore throats, and for me, the evil asthma.
Sitting in the car across from the pharmacy was not a wasted time. My mother usually parked in front of the ‘dime store’ and I would watch people going in and out. The large plate glass windows were decorated with decorations for the next holiday coming up. They were always bold and colorful. At Christmas, they were full of extra sparkle and glitter. I would imagine all kinds of beautiful things inside: if only I could go in.
On one particular day, my mother decided to make a stop inside the dime store to purchase thread for a dress. In the years ahead she would talk about the beautiful dress she hand stitched with thread she purchased that day. For more than a month, she had saved to get the 16 cents it would cost to purchase the thread for the sheer dress with a slip underneath to match.
Mother talked with me about how I would have to behave in the store, and the consequences I would suffer if I embarrassed her. I knew I would act perfectly because I wanted more than anything, to see the inside of that store. I had seen the wares that came out as purchases and I could only imagine what all might still be contained inside.
The large swinging doors were too heavy for me to push but my mother helped and I walked inside with great expectations. I was not disappointed. Large ceiling lights hung down and caused the room to glow like a sunny day inside. Large wooden cabinets, only as high as my head, were in rows throughout the store. Neatly stacked on varying cabinet displays, were evenly spaced rows of precisely folded clothing, linens, towels, and pillowcases. The next rows held dishes and cookware, while further back were some toys. I couldn’t wait to get to the back of the store.
Tugging at mother’s arm, I tried to move her along. Someone called her name and she was headed to a large glass counter near the exit doors, across the room. I was disappointed. I wanted to go to the back of the store to the toys as soon as possible so I could see all of them before I left the store.
I reluctantly turned to trudge along with my mother as she approached the lady at the glass counter. To my absolute delight, I saw that the glass counter was filled with glass shelves. On each shelf were items glittering with the sparkle of jewelry. There were necklaces, watches, broaches, and rings. My eye went to a special shelf that had a display with statues of small children on it. They were modeling jewelry. On that shelf, I saw small versions of the jewelry that my mother and grown up women wore.
“Good grief!” I exclaimed to myself. I had never realized they made jewelry just for children. I feverishly began to look and search every piece for just the right thing. I had been to a movie and remembered beautiful female movie stars wearing sparkling jewels. Since that time, I had the great debate in my mind whether rubies, emeralds, sapphires or diamonds were best. I couldn’t tell because the movies were in black and white; but here I could see the colors vividly and now the choice of which was best grew even harder.
I never considered walking out of the store owning any of the pieces. Ours was not the kind of life where you got what you wanted; but you still could have an opinion, so I continued to search for just the right piece of jewelry. The one that would be the most magnificent if I owned it.
Soon I could tell mother was ending her conversation as I struggled to resolve the dilemma in my mind. There were small bracelets with matching necklaces; and there were small necklaces with matching rings. What caught my eye was the tray of just rings. Rings of every color. All the “rubies” were together, emeralds together and each color of stone was in a section all its own. Then I saw the prize. The one thing that stood out as the greatest sparkle was the most beautiful ring. There was only one. I pressed my face against the glass trying to get as close to it as possible. My hands held on to the top of the counter ledge and I stood mesmerized as the light inside the counter display danced around the sparkles of this ring. It was the only one that had all the ‘colors of the rainbow’. It was like a diamond firing off all the rainbow colors and I had never seen anything like it.
As mother nudged me to move on, I was still interested in going to the back where the toys were, but that mission had lost its urgency. I was completely fixated on that ring and its beauty; and wondering if I could save enough to buy it like mother saved enough for her thread. I was a little deflated when in response to my question about the cost of the ring; my mother told me it was 25 cents. Why that was more than she had been able to save. I knew it would remain a beautiful pretend thing I slipped into my daydreams.
Mother took her time wandering in and out of the rows of merchandise. She spent a great deal of time at the material counter and I began to get restless. I wanted a drink and I tugged at her skirt asking to go over to the doorway where I had spotted drinking fountains. She allowed me to move over there under her watchful eye, as it was nearby.
There were two fountains side by side. Each was made of a hard white ceramic material and they were like the ones I was accustomed to at school. The fact that there were two made me think this place must get a large number of customers to need two. I started to get a drink then I noticed a sign that had a word on it and the waterspout was covered so you couldn’t use it. I used the one that worked and drank more than usual, as it was fun to drink from a fountain instead of a glass.
Mother was ready to move to the last displays, the toys. I was quickly by her side and thought that I was experiencing a small glimpse of a child’s version of what heaven should be like. There were baby dolls in bonnets with matching dresses and wearing shoes that looked like shiny black patent over white anklets trimmed in lace.
I admired those shoes because I only got two pairs a year. In the fall, I owned brown oxfords with shoelaces for school and in the spring, a pair of black patent shoes with straps and buckles for Easter and church. In the summer we went bare footed only wearing the black patents on Sunday. It was usually a challenge, as our feet would have grown through the summer; and there would be holes in the bottom of the thin soles.
I noted there were windup toys brightly painted, monkeys that smiled and clowns that popped out of Jack-in-the-boxes when you turned the crank. I particularly liked the Cupie Dolls and anything that was decorated with brightly colored feathers. There were two bikes: a blue one for a boy and a red one for a girl. I was pretty sure I would never have one, but I figured that someone up the street would get one from Santa and I could ride it sometimes.
At this early age of seven, I already understood Santa had a problem with crossing the railroad tracks to where I lived. He would usually be out of toys or at least big toys. But as long as he came, I was happy.
One of the medical problems I was often treated for was urinary tract infection. That meant I always was just minutes away from needing to find a bathroom. Standing by mom, and with the excitement of the toys, I realized the urge ‘to go’ was growing strong. I spoke to my mother with some urgency and put my legs together saying we needed to hurry. Bed-wetting was one thing and private, but I didn’t want to embarrass her by having an accident in the store. After all, she had warned me about her expectations for my behavior, and besides, I was old enough to be embarrassed for myself if that happened.
The bathrooms were near the fountains so we weren’t far away. As I hurried along the hall, I saw there was someone ahead of us. It looked like her little girl had the same problem as I did, only worse. She was jiggling up and down, holding herself between her legs.
“Hurry momma, hurry.” She was begging as she held on to her mother’s skirt with one hand, and using the other to hold herself between her legs.
Her mother wasn’t hurrying in the bathroom door. She looked stricken and tried to comfort her daughter. A grim woman, who appeared to work at the store, stood watching the events unfold.
I looked up at my mother who was hesitating; watching the scene before us. The other mother looked at my mother with tear-filled eyes. “You go on, Maam; we can’t go in there anyway”.
I didn’t understand and thought it was because the other mother saw I had to go as quickly as well. “It’s ok, I can wait.” I offered.
The two mothers looked silently at each other and I saw the other mother tear up.
“We’ll just leave out the back door,” the other mother said softly.
My mother could not ‘change’ the situation and stood helpless noting the woman from the store stood grimly by and between the other mother and child, blocking the bathroom door. Shaking her head, and grasping my hand, I was led into the bathroom where I barely made it to the stall.
I would learn a great deal about life from that small incident. You see, the other mother and child were black; or ‘colored’ as it was called in that day. In the segregated south where I lived, there was separate drinking fountains and separate bathrooms for the races. Earlier, when I got my drink, the fountain, which had the word “colored” above, it ‘was broken’. Or as I was to learn, ‘always broken’. The ‘colored bathroom’ door had a sign on it as well that said “broken”.
I experienced in that moment a lesson I would never forget. The little girl, who was so neatly dressed and had those plentiful pigtails, was suffering the same pain and anguish I was. The very fact that her skin was black and mine was white would allow me to relieve my pain and remove the chance for embarrassment. She, however, would suffer the fate of racial prejudice played out at the lowest level. Hurting children. I have no doubt that her mother barely got her out the back door before she was wet all down her legs: and I imagined her crying.
Her embarrassment was not just momentary, I am sure it followed her through many life events as she attended her segregated schools, attended movie theaters ‘on her side of town’, and endured racial slurs when shopping in ‘the white side’ of town.
In later times, I would realize the reason the store had two fountains and my school only had one, was because we were segregated racially. Only white students attended. Whenever I used the fountain at school, I would be reminded of that incident and feel a genuine embarrassment inside that I had privileges that were mine; even though I was poor and lived on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. All because I was white.
The “Dime Store Had Lost its Sparkle” from the moment the realization came to me about the fate of a small black girl who had a need to go to the bathroom. I would never think about that ring favorably or with desire again. I would never enter that store again, even as an adult, without remembering that day. I realized that you can see things that sparkle and glitter under the light, but the true surroundings may be filled with things that are ugly and sordid realities of what something is really about.
It was from this lone experience that I began to be aware of the injustice and the hardship that prejudice wreaks on its targeted victims. For me, second grade would continue to be a learning experience in more ways than one. My social conscience would grow in leaps and bounds ahead of my academic pursuits: and it would seem years ahead of the society, which controlled my hometown.
Throughout my lifetime, I would struggle to open the eyes of the tormentors and the persecutors. I had hope they would not have to experience like situations to know the actual pains of others or to become empathetic and pro-active in ‘unconditional love’.
Pictured above: Dr Ida Mae Johnson, “Pepper”, to whom this story was dedicated. Though I never knew what happened to that little girl in the Dimestore, I like to think that she too, lived to see this era, and like my friend Dr. Ida who worked from poverty to national recognition, she would have come to know respect and dignity.
I am so thankful I lived to see my friend of more than thirty years, receive her awards at state and national levels for her contribution to society and the betterment of the education and work opportunities for all who are in need. I am most proud to have seen her go from being the child of a preacher who, as her daddy held her hand, marched in peaceful demonstrations, to becoming an outstanding role model for all races. As she tells it, at the age the little girl in the Dimestore would have been, Ida was spat on, and called ‘everything but a child of God’. But we lived to see her honored for her efforts in social justice.
We are miracles my friends. We either leave legacies of light or darkness, love or hate, of good or evil. But, we all leave legacies.
Commentary added by author Joyce Godwin Grubbs.
This is one of the suspense novels I wrote, which in creative fiction form not only tells about “real cases” of domestic violence and rape/sexual assault, but these are the actual railroad tracks one had to cross over to reach my house. . One of three on a dead end.
We were literally the girls from the “wrong side of the tracks”. The lead character is Lisbon and is a blend of my life and my sister Trula’s life. Ida Mae is based on real cases, but it is her true self and nature which was created by the real life Dr. Ida Mae Johnson
In my adult life as an enduring advocate/counselor for victims, I learned to view my “legacy” of being from the “wrong” side of the tracks, to being “the strong” side of the tracks, that made me who I am today. Their dire designation actually propelled me in warp speed into advocacy even as a child in grade school. I spoke up and acted on behalf of minorities, black (negro/colored in my day was appropriate), Hispanic (Mexican was the only known designation I heard besides the slurs) and Indians, which were generally called by their tribe if known, but mostly called “Indians” without any other designation.)
I remain ever hopeful that this world and its societies will become civil and accepting. As time goes by and incidents of racism happen, I believe now I will not live to see this happen, but though it means bringing a nation to its knees to learn to love, I can only believe that like “my railroad tracks” we will go from “Wrong to Strong” for the experience of it.