By Mitch R Cook
I was never the crying kid on Santa’s lap. Not me. I loved Santa. I was that weird kid who sat looking into that jolly, friendly, face with awe and love. It was years before my yearly Christmas picture revealed my beaming face because it was always turned towards his, lost in Christmas magic.
“Monica, look at the camera. Monica, smile for momma. Monica, don’t ruin the picture!!”
I didn’t hear her pleas. The only voice I heard was that of Jolly ol’ Saint Nick. “And what do YOU want for Christmas Monica?” He knew my name. . .
I wouldn’t answer his questions. But I would always return with a question of my own. “What do YOU want for Christmas Santa?” This always got a hearty laugh.
Stubbornly, I refused to doubt the reality of Santa Claus. He was always the same man. He came to the same place every year, without fail. Forrest and Bergman’s department store in downtown Seattle was a Christmas wonderland.
My infatuation with Christmas has never gone away. No, I don’t believe a little old man and his sleigh deliver toys to every girl and boy one night a year anymore, but I still leave out some Egg Nog and Sugar Cookies (just in case).
But best of all, I loved it when Berggie’s (we called it that for short) dressed up in its best Holiday finery. I made special trips just to spend time in the space, soaking in the Christmas cheer and plenty of hot chocolate and gingerbread. My friends thought I was a bit insane.
Then, a miracle happened. Bergman’s hired me for holiday help.
It was 1956, my 22nd Birthday (I’m a December baby), when I got the call. Dressed in my most feminine and store appropriate attire, I arrived at the office of personnel to be assigned my work area. I imagined myself at the makeup counter, or perfume counter. Working with a talented team of young and beautiful ladies, we would regale customers with their desire to become more attractive or refined as their favorite Hollywood star. (I had a secret crush on Rita Hayworth myself and did my best to emulate her)
The matron at the office handed me a slip of paper with my assignment and hours. With my fingers and toes crossed I read it.
The Candy Counter.
Miss. Edna Snaps was the staff supervisor for the Candy Counter as well as the bakery and deli counters. Her office was tucked away in the basement near the delivery loading docks. She seemed genuinely surprised to see me when I knocked on her door.
She immediately reminded me of the House Mother at my boarding house. She may have been pretty once, now she was the definition of dowdy and proper. But she also had an air of rebelliousness; she wore pants and very little makeup.
“Yes Miss?. . .”
“Um, Hendrix, Monica Hendrix.”
“What can I do for you Miss Hendrix?”
I didn’t see the harm in requesting a different post. My father always told me I needed to be more forceful and ask for what I wanted. Sometimes it got me into trouble, sure. My mother usually just clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes when I would throw a tantrum about not getting something. But, dammit, I wanted to work that Perfume Counter. Even as a child, I would walk through the Makeup and Perfume department and ogle the ladies working there. I dreamed of a day when I too would make some shoppers day as I handed them a well wrapped bottle of their chosen scent from Paris. I wanted the little girls who passed by to see me in my best designer dress and my hair done up perfectly. I even hoped a few customers would hold secret crushes on me. If not all of them. If I am being honest.
“I appreciate the position at the Candy Counter, but. . .”
“You want a different post. Am I right?”
“Huh? Um, well, yes. I had hoped for. . .”
She glowered at me over her glasses.
“Makeup? Or Perfume?”
“How did you. . .um, I uh. . “
“Young lady, everyone wants those posts. You have to earn a post up there. All I can offer you is Candy, Bakery, or Deli. I’ll let you choose.”
So, I got the Candy Counter.
And those uniforms. . .
Remember those pictures of nurses during World War One, the ones with those long white dresses? Yeah, those are almost identical to the monstrosities we had to wear behind the Candy, Bakery and Deli Counters. Everybody had to wear them; no exceptions. At least we didn’t have to wear them to and from the store. There were locker rooms and that provided a chance to meet and greet your fellow Counter Attendants.
So, on day one of my Berggie’s Christmas Adventure 1956, I arrived punctually at 7:00 AM ready and raring to go. This was a dream come true. I was working at the best department store on the West Coast, at Christmas time (the best season), full of holiday cheer and friendship and love. . .
Who would I make lifelong friends with first? I could hear a small crowd of women’s voices outside the locker rooms, lots of laughing and loud talking, heading my way. So, I stood tall in my ugly white “nurses” uniform and prepared for an onslaught of “hello’s” and “where are you from’s” and your “hair is so cute” and “doncha HATE these uniforms” and “I loooooove Christmases. . . .”
That isn’t what happened. The ladies clearly knew each other from previous seasons. They walked right past me. I realized this was going to take some work if I was going to get any of them to warm up to me. I was going to have to earn their respect in the Candy Trenches.
But as they were filing past me in a mass of white and ponytails, one young lady, just for a second, who wasn’t really talking with the gaggle, looked back at me, just for a second. She smiled, briefly, and then hurried to catch the pack.
I had a target.
The food floor at Berggie’s was massive. Whatever you were craving, it was probably there. Butcher, Bakery, Produce, Deli, Candy; all of it fresh and local. (Well, except for the candy. I have no idea where that stuff came from). I remembered, as a kid, wandering the hall with my folks, taking in the sights and smells, and if I was lucky, the taste of some special treat. And now I got to be the lady behind the counter who brought that joy to some other little kid. And what better time than during the Christmas season? Right?
Oh, My Goodness, it was HELL!!
As a shopper, I loved the noise of the vast hall. The bustle and business were energizing and exciting. But behind the counter, it was petrifying and confusing. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on. Throngs of shoppers demanding all sorts of things at the tops of their lungs and with varying degrees of patience. The only training we received was how to present ourselves to the customers in order to “not besmirch the Forrest and Bergman image.” So, I had no idea how to help the shouting and pointing-randomly customers. I didn’t even know what all the candies were.
It was horrible.
That’s when I heard her voice.
“Take a breath sweetie.”
Startled, I looked around immediately and, seeing my colleagues next to me, asked the nearest, “what did you say?”
“WHAT?” the brunette nearest yelled?
I replied, “WHAT DID YOU SAY?!” She just threw her hands up and shook her head.
Who spoke to me?
I looked down the line of ladies working the counter and at the far end saw the pretty one who looked at me earlier in the locker room, she was looking at me again. So, I mouthed at her “did you say something to me?” She just winked and looked away. The butterflies in my stomach flurried but not because of the new job. No, this was different. I could tell my face flushed, grateful to be on the end of the row. The noise of the hall seemed to soften, and my anxiety lifted. How did she do that?
The rest of day one went fairly well. I made some mistakes, but according to the floor veterans that was normal, and I learned a lot. I couldn’t find my pretty protector after the shift was over and no one seemed to know who I was referring to. I wanted to thank her. I decided I would try again after my next shift.
Every day that week was similar, except the workload got easier and easier. Each day she would move one station closer to me. Just her presence was a comfort. I really wanted to find out more about her. But, as before, she would vanish before I could thank her.
Then, 2 days before Christmas.
I was alone in the locker room changing into my non-work clothes when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and saw the pretty face I had been slowly obsessing about.
“Well, hello. I am surprised to see you. You usually disappear.”
She smiled sheepishly.
“Yes, I’m sorry about that. I don’t like to socialize much.”
“Oh, well, that’s ok. I’m Monica.” I reached out my hand. She took it. It was as soft and warm as I had imagined.
“Hello, Monica, I’m Molly.”
“Molly. Nice name.” She blushed.
It was then that I noticed her clothes. Apparently, she was a fan of the 1940’s. She wore a forest green matching top and dress that stopped just below the knee, wool, squared shoulders, narrow hips (which showed off her figure) and a little hat and handbag. Very similar to a style my mother used to wear. But it was very flattering on Molly.
She seemed to be mustering up some courage before she asked, “Want a cup of coffee?”
I beamed, “Gosh, Yes.”
“Great, but not here. I know a place. They make great ham sandwiches.”
She led the way and I followed, my feet light as a feather. She was right, the coffee shop, just north of Berggie’s was cute. Small, good coffee, and a fabulous Ham sandwich. We talked for hours. Well, I did most of the talking. Every time I asked her anything about herself, she deftly swung the conversation back to me. And I took the bait every time. She was so easy to talk to. She listened intently; her grey eyes focused on nothing but me. I poured out my heart to a virtual stranger. We sat there until the owner had to close the shop. Otherwise we might have been there until dawn.
We headed out the front door and were about to say our good nights when I remembered something.
“Oh, I forgot my purse. Hang on.”
It took a moment for the manager to let me back in, but my purse was still there. My mind raced with the potential of the evening. I had about made up my mind about something I wanted to ask Molly. I nearly ran out onto the sidewalk.
“Listen, I know it’s sort of last minute, but. . .”
She wasn’t there. I looked around but didn’t see her.
Nothing. I hurried around the block, thinking she just wandered a bit. But she was gone. Vanished into the winter night. I fought my panic back to the boarding house. Did I say something wrong? Did I read her wrong? It’s happened before, I was a fool. I scared her away. I cried myself to sleep.
I woke up the next morning resolved to set her at ease when I saw her at work. But when I got there she wasn’t anywhere. The whole shift, she never appeared. I asked around about her, but no one seemed to even know who I was talking about. My heart ached. I felt a small glimmer of hope when I remembered Miss. Snaps, the Counter supervisor.
I nearly ran out of my shoes going down to the loading docks to find her in her office. Thankfully, she was there. I waved at her to open her office door.
“What do you need Miss Hendrix?”
“I can’t find Molly. Have you seen her?”
A look came over her. Her face turned ashen.
“Yes, pretty gal, my age, maybe a little older, has a 40’s fashion sense, she works at the candy counter with me?”
A subtle look of recognition crossed her face. She looked around quickly, the sort of thing someone does when they worry others are listening to a secret.
“Please, quickly, come in.” She motioned for me to sit in a chair as she closed the door behind me. “This is not for prying ears.” She smiled a knowing smile as she sat down at her desk. Her eyes were warm and penetrating, like a Grandmother about to impart some hard-earned wisdom.
“You claim to have seen a young woman named Molly dressed in 1940’s clothing working at the Candy Counter, yes?”
“Spoken to her, had coffee with her, yes, who is she? She won’t say much more than her name and that she moved here from Chicago with her family.”
“I know who you are talking about. All too well,” she paused, “unfortunately.”
“Miss Hendrix, you are seeing an apparition, a ghost, a memory. The woman in question died in 1944, 13 years ago. I knew her.”
I didn’t know if I should laugh or take her seriously.
“How. . .? A ghost? No. I have talked with her, for hours, touched her. . .”
In a low voice she told me a story
“Her name was Molly Duncan. She worked here at the same Candy Counter for a couple of seasons during the war. She was engaged to a Marine who was fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. But she had a secret; she was in love with another woman who worked at the Candy Counter. She carried this secret for some time, and no one was the wiser until one horrible day when she received a telegram. One of those everyone feared getting in those days. Her fiancé had been killed in action. This news was both devastating and liberating for Molly. You see, she counted on her future husband for financial security, but she never loved him. Sure, she was fond of him and she was broken hearted, but she also felt the thrill of freedom to pursue a forbidden love. I’m sure it was a very confusing time.
“Until then she had done a remarkable job of maintaining her secret crush. The young woman she desired really had no idea but once Molly got news of her fiancé’s death, she started to get braver and that meant her secret was in danger of being exposed. She began to make signals of her amorous endeavors to the young lady who began to get the picture. But she did not return her flirtations. Molly got bolder and felt she had nothing to lose, I suppose, and made her intentions more obvious. Enough that the other girls at the counter began to figure it out.
“Now, you know how things are with young women. They can be cruel. Then, on Christmas Eve, the Candy Counter ladies trapped Molly in the break room and made their accusations. She tried to deny this, but they wouldn’t have it. They threatened to expose her to the management, they even brought the girl Molly had fallen for in a final, brutal, public, confrontation.
“In a fit of despair, she ran, chased by a mob of brazen young women, out into the street when Molly was struck by a streetcar she never saw coming.
“Of course, management made a show of discouragement regarding their behavior, but no disciplinary action came. The entire affair was hushed up and life resumed. But poor Molly was ignored in death. Forgotten.”
I couldn’t help the tears. She saw this and handed me a handkerchief. We sat in silence for a few moments.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because, dear, I don’t want to see the same thing happen to you. It wasn’t right, what those girls did. Molly didn’t deserve that.”
“You seem to know a lot.” I looked at her with the question on my face. She knew what I was thinking.
“Yes, because the girl Molly wanted was me.” She choked back a sob but remained focused. “I need you to keep this between us. I won’t reveal your secret. But you need to be careful. Molly appears every Christmas, but I sense she sees something in you. You may have a hard time with her now that she has caught your attentions. I suggest you try and ignore her. She will go away, in time.
“Thank you, Monica, that will be all. Be a dear and see yourself out.”
Her advice was to ignore her!? I didn’t want to ignore her. I wanted her to be real. The fact that she wasn’t was devastating. My heart ached for her. How could those horrible women do that? She only wanted to love and be loved in return. Why was that so bad? How was this basic, primal need, a threat to any of them? No one deserves that kind of cruelty. No one.
That was it. I had made up my mind. I certainly would not ignore Molly Duncan. Rather, I would invite her to remain here in this world, not banished to a purgatory of lost love and loneliness. Especially not today, Christmas Eve, the anniversary of her tragic and unnecessary death. But I would have to get her attention, gain her trust, somehow.
I found the perfect ornament in the Arcade Shops in the basement. The little bell would make a fine addition to my sad little tree. When I got home, I unwrapped the bell, took it to the empty branch that awaited its new occupant eagerly and hung it with care.
“Molly, wherever you are, I am hanging this bell in hope. Hope that if you want, you can spend Christmas with me. I know it’s crazy, but I think that I love you. Be my Christmas wish and ring this bell three times, then I will know you are with me.
I poured myself a cup of my father’s famous egg nog (rum spiked) found the last gingerbread man and sat down to listen to “A Christmas Carol” on the radio until I fell asleep.
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.
and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge
May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us,
. . .DING!”