Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from a specific decade.
grandma's dress smells of mothballs
Few remember the printed Sears Mail-order Catalogue. It vanished like coal for home-heating, oil lamps, match-lit ovens, ice boxes. When grandma came for dinner and her dress smelled of mothballs, I knew it was time to seasonally shop. My mother's twin brothers had December 25 birthdays. Buying presents in person was work; having a heavy Sears book handed to me, along with request forms, was fantasy.
I first always searched for the newest ice figure-skates, pictured in white-leather, and pretended they were mine. In my daydream, I could actually smell the leather and also hear silver bells jingling on laces. I already had tiny bells strung on my current skates’ fasteners. I imagined myself twirling wearing a velvet skirt lined in crimson silk, and could almost hear my mother’s voice telling me my legs are going to get cold. I wondered why there were no such things as warm stockings that pulled on like leggings. Oh, well, I wasn’t shopping for me.
Fantasy needed setting. I turned on the almost-hidden radio; it was built into the side of our wooden French-Provincial style living room false-flame fireplace; then I squat and switched on an electric knob near the non-burning clump of logs. A tiny fan, with red cellophane covering a small light bulb, gave weakly illuminated logs the illusion of flickering fire. That was the place to review the yearly catalogue.
Scented bath salts? Maybe for my mother instead of the purple-bottle perfume from Woolworth’s. Oh, gauzy gowns, on pages, looked as if they'd float while waltzing with my uncle, the best dancer ever, who'll ballroom dance with me when I grow up. Must find his birthday present...the men's section. Yes, I have enough allowance-money left to send for a silky new shaving brush for daddy; the sable hairs are so soft, just like my oil paint brushes. Can I print my order with South Seas blue ink, my trademark? How my teachers hate my lack of conformity.
With radio's Battle of the Baritones, and faint whirring of tiny fan blades forcing the red cellophane to ripple under the false fireplace logs, I imagined a future of romance, energy, giggling, achievement. Grandma's mothball smell on her winter wool clothing always signaled year-end contemplation and mail-order.
Gone are my parents, the uncle twins, other relatives. Their deaths are truly forever while there are a few "things" that have a way of resurfacing. Remember 'never again' convertible phrase when air-conditioned cars became widely available? How about 'never again' ceiling fans with wide blades to circulate steamy air; bulky bed comforters; returning glass bottles or other items for deposit? Wasn't radio considered finished when television became accessible to all? Who'd buy natural cotton with maximum maintenance when polyester sheds wrinkles? Fountain pens with leaky ink were made obsolete by ball point clean, but they’re status symbols and comfortable writing pieces once more.
My adult children sometimes like hearing stories of a time before television, computers, air-conditioned cars, smartphones, and other technology that is familiar in their lives. These must seem as dated as log cabins, outhouses, single-room schoolhouses, I suspect. But they have asked if shopping was complicated when gifts were inked on paper-forms submitted by regular mail. I’d rather have a computer than my Remington portable typewriter that weighed about 26 pounds, I prefer self-cleaning ovens, speakerphones, climate-controlled houses/cars, airline cabins that are pressurized, high-definition television sets, CD’s rather than cumbersome 78 rpm record, and so forth. But I remember, years ago, saying that much comes full circle so it’s possible, though not probable, for glossy catalogues to come back for other generations to ink in requests on printed forms.
December 2020. Global virus has affected all humans. Sears doesn’t exist even as a physical store anymore. There’s a different way of shopping without entering a premise. Online. So we search the ‘net’, press a digit on a desired-visible item, fill out a form via speaking or typing it on the tech device, let the next ‘page’ have a credit card number, and the process is complete. Santa’s elves don’t pull our requests from shelves and ship them out, but many robots do the work releasing humans to pick up other tasks. Didn’t I do a bit of that with the cumbersome catalogue and mail-in forms?
Gas-lit fireplaces are more popular than woodburning, and, with just a switch, offer a glow to a room. Some heat is provided as a bonus. My childhood false one completely covered a real brick behind it, and that was usual for the time-period; no heat, but cellophane crackle and gentle illumination happened.
Eventually few will remember the Pandemic, and life will resume with social gatherings, live theatre, shopping malls busy, crowded streets. Some online purchasing probably will continue for convenience. Yet, for me, just a distinct aroma from a box of mothballs will still signal seasonal changes.
a version of this was published 1994 Gannett News
reprinted 2008 The Jewish Press