Monday, November 28, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 12-4-05
Jeff Gill

Ending Traditions, New Beginnings

Marshall Field’s is no more. The Macy’s behemoth has rolled over another department store chain, and central Ohio has seen quite a few familiar names vanish like Lazarus. Across the Midwest downtown icons like Ayres’, Block’s, or Montgomery Ward’s have slid into oblivion, replaced by supercenters in edge city plazas or newer conglomerations with names like a panzer division commander (Von Maur?) or a French perfume (Parisian?).
For central Ohio, Marshall Field sounds like a rural airport; for those of us with Chicago roots, those are words to conjure with. Their store on State Street, that great street, in the Loop of elevated railway fame is still the second largest in the world, with the second largest granite columns at the main entrance (first? Temple of Karnak in Egypt, as any schoolchild knows). The Second City could claim one first, the largest Tiffany glass skylight anywhere in one of four lightwells piercing the massive century-old block of commerce.
Frango mints in the distinctive green Field’s boxes will still be on sale, promise Macy’s, and much of the experience will stay the same, especially at Christmastime. The season, outside of church events, was defined for many kids across Chicagoland by the animated windows around the block, and a warming visit to the Walnut Room, with a massive tree whose decorations changed each year – except for Uncle Mistletoe at the top.
You only went to see Santa Claus there if you had a few hours to devote to the task, but the animated displays wound along the velvet roped maze on (as I recall, hazily) the ninth floor. The wait was shorter but scenery was lacking at Carson, Pirie, Scott, another early casualty of the retail wars of the late twentieth century. Still, Carson’s always had a Santa with real whiskers.
Macy’s can point to a proud heritage of true-bearded Kris Kringles, and they have history that includes everything from the Titanic (remember the Strauss’?) to a little parade that extends their marketing reach back to Turkey Day, but for some of us, they still aren’t Field’s.
Us Gill kids went often, as you can tell, in the company of our semi-legendary great-aunts, Chloa and Georgia, who had made Chicago their own after World War II. Teachers their whole lives, starting back when marriage disqualified you from the job, they knew how to handle the big city when single women of any age could easily be ignored by maitre-d’s or store clerks. At least by the time we four knew them, no one ignored Chloa and Georgia, at least for very long. But they loved the store whose founder coined the phrase "Give the lady what she wants," and where they were never treated like second class citizens of the Second City.
Aunt Chloa died many years ago, and Aunt Georgia now lives in a hallway where a passcode needs remembering to trigger the door to open. I sat down with her after Thanksgiving in her room, and told her about the changes on State Street. She was unruffled and agreeable, as she would have been if I had told her the T-Rex at the Field Museum had come to life and was outside the door.
I remembered for both of us the time my brother Mike and I had gotten up long before dawn, and ridden into the heart of the big city to enter a darkened Marshall Field’s on a Saturday morning. Aunt Chloa retired first, and promptly got a part-time job in the china and ceramics department of the Oak Brook Field’s, which gave her the right to invite us to the employee children’s Christmas party. We walked into a store still quiet and dim (how many kid’s books involve some version of this fantasy?) and rode the escalators to the majestic Walnut Room itself, which we had to ourselves – with a few hundred other kids, that is.
Only now do I think about how early they must have gotten up to drive out to our home in Indiana, to get us to downtown Chicago at 6:30 am. I mention that, and the lasting memory it gave us. Aunt Georgia smiled and agreed. We talked of other things, or at least I spoke and she nodded, with the occasional affirmative phrase carefully worded, her grammar at least still precise.
Sometimes, you have to remember for others. That’s OK. None of us can keep track of everything worth recalling, anyhow. The Little Guy won’t have memories of either Aunt Georgia or Marshall Field’s, but I can pass along to him my own, and hope he keeps them long enough to hand off someday, to someone special in his life.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; pass along your memories through

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