Mack Williams column: With my parents on Christmas Eve, 1940

  • Posted: Monday, December 23, 2013 1:05 a.m.

My parents and brother Joe lived in Danville before moving to Salisbury; and referring to the above title, no, I’m not quite that old, being born in 1951. I recently did some research to get an imaginative glimpse of my parents’ 1940 Christmas Eve, based upon places touched by both them and me, but at different times.

My father worked for the “Sands and Company,” Southern Railway’s Danville “company store” (a bit like the one of which “Tennessee Ernie” sang) and my mother worked at Danville’s W.T. Grants. My father put in for a job as clerk in the Spencer yard office, and my mother sought a transfer to Salisbury’s Grants store on South Main, both succeeding in their efforts.

By chance, an older gentleman stopped by my workplace in the old Danville train station (now part of the Danville Science Center). We got to talking about the “old days” and he told me that Danville’s former Sands and Company building is still in existence. (My brother Joe told me that the structure which once housed Spencer’s old Sands and Company, where our Uncle Lamont Hamlet worked, also survives.) Upon my asking, the train station visitor drew a map so I could visit a workplace of my father never before visited by me, unlike the yard office at Spencer.

When I went there, I discovered it to be much smaller than I had imagined. Despite that, it was full of a great jumble of varied things, just as varied as the things which could once be purchased there, but these were not those things, just a variety of stored junk. The stacked-up items of lumber, old desks, chairs, etc. seemed haphazardly placed, chaos being the guide for their storage. Maybe the ghostly shades of my father’s past workdays there are stored as well, but perhaps filed away ethereally in more orderly fashion.

A more senior friend of mine drew me a map of old downtown Danville, marking the location of W.T. Grants. Another, a retired librarian (still one, by nature) suggested that I look in the local public library for the 1940 City Directory. I did so, discovering that Danville’s Grants was at 401 Main St. The building is now vacant, having also been a bank, and appears to have been altered to make a couple of businesses out of one, some upper smudges reading “Allen’s,” a jewelry store of the 1970s. This ironically reminded me of similar “lettered” smudges, which for some time after the Salisbury store’s final closing still heavily suggested “W.T. Grant Co.” above its entrance.

Salisbury’s former W.T. Grant building is a giant in comparison with its Danville counterpart, with possibly three or more of the old Main Street Danville Grants fitting inside the structure on Salisbury’s South Main. The one in Danville has been unused for some time, whereas my mother’s former workplace soon reopened as a store dealing in a much narrower range of items than when it was a department store: furniture, and doing so to this day.

Living in Yanceyville, my late wife Diane and I shopped in Danville and attended church there. My mother attended the old Keen Street Baptist Church in Danville, where I sang for a wedding in the 1970s. At that time, upon entering the sanctuary, I thought about my mother once worshipping there. I called her and told her about it, and she recalled the place fondly. Of course, my imagined scenes of her worship there were greatly aided by recalling similar memories of my actual church attendance with her at Salisbury’s Saint Paul’s Lutheran.

I purchased my late wife’s engagement ring at Kingoff’s Jewelers, Danville. It is now vacant, after having previously been devoted to wigs (jewelry and wigs both having decorative functions). Since the building was constructed in 1935, my parents may have also looked at jewelry there, but they moved to Rowan County long before the wigs arrived.

A few months before getting married, my late wife Diane, mother-in-law Doris, and I ate the most delicious spaghetti at the Danville Woolworth’s lunch counter. In a world of Outback, Olive Garden, etc., older people in Danville still “rave on” about the food of Woolworth’s lunch counter. As a youth, I would sometimes eat at Woolworth’s in Salisbury, but mostly at Salisbury’s W.T. Grants, since Catherine Swicegood’s hot dogs were, in the present Food Network vernacular, “to die for.”

Working for Southern Railway’s “company store,” my father most likely also knew the Danville train station, as do I. He heard then, as I do now, the train announcing its presence throughout town (as does everyone within the city limits of Salisbury). The whistle he heard was produced by steam, whereas the one frequenting my ears is produced by the air horn of a diesel.

One Christmas Eve in the late 1970s, the most ancient-looking little man waited on me at Danville’s Thalhimers store. Although the Danville Thalhimers was built some years later than 1940, that particular man may have waited on my parents in a previous employment at another store.

So the following may have possibly occurred on Christmas Eve, 1940: My mother helped close W.T. Grants for the day, after an earlier appointment with her doctor, his former home-based office not far from where I now live. (Though my brother Joe wouldn’t be born until November 1941, he was probably under consideration.) My mother took some presents out of lay-away at Grants, just as she did when we lived in Salisbury.

Just before getting into his car, and after helping close the Sands and Company for the night, my father heard the whistle from a late-afternoon steam locomotive passing through town. On his lunch break, he had gone to Kingoffs and purchased a piece of jewelry for my mother, hiding it in the car’s trunk (later on, sneaking it out to wrap it and put under the tree). He also made a stop during lunch at another store and bought a few gifts for friends, being waited on by that same man who waited on me many years later at Thalhimers, who though much younger, was still just as diminutive.

As my parents-to-be (and my brother Joe’s parents-to-be as well) drove off from Grants, they might have wished to have stopped by Woolworth’s highly acclaimed lunch counter to eat, but being a five-and-dime like Grants, it had closed for the day, so they went home for dinner. After later attending a lovely Christmas Eve service at Keen Street Baptist Church, they wrapped the presents and put them under the tree, just as they did when I was growing up on the Old Concord Road. (I too have often been a “late Christmas Eve wrapper,” either through “nature” or “nurture.”)

Christmas Eve 1940 was one of the nicest Christmases imaginable, and that’s just what this last part is, imagination; but it is imagination based on some facts, some shared places, shared genetics, intuition, and a personal knowledge of the principal players.

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