by Maria Lagalante Schulz
There was something magical about shopping for Christmas gifts that was so exciting when I was a child. I didn’t have a lot of money and I had scores of people to buy for—including my parents, brothers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and friends.
My favorite shopping destinations in Bayside back then were Springfield Boulevard, Bell Boulevard, and in Flushing, it was Main Street (of course!).
After school, I would go shopping on Springfield with my friends, Ann and Maureen, and we would scour the aisles of small boutiques or larger drug stores to find gifts for everyone on our list. We would duck into Joe’s Pizzeria for a slice or two and a coke before walking home in the dark.
Other days, I’d head down Bell Boulevard with Chris, Joey and Paul, and we would search for scarves, gloves, statues, knick-knacks, costume jewelry, comic books, games and toys for our family members.
I loved how the Christmas decorations stretched high above and across the streets of Bell, with twinkling, lit wreaths and bows. Every store was decorated and music was always playing. As the temperatures dropped, I’d pull my coat closer to me and watch my breath come out in great billows of smoke as I and ran from store to store.
Searching for a parking spot and fighting with someone else over it never even entered my head. I couldn’t drive, and we walked everywhere. If I had wanted to go to a mall, I would’ve had to take two buses down to Queens Boulevard. Why spend my very meager funds on bus fare when I could walk?
On weekends, I would go with my mother and grandmother to shop on Main Street. We walked with our arms linked together, like monkeys in a barrel, as we headed towards our shopping adventures.
There were bargain bins to rifle through in Alexander’s, where we might find beautiful handbags or shawls. Then we would go into Korvettes where Chris and I would happily give my grandmother suggestions for gifts in the overstocked toy department.
Another favorite shopping destination for us was the Flea Market. Whether it was the Roosevelt Raceway flea market or the one at St. Robert’s, we showed up with our dollar bills crushed in our gloved hands, ready to find better gifts then Santa himself.
My sister-in-law Kathie would drive my mother, brothers and me to the Raceway. We would walk around in the cold outside for hours, and eventually work our way inside, searching for inspiration on a budget.
I would scan the stalls for things my family might enjoy. Anything Beatles-related was perfect for Jude; sweaters and flannel tops were good for Tony and Louie; albums and comic books were great for Joey, Paul and Chris. My father liked anything that had to do with Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and the Yankees, while my mother was easy to please with soft sweaters, gold earrings or a shawl.
The St. Robert’s flea market had different kinds of finds. Chris and I would pool our money together and buy religious gifts for our parents or fun, kitschy gifts for the others. There was Golden Rule decorative plates, 8-track tapes of Gospel Music, statues of Mary and Jesus, or statues that said things like “World’s Best Grandma” or “World’s Best Golfer” there for the taking.
As Christmas roared towards us, I would head to Genovese Drugs on Bell Blvd. I had learned early on that the older people in the family liked getting cologne and perfume for Christmas, and that was great, because you could get gift sets for only a few dollars. Uncle Sal was always pleased with a Soap-on-a-Rope set, and I would run down there to get it before any of my brothers beat me to it. Uncle Don and Uncle Nick would enjoy Brut or Old Spice. Then of course, it was time to shop for my grandmothers.
The Christmas that I was 16, I had a part-time job that paid me a handsome $3.15 an hour (before taxes) and I managed to get gifts for everyone except for my two grandmothers. With just $10 left in my pocket, I stood there in Genovese Drug Stores searching for something I could afford for both of them.
My head spun with possibilities in the perfume aisle. My father’s mom loved Taboo perfume, and I could get a gift set for $7.99. My mother’s mother loved Jean Nate, and I could get her a gift set for $7.99. The problem was, I couldn’t get them both a gift–and this left me wringing my hands.
If I got the Taboo for Nonni on the Car (nicknamed this by a very wise young Jude because, well, she drove), I would make her feel loved and happy. Or, I could get the Jean Nate set for Nanny on the Bus (okay, you guessed it: she took the bus). But if I only got one gift and left the other one out, I would fuel all the jealousy and fighting that had been going on over me since the day I was born.
Both of my grandmothers suspected that I liked the other one better, and our family photo albums were filled with pictures of us all smiling, awkwardly, into the camera as my two grandmothers tried to hug me just a little bit harder.
I kept counting my money, wishing it would magically multiply and I would be able to make them both happy. I really didn’t favor one over the other. Mostly I loved them both, and sometimes I couldn’t stand either of them. I just didn’t want this to turn into the first missile launched in the great ” Bay of Grandmothers ” Fiasco I seemed powerless to stop.
Just as I had decided to make neither of them happy, an elderly lady came up to my side.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” the blue-haired lady said to me.
The lady laughed and squeezed my shoulder. “I’m sure your grandmothers will understand,” she assured me.
I started to walk away, when the blue-haired lady tapped me on the shoulder. “Someone as pretty as you shouldn’t be frowning so close to Christmas. Here,” she said, as she handed me $10. “Make both of your grandmothers happy.”
“I can’t take this,” I said, but she just waved me off and walked away. I ran over to her and gave her a hug. “Thank you!”
I heard her laughing while I paid for my two gift sets and left the store. I did it fast, before she had the chance to change her mind.
Many Christmas seasons later, I can still remember that woman’s blue hair, twinkling blue eyes and wonderful laugh. No, she didn’t buy me the shoes I needed so my dying mother could look pretty for meetin’ Jesus, but she did make me realize how easy it is to be kind.
That’s what I try to remember whenever I hear stories about people spraying mace into other peoples’ eyes on Black Friday or stampeding over workers in their mad dash to get cheap flat screen TVs.
This year, my husband, girls and I went shopping on Main Street in Huntington. All of the stores were decorated, lights were shining, and we managed to get some very beautiful gifts (all wrapped by the people who worked there! How great is that?). We ducked into Starbuck’s for hot chocolate and cookies in between, and then went back outside, clutching our coats to our chests as great billows of smoke came out of our mouths.
Now it feels like Christmas.
Here’s a recipe for Hot Chocolate that also makes a great gift! It’s perfect for those of you who are on a budget and love making something special for the people you love:
Mocha au Lait
Here’s another recipe that you can use to as a homemade gift:
Christmas Cookies in a Jar
So what’s your favorite memory of Christmas shopping? What do you love—and hate—most about it? Please post a comment and let us all know.