Mama nudged the twins to get onto the city bus. Lizzy held her hand as they climbed aboard, scuffing her new boots on the first big step that was coated with winter sludge. Mama dropped the fare into the box near the driver.
Using her index finger, tucked inside a pair of gloves that stretched to her elbows, she pointed to seats. The boys slid in, sitting far enough back that their feet swung when the bus moved. Mama and Lizzy sat in the row behind the 9-year-olds. Dressed in a velvet dress with a fuzzy muff, Lizzy, who was the youngest at 6, wiggled to keep from getting her legs pinched by a rip in the dirty vinyl seat.
It was the family’s annual pilgrimage to downtown Akron to ogle the holiday displays in the windows of the O’Neil’s and Polsky’s department stores. This year, for Christmas 1962, they would also get a photo taken during their visit. Father insisted that Mama get the children’s portraits taken every two or three years. His brother, William, was killed in a farming accident when he was young, and there were few pictures. Daddy was ashamed to admit that he had forgotten what William looked like.
“You just never know,” he would tell Mama.
Before leaving their home in Ellet, the children were required to scrub their faces with Mother’s Ivory soap until the apples of their cheeks were pink and shiny. Mama made them promise to keep clean until the afternoon appointment, a goal that, at least for the boys, would be difficult, if not impossible.
Lizzy was staring out the frosty window when she spotted the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. “That’s where Daddy makes tires,” Lizzy said, proud of herself for recognizing the building.
Much of the air in and around the city smelled of rubber. Even when the children turned up their noses at the stench, Father, who had traveled from southern Ohio to Akron as a teenager to get a job, told them it was the smell of money.
“Someday,” Daddy said, “you’ll understand.”
Further down the road was Akron City Hospital, the place where doctors found stones in Grandma. Then the bus was making a sharp turn onto Main Street, coming to a stop in front of the tall stores.
Marvin and Mikey leaped off the last step into a frosty puddle, splashing a mix of dirty water and ice onto the pants Mama had just finished sewing the night before.
Following her squealing children, Mama snaked her way through a throng of shoppers to get close to the window displays.
The children drifted into a fairyland when gazing at the scenes from Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and a lush, romantic Ice Princess.
Having examined every detail in the windows, Mama and Lizzy stepped around a man ringing a bell and slipped into O’Neil’s through a single door — avoiding the revolving portal. But the twins kept going round and round, waving as they passed. Mama crossed her arms and gave them a look that meant trouble. Spotting what Mikey referred to as “the evil eye,” the boys spilled out onto the marble floor. Mama leaned down and grabbed Marvin by the ear.
The smell of sulfur was replaced by a sweet aroma that could cost a factory worker nearly a day’s pay. Last year, though, Father had given Mama a bottle of Estee Lauder.
“Nothing is too good for my bride,” he said, tipping Mama’s chin up with his thick fingers and kissing her lips. Mama blushed, as she and Father rarely showed affection in front of the children.
Lost and found
Mama hustled the youngsters past the perfume counter, where women dressed in coats with fur collars and animal faces held out their hands offering a spritz.
Eyeing the moving staircase, the boys raced ahead. At the end of the escalator, they raised their toes so that the heels of their shoes caught on the piece of metal that gobbled up the steps, stopping them cold. Mama and Lizzy ran smack into their backs.
“Get moving and walk up there,” Mama grumbled, motioning a few feet ahead. “I don’t want anyone to know that you’re with me. You have holes in the heels of your socks and I told you to change them before we left home.”
The boys snickered. While they knew she was miffed at them, Mama was as thrilled as they were about the holidays, and her words were idle threats.
Mama insisted that Lizzy visit the ladies’ room, having caught her wiggling from side-to-side as if trying to keep from wetting her pants. Standing on her tiptoes at the sink, Lizzy held her hands under the water and grinned into the mirror — sticking her tongue through the gap where a front tooth used to be.
A woman handed Lizzy a towel to dry her hands, and the little girl stood immobile, staring. It was the first time she had seen a brown person up close.
Being naturally curious, she wanted to inspect her. Maybe even ask her a question or two. But Mama handed the woman two dimes for the towels and tugged the 6-year-old out the door. “It’s not polite to stare,” Mama said.
“But she is brown and …”
“I don’t care if she is polka-dot, it’s not nice to stare,” Mama said. “She’s just like us, just a different shade. There is no reason to gawk.”
Christmas music spilled from square boxes attached to tall pillars. The boys were standing right where Mama had left them near a drinking fountain. Their shirts were splattered with water. And as Mama tried feverishly to wipe their clothes dry, Lizzy’s mind wandered back to the restroom and the woman who gave people towels.
As Mother browsed the women’s dresses, Mikey, Marvin, and Lizzy played hide-and-seek between the racks. Lizzy scampered down the aisles, crouched beneath a row of coats, and fell quiet. She never beat her brothers at games and was determined to win this one, even ignoring her mother’s increasingly frantic calls.
Soon, her family’s cries fell silent and Lizzy was lost — and whimpering.
“What’s wrong, honey?” a voice asked, softly.
Lizzy looked up. The lady from the restroom kneeled to help her off the floor.
“Where’s your mommy?”
Lizzy cried harder.
“It’s OK, we’ll find her. My name is Miss Evelyn. You stay here and talk to me while someone looks for your mother,” the woman said, brushing the tears from Lizzy’s cheeks.
“What’s your name, sweetie?” she asked, and when Lizzy answered, Miss Evelyn stopped a passing clerk to ask her to page Mama.
Miss Evelyn comforted the girl with stories, and Lizzy shared a tale about the twins getting lost in church. They had managed during a prayer to crawl beneath the pews — from the second row of the sanctuary all the way to the back.
“My boys did something like that too,” Miss Evelyn said, chuckling.
Lizzy reached out and gently stroked the woman’s arm.
“Your skin is like candy Kisses,” Lizzy said. “Are your boys chocolate, too?”
The woman slapped her hands on her thighs and laughed aloud.
“Yes, sweetie, they are — and they’re just as ornery as your big brothers,” she added, grinning. “Why, I was wondering, what do you want from Santa?”
“A dolly, but I can’t decide what kind. I like Barbie, but Daddy says I sound just like Chatty Cathy — and talk that much too. But I want something none of my friends have.
“It’s a really, really, ginormous decision ’cause it’s my biggest present,” Lizzy said, raising her eyebrows to make her point. “And…”
A voice interrupted from the square boxes.
“Would the mother of Lizzy Hayes please come to women’s coats?”
Lizzy cringed. “Mama will be mad,” the little girl said, beginning to sob again.
“Lord, child — don’t worry. Your mommy is going to be very happy to see you.”
The racket of rowdy children preceded Marvin and Mikey’s arrival. “You’re in big trouble,” Mikey snapped, sticking out his tongue.
But when a tearful Mama came around the corner, she hurried to Lizzy, picked her up and gave her a sweet kiss.
“Humph,” Mikey mumbled, disappointed that Lizzy didn’t receive a spanking.
“Thank you,” Mama said, touching Miss Evelyn’s arm and giving her a look only two mothers could understand.
“I hope Santa brings you that special baby doll,” Evelyn called to Lizzy.
Still in her mother’s arms, Lizzy looked over her mama’s shoulder and blew a kiss.
The magic of Christmas
The photo shoot took longer than expected. The boys’ shenanigans frustrated the photographer, and Lizzy’s cheeks hurt from trying to keep a permanent smile on her face. While the naughty boys were being scolded by Mama, Lizzy’s mind wandered back to kind Miss Evelyn.
At home, the little girl watched the images on the black and white television of people who looked a lot like Miss Evelyn, holding up signs and demanding something. And though Father tried to explain the issue of civil rights, the child’s mind wasn’t able to understand.
“I got lost in the store today, Daddy,” Lizzy admitted, sheepishly. “I met a brown woman, like the ones on TV — and she was so nice. She told stories and made me stop crying.”
Father smiled at her chatter.
Christmas Eve was a magical time for the Hayes family. During church, Lizzy watched as snowflakes fell and clung to the windows. People lit candles and sang Christmas hymns. The minister talked about the birth of Jesus and His promise to love everyone — “red, yellow, black and white.”
“And don’t forget brown,” Lizzy purred, thinking of Miss Evelyn.
In the living room of the old two-story home, Daddy put another log on the fire and the twins tormented the dog and their kid sister. The boys had made up a song with lyrics that included “Lizzy is a baby,” but Mama had barred them from singing it because it made the little girl cry. To skirt the decree, they hummed it.
Lizzy could have gotten angry, but she laughed instead. The excitement made even her brothers’ worst behavior tolerable.
In bed, she drew the covers over her head and squeezed her eyes shut. Lizzy was convinced that because the fireplace was filled with burning embers, Santa had to use the attic access hole in the closet of her bedroom to get into the house. That meant she had to pretend to be sleeping. Still, she worried that if she slipped into slumber she wouldn’t get a final chance to tell Santa about the special dolly she wanted.
“Hey, Lizzy!” Marvin shouted to her from the boy’s bedroom across the hall. “Remember we’re not allowed to get out of bed until the sun comes up. I love you.”
“Yeah, me too,” Mikey added.
Lizzy giggled. The boys could be sweet sometimes.
Soon, Lizzy drifted off to sleep — dreaming of Christmas morning filled with lights, music and surprises.
At the first peek of dawn, Mikey and Marvin burst through their door and knocked on the wall of Lizzy’s room as they went by, tumbling down the steps.
“Merry Christmas,” Mama said, grabbing each of the boys and planting a kiss on their foreheads.
Lizzy shuffled past as they ripped open packages of trains, trucks and Silly Putty. Beneath an angel ornament that Mama had made out of clay was a long, narrow box.
“Too big for shoes,” she reasoned.
Lizzy grabbed the box and checked the gift tag to make sure it was hers to open.
“A baby doll,” she whispered.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she lifted off the bow, tore an edge of the wrapping paper, and peeked inside. But a piece of tissue paper still hid the contents.
With one mighty rip, her gift appeared.
It was wonderful.
It was perfect.
It was a dolly — with skin the color of candy Kisses.
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.