My friend topsurf recently posed the following question on Twitter: When I say Philadelphia, what’s the first thing you think of?
That’s pretty easy at first blush – cheese steaks and cream cheese and Those Damn Phillies and Rocky and the Steps and Tom Hanks and the Liberty Bell and so on and so on…
But as I was musing upon this, I was struck with another thought of Philadelphia… one more personal. Of department stores and gentility and elegant chocolate and politeness and heart. That didn’t involve me setting foot in the city at all.
It was a winter’s eve, sometime between the Watergate hearings and the Three Mile Island brouhaha. We were settled into our evening routine, which included watching something on the five channels we got on the telly; reading; enjoying the cool humidless breeze blowing through the screens on windows and doors.
A press of the doorbell startled all of us. Not that it was particularly late – in fact, the front lights were still on, signaling that we were still up and available for callers. The bell was simply unexpected. Daddy, being the chivalrous man of the house, went to answer the door where he was greeted by an older gentleman standing on the threshold. This fellow was dapper and immaculately dressed – tweed jacket with patches on the elbows; shirt and tie; wool hat. He explained that his car had broken down in front of our house and could he trouble us to use our telephone to call for assistance. The answer was, of course, yes. In those days, it’s just what you did. It was a more trusting time in regard to such things.
While he waited for AAA to arrive, Mama, ever the hostess, invited him in, offering him something to drink. He accepted and he and my parents sat in the living room, a place reserved for special occasions and grownup conversation, making small talk
My brother and I weren’t privy to what was discussed and only after he had left did we learn that he was a snowbird (our affectionate phrase for winter residents here in Florida) from Philadelphia. And that he drove a very big car.
We didn’t think much about our visitor after that – until a week or so later when an unexpected package arrived addressed to my mother. From Wannamaker’s, which, Mama explained, was a very nice and “tony” department store in Philadelphia. Fortunately, I was one with the family dictionary and so the meaning of the word “tony” was not lost on me – after I had to look it up, of course. I really wasn’t quite as smart as I thought I was – chalk it up to the confidence of youth.
The box from Wannamaker’s contained another box – this one covered in green velvet and adorned with a big silk flower. Very sophisticated. Inside the box were two layers of Godiva chocolate. Mama’s favorite. A handwritten note was enclosed, graciously thanking our family – my mother in particular -- for our kindness and assistance. It was signed by our traveling visitor.
I don’t remember eating any of the chocolate – I’m thinking my mother bogarted it all for herself. (Being an only child, she has a self-proclaimed difficulty with sharing.) But when the box was empty, she called me into the living room, the place for special occasions and grownup conversation. She handed me the box, saying that every girl needed a place to keep letters and notes and mementos. And that the empty box, a remnant of a gift cloaked in grace and chivalry, would be the perfect place.
She was right.
I had that box for many years – through high school and college and after. It held letters of love and of heartbreak; reminders of emotions unrequited and ambiguous; photos of the heart and of the mind. Boyfriends and crushes and friends and foes and accomplishments and activities and events. All were contained in the It finally fell apart thanks in part to use and reuse and in part to the rigors of being something recherché in the harsh humid heat of Florida.
It’s emblematic, that box -- of things past, of things remembered. Of a time when manners were the norm, not the exception. When random acts of kindness were things that one just did without forethought or hesitation. When my tender heart measured things tangibly and repeatedly.
I miss that box. And that time. I keep my memories internally now. But you never know – one day, I might spy a prettily packaged box of sweets that would be perfect to hold treasures…