At least once during the Christmas season, I pull out a pair of pleated wool pants, a old tweed sports jacket, a starched dress shirt and Rooster knit tie. I take an old fedora out of its hat box, and I shine up the only pair of dress shoes that reside in my closet cluttered with sneakers in varying states of cleanliness and deterioration. I get dressed – dressed like my father, circa 1960 – and I go out to see what’s going on around town.
My father worked most of his post-World War II life at a foundry in Laurel, Mississippi. He went to his job early in the morning in clean, grey work clothes. His uniform, he called it. He came home at night covered in a sooty grime that Lava soap could scarcely banish. On Sunday mornings, he invariably put on a plain, dark suit with a thin, dark tie for Sunday school and church. But on Christmas Eve day, he would treat himself to dressing like the natty man about town that he would have preferred to be.
I can see him now, a lanky fellow some might mistake for a redneck on a weekday transformed into something like an English country squire. He would put on his tweeds and gleaming brown oxfords, snap a smart, Dobbs hat over his thick black hair and drive to the drowsing foundry to collect his bonus check, which the owner chose to give his employees in lieu of paid vacation days.
My father would socialize a bit with his coworkers in the office, have some fruitcake and a cup of nonalcoholic punch. Then he’d head for the Commercial National Bank to make a deposit, withhold a wad of cash, and remind the ladies behind clean marble teller windows and the men behind the shiny oak desks that he was a man of substance and style.
From the bank, he would stroll to the heart of downtown Laurel, a bustling retail district back then, with every storefront filled. Perhaps he would stop by Rose Jewelers to pick up a gift for my mother or at Arthur’s, “The Store for Men,” where he would pick out some shirts and socks and haggle ceremoniously over the tally with the owner, Mr. Froman, who expected and relished the negotiation. My father might drop by J.M. Wilson’s feed and grain or the hardware store to settle up any bill he might have outstanding or just to shake hands and extend Christmas greetings. He might stop by the Bee Hive to buy a couple of good cigars and a magazine or Mr. Stotts’ grocery for some oranges and apples and boxes of chocolate-covered cherries to sneak onto the porches of neighbors whose year hadn’t been so good.
I know his Christmas Eve day ritual because on occasion he took me and my little brother with him, letting us share in his good time.
Later on, he might drop by the Manhattan Café or the Little Gem, have a 10-cent coffee and a 15-cent slice of pie and leave the waitress a tip bigger than the total bill.
His tour of the town done, he would walk back to where he had parked his pick-up, a dark blue 1954 Ford with iron cattle rails he had welded himself. He would climb into the cab and head toward our little farmstead five miles out of town. Dusk would be falling. There would be chores and hungry livestock waiting. And he would need to change his clothes.