xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Batavick: Old photo, holidays bring back flood of memories

The black-and-white photo is 67 years old. It features the four Batavick kids with Santa Claus, posed in front of a cheesy, pleated, fur-trimmed curtain. Just behind them, a 6-foot white reindeer prances on his hind feet. Santa has the old-fashioned type beard with rivulets of curls. He sits on the left, and the two older girls stand behind the boys. The girls wear winter coats with hats; a plaid jumper peeks out on one of them. The boys are dressed in long-sleeved, horizontally striped polo shirts with bulky, bib overall snow pants.

My 4-year-old brother sweetly looks off to the right, no doubt at my mom who is giving him an encouraging nod. My 13-year-old sister smiles, looking off to the distant left. Only my 10-year-old sister, the reindeer, and my 7-year-old self gaze intently at the camera.

Advertisement

Santa's right hand has a death grip under the arm pit of my younger brother, and my oldest sister grabs my shoulder with claw-like fingers. No doubt this was a second attempt at getting a decent shot, and I can almost hear the photographer saying, "Now boys, try not to move this time."

I asked my oldest sister about the photo, and she said it was taken on the day after Thanksgiving when “Black Friday” wasn’t as frenzied as it is today. We lived in the Jersey suburbs, and it was my mom’s custom to take the kids into Philadelphia on this day to see Santa Claus. We didn’t own a car and wouldn’t until my oldest sister went to college and needed a way to get to classes. We always traveled the 9 miles to the city via the Route 67 bus and had a handy stop on the corner. That’s how my dad commuted to work.

Advertisement

The bus passed through the leafy suburbs along the White Horse Pike and the busy streets of Camden before crossing the Ben Franklin Bridge. As it climbed the span, the huge industrial complexes of Campbell Soup and RCA sprawled below. Both are now long gone. Soon, the ocean-going ships and their companion tugs came into view, plying the grey waters of the Delaware River. You knew you had hit the Pennsylvania side when the bus’s diesel fumes gave way to the dark, tantalizing aroma of the Whitman’s Chocolates factory, also long gone.

We got off the bus on Market Street, which was lined with shops, restaurants, and the big department stores: Lit Brothers, Strawbridge and Clothier, Wanamaker’s, and Gimbels. One of the first treats was ogling the stores’ front windows. We joined the crowds jostling for position to see animated displays like elves laboring away in Santa’s workshop and carolers in Dickens’ London. The next stop was Gimbels.

The day before we’d watched Philly’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV. The highlight was always the arrival of a waving Santa atop a hook and ladder fire engine. When it reached Gimbels, the truck stopped in front of the 12-storey building, and firemen raised the engine’s great ladder to a window outside the store’s Toyland. Santa then strode up the ladder and climbed through the window. Seeing this, I was beyond joy and completely oblivious to the reality that Gimbels had sponsored the parade as a way of kicking off the Christmas shopping season.

Regardless, I entered the store with the deep belief that this was where the real Santa resided. After enduring a long line of other fidgeting kids in winter gear, we finally had a chance to see the jolly old elf himself and make the big “ask.” Then we spent time deliriously touring an entire city block crammed with toys of every imaginable variety: bikes, wagons, cars, trucks, planes, sports equipment, board games, little green army men, cowboy outfits. It was Santa’s workshop on steroids.

I was most intrigued by the model train layouts. O gauge Lionel and American Flyer passenger and freight trains whizzed around a swirl of tracks that climbed mountains, threaded through tunnels, and passed by villages filled with hand-wrought houses, buildings, airports, and to-scale inhabitants. Little did I know that my brother and I would soon get our own Lionel train set, complete with snap together Plasticville houses and buildings. My son and his family enjoy them today.

The next stop was the Horn & Hardart automat for some of the original “take-out” food. The restaurant featured a wall with rows of small cubicles with glass doors. Behind each was a different food item. There were all kinds of sandwiches, bowls of soup, and dishes like meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, coconut cream pie, and other 1950s standards. All you had to do was put the required number of nickels in the slot below each door and turn its silver knob. Presto! This unlocked the door so you could “take out” the food. The fare was pretty bland, but a person could eat well for about a dollar.

In those pre-Vatican II days, we were faced with the dilemma that Catholics were not supposed to eat meat on Fridays, and this was definitely a Friday. That’s why mom carefully steered us to mac and cheese or fish sticks.

Today when my wife and I decorate for Christmas, we place the nearly seven decades-old photo of the Batavick kids on our fireplace mantle. Looking at it triggers a flood of memories that spill out over space and time.

Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at fjbatavick@gmail.com.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement