Shopping around was neither the point nor possible when I was growing up. The dime store in the village was the only place to shop.
I often walked there after school just to look at what one might buy. In February, the snow lay deep in the ditches, and by the late afternoon, darkness had crept across the fields. The dime store was warm and stuffy, its narrow aisles stretching from a dusty window in front where a mannequin stood draped in taffeta to a long wooden counter in back where the proprietress and her husband rang up purchases on the brass cash register and wrapped them up in string and brown paper to be carried home.
One found few ready-made things. For those, one drove 20 miles into the city or paged through a Sears-Roebuck catalog. The dime store carried an absolutely unpredictable array of dry goods and gadgets, of pins and twine and tape and screws, the stuff of patchwork and invention. I bypassed toys and penny candy to stand before a counter that held tablets and typing paper, tissue, crepe paper, construction paper, posterboard. I weighed the crayons and paints, the thin-nibbed pens, indelible inks, colored pencils. Glue or paste? Doilies and glitter? Fasteners, paper clips, scissors, a ruler. At the end of the aisle were bolts of fabric and cards of trims, laces, fringes, spools of thread.
Sitting in my desk at school as Valentine's Day drew near, I daydreamed about the store, for it was filled with all that I had imagined and also with things I had not. In the classroom, a heart-covered box waited on a table for cards to fall through its slot.
I made a valentine for everyone, laboring over my handiwork in my father's study at a table that stood beneath a map of the world. At the far end of the room were shelves of books that I read on cold windy nights, books about unfulfilled women warped by grief. "Lost Horizon." "Madame Bovary." "Jane Eyre." "Wuthering Heights." "Rebecca." Before me, I spread out what I had bought in the dime store, wide satin ribbons, paper soft as velvet, stickers bright as silk. I cut and shaped and dreamily spread paste with the side of a flat wooden stick. "Be My Valentine!" I wrote to girls with great and undying affection. "Be Mine!" I wrote on cards for boys with a frown of faint contempt.
One was not, of course, going to fall in love in a town in which one could not shop around. One might make a special valentine for a boy who gave a crooked smile in return and later a rough first kiss, but one's life lay beyond the village. We all of us, girls and boys, longed to leave. We thought it a place that would stifle, that a hillside or heath, a dark forest or wide Wisconsin prairie could so close a person in that one just had to go.
Year by year, newspapers and circulars and wavy gray screens offered splendors we came to crave. We longed for Macy's and Mustangs and mink, for valentines with snappy sayings in a shiny cellophane box. Primed for passion and acquisition, we ventured forth and fell in love over and over and over with ever so many things.
"Be Mine!" I wrote a hundred times when I was young, but I did not then appreciate the power of the imperative. We fall through our lives like winter snow whether we leave home behind or stay. We do not know when we are young that one can light anywhere (or anytime) and be happy. We wander the world when all we seek is the pleasure of possibility. I left a tiny village, and there was no going back, but remembering that there was joy in a wildly unpredictable and unprepossessing place, I sought someone that years hence I will have loved because he seems always to have what I want not because I have come to want only what he has.