Lookout columnist Claudia Sternbach remembers her “Christmas pasts” in Santa Cruz, when as a young mother she tried to give her daughter the sort of memories she didn’t have as a child. She remembers window shopping at Leask’s department store on Pacific Avenue and when shopkeepers handed out cookies and cocoa. Now, she realizes, the memories are more hers than her daughter’s. She’s OK with that. The memories sustain her all year.
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It’s the holiday windows I remember most.
We had a ritual, Kira and I. She was only a toddler, but every year of her just-beginning life, when it came to the holiday season, I would strap her in her car seat, load up the stroller, make sure we had snacks and warm hats and gloves and make the short trip from Aptos to downtown Santa Cruz to visit what once was known as the Pacific Garden Mall. It was the mid-1980s, before the 1989 Loma Prieta quake changed almost everything.
It seems as if there was always live music playing outdoors at the Cooper House; I believe it was Don McCaslin & Warmth that filled the air with tunes most often. I believe there were sidewalk Santas ringing bells and calling out “Merry Christmas, ho, ho, ho.”
In my memory, candy canes were passed out. Is my memory accurate? Who can say?
After parking the car and unloading the bulky stroller, then unbuckling Kira from her car seat and stuffing her not-always-willing body into said stroller, we would begin our rounds.
All up and down Pacific Avenue there were trees decorated for the festive season. The merchants all geared up for the holidays with multicolored lights and artificial snow sprayed on the store windows. Our first stop was always Bookshop Santa Cruz to pick out a Christmas or Hanukkah book to read in the evening before bed.
Then, package secured in the undercarriage of the stroller, off we would go to take in the sights. Shopkeepers handed out cookies, and when one kind clerk offered her a frosted treat, Kira, mindful of her manners, said, “No thank you.” And then asked for a tuna sandwich instead. The clerk said that was a first for her.
The highlight of our afternoon was always Leask’s department store and its exuberant window displays. It once stood where Santa Cruz Cinema now welcomes moviegoers. I was determined to create holiday memories that would last forever for my daughter.
I realize now I was really trying to make those memories for myself.
Create experiences for her that I had missed as a child of a single mom raising three girls and working long days with little time or energy left over for creating magic.
Oh, we, my mother and my sisters, did not suffer. We did not lack for love, but our holidays did not at all look like the movies, with families singing songs around the piano, nor did they reflect the religiosity of many of the cards on display in the stores.
But now I was a mother with my own daughter and a partner who loved us both and the luxury of time to spend on a Saturday ambling along looking at beautiful window displays while sipping hot chocolate and eating the sugary treats my daughter turned down. I could not believe how fortunate I was. We were.
We lived on a budget tighter than my jeans are after Thanksgiving, but I don’t recall feeling like I deserved more. I had more than I could ever have imagined.
One year, there was a dress on display in the Leask’s window. Leask’s was our largest department store and was always filled with tempting fashion treats and trends — and here was a beautiful forest green wool with long sleeves and a ballet neck.
I pictured wearing it on Christmas day. But it was beyond my budget. I knew I had to be content just visiting it once or twice but could not bring it home with me. One day, just a couple of days before Santa would be popping by, I saw an ad in the Sentinel that Leask’s was having a sale. A pre-holiday blowout. I headed downtown, breath held, and sure enough, the dreamy dress was marked down. Way down. Down to my basement level.
I will never forget putting it on Christmas day and feeling like I was living a dream. Like I was in one of those holiday movies I had grown up watching. Magic.
Poor Michael. Growing up in a Jewish household, my husband was unfamiliar with the holiday hubbub I was determined to create every year. As I would cut branches from our holly bushes in the backyard to place on our mantel, he would smile nervously, knowing what was coming. If he came home after work and found me on a ladder trying to drape fairy lights along the tops of the windows, he would caution me against falling.
But he did not join in the draping. If he came home to the sound of Christmas music filling the house, I could sense the stress. “My holiday” was threatening to bury him under an avalanche of sentimental traditions I was determined to create. Oy.
Over the years, we have found a balance in our combined holiday traditions. And with no child at home any longer and no extended family to gather with, the holidays have gotten much smaller. Still joyful, but much less complicated.
Those memories I created are really held by only me. And I’m OK with that.
Kira might have no recollection of those holiday strolls along the Pacific Garden Mall and Michael might not have been as enthusiastic about my need to make a season of magic for our small family, but even he likes sitting in our living room lit only by the lights on the tree and the fire in the fireplace.
And I realize now, after all of these years, the biggest gifts he has ever given me are the things that can’t be wrapped in ribbons of silver or placed in a stocking hanging from the mantle. No, the gift of allowing me to create memories for me to hold in my heart forever is what I am most grateful for every year.
It truly was and still is a season of magic.
Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press), which also includes stories about her sisters. Her previous piece for Lookout, “Need a quick stocking-stuffer? Nothing beats a book,” ran in November.