I positioned myself on the worn brocade sofa and propped up on a pillow a heavy book bigger than my lap. A catalog to be specific, Spiegel, Sears or JC Penney, but it seemed a cousin to a genuine book with light, satiny smooth pages and bright, orderly pictures. The words, of course, were minimal but they had to be read to get the whole story. The entire enchanting tome was greatly valued in my youth. It provided not only indulgence in wishfulness, it educated. Within its flimsy, welcoming pages were all manner of tools, entertainment devices, machines for anything from cleaning to tilling, a variety of food preparation and serving options, clothing for all ages and shapes, toys made for infancy through adulthood, objects for every home space inside and out. It took my breath away any season it arrived.
It captivated attention from the opening moments with fresh scent of paper and soft crinkly sound of pages turned, each one rife with possibilities I’d not very often, sometimes never, considered. It meant a half hour of leisure if all chores, studying, and practicing cello were done. Sometimes it was hauled out when a friend was over. We huddled over the pages. It became an opportunity to compare likes and dislikes, to offer opinions about what was useful or interesting or not, and might evolve into a guessing game as well as a conversation extender. This could go on a very long time.
“I bet you’d like these shoes, they look like you.”
“No, I need boots and these look fuzzy-warm, neat.”
“Those are just…ugly!”
“They need to be cozy for winter!”
“You can get cozy and good-looking, can’t you? But wait, which dress-up shoes do you like?”
“This pair. They’re fancy but you wouldn’t break your ankles walking.”
“Not me–the high heels right here! Look at the pretty toes, leather bows on them.”
“Let’s check out the sleds and skates and stuff.”
“Yeah, I can’t wait to skate again on Currie pond and Central rink!”
“Wow, will you look at that great Radio Flyer? Ours is so banged up it steers kinda wrong.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you go crashing down City Forest hills.”
“Yeah…maybe by Thanksgiving we’ll get decent snow.”
“I hope so. We’ll all go tobogganing!”
But a few of our favorite pages were those we were sneaky about if my mother or siblings weren’t close by. The lingerie section. It was amazing to see what you wore when you grew up. Boys undergarments were so boring and silly to look at; I had two brothers so this was not news. We girls would one day get to use things that were both practical and pretty. I couldn’t imagine being that old, having those body shapes, needing to cover so much up. It was more than underwear– it was under clothing of mystery–a whole different life out there somehow. It all baffled and drew us. My older sisters seemed out of reach by then, busy managing expectations at home and school, moving through adolescence with bumps but lots of victory. But there were various intrigues– and they kept them to themselves. I was called a pest often enough with my endless questions and poking about, glimpsing their worlds. I knew very little about much except for what I could see, hear, read and imagine. Sleuthing with the aid of a Sears catalog made it easier.
That was a wonderful clarification of life–all by catalog. Everything had its purpose. The hundreds, even thousands of choices were pictured well and labeled, smartly described. Objects came with a guarantee, a warranty, meaning that if they stopped working right or fell apart you got a replacement–I loved that idea even though my father usually just fixed broken things.
The big family of models was smiling and healthy. Anything you needed could be had in those pages. Everything you wanted might be gotten for a price. In fact, you could get a lot of stuff you never even thought you wanted. That part shook me up, the sheer volume. How was it so many things were actually made somewhere before appearing on page 120 of a catalog? Where did that happen? Who came up with the ideas and created them? All those little pieces and parts, it was stupefying. I could barely envision a world that immense, the production of possessions so complicated, the workers that skilled. It was awesome to wonder about and a little disconcerting.
What was the actual need for a shiny red riding lawn mower, a big boxy television, unusual gadgets for kitchen and workshop, fancy bathroom products? A cashmere coat that cost a fortune?
Our house had plenty of unique and mundane items occupying surfaces, shelves, cabinets and corners; it didn’t need more from what I could see. I rarely wanted for a thing, but there wasn’t much extra cash enabling me to just point to this and that and my parents would get it. Besides, my father believed in thriftiness. He never paid for what he could manage and fix, himself. He didn’t take out loans except for a house, perhaps an occasional car though I believe he paid outright for those–he had to have a car or motorbike he could tinker with. He found bargains, and used his cash; he also saved and saved. He did not take financial risks. My mother, on the other hand, was one who might study a catalog, too, at a quiet end of day. She had a natural instinct plus good eye for design and quality, and owned a few fine things rather than a surplus of cheaper stuff. But she often browsed, and said it gave her ideas for sewing or decorating as much as for gifts or replacements of worn items.
To be absorbed in a good catalog was (and still can be) respite from troubles and demands. Recently my spouse, sister, then brother have had health challenges and I’ve tried more often to take mental or physical breaks. The past two weeks my mailbox has been stuffed with all sorts of catalogs since Christmas and other holidays are coming, ready or not. I receive them from clothing and outdoor/lifestyle companies; The Smithsonian; National Geographic; the Audubon Society; World Wildlife Federation; Writer’s Digest; Heifer International; The Vermont Country Store and more. Some of these induce me to I take a break from my daily agenda.
It might not be the old Sears Wishbook, (first published in the 1930s), which I once wore out gawking at, long before Christmas. But there is still page after page to peruse. I find a few intriguing things: two ivory Belleek claddagh mugs, weirdly cute Black Forest mini cuckoo clocks–and what about that retro classic flashlight based on a 1919 patent? Marc would like that. And in the country goods catalog, odder ideas : family matched sets of cartoon flannel pajamas, sock monkey mugs, cheese studded with blueberries or cranberries. Well, if I could happily indulge in dairy, I might try the last though I don’t think of cheese arriving with fruit installed.
I thumb through the others quickly, if at all, and toss, recycle. Wait, haven’t I gotten this one a few times already? What possibly could be of interest again? Very little. That nostalgic childish delight can also wear thin as I pile up paper wasted in an effort to try to part money from me.
The truth is, I won’t buy many gifts via mail order though it’s enjoyable at times to linger over peculiar and beautiful things, say, when listening to the radio or trying to not watch the news. Sometimes I purchase famously juicy pears or other treats from Harry& David; they please the giftees and us. I might order a dependable cotton sweater from Land’s End. But I tend to search locally for presents as we have a myriad of small businesses here to support, tucked away shops to explore. Though I may not buy much at all this year. It might be homemade candy, gift cards or a couple small things for this large family. I am trying to simplify traditions, save money rather than toss it about, worry less and enjoy more. Focus on what matters: people, my faith, my home, writing, creating, enjoying the fabulous outdoors. Oh, a few meals, which I help Marc whip up for gatherings.
But those days when there seemed fewer things to snare our attention or stoke covetousness–how sweet are those memories as I write. How soothing it was to do nothing on a rainy/sleety/snowy Saturday evening, stereo lulling me with a Dvorak symphony or–a couple of my father’s rare musical diversions from classical fare–a Benny Goodman tune or Rogers and Hammerstein song. Stretch out against that sofa with a fat catalog of nonsense and cheap dreams. It was an avenue of exit from our sort of life and somehow encouraged my curiosity to question the known and consider the lesser knowns. A way of creating a different emotional state, as well, one of superficial ease. I needed that as a kid–an experience without pressure to achieve; time when I didn’t have to be on guard for the predator who repeatedly tracked me down; activity that required nothing of me but releasing of cares, dreaming of nothing relevant. I found a small relief in the common world of neutral objects. But mostly, it was simple fun. Thinking of essentially nothing as well as making no notable gains acquire an attraction and value all their own when practiced. If you’ve forgotten how to waste a little time, see for yourself what’s to be discovered in your own pile of miscellaneous–now likely holiday–catalogs. You might find yourself comfier, even content a moment, readied for a catnap.
2 thoughts on “Catalog Heaven”
A magical time. My Dad would never borrow – even for a house. He inherited one. When subsidence was discovered, he wouldn’t get a small mortgage to put it right. Sold it instead.
Yes, it is true that those times were different; people had a more than a few different values…