Advent calendars begin the countdown to Christmas on the first day of December. My mother began the countdown in early fall when she put dolls on layaway for my twin and me. Papa commenced (his word choice) his countdown at Red’s Market, an easy four-block walk from home. My twin and I were too young to stay alone, so we tagged along with Papa and Mama.
I gazed at the candies, but Papa forged toward the open bins of nuts when they finished the regular list. His eyes darted between the tiny round hazelnuts and the heavy brazil nuts as though a major decision. Instead, he dipped a metal scoop into a new crop of walnuts. He carefully inspected each and discarded those with imperfect shells. He poured the walnuts from the scoop into a lunch-size brown paper bag and centered it on the scale hanging from a chain. He checked the weight, calculated the price, and returned two or three walnuts to the bin. He added the cost to his pocket notebook.
At checkout, Papa double checked every price as Mr. Red rang up the items. Satisfied that the cash register total matched the notebook price, Papa extracted his tri-fold black leather billfold from his hip pocket. He transferred the rubber band onto his left wrist, removed a few dollar bills with his right hand, and gave them to Mr. Red. Papa slipped the wallet back in place then counted the change before he dropped the coins into his front pant pocket.
At home, Papa carried the sparse groceries into the kitchen for Mama to put away. He walked into the next room carrying the small bag of walnuts in one hand. He lifted the trap door in the dining room floor, twisted around, and descended the ladder-like steps into the dark hole. The coldness escaped and seeped into my bones. I saw the warm glow below when he pulled the cord hanging from the single light bulb attached to the ceiling. Metal scraped concrete as he pulled out the round storage can reserved for Christmas treats. Next, a distinct pop when he opened the lid. The sounds reversed when Papa snapped the lid closed and pushed the can back under the steps. Darkness again as he climbed the ladder.
On the next two grocery trips, Papa bought a scoop of hazelnuts, then brazil nuts. Mama’s wish for a fresh coconut was next on the list. After Thanksgiving, Papa examined the Christmas confections. Hard ribbon candy and tiny squares were his favorites. After each of these trips, he repeated the cellar rituals.
Winter work was scarce, so the last grocery trip before Christmas was for flour, sugar, and lard for baking. Papa calculated the prices, then stopped at the candy bins. He pushed the smallest scoop into the chocolate drops. Satisfied, he poured them into a small paper sack.
At home, he carried the tiny treasure toward the cellar. I asked for one. “Candies are for Christmas,” was his reply. The chocolates joined the other Christmas treats in the storage can.
On Christmas Eve morning, pleasant aromas permeated our modest home. While Mama cooked chicken and dressing, sweet potatoes, and pies, Papa trekked to the cellar several times and returned with the bags from the storage can.
I pleaded for the chocolate drops. Mama interceded, and surprisingly, Papa opened the bag and offered one each to my sister and me. I closed my eyes and bit slowly, hoping for the luscious taste of lemon or creamy maple. The center was artificial strawberry. My disappointment will be short-lived because I can eat all the chocolates I want tomorrow.
Tomorrow is Christmas.