Christmas is a special time at our home. We enjoy shopping for loved ones, watching their faces light up on Christmas morning when they untie the big red bows, and opening their gifts. We find the old Christmas movies irresistible — White Christmas, It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Beyond Christmas — and love them more with each passing year. Our family is not known for its singing ability, but that has never kept us from visiting local neighborhoods singing Christmas carols to all who would listen.
Christmas is a time of memories for us. This is one of those memories.
In the early 1970s, downtown Wilmington was changing. Unbeknownst to us, it would be the end of an era, the last opportunity we would have to see the downtown we had come to know and love. It was a few days before Christmas and the streets downtown were alive, bustling with shoppers as Christmas carols played from large speakers housed in the dome of the Courthouse.
A light snow was drifting down lazily on the sidewalks, and like Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, Wilmington at Christmastime was as picturesque as any small town in America.
A store that had been an important part of my boyhood was the G.C. Murphy Company situated on the alley across from Allen Studios. Every Friday night my parents came to town to buy groceries at the old Albers Market on West Main Street across from the courthouse, and my mom and dad would allow me to run up the street to Murphy’s to look at the comic books on display in the large rack just behind the row of chairs set aside for lingering shoppers.
A visit to G.C. Murphy’s was always a special time for me. If I had saved enough money from my paper route that week, I would buy the newest 45 record that had just arrived. My dad would always give me a quarter to buy maple nut goodies from the bulk candy bins in the middle of the store, where the aroma of fresh chocolate candy, warm peanuts, and popcorn all came together to give the store a heavenly blend of scents found nowhere else.
It was common to see elderly women sitting in the chairs along the wall, awaiting the return of their husbands to pick them up. Most were friendly, and some would actually give me a dime to buy extra candy.
Along with the snow, change was in the air. Businesses that had been staples for years on South, Locust, and Main Streets gradually started to look toward the east, relocating to the new shopping center that had been unveiled on Rombach Avenue.
Our son, Greg, was about four years old when we took him for the first time to visit the new G.C. Murphy store in the shopping center, just down the street from the J. W. Denver Williams Memorial Park. It was Christmas Eve.
The inside of the store at that time was still like the one that had moved from South Street housing the bulk candy glass displays, large wooden display cases, comic books, and records. The store had many more aisles than were in the old store. My wife and I were walking down an aisle when suddenly we turned around and could not find Greg. “Where’s Greg?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I thought he was with you,” my wife said.
We looked everywhere. I ran to the manager and told her we were unable to find our son. Then, I ran to the front door checking everyone leaving the store, frantically searching for a little blond-haired boy who had never caused any trouble for his parents. As our alarm grew, some of the shoppers, particularly the mothers, became more worried as we continued our frantic search, and started calling his name.
Our minds were racing a mile a minute, and we were beginning to think someone must have kidnapped Greg. Just as I was preparing to call the police, I thought I heard a faint noise coming from a nearby cabinet. Unbeknownst to us, he had decided this would be a good time to play hide-and-go-seek. He had discovered an open cabinet under one of the display bins and closed himself inside.
All at once, Greg opened the sliding door and crawled out of the cabinet in which he had hidden.
He didn’t understand why we were so worried; he only thought he was playing a familiar game, one that we played almost daily at home, but in a new and interesting place.
We ran over to Greg with our hearts pounding and grabbed him up and held him tight. We didn’t know whether to spank him or hug him. I reached down, picked him up in my arms, and hugged him. Then we hugged him some more. How thankful we were that our pride and joy was safe and sound.
It just so happens Greg’s birthday falls on Christmas Eve. There was never a greater present than the son we love with all our hearts.
Merry Christmas, from the Haleys.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.