On Christmas Eve, 1938, Ed Starns stood on a street corner in Modesto, California, trying to sell the last of his remaining newspapers. The sun had gone down hours earlier, and a thick, wet fog blanketed the small town. Wearing only a thin jacket, he stood shivering in the cold until the last of his newspapers had sold.
He knew his mother and five siblings would be waiting anxiously for his return, but he had a quick stop to make before he made the long walk home. It had been a very bad year for the family financially, and he knew it would be cold at home. There would be no Christmas tree this year, no decorations, no presents and no money for food. Christmas dinner would be beans and corn bread, as usual.
Ed quickly made his way to the only store still open in town, the Woolworth’s Five and Dime. The day before he had gone through the store and priced everything on his list, and knew he had enough change and crumpled dollar bills in this pocket to buy what he wanted with maybe a dime or two left over.
He picked up a basket and made his way through the aisles, carefully selecting each item. The store was getting ready to close, so he had to move quickly. Once he had everything in his basket, he found some Christmas wrapping paper and white ribbon on sale, made his purchases and sat on the floor wrapping the gifts. A clerk in the store saw what he was doing and brought over a pair of scissors and some tape, sat on the floor and helped him. Another clerk soon joined them, and the three of them sat there until every gift was wrapped. They gave him a big bag with handles to carry the presents in, and as he left, he saw the lights in the store go off. He headed for home but had one last stop to make.
Back at home, the family watched out the window waiting for Ed’s return. Finally they were able to make out someone coming up the driveway, pulling something behind him. It was Ed, dragging a Christmas tree behind him with one hand, and carrying a large shopping bag in the other. They rejoiced in seeing the tree and the gifts, and his mom sat him at the table to eat his dinner while she put up the tree and decorated it with tinsel left over from the year before. As he ate, he explained that he was so late because he had waited in town until the Christmas tree lot had closed and the owner gave him a small tree for free, and he had dragged that little tree two miles to get it home, but it still looked good.
By now they were all excited about Christmas. They had a tree and gifts under it. His mom allowed the younger kids to sleep under the tree that night, huddled on the floor under blankets, smelling the scent of the pine needles. In the morning, they woke up with excitement and opened their gifts.
His mom loved to play checkers, and he had bought her a brand new set. For his sister Ruby, who had beautiful red, curly hair, he gave a set of hair brushes and a comb. His sister Frances was now a teenager and she got a tube of red lipstick and an eyebrow pencil. He got his youngest sister and brother each a pencil box, a blue one for Gene and a red one for Bette. Each box had four pencils with erasers, four crayons, a big pink eraser, a protractor and a pencil sharpener. They were both just learning to read and write and loved drawing. To his brother George he gave a cap gun with caps, and knowing that his mother would be sad if he didn’t have a gift of his own under the tree, he also bought himself a cap gun with caps. The gifts were perfect and were cherished.
Unbeknown to Ed, his brother George had contacted a local church, and not long after the gifts were opened and exclaimed over, the church delivered a large box of food to the family, including a turkey. It was the best Christmas they ever had.
Ed Starns was my older brother. And in the winter of 1938, he was 10 years old.
Bette Starns-Shorey lives in Brookings.