The Third Window: Early December 1968
A few weeks before Christmas, my mother pulled out a book. Not just any book, this was the Sears holiday catalog called the Wish Book. Every year, mom asked me, my brother and sister to go through the Wish Book and circle all the gifts and toys we wanted Santa to bring to our house. For whatever reason, it never seemed odd to me that Santa shopped at Sears—everyone in our working-class neighborhood shopped at Sears—or that Santa needed a catalog when he had elves and a workshop at his disposal.
The Wish Book became a ritual. We went in order from eldest to youngest. I got it first, then my brother, and finally, our little sister. I thumbed through it for hours, tagging pages and choosing exactly which toys and games to circle. Even after circling our first choices, we would still pour over it. Sometimes, we would argue about games like Twister or Clue, with two or more of us circling the same toy. Santa, we figured, would have to pick which of the three of us actually received the contested present.
The catalog was huge—five hundred pages of everything from clothes to jewelry to household goods to books, toys, swing sets, sports equipment, musical instruments, guns, and games. It was like Amazon before Amazon, a dizzying selection of consumer goods, all readily available by filling out an order form or placing a phone call. And everything could be delivered right to your house! Those of us who lived in big cities did not have to worry about ordering by mail or postal delivery. We could pick up anything from the Wish Book at our local Sears store if, of course, Santa didn’t grab up all the favored items first.
The Sears Wish Book could, I suppose, be criticized as training in twentieth century consumerism, transforming Christmas from a season of giving to a season of getting. But it was something more. It was sort of a cultural icon, a guidebook to mid-century childhood. Indeed, I remembered the ritual of the Wish Book more than I remembered any of presents that came from its pages.That is until yesterday when I googled “Sears Wish Book 1968.” And there it was—some baby-boomer catalog “enthusiast” has bought dozens of wish books on e-bay, scanned them, and created an entire website dedicated to them. I clicked the link and was transported back to December 1968, perusing the Wish Book. Turning the virtual pages, I found dolls that I once hugged, the child-size avocado green kitchen in which I “cooked” dinner, classic books that I read, and games I played.
But nothing made me happier than a picture on page 254. There was my favorite-ever Christmas dress—a confection of a dress with a white lace bodice, black skirt, bright pink bow, and traditional cameo at the neck. I had forgotten it; yet (and I admit it) this scanned picture unexpectedly made me tear-up with joy. Going through the Wish Book was a little like finding a yearbook or old photographs.
I never thought of an old catalog as memento, as souvenir of baby-boomer childhood. Yet, there it was. A bunch of scanned pages on the Internet made me squeal like a kid and sigh for a dress I once wore, the Wish Book no longer contained what I desired, it had become a reminder of what I once had. What was once longed for had become a symbol of something that could no longer be. Wishes have become memories.
Staring at the girl in the dress on page 254, I remember. And I am oddly grateful. Grateful to remember the dress, how I thought it the most beautiful dress ever. How I felt so grown-up wearing it, how it communicated a kind of romantic sense I have always possessed, expressing in fashion my nascent passion for the past. Although forty-four years have passed, the Wish Book reminds me of the continuity of my own story—that I am still the girl who loved that dress.
And it also makes me I wonder: What do I wish for now? Will today’s wishes be the memories of my future?