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Culture Junkie: A holiday memory of a Petaluma store, a treetop angel and a stranger’s kindness

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Last weekend, I visited one of my favorite spots in Petaluma: Marisa’s Christmas Fantasia, in the Lan Mart Building beneath Old Chicago Pizza in downtown Petaluma. To many, the glittering emporium is simply a good place to pick up Christmas ornaments and other holiday decorations. It’s definitely that.

But to me and my family, it’s also a major emotional landmark, the location of a deeply significant moment in our lives.

That moment not only lingers in our collective memories, coming up every Christmas season, in one way or another. The moment has even been transformed into a scene in a holiday play I wrote a few years back, one I am currently directing a new production of at San Rafael’s Belrose Theater. The play, titled “Polar Bears,” is part of the reason I was at Marisa’s Fantasia last weekend, seeking an ornament to give as an opening night gift to Chris Schloemp, the actor playing the character based on me. It seemed appropriate, given that Marisa’s plays such an important part in the story Chris tells in the play, that I’d find something perfect there.

Spoiler alert. I didn’t. The specific thing I was seeking wasn’t to be found. I ended up giving Chris a Christmas sweater with polar bears on it, and a miniature Rock ‘em, Sock ‘em Robots game.

But just stepping through the doors of the place was enough to transport me back to November of 1994, just a few weeks after Gladys, my ex-wife at the time, passed away from cancer. My two now-grown kids, Jenna and Andy, have differing memories of the day we went to the mall to see Santa, then picked up a Christmas tree, then headed to Marisa’s Christmas Fantasia to buy an angel for the top of our tree. My own memory of that time is now indelibly fused with the way I wrote it in “Polar Bears,” for a scene in which “David,” sorting through Christmas decorations in his attic, tells the story of the day his family stepped together through the doors of the store.

The kids were seven and eight at the time. I was 34, a relatively new resident of Petaluma, and the newly-minted, full-time caretaker — along with my then girlfriend (now wife) Susan — of two grieving kids. As David says in the play, “I don’t remember if it was Andy or Jenna who had the idea to find an angel that looked like their mother, but it didn’t take long to find one that everyone agreed was just about perfect.” From a large old steamer trunk, David then produces the angel — which always gets “oohs” and “ahs” from the audience — and then tells the rest of the story.

Here’s how I remember it.

The place was packed with people, and we stood in line with the Gladys Angel. This was nearly 25 years ago, of course, and the store was not then where it is now. At the time, it was upstairs, tucked further in toward the center of the Lan Mart building. As we moved closer to the counter, we could see the cashier, who was wearing a long flowing dress and a scarf around her head. She looked like a tarot reader at the Renaissance Faire. When we finally arrived at the counter, she took the angel and, as she rang up the purchase, told us that it was one of her favorites.

“It’s our mom,” Jenna told the cashier. “She just died of cancer, and she’s an angel in heaven now. So this for our tree, ‘cause it looks like her.”

She stopped counting our money. After a few seconds, the cashier moved out from the counter, dropped to her knees in front of Jenna and Andy, and gave them an enormous embrace. It was a little awkward, but it was … nice. Not quite certain what was happening, they hugged her back. Then she reached up and pulled off her scarf. After months of watching Gladys lose her hair from chemo treatments, it was obvious that the cashier was also going through chemotherapy at the moment, too.

With a bright, warm smile, she told the kids, “Who knows? I might be an angel myself someday. But I think if I were lucky enough to be the mother of children as loving and thoughtful as you two, I’d be proud to be angel like this, watching over you from my place on the tree.”

That may not be exactly what she said, but it’s how it stands in my memory. So that’s what I wrote when I sat down to capture the scene in the play.

In real life, we took the angel home, where it did go up on our tree every year for a decade. In fact, in “Polar Bears,” when “David” pulls the angel from the trunk, we use the very same one, since no substitute seemed quite right.

I honestly don’t know what ever happened to the cashier in the scarf, the one who, with her extraordinary compassion and kindness, turned a few minutes of holiday shopping into a transformational moment no one could have expected. We think of her every year, when we go to Marisa’s for ornaments or holiday gifts. It was so long ago, I can’t even say I remember what she looked like. But I often wish I could meet her again, just to say, “Thank you.”

Not just for her part in what’s become one of my play’s most memorable moments. But for being so generous with her own story. She recognized that in sharing her own battle with cancer, she might actually give two overwhelmed children a sense that their loss was not just something happening to them alone.

And I think, in a way, she succeeded.

In that real-life moment of Christmas kindness, Jenna and Andy understood, at least a little, that their mom was one of many moms and dads and other people who sometimes leave us. And that even though it hurts to lose someone we love, there are always people around us who are willing to step forward and try to share the pain, even a little awkwardly, even just for a few seconds in a busy store.

It’s not enough to make the pain less.

But it’s still nice.

(Contact David at david.templeton@argus-courier.com)