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