During the past 18 years, I have written almost 1,000 columns for the Sunday Bulletin. Of all of those stories, there is one everyone seems to enjoy most . Everywhere I go, strangers will say, “The story I like most is the one that you wrote about Christmas during World War II.” So, every Christmas, we run the same story because so many like it, and it goes like this:
Once upon a time, downtown Norwich on any Christmas Eve was, in spirit and in fact, much like Bedford Falls from the Frank Capra classic movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart.
Years ago, everyone seemed to know each other and “Merry Christmas “ greetings rang out across crowded streets and busy Franklin Square. Policemen, mailmen, shopkeepers, and bus and taxi drivers operating on the square all seemed to promote the season with a spirit of goodwill and friendship.
All the shops at street level on Main, Franklin and Water streets, as well as Broadway, were occupied and actively doing business. Upstairs, over the shops, were the offices of doctors, lawyers, accountants, real estate and insurance companies. Specialty shops as well as Reid & Hughes, F. W. Woolworth’s Five and Ten and the food markets, Beit Brothers, Mohican Markets and First National, were in the square, as were so many thriving restaurants, diners, ice cream parlors and coffee shops.
The city always was beautifully decorated and in the 1930s and ‘40s, Christmas lights were so magnificently planned and installed by our city’s firemen, that we were voted the Christmas City of Connecticut, year after year.
I am not romancing the past, but reporting what used to be when downtown Norwich was alive with activity. Norwich, for decades, was the shopping and transportation center of Eastern Connecticut. The hustle and bustle, the tempo of all the Christmas activity was upbeat and the spirit of it all was contagious.
One Christmas Eve , when I was working as an apprentice photographer at The Bulletin, I was one of only a few who worked that night, and I headed home about 1 a.m. It was snowing as I walked through Franklin Square. We were still fighting World War II, and because of the required wartime brownout, the only lighted decoration allowed was the Christmas tree in today’s picture.
The square, usually so alive, was on this night still, silent and beautiful. I went back to The Bulletin to get my camera and capture the moment on film. When I returned, the snow was a little deeper.
Setting my camera on a tripod in front of the Mohican Market, and pointing my camera down Main Street toward Shannon Corner, I was interrupted. Walking into the picture to my right was a solitary woman. Before taking the photo, I waited for her to pass.
A Walk in the Snow
As she came closer, I could see she was enjoying a walk in the snow, in no hurry, and holding a single red rose, which she lifted to her nose to enjoy the fragrance. As she drew closer, I was totally surprised. Walking in the snow, smelling a rose and enjoying her thoughts and solitude on Christmas Eve , was Myrtle Stanley, my mother.
Her presents were wrapped and her family was home. She wanted a moment to be alone. Loving to walk in the snow, she bundled up warmly, and took a rose from a Christmas bouquet and walked from Cliff Street to Norwich Free Academy; and on her way home met up with me at 1:30 a.m. on Franklin Square. It was a most unlikely event, but one I’ll never forget.
Although it was late, we walked home the long way together that night and talked, reflecting on our blessings and how good life was at that moment for the family.
She was my greatest teacher and cheerleader.
Who would ever have imagined that as I took today’s picture, while the city of 38,000 slept, that my mother, of all people, would have walked into this wonderful moment.
Perhaps I’ve been too personal today, but one of the lessons of Christmas is about motherhood. Today’s picture is very special to me because of the memory of that beautiful night and that beautiful woman.
Once upon a time, Christmas Eve in downtown Norwich was a scene from Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Thinking back on that night and my mother, now gone, I know if she were here, she would insist I use this Sunday column as the most wonderful opportunity to wish everyone, everywhere a very merry Christmas.