The Song of the Haberdasher
by ronald drobeck
“I share this last memory from my little view of the world, as I dream from my childhood window for the last time.” Ruth
It’s dark outside, and I sit by the window staring across the way. A single, fat candle flickers from the breeze that escapes through the leaded glass panes and into my small room. The draft makes me shiver although, I dress to sit here.
My view of the world is from this small third story window. My room is an attic really. An afterthought room added for a child. I have long outgrown it and have to walk hunched over to get around. I do have an elementary writing table, my candle, and a cot in which to sleep, bent. To have this room, I am grateful for it costs but a few bits a week.
The windows on the other side of the street are all curtained. Each narrow building housed a business of some sort on the bottom floor. The second floor is an apartment originally designed for the store owner. Now, most business owners, having moved up in society with proper homes on residential streets, are renting the apartments to their employees as partial recompense.
When I’m not teaching, I help out downstairs in the bakery. The bakery, Called Lamb’s Daily Bread, was started by my father and mother, both devout Presbyterians, thus the name.
My name is Ruth Lamb, the only surviving child of Jeremiah and Beatrice Lamb.
Even though, I literally grew up in the bakery, I wanted to be a teacher, so upon the death of my parents during the blizzard of ’89, I sold the business. I could not run the bakery by myself and had no suitors hovering or interested. I had planned the proper, father and mother approved courtship after I became a teacher, but, my parents passed before I could make it happen.
The overwhelming grief, the selling of the business and my appointment as the teacher in the town’s new school, were my priorities. Only now, alone in the evenings, do I begin to dream of a partner. The shadows projected on the apartment window curtains across the way are of couples, eating, enjoying each other’s company, and in one window, a child swirled by her father, dancing in front of the candlelight on the other side of their room. I share part of their life with them.
There is a young man that works at the bank down the street. I see him when he walks to work on the other side of the cobblestones, in his fashionable gray suit and brown hat. He tips his hat as he walks, attracting attention from all he meets, an up and comer, with a confident walk to match. I’ve seen him in the bank sitting at the third desk from the front. The first desk is as far as my kind of business takes me, I in my modest dark dress and proper “school Marm” hat.
This vision triggered a childhood game to rush uncontrollably through my mind.
“I Ruth Lamb, by the flickering life of this candle, wish to be noticed by him. I, in his vision as a distant, moving shadow, need help to catch his eye in the light.” I chanted with my eyes squished shut.
In the moment, I was wishing so hard, I recited this twice to make sure that whatever powers grant such wishes heard and understood me.
What a silly thing to do! A modern, Christian teacher should know better. It was but a “little girl moment” that has now passed.
The clip clop of a single horse and the rattle of a four-wheel wagon awaken me early on this, Saturday morning. I open the curtain of my view to the world and see the lamplighter making his snuffing rounds. The rising sun casts long shadows down Main Street. The moving horse and wagon, the movement of early risers and their exaggerated shadows in motion, animate the street. It’s the stretching awake of Main Street this early morning.
I opened the window a bit to freshen the air in my small room. It was brisk and invigorating. I prepared to go down to the bakery. They always need help setting up for the marketing day, and I need to eat.
Turning to leave my room, I hear this refrain through my room’s open window.
I have buttons and buckles,
Candles and lotions,
Needles and pins,
Ribbons and notions.
I can grant your wishes,
Or sing you a tale,
I’m the haberdasher,
With a Whiffenpoof’s wail.
High, high, twiddle dee dee
I have things that are real, and
Things you can’t see
High, high, twiddle dee doh
Leave your wishes with me
Before I must go.
I’ve heard and seen him before, a red whiskered man with a green bowler hat and red bowtie stood at the end of the street holding the reins to steady his horse and cart. His head lay back, and mouth opened wide as the ditty was exhaled. That tenor voice flew down the street and echoed between the buildings that, by this time, had seduced someone to each doorway.
He came but once a year. Everyone knew him as Lucky O’Grady. There are stories from those who have bought his wares that say luck miraculously came their way. Some say, he only appears when someone is in need, or when someone worthy has made a wish for him to grant. Good things seem to happen when he is around.
I was happy to see him, as was everyone. This town could use a little cheering up. He was a promising start to the day.
I danced down the two flights of stairs to the lilt his voice planted in my mind. Now, into the bakery I lightly stepped, to find customers already lined up for their daily bread. The young owners looked relieved as I stepped into the room and immediately started serving people.
It was “good morning” and “thank you”, “good morning and thank you” continuously for twenty minutes.
The room suddenly stopped moving except for the stirred up flour dust that glowed in slices of sunlight from the windows and door. It’s as if some Royal Highness or something had walked in. In the doorway stood Lucky O’Grady, holding his bowler by the rim, close to his chest, looking left and right for the end of the line. Everyone else had been serviced, so there was a clear path to the whitewashed wooden counter. He glanced around as if surprised to find himself at the front of the line.
“May I have a loaf of that fine, fine bread?” He asked with a brogue.
Glancing into his sparkling eyes but not staring, I wrapped a fresh loaf in some baker’s paper and handed it to him.
As O’Grady paid me, he said, “Thank you Mum,” with a slight head nod and a light, half-step back, as if to bow to me!
“Would you be the Marm, Miss Ruth Lamb?” He asked.
“I would!” I answered with a question in my attitude.
“I have something special for you,” he said reaching in his side coat pocket.
Out came a beautiful yellow ribbon. “For your hair Mum,” he said.
All eyes of the people still in the store followed the yellow ribbon as it passed from his hand to my trembling hand.
“I have done nothing to deserve this; it’s not necessary to…..”
“Ah, but it ‘tis!” His brogue interrupted me. “’tis from the ones who appreciate you Miss Lamb!”
With that, he bowed, backed, and turned out of the bakery as applause broke out. The young wife of the new owner rushed behind me and took the ribbon from my hand. She tied that yellow ribbon to the “school marm” knot on the back of my head, as the applause grew louder.
Shyly embarrassed, I dusted the flour dust from my dress, straightened myself upright, and tried to make it look like I shook all of this nonsense off (all the while, playing with the new, yellow ribbon in my hair). It was time to get back to the duties at hand. Everyone smiled at the great act I had just given them.
I took a step back toward my station, my shoulders and eyes swinging to greet the next customer.
As my eyes made contact with the eyes of the gentleman in line, my shoulders dropped at the defeat of the poise I had so painfully gathered up in front of everyone.
“Good mornin’ Miss Lamb,” the young banker smiled nonchalantly. “Could I get some of those sugar cookies to take to the bank? We’re working for a short time this morning, and I want to take them to my helpers.”
“He knew who I was, and he knew my name!” I thought, surprised.
“By the way,” he said, “ my name is Thomas O’Hara and I would be wonderin’ if anyone has asked you to the cotillion at the fort tonight, or might there be a chance……”
My eyes focused on the yellow kerchief in his suit coat pocket. ‘Twas as yellow as the yellow ribbon in my hair!
I have buttons and buckles, candles and lotions,
Needles and pins, ribbons and notions.
I can grant your wishes, or sing you a tale,
I’m the haberdasher, with a Whiffenpoof’s wail.