My first paid job off the family farm came during high school senior year. A friend's mother worked in management at what was then Elder-Beerman (now Carson’s) in Richmond, and she asked if I’d like a job as a dressing room monitor.
I worked several evenings a week after school from 5 to 9 and one or two weekend days. Quickly I learned the special blend of a paycheck with a store discount.
As fall gave way to the Christmas season, business boomed. It wasn’t long before they moved me around from my quiet spot of matching the number of clothes that went in with how many came out of the dressing room, and hanging up clothing from crates of incoming inventory, to filling in all over the store.
They trained me on the old-time cash registers. They were huge with a million keys, many of which you never used, and made a loud noise with each number punched in. Honestly, the machines terrified me. There could be a line of people, and if I pushed the wrong number, it required the time-consuming and embarrassing act of calling for a supervisor for a bail out while the checkout line grew still longer.
That fall and winter I worked in juniors and misses clothing, the foundations (underwear) department, at the hosiery and accessories counter, cards and stationery, behind the candy counter, in jewelry, men’s clothing, and at the upstairs restaurant’s cash register.
Generally my traveling services were needed to sub for other clerks during lunch breaks or if they were short-handed. I never knew where I’d be stationed, but the dressing room monitoring work didn’t last long once I knew how (well, sort of knew how) to use the register.
Once I was called to the service desk to wrap Christmas gifts. We used thick, red paper with green bows. I was trained to properly fold over the cut edges into a neat seam, how to properly tape the paper and finish with ribbon.
As with the other departments during the busy Christmas season, this was a hectic task. What I remember most about it is not a good memory. I was told by a supervisor that I did a terrible job wrapping gifts. “We can’t send those out,” she barked, to my humiliation.
So it is with considerable irony that anyone would ever consider me good at gift wrapping. And while I don’t know that I am, I think after being package-shamed in my first real job, I wanted to restore my dignity in that area by at least doing a presentable job going forward.
While gift bags are handy and particularly useful when something doesn’t fit well into a gift box, I still prefer wrapped boxes. The mystery of what’s inside seems to last a bit longer when unwrapping a carefully taped box and undoing a ribbon instead of a quick pull of the present out of a bag.
One of my signature moves is to tie off a package with ribbon rather than a premade bow. For the holidays, I also like to use matching themed paper.
If I’m wrapping for a shower or wedding, I add a topper for special interest. Maybe do something such as tie a pretty dish towel around the package or on top instead of a bow or wrap the present in a road map with a toy car to finish.
A few years ago, Courier-Times Editor Randy Rendfeld had a reader prize to give away at the newspaper office. He said he wished we could wrap it somehow. I said no problem, I could wrap it right then. I grabbed a color comics section from the paper, encased the gift, and then fashioned a bow from strips of another comics page and stuck it on top. I handed it back to Randy and he stared at it as though it was made of precious gems.
“No man could do that,” he said, punctuating each word, something akin to awe.
He had no idea, but his comment offered a kind of redemption.
It got even better when my sister-in-law Linda surprised me with an invite to do a program at the library where she was boss. The topic? Gift wrapping! I spent time figuring out what in the world I would say to the public about wrapping presents, then I simply started wrapping empty boxes using every trick I could think of (yes, pulling out the map and comics pages for sure).
For an activity to go with the program, I brought supplies for attendees to make and take their own gift tags.
I can’t say that I drew a crowd or even anything close, but it was fun, and an excuse to spend a day with family and even pick up my sweet friend (and Linda’s awesome mother) Lucille and bring her along. We had a lovely meal out afterward. I call the day a success. As with my former editor, I’m sure that unless Linda reads this, she had no idea why I consider it such. It was because, again, I felt redeemed from my Elder-Beerman incompetency.
The other thing, which wasn’t on my radar at the time, is that I got a charge out of being a “presenter.” I enjoyed the task of assembling a program, then the mystery involved in wondering who will attend, if they will enjoy it, and seeing how it all unfolds.
It’s the exact same feeling I have now when I put together and present a program relating to some aspect of my book themes in libraries or at clubs or banquets. I love it. If I hadn’t had the gift-wrapping run through, I’m not sure I would have felt I could even put together a presentation.
Wrapping it up -- this all goes to show how we learn and grow from every experience we have along life’s way. So often, one thing leads to the next in ways we can’t imagine at the time. Whatever we do today, no matter how humble or routine -- or unusual, it’s likely preparing us for what’s to come.