One last Chubby and Tubby Story
In December 1991 Ray and I were spending our first Christmas living in our own place. It was a tiny studio apartment whose windows overlooked an alley behind a bar. I was in the middle of getting divorced. Ray had had a recent significant job change that was complicated by the involvement of one of his exes. So we were both broke and most of our personal property was at least temporarily in someone else’s custody.
His mom or his sister had given us a small artificial Christmas tree that had been boxed up in a garage for some time. Ray came up with a few old strings of Christmas lights somewhere. We had bought a single box of very cheap glass ball ornaments in multiple colors, and a similarly cheap tinsel star tree-topper with a cluster of lights. So we had the small tree perched on a chest of drawers. It’s the kind of first Christmas stories lots of couples tell. One of the things I really liked about that silly star treetopper is that it looked exactly like one my parents had bought when I was a baby, and had been my childhood treetopper until sometime in grade school when they replaced it with an angel.
One weekend a couple weeks before Christmas, we helped one of Ray’s friends, Miss Lee. She was an older woman that Ray had met when he had worked as a nursing aide a few years before. She had only recently moved from a nursing kind of facility to a sort of assisted living apartment. It was the first time in years that she had had more than a single room of her own, and she had recently gotten a bunch of her things that had been in storage at a relative’s house, including a box of Christmas ornaments. She had been told she could have a tree and that the maintenance staff would take care of disposing of cut trees after the holiday. So she needed someone with a car to take her to buy a tree, and then help her set it up.
Miss Lee lived in the south end of Seattle, not far from one location of the former Seattle institution known as Chubby and Tubby. Chubby and Tubby started as an army surplus store run out of a tin shed in the Rainier Valley neighborhood of Seattle by two friends after they came home from serving in WWII. They moved to a bigger location in Rainier Valley in the mid-50s, then opened at least two other stores (the one in north Seattle being the one I shopped at most often), before the owners passed away, then eventually their heirs sold the locations and closed down the stores in 2003. Chubby and Tubby was a strange store that’s really hard to describe. They sold blue jeans and tennis shoes and fishing poles and tools and gardening things and… well, just a whole lot of weird stuff. Always cheap.
And every December, each Chubby and Tubby store offered Christmas trees for sale, cheaper than you could find them anywhere else. In the 80s and 90s the price was alway $5 a tree, no matter what size. I’ve talked to people who remembered during the 70s when Chubby and Tubby trees were only $3. The owners sold the trees at a loss. They said they wanted to make sure that people who couldn’t afford a Christmas tree could have one. The trees were usually Douglas Firs, and they were… well, they were never very symmetrical. They were never as scraggly as the proverbial Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but they were always unique. I had purchased at least a couple of Chubby and Tubby trees in the years before this particular December. We hadn’t bought one ourselves that year in part because I didn’t think we’d be able to dispose of it easily afterward. Also, the loaned artificial tree was even cheaper.
Anyway, Miss Lee wanted a Chubby and Tubby tree, in part because she had fond memories of getting trees from Chubby and Tubby when she was younger, but also because you can’t beat the price. Before we’d gone to the store, we had untangled her strings of very old lights and determined that at least one of them was probably a fire hazard and shouldn’t be used. So she also hoped to find a cheap string of lights or two at Chubby and Tubby as well.
It was less than two weeks until Christmas, and Chubby and Tubby was absolutely packed. It took Miss Lee a while to pick out her tree, mostly because she wanted one small enough to fit in the spot she’d chosen in her living room. And then there were strings of lights and ornaments to look at. There was one particular string of Christmas lights that Ray was very taken with. A string of a couple dozen lights with plastic teddy bears wearing Santa hats. It was at Chubby and Tubby, so it was cheap, but even cheap was out of our own budget at the time. Miss Lee wanted something simpler, with multicolored lights for her own tree. She offered to buy Ray the string of Teddy Bears, but he told her very firmly no.
At each check-out line they had a bucket of odd little brass keys. There was a contest. Every customer could pick a key out of the bucket, and then try the key on this Treasure Chest at the front of the store. If the key opened the chest, you’d get a gift certificate good for certain items in the store. Miss Lee told Ray to pick a key and give it a try. The key he picked unlocked the chest. Ray asked her what she wanted to use the gift certificate for, and Miss Lee said, “It yours.”And yes, the string of Teddy Bear lights was one of the things he could redeem the gift certificate for. So we took home the string of teddy bear lights.
We got the tree back to her place, got it set up, helped her put her lights on the tree and hang her ornaments. She told us little stories about each ornament as she unwrapped them. It was a fun day.
When we got home that night, Ray hung up the teddy bear lights in the window over our bed. That silly string of teddy bear lights hung either in windows or on our tree every Christmas for the rest of Ray’s life. Ray died mid-November of 1997, not quite six years after that first Christmas living together.
For Christmas 1997 I barely did any decorating. Ray had only been dead a few weeks at the time we would normally start pulling decorations from the basement. I knew if I started unpacking our ornaments and such I’d break down sobbing and I wasn’t sure I would stop. I barely felt brave enough to open the storage closet in the basement to pull out one of the smaller artificial trees that I knew I could get to without opening other boxes. I decorated using some ornaments and a string of lights Ray had purchased on sale somewhere a week or so before he died, thus they were already upstairs and they didn’t have a history of Christmases with him.
In 1998, as I unpacked boxes of ornaments, I broke down crying several times. Ray had loved Christmas so much, and so many of the ornaments evoked memories of when he had found that particular decoration and showed it to me in the store. Or times he had fussed with where to hang it to best show it off, et cetera.
Yes, one of the times I broke down was when I pulled the teddy bear santa lights from one of the boxes. I hung them in the bedroom window that year. The next several years I put the teddy bear lights up. At least once on the tree, but usually in one of the windows. The last few years I’ve gotten them out and looked at them, debating whether I should put them up. They’re more than 20 years old. At some point old electronics, even something as simple as strings of mini lights, break down and/or become fire hazards. So I would plug them in, look them over, and some years I’d decide to put them back in the box. But most years I have still hung them up.
Our building, which was the last home Ray lived in and has been my home for a bit over 20 years, has been sold and the new owners want to do major renovations. They’ve given us advance notice that everyone’s going to be evicted sometime before 2017 year is over. So this was my last Christmas in the place that was Ray’s last home. I’ve been… moodier than usual this holiday.
I put the teddy bear lights in the kitchen window. Every evening they turned on and shown their silly light until the wee hours of the morning. I checked them frequently, but they never showed signs of problems.
But when I took them down out of the window, I noticed that several stretches of the wire are stiffer than other sections. The plastic doesn’t actually crack when you bend it in those locations, but clearly 20-some years of use is taking its toll.
While we were packing things and taking the tree down, I was looking at all of our decorations with a critical eye. If we have to move, it would be silly to move old ornaments and lights we know we’re never going to use again. I now have a couple of big boxes of old light strings and the like to recycle, and a big pile of other decorations that I think are in good enough shape to donate, if I can find a place that will take them.
And those teddy bear lights (or at least the string itself) shouldn’t be used again. No one wants the lights to start a fire some December in the future. So its time to says good-bye to Ray’s teddy bear lights. 25 Christmases later, they’ve earned a rest.