I hadn't been to our variety story for several weeks, and had accumulated quite a shopping list. Summer always disrupts my tidy cycle of duties. And no one had warned me.
It was gone. All gone. Every ribbon, party favor, pet dish, and lampshade. All but workmen moving the empty counters out of the hollow-sounding vastness.
I'd taken this merchandise rock for granted, from when it was small and we were new in town, through its change of management, when the first owner passed on and his young assistant dived recklessly into the financial responsibilities of private enterprise. Slowly he enlarged his space and his service to us townsfolk.
His clerks were more than just ready to help - they'd search in the stock boxes behind the sliding doors under the packed-and-piled-high counters and into the out-of-season stock in the basement to fill a request. Failing that, they'd make note to speak to the salesman on his next monthly visit. Or promise to stash an item aside with our name on it as soon as a delivery came in, easing the constant frustrations of shopping.
The fellow homemakers working part-time were always ready with sage advice for the novice. Or to share critical judgments on the ways and means of wifery, meanwhile drawing our attention to the newfangled, fleecy stretch-knit jump suits for the baby. Later, they made sure we didn't pass by the Davy Crockett coonskin hats in toddler sizes. Or the pre-plastic, plaid-fabric book bags with all the buckled pockets to fill with the latest thing - Magic Markers.
They let us know when a fresh supply of Southern turtles had come in. Then, against our better judgment, drew us into the just-opened bird section - into our trial run of life with the feathered and furred. And, in the course of time, they were filling our requests for flea collars and rawhide bones.
The same local people clerked for years until they were like family friends who reminisced about our grown children's days as toddlers. Like us customers, some were using hair dye to cover the gray, some were wearing larger sizes to cover middle-age relaxation. And, through the years, scores of high school youngsters warmed to their first business experience with an after-school job behind the cash register. Even the son and daughter of the owner learned firsthand that a day off comes ''the hard way. They earned it.''
How many times, when we were fed up with housework, we felt we'd earned a short respite ''to pick up a few things uptown.'' We were revived by exchanging the latest chatter with fellow escapees browsing along the narrow aisles, with old friends we'd made at the baby swings in the park, or as same-hitch Brownie leaders, or working together on a PTA committee. The ones whose paths have diverged from ours, but who inevitably would be ''needing a few things uptown.''
How will we get along now? How will all the young families in town satisfy their needs for safety pins and hair clips and surprise packages; for tote bags and crayons and colored paper; for cookie cutters and wooden spoons and ovenproof custard cups; for elbow patches and knitted wristlets and denim to reinforce thin jean knees?
How will we homebodies manage without the infinite variety of buckles and buttons, ruffling, braids and bindings, of yarns and needles, of appliques and beads? At Halloween, where else to feel the holiday mood with artificial fall flowers and orange candles, candy corn, scary costumes, cardboard skeletons, and black cats? How can we find such convenient one-stop shopping for the stuff of life garnered from near and far at affordable cash-and-carry prices?
We'll manage, I guess. But from now on I'm going to try to see the blessings at hand instead of in retrospect - see right now what I may look back upon as ''The Good Old Days.'' I'll start to appreciate more those who are earning a living and at the same time blessing us all. Taking such everyday things for granted is like neglecting to smell the flowers.