“Oh, Jim, you've got to help me!” Ruthie Weis pushed shut the door of Loeffler's Antiques on Marienstadt's Main Street.
Snow had begun falling earlier in the day and didn't look like it was about to let up any time soon, not that falling snow deterred most citizen's of Marienstadt from going about their business, Jim Loeffler thought. Still he was a little surprised to see Ruthie out on the Saturday morning before Christmas. Most of the local ladies had all their shopping done at this point and would be home adding to their holiday baking.
“What seems to be the problem?” He swung his feet down from where they rested on his desk, folded The Daily Dispatch newspaper he was reading, and stood. He wasn't a particularly tall man and had been downright homely as a boy but now, well into his forties, age seemed to be tempering his looks, and features that had been too sharp and over-sized on the boy added an appearance of strength and character to the man. His thick, curly hair—an embarrassment at sixteen—turned steel gray with no sign of thinning and Jim stopped hiding it under one of his many baseball caps sporting the logos of local drinking establishments.
“Do you know what a Tom and Jerry set is?” Ruthie pulled off snowy red mittens and rummaged in her handbag.
“Like the drink? Sure, of course, I do. I might even have one over there on the shelf.” He nodded toward a wall of shelves on the far side of the crowded store. The shelves were packed with dishes, glasses, bowls, vases, and every manner of knickknack anyone could imagine. A hand-painted sign hung over it with the words Antiques Made To Order painted on it.
“Follow me,” he said.
“Oh, thank heavens.” Ruthie placed her purse on the desk and followed. “I am in so much trouble. Dave's mother gave me her family's Tom and Jerry set the first Christmas after Dave and I got married and I always use it when we're the last house for treeing. It's our turn this year and I'm so upset because I can't find it anywhere.”
Jim glanced at her over his shoulder. Ruthie's mother-in-law, Bertie Weis, was a formidable figure known in Marienstadt for two things: her keuchels, a delicious, sugar-coated fried dough that she made in abundance for festive occasions, and her inflexible conviction that her way of doing things was the right way and, therefore, not open to discussion. For over thirty years Bertie had supervised the kitchen at the Knights of Columbus Hall and there were those who claimed they still trembled at the sound of her voice.
“You're going to try to find a set just like hers?” he said. “That's a tall order.”
“Maybe not.” Ruthie followed him holding out a photograph. “I took this picture of my table the last time we had the treeing party and I remember Dave saying that all his aunts had a set like this when he was a kid.”
Jim took the photograph and studied it. In the center of a table covered with a poinsettia-patterned tablecloth and loaded with food, was a large white bowl decorated with green bells around the top and the words Tom and Jerry in bright red, Old English script around the bottom. Inside the bowl an island of meringue sprinkled with nutmeg floated on an island of booze.
“That looks like the ones I remember.” He handed the picture back to her. “Let me get the step-ladder. It's on the top shelf.” He glanced at her. Ruthie was a small woman, slender and timid, with wavy brown hair and dark eyes. Not for the first time, Jim thought she looked rather like a mouse and he could well imagine that someone as imposing as Bertie could scare the b'jesus out of her.
“When's your party?” He dragged the step-ladder to the spot where he thought the set would most likely be and fixed it into place.
“Christmas is on Wednesday this year so we're treeing in the neighborhood on Friday and then having the family treeing on Sunday. That's the one Dave and I are hosting the party for.” She looked up at him with big, hope-filled eyes as he moved mugs and dishes around.
“I didn't know folks around here still went treeing.” Jim rummaged in his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe dust off the bowl.
“Oh, yes.” Ruthie stood on her toes straining upward to see what he was doing. “One night just the adults go treeing in the neighborhood and end up back at someone's house for dinner at midnight. This year Brian and Mary Katherine Dippold are having the neighborhood party. Then on Sunday, we're going treeing to the relatives with all the kids. Dave ordered ten pounds of smoked liver pudding from Andy Kneidel and I don't know how much Christmas sausage. I've been baking cookies for weeks but I ordered mincemeat pies and strudel from Lola's Strudel Shop. Of course, Mother Bertie will bring her keuchels.” She sighed.
Jim smiled. Treeing had been an important and beloved part of the holidays when he was a boy. Though different families had different customs around the tradition, the basic principle was the same—groups of people went from house to house where they would be treated to drinks and Christmas cookies or other snacks as they sat around admiring each family's Christmas tree and letting the kids show off their presents. When Jim was a boy both he and his sister Stella were allowed to enjoy their Christmas presents as long as they were placed back under the tree should anyone come treeing. Later, when he was a young husband and father, Jim and his wife carried on the tradition for their children but once the kids were grown and on their own, and his wife left the marriage, Jim forgot all about the custom. It made him happy to know it was still being carried on.
“Here we go.” He lifted out a large white bowl with red and green designs on it. Inside nestled the matching mugs.
“Oh!” Ruthie clapped her hand over her mouth. “It's perfect.”
“Let me clean it off first.” He held the precious bowl in one arm as he backed down the ladder and carried it to the counter.
“Oh, I can't believe it.” Ruthie's eyes sparkled as he reached for a squirt bottle of cleaning solution and a roll of paper towels.
“I'm glad it's still here,” he said as he cleaned each cup and lined them up beside the bowl.
Ruthie lifted one of the freshly polished mugs and studied it then slowly her smile faded. “Oh dear,” she said. She rummaged in her coat pocket for the photograph and held it up beside the cup. “Oh no.”
Her smile faded and Jim saw tears mist her eyes. “What?” he said looking back and forth between the picture and a cup. Then he saw it. On his set the words Tom and Jerry in bright green Old English script were printed around the top of the mugs, and a pattern of red candles decorated the bottom.
“Oh.” He stood staring at the set.
Ruthie took a deep breath. “Now what am I going to do?”To be continued...............