When the ancient Romans chose January as the name for the first month of the year, they were honoring their god Janus, guardian of doorways (whence our word janitor, originally meaning doorkeeper). Janus had two faces – one at the front of his head, looking forwards, the other at the back, looking backwards. As the deity of the first month, his task was to shut the door on the old year and open it to the new.
In January, those of us with a reflective disposition fall easily into a Janus-like role. Sitting indoors, taking shelter from the elements, we find ourselves not only looking forward to spring but also looking back into the past. And if we are of a certain age, that look can go back a very long way.
Old photographs help. They send impulses meandering through the brain, nuzzling the memories out from hiding.
In front of me is a photograph taken by my father in late 1956, when we were new immigrants from Germany, living in Burkeville. In the photograph, my mother and I are standing in front of the local supermarket Tom-Boy, the first in a short string of shops on a piece of open land at the north-east tip of Burkeville. There seem to have been one or two more shops to the right of Tom-Boy. I only remember the last one – Joe's Confectionery, which sold candy.
We, the children of Burkeville, were drawn to the candy store like kittens to a bowl of cream. With careful planning, our weekly allowance of a few nickles or dimes could be made to stretch a long way. Jawbreakers were the best bargain. They were black and made a mess of mouth and tongue, but they were cheap and tasty. The candy store had a vending machine filled with jawbreakers lined up outside. It was almost impossible to pass without pushing a coin into the slot and turning the dial. A few seconds later there'd be a thrilling rumble and the released jawbreaker would roll into our cupped hands.
Tom-Boy was stocked with everything for the household. A produce counter lined the left wall, and aisles of tinned and packaged goods occupied the main floor space. At the back, in the left corner, was the meat department, presided over by Percy the butcher. He was helpful and capable, even managing to cut beef Rouladen (unknown in those days) following my mother's instructions. I’ve never forgotten what he was called because as a child I thought Percy a funny name for a butcher.
I clearly remember my mother being shocked at how freely Tom-Boy (and other stores) used paper bags for packing groceries. In Germany, shoppers brought their own capacious receptacles, and for the first weeks my mother clung to the old habit.
Twenty years later I moved to Florence, where I became acutely aware of walking over buried history with every step I took. Now I have a similar sensation here, for each time I drive south on Russ Baker Way, across the intersection with Miller Road, I know I am passing over the ground traversed half a century ago by the young and old of Burkeville on their daily pilgrimage to Tom-Boy and Joe's Confectionery.
This page last updated: January 24, 2012.