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FLASHBACK: Whimsical images bring comfort and wistfulness

I’M THE kid sister, and anything my big sister did to include me was fine with me.

Mary Christine had the car and the driver’s license. I had the patience and the time. She drove, and I enjoyed the view from the passenger seat.

Not that we’d hit the malls or anything like that in small-town Fredericksburg of the late 1960s. The outskirts were still mostly farmland.

But she surely did like to look at merchandise. She’d bypass the main-street stores to explore what we considered the edge of town, guiding her white Chevrolet Impala to the parking spaces at Fredericksburg Shopping Center at the bottom of the hill of the U.S. 1 Bypass, and to Park and Shop Shopping Center at the top. I’d trail her down the aisles as she looked over the cheap jewelry and lipsticks and whatnot in big-to-us stores like Drug Fair and K–Mart.

She had eclectic tastes, though. Sometimes her mobile meandering would take us to a small gift shop on Lafayette Boulevard—a road that had once been the main highway through town. The shop, across from the National Cemetery and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, specialized in Civil War collectibles.

Mary Christine would forage through the old bullets and souvenirs and I don’t know what all—and there in the midst of that I spotted the most incongruous display imaginable in such a place: a collection of cute-little-animals-in-cute-little-clothes postcards.

The postcards couldn’t have cost much. I don’t know if my sister or I came up with the change to buy them, but after many visits to the shop I had my own small collection of postcards showing an enchanting world where all is well all the time.

The fantasy comforted me through my teens and parenting years and beyond. In Cute Little Animal Land, tireless, industrious mother bunnies and squirrels care for their little ones, take them on outings and tuck them into snug beds at night. In the company of other fur friends—and an occasional amphibian—they explore worlds that include a cave and the moon.

One year—for my own children—I arranged the cards by season and tucked them into a small photo album, taped a paper Easter egg on the cover and gave the collection a title, “Our Easter Friends,” written in now-faded pink and blue marker.

Joy and innocence. That’s what our little friends were all about, and even now—maybe especially now—the thought of their little world gives me a pang of wistfulness.

I still browse in Fredericksburg’s shops—mostly for books. Riverby Books at 805 Caroline St. is a treasure trove for serendipitous finds. A few years ago, I found “The Racey Helps Picture Book,” a paperback filled with familiar illustrations of my postcards and many more besides. I learned that Racey Helps was the British artist who had created the illustrations that graced many of the cards found in a Civil War shop in Fredericksburg. The Medici Society Ltd. in London published his work.

Helps died in 1971, only two years after the Apollo 11 landing and astronauts’ first walk on the moon in July 1969. Racey Helps’ cute little animals in clothes (and space helmets) did their own moon walk. 

Serious collectors now trade online, paying a bit more than I ever did for illustrations by Racey Helps and other artists of the genre. (Some of my cards include work by Molly Brett and Margaret Tempest.)

Big sister Mary Christine Miller married her high school sweetheart, Richard. They live in Central Pennsylvania, where she has spent countless hours frequenting discount stores and gift shops.

I stopped by the Lafayette Boulevard shop the other day and learned a little of its history from a current owner, Bill Henderson. After World War II, Warren L. Hicks opened a car repair shop and service station there. He prospered as a businessman. The building was subsequently used as an ice cream shop, then as Stonewall Gift Shop and now as Lee’s Headquarters. Civil War-related items for sale include bullets and other relics, prints, paintings, antiques and postcards.

The history of the little blue shop at 1016 Lafayette Blvd. will fill another Flashback column.

Meanwhile, enjoy a summertime escape with an imaginary leap into these vintage postcards.

Jennifer Strobel: 540/374-5432

jstrobel@freelancestar.com

 

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