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From some downriver town he would come, unerringly as the seasons, a bent-over little man carrying a bulging black valise. ''Mama. He's here!'' I'd shout and run into the house.

Mother would greet him warmly, for in this back country, isolated from the outer world by the mountains, we welcomed any intrusion.

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He would be led into the front parlor, where he would open that fascinating black bag. Mama would lean forward to inspect the glistening array of needles, thread, safety pins - poking, testing, probing to find the perfect specimen.

''Yah, this is good, no?'' he would ask. Mama would gaze at the needle closely and ponder it a moment, nodding, ''Yes, yes, very good,'' as if she must convince him that she did not doubt his word.

It was always a wonder to me that it took so long to select the right needle. Thimbles danced in sunlight as if they were silver cones; white-frothed lace grew like exotic blooms in dark corners of the valise; common shoelaces filled the bottom like long entwined roots of some magical woodland flower. My heart beat fast as Mama studied the rainbow-hued ribbons. Would there be enough money for a green ribbon today?

I could not understand why my mother bought so many needles and pins when her sewing machine drawer was crammed full of them; when I asked, she replied: ''Shh - he's walked miles today. How can we turn him away?''

If she had a few pennies left, she would allow me to choose a ribbon for my incorrigibly straight hair, but that wasn't often. A nickel bought needed things , like shoelaces for Papa's work boots.

Mama would sigh, ''It's been a hard winter for everyone.''

''In spring everyone feels better,'' the peddler would say.

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And Mama would laugh, and he would chuckle in his funny Old World way, and I would know that they had shared something between them - a sadness, perhaps, a feeling of bad times and want and of making-do - and of thinking about spring, even when it was still winter, for the earth warmed late in these parts.

But what they were really saying, what they really meant, was that they had not given up hope: he from the Old World, my mother from the new; the long line of generations between them.

What they both knew was that it would soon be better; it did not matter that no one understood. They understood each other. They would survive.

So this ceremony, this lengthy process, far more meaningful than a row of pins, couldn't be rushed.

There were inquiries about the weather, did he think they were in for a long, hot summer? And then the conversation changed to the people downriver, how were they getting along? Was Mrs. So and So well? And did her daughter have her baby? Yes? A boy? Mama thought they would have a girl this time, and then she'd stroke my hair and reach for a satin ribbon.

''Cut me a nickel's length of pink,'' she'd say, or yellow if the daffodils were out, or some such thing that made her mood happy that day, and the ceremony would be over.

The great valise would be rearranged for the next encounter up the hill; the huge straps fastened. He would be off, the valise seemingly leading him on, bending him forward, taking him on his strange and wonderful mission.

''Remember me to your family,'' Mama would call. We would stand in the doorway and watch him trudge up the hill until we could no longer see him - a speck of a man. . . . And Mama would enter the house and try to find space in her Singer drawer for all of the new shoelaces and needles.

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