The Gift of Understanding
I must have been around four years old when I first entered Mr. Wigden’s candy shop, but the smell of that wonderful world of penny treasures still comes back to me clearly more than a half-century later. Whenever he heard the tiny tinkle of bell attached to the front door, Mr. Wigden quietly appeared, to take his stand behind the candy case. He was very old, and his head was topped with a cloud of fine, snow-white hair.
Never was such an array of delicious temptations spread before a child. It was almost painful to make a choice. Each kind had first to be savored in the imagination before passing on to the next. There was always a short pang of regret as the selection was dropped into a little white paper sack. Perhaps another kind would taste better? Or last longer? Mr. Wigden had a trick of scooping your selection into the sack, then pausing. Not a word was spoken, but every child understood that Mr. Wigden’s raised eyebrows constituted a last-minute opportunity to make an exchange. Only after payment was laid upon the counter was the sack irrevocably twisted shut and the moment of indecision ended.
Our house was two streets from the streetcar line, and you had to pass the shop going to and from the cars. Mother had taken me into town on some forgotten errand, and as we walked home from the trolley Mother turned into Mr. Wigden’s.
“Let’s see if we can find something good,” she said, leading me up to the long glass case as the old man approached from behind a curtained aperture. My mother stood talking with him for a few minutes as I gazed rapturously at the display before my eyes. Finally Mother picked out something for me and paid Mr. Wigden.
Mother went into town once or twice a week, and, since in those days baby-sitters were almost unheard-of, I usually accompanied her. It became a regular routine for her to take me into the candy shop for some special treat, and after that first visit I was always allowed to make my own choice.
I knew nothing of money at that time, I would watch my mother hand something to people, who would then hand her a package or a big, and slowly the idea of exchange percolated into my mind. Sometime about then I reached a decision. I would journey the interminable two streets to Mr. Wigden’s all alone. I remember the tinkle of the bell as I managed, after some considerable effort, to push open the big door. Enthralled, I worked my way slowly down the display counter.
Here were spearmint leaves with a fresh minty fragrance. There, gumdrops-the great big ones, so tender to bite into, all crusty with crystals of sugar. In the next tray were fudgy chocolate babies. The box behind them held enormous jawbreakers which made a satisfying bulge in your cheek. The hard, shiny, dark-brown-covered peanuts Mr. Wigden dished out with a little wooden scoop——two scoops for a cent. And, of course, there were the licorice whips. These lasted a long time if you let the bites dissolve instead of chewing them.
When I had picked out a promising assortment, Mr. Wigden leaned over and asked, “you have the money to pay for all these?”
“Oh, yes,” I replied, “I have lots of money.” I reached out my fist, and into Mr. Wigden’s open hand I dumped a half-dozen cherry seeds carefully wrapped in shiny tinfoil.
Mr. Wigden stood gazing at the palm of his hand; then he looked searchingly at me for a long moment.
“Isn’t it enough?” I asked him anxiously.
He sighed gently. “I think it is a bit too much,” he answered. “You have some change coming.” He walked over to his old-fashioned cash register and cranked open the drawer. Returning to the counter, he leaned over and dropped two pennies into my outstretched hand.
My mother scolded me about taking the trip alone when she found me out. I don’t think it ever occurred to her to ask about the financial arrangement. I was simply cautioned not to go again unless I asked first. I must have obeyed and, evidently, when permission was granted for me to make the trip, a cent or two was given me for my purchases, since I don’t remember using cherry seeds a second time. In fact, the whole affair, insignificant to me then, was soon forgotten in the busy occupation of growing up.
When I was six or seven years old my family moved to a new community where I grew up, eventually married an established my own family. My wife and I opened a shop where we bred and sold exotic fish. The aquarium trade was then still in its infancy, and most of the fish were imported directly from Asia, Africa and South America. Few species sold for less than five dollars a pair.
One sunny afternoon a little girl came in accompanied by her brother. They were perhaps five and six years old. I was busy cleaning the tanks. The two children stood with wide, round eyes, staring at the jeweled beauties swimming in the crystal-clear water. “Gosh,” exclaimed the boy, “can we buy some?”
“Yes,” I replied. “If you can pay for them.”
“Oh, we have lots of money,” the little girl said confidently.
Something in the way she spoke gave me an old feeling of familiarity. After watching the fish for some time, they asked me for pairs of several different kinds, pointing them out as they walked down the row of tanks. I netted their choices into a traveling container and slipped it into an insulated bag for transport, handing it to the boy. “Carry it carefully,” I cautioned.
He nodded and turned to his sister. “You pay him,” he said. I held out my hand, and as her clenched fist approached me I suddenly knew exactly what was going to happen even what the little girl was going to say. Her fist opened, and into my outstretched palm she duped three very small coins.
At that instant I sensed the full impact of the legacy Mr. Wigden gad given me so many years before. Only now did I recognize the challenge I had presented the old man, and realize how wonderfully he had met it.
I seemed to be standing again in the little candy shop as I looked at the coins in my own hand. I understood the innocence of the two children and the power to preserve or destroy that innocence, as Mr. Wigden had understood those long years ago. I was so filled up with the remembering that my throat ached. The little girl was standing expectantly before me. “Isn’t it enough? She asked in a small voice.
“It’s a little too much,” I managed to say, somehow, over the lump in my throat. “You have some change coming.” I rummaged around in the cash drawer, dropped two pennies into her open hand, then stood in the doorway watching the children go down the walk carefully carrying their treasure.
When I turned back into the shop, my wife was standing on a stool with her arms submerged to the elbows in a tank where she was rearranging the plants. “Mind telling me what that was all about?” she asked. “Do you know how many fish you gave them?”
“About 30dollars’ worth,” I answered, the lump still in my throat. “But I couldn’t have done anything else.”
When I’d finished telling her about old Mr. Wigden, her eyes were wet, and she stepped off the stool and gave me a gentle kiss on the cheek.
“I still smell the gumdrops,” I sighed, and I’m certain I heard old Mr. Wigden chuckle over my shoulder as I swabbed down the last tank.