“George Orwell once said something about how childhood necessarily creates a false map of the world but it’s the only map we’ve got, and no matter how old we are, at the first sign of trouble, we take off running for those fabulous countries. It’s like that for me.”
— Kelly Corrigan, The Middle Place
Nickels and pennies burned a hole in the pocket, and we set off for the little corner market where penny candy and salty stick pretzels in a glass jar were so enticing we could not turn away. While one of us four sisters took her turn at piano lessons, the other three were free to take that nickel and any pennies we could scare up to the town square of Hayesville.
It’s funny how the map of the mind holds such detail; I can still call to mind the aroma within, as well as the wooden floor, it’s strange bumps and smoothed craters. An old man ran the counter, enveloped by the smell of pipe smoke and peppermint. He was not exactly friendly, but not unfriendly, either. We treated him with respect, not only because we were respectful kids, but from the knowledge that he was the gatekeeper of this magical place called the Mercantile.
For farm kids, being able to walk to such a place was in itself a treat. It was almost worth the agony of piano lessons at our great-aunt’s home. It was a fearless world then, where every crossroads town had a Mom and Pop store filled with ice-cold Coca Cola in miniature bottles, enormous chocolate bars and colorful bits of spun sugar.
Pennies to spend
When we reached the end of our sidewalk boundary, our excitement carried us, happy and hopeful. As we pushed open that extraordinarily heavy door during cold weather or breezed through the feather-light screen door in summer, we knew whatever we wanted could be ours, as long as it cost no more than pennies in our pocket.
Sugar Daddy, Black Cows, Milk Duds, Atomic Fireballs and Lemon Heads were part of what made up the colorful display of tempting candies. Would choosing bubble gum be the wise thing to place up on that high sales counter? It would last longer than candy, but it would leave only four pennies, cutting the possibilities within our buying power.
If we were lucky enough to have an empty pop bottle to return, we had extra coins to spend. What a bonus! If we put our coins together, we could share a pack of Black Jack or Clove or Fruit Stripe chewing gum and still have a few cents left over. And we were expected to share with one another, from corner candy store goodies to trick or treat candy, too. There was no “that’s mine!” ever to be uttered in our home.
My crafty sister Debi asked for our empty gum wrappers, and she magically folded a bunch of them together to make a colorful chain-type bracelet. It was a thing of great beauty. I thought she could do anything. We didn’t dare dawdle too long, because one of us had to be back on the porch swing when the second lesson was to begin, and we were to all walk together. I recall the simple thrill of discovering “the back way” to return to Aunt Virginia’s house, which was not a sidewalk but something called an alley, a new word to roll off my lips. It seemed a long walk to me, though it was not.
I chose quickly, standing on tiptoes to place my choices on the candy counter, my money spent. I tried to get that somber man to smile but never succeeded. My sisters were older by several years, and wiser. Sometimes it took a third walk to the store for my sisters to decide on their purchase.
One day, shockingly, I recall my sister Debi not buying anything at all. “I’m saving mine today, then next week I will have double the money to spend.” (I left feeling bad for the shopkeeper; fearing he might think we didn’t like his inventory offerings.)
I let her have one Fireball (but not until after it proved way too hot for me, and she took it without a second thought that it had been in my mouth awhile) and we split a salty pretzel stick so she wouldn’t starve to death. This is the same sister who convinced me, when counting the change in our piggy banks, saved to buy Christmas gifts, to let her have my dimes, trading me for nickels, because nickels were clearly bigger.
She was — and is — one amazing big sister who managed to do it all, and make a kid sister feel she was being well cared for, no matter what. She owns and manages her own successful business, and I feel pretty sure it started with those saved coins.
As we celebrated at a big surprise birthday party for her recently, I made a point of telling her she was pretty lucky to have me for a kid sister.
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