The Gift of Understanding
The confidence of childhood is a fragile thing. It can be preserved or destroyed in an instant….
I must have been about four years old when I first entered Mr. Wigden's sweet shop, but the smell of that wonderful world of penny treasures still comes back to me clearly more than half a century later. Whenever he heard the tiny tinkle the bell attached to the front door, Mr. Wigden quietly appeared to take his stand behind the counter. 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 savoured in the imagination before passing on top the next. There was always a short pang of regret as the selection was dropped into a little white pager bag. Perhaps another kind would taste better? Or last longer? Mr. Wigden had a trick scooping your selection into the bag, 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 bag irrevocably twisted shut and the moment of indecision ended.
Our house was two streets away from the tram-line, and you had to pass the shop going to and from the trams. Mother had taken me into town on some forgotten errand, and as we walked home from the tram she 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 to him for a few minutes as I gazed rapturously at the display before my eyes. Then Mother chose 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 sweet 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 bag, and slowly the idea of exchange percolated into my mind. Some time about then I reached a decision. I would travel the interminable two streets to Mr. Wigden's all alone. I remember the tinkle of the bell as I managed, after some considered effort, to push open the big door. Enthralled, I walked 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. I couldn't pass by the satin cushions, little hard squares filled with sherbet. In the next tray were coloured jelly-babies. The box behind them held gobstoppers which were enormous, made a most satisfying bulge in your check, and lasted at least an hour if you didn't roll them round in your mouth too much, or take them out too often to see what colour layer was exposed at the moment.
The hard, shiny, dark-brown-covered nuts Mr. Wigden dished out with a little wooden scoop - two scoops for a penny. And of course, there were liquorice all sorts. These lasted a longtime, too, if you nibbled them slowly, and let the bites dissolve instead of chewing them up.
When I had picked out a promising assortment and several little white paper bags were standing on top of the counter, 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. Widgen open hand I dumped half a dozen cherry-stones carefully wrapped in silverpaper.
Mr. Widgen 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've got some change to come.” 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 going all that way 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 go again, a penny or two was given to me for my purchases, since I don't remember using cherry-stones a second time. In fact, the 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 another town, where I grew up, eventually married and established my own family. My wife and I opened a shop where we bred and sold tropical fish. The aquarium trade was then still in its infancy, and most of the fish were imported from Africa and South America. Few species sold for less then five dollar 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 odd 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 travelling 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 dumped three small coins.
In that instant I sensed the full impact of the legacy Mr. Wigden had given me so many years before. Only now did I recognize the challenge I had presented to the old man, and realize how wonderfully he had met it.
I seemed to be standing again in the little sweet 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 girls 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 over the lump in my throat. “You've got some change to come.” I rummaged round in the cash drawer, dropped two cents into her open hand, then stood in the doorway watching the children walk away, carefully carrying their treasure.
When I went back into the shop, my wife was standing on a stool with her arms submerged to the elbow in a tank where she was rearranging the plants. “What was that all about?” she asked. “Do you know how many fish you gave them?”
“About 30 dollars' worth,” I answered, the lump still in my throat. “But I couldn't have done anything else.”
When I had 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 check.
“I still smell the gumdrops,” I sighed, and I'm certain I heard old Mr. Wigden chuckle over my shoulder as I wiped down the last tank.
When I was quite young my family had one of the first telephones in our neighborhood. I remember well the polished oak case fastened to the wall in the lower stair landing. The shiny receiver hung on the side of the box. I even remember the number—105. I was too little to reach the telephone, but used to listen with fascination when my mother talked to it. Once she lifted me up to speak to my father, who was away on business. Magic!
Then I discovered that somewhere inside that wonderful device lived an amazing person—her name was “Information Please” and there was nothing she did not know. My mother could ask her for anybody's number; when our clock ran down, Information Please immediately supplied the correct time.
My first personal experience with this genie-in-the-receiver came one day while my mother was visiting a neighbor. Amusing myself at the tool-bench in the basement, I whacked my finger with a hammer. The pain was terrible, but there didn't seem to be much use crying because there was no one home to offer sympathy. I walked around the house sucking my throbbing finger, finally arriving at the stairway. The telephone! Quickly I ran for the footstool in the parlor and dragged it to the landing. Climbing up, I unhooked the receiver and held it to my ear. “Information Please,” I said into the mouthpiece just above my head.
A click or two, and a small, clear voice spoke into my ear. “Information.”
“I hurt my fingerrrr—” I wailed into the phone. The tears came readily enough, now that I had an audience.
“Isn't your mother home?” came the question.
“Nobody's home but me,” I blubbered.
“Are you bleeding?”
“No,” I replied. “I hit it with the hammer and it hurts.”
“Can you open your icebox?” she asked. I said I could. “Then chip off a little piece of ice and hold it on your finger. That will stop the hurt. Be careful when you use the ice pick,” she admonished. “And don't cry. You'll be all right.”
After that, I called Information Please for everything. I asked her for help with my geography and she told me where Philadelphia was, and the Orinoco—the romantic river I was going to explore when I grew up. She helped me with my arithmetic, and she told me that my pet chipmunk—I had caught him in the park just the day before—would eat fruit and nuts.
And there was the time that Petey, our pet canary, died, I called Information Please and told her the sad story. She listened, then said the usual things grown-ups say to soothe a child. But I was unconsoled: why was it that birds should sing so beautifully and bring joy to whole families, only to end as a heap of feathers, feet up, on the bottom of a cage?
She must have sensed my deep concern, for she said quietly, “Paul, always remember that there are other worlds to sing in.” Somehow I felt better. Another day I was at the telephone. “Information,” said the now familiar voice. “How do you spell fix?” I asked.
“Fix something? F-i-x.”
At that instant my sister, who took unholy joy in scaring me, jumped off the stairs at me with a banshee shriek — “Yaaaaaaaa!” I fell off the stool, pulling the receiver out of the box by its roots. We were both terrified—Information Please was no longer there, and I was not at all sure that I hadn't hurt her when I pulled the receiver out. Minutes later there was a man on the porch. “I'm a telephone repairman,” he said. “I was working down the street and the operator said there might be some trouble at this number.” He reached for the receiver in my hand. “What happened?”
I told him.
“Well, we can fix that in a minute or two.” He opened the telephone box, exposing a maze of wires and coils, and fiddled for a while with the end of the receiver cord, tightening things with a small screwdriver. He jiggled the hook up and down a few times, then spoke into the phone. “Hi, this is Pete. Everything's under control at 105. The kid's sister scared him and he pulled the cord out of the box.”
He hung up, smiled, gave me a pat on the head and walked out the door.
All this took place in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Then, When I was nine years old, we moved across the country to Boston—and I missed my mentor acutely. Information Please belonged in that old wooden box back home, and I somehow never thought of trying the tall, skinny new phone that sat on a small table in the hall.
Yet, as I grew into my teens, the memories of those childhood conversations never really left me; often in moments of doubt and perplexity I would recall the serene sense of security I had when I knew that I could call Information Please and get the right answer. I appreciated now how very patient, understanding and kind she was to have wasted her time on a little boy.
A few years later, on my way west to college, my plane put down at Seattle. I had about half an hour between plane connections and I spent 15 minutes or so on the phone with my sister, who lived there now, happily mellowed by marriage and motherhood. Then, really without thinking what I was doing, I dialed my hometown operator and said, “Information Please.”
Miraculously, I heard again the small, clear voice I knew so well: “Information.”
I hadn't planned this, but I heard myself saying, “Could you tell me, please, how to spell the word ‘fix’?” There was a long pause. Then came the softly spoken answer. “I guess,” said Information Please, “that your finger must have healed by now.”
I laughed. “So it's really still you,” I said. “I wonder if you have any idea how much you meant to me during all that time….”
“I wonder,” she replied, “if you know how much you meant to me. I never had any children, and I used to look forward to your calls. Silly, wasn't it?”
It didn't seem silly, but I didn't say so. Instead, I told her how often I had thought of her over the years, and I asked if I could call her again when I came back to visit my sister after the first semester was over.
“Please do. Just ask for Sally”
“Good-by, Sally.” It sounded strange for Information Please to have a name. “If I run into any chipmunks, I'll tell them to eat fruit and nuts.”
“Do that,” she said. “And I expect one of these days you'll be off for the Orinoco. Well, good-by.”
Just three months later I was back again at the Seattle airport. A different voice answered, “Information,” and I asked for Sally. “Are you a friend?”
“Yes,” I said, “An old friend.” “Then I'm sorry to have to tell you. Sally had only been working part-time in the last few years because she was ill. she died five weeks ago.” But before I could hang up, she said, “Wait a minute. Did you say your name was Villiard?”
“Well, Sally left a message for you. She wrote it down.”
“What was it?” I asked, almost knowing in advance what it would be.
“Here it is, I'll read it— ‘Tell him I still say there are other worlds to sing in. He'll know what I mean.’” I thanked her and hung up, I did know what Sally meant.