Gift of Understanding
The confidence of childhood is a fragile thing.
It can be preserved or destroyed in an instant...
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 of 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 to the next. There was always a
short pang of regret as the selection was dropped
into a little white paper bag. Perhaps another kind
would taste better? Or last longer? Mr. Wigden had
a trick of 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
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.
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 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 frag-rance. 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 souares 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 cheek, 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’s open hand I dumped
half a dozen cherry-stones carefully wrapped in silver
paper. Mr. Widgen stood gazing at the palm of his
hand: then he looked searchingly at me for a long
“Isn’t it enough?” I asked him anxiously.
sighed gently. “I think it is a bit too much,” he
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 acquarium 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
dollars a pair.
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 jewelled
beauties swimming in the crystal-clear water. “Gosh,”
exclaimed the boy, “can we buy some?”
“Yes,” I replied. “If you can pay for them.”
we have lots of money,” the little girl said confidently.
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.
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 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 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 elbows 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 cheek. “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.