With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
Subscribe and Save up to 45%
All through the fifties, my parents struggled to keep from going broke. Just getting food on the table was a priority, and treats were out of the question. When the other kids would invite me to come with them to the Cities Service station for candy bars or ice-cream sandwiches, I’d have to make some excuse, because I rarely had the five or ten cents to spare. Sometimes I’d scour the ditches and fence rows next to rural highways for castoff pop bottles until I had enough to go to the store, cash them in for the deposit, and buy a Milky Way or a Drumstick ice-cream cone.
I got a job while in high school, and my first weekly paycheck — for twenty-two dollars — was the largest lump sum of money I had ever held in my hands. I spent some of it on much-needed school supplies, put ten dollars into a savings account, and blew the rest on candy. What I didn’t eat I brought home and hid securely from my little brother (who was known to be a bit light-fingered around my possessions). Over the next few days, I stuffed myself with candy until I was nearly sick, trying to make up for sixteen years of deprivation. And it worked, to some extent.
Even today, though, when I am in the supermarket, I often can’t resist buying myself a little something sweet, taking it home, and hiding it from my roommate (who is known to be a bit light-fingered around my possessions). I’ll get this stash out to reward myself for some accomplishment, or console myself over some failure. Having a little bit of candy squirreled away somehow makes me feel less poor.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
My mom was an organic-food nut who considered oranges dessert and bought granola in the size bags usually reserved for dog food. This was no doubt great for my health, but that was little consolation when I saw other kids in school snacking on cookies and fruit roll-ups and candy while I had apples and cheese and fig cookies. When everyone traded snacks in the lunchroom, I had nothing anyone was interested in eating.
For Halloween, my parents would make popcorn balls and attach a note to each one that said: “Have a healthy Halloween.” They gave us Christmas stockings full of oranges and Easter baskets full of plums. For my birthdays, my mom would come to my classroom for the party and bring her version of cupcakes — generally fruit salad. In a picture from this time, I am sitting at the head of the preschool table, wearing a paper crown; before me is an apple with a lit candle in it. I am crying.
Of my granddad’s first visit to the United States from England, the songs and sweets are what I remember most. He played “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” in authentic silent-movie tremolo on the piano, belting out the words in a husky cockney accent. And he concocted slabs of fudge using several pounds of sugar and one finely grated coconut.
Granddad recruited my sister and me to help him make the candy. First, he asked us to find the ten-pound bag of sugar he had seen our mother bring home. Then he took the hairy brown coconut he had purchased and cracked it open with a hammer. While Judy and I pried the thick white meat from the shell and grated it, Granddad caramelized the sugar, filling the kitchen with its sweet aroma. He dumped the ingredients into a mixing bowl, then poured its contents into two large cake pans and popped them into the oven. The fudge that emerged crumbled and dissolved in our mouths, leaving lovely squiggles of coconut to savor and press between our teeth. We thought it the best treat in the world.
“Look at what Granddad made,” we shouted when our mother returned from shopping, her arms full of groceries. The little wrinkle between her eyes deepened. “What will we do with all this?” she cried. “It’s such a waste!”
I felt bad that Mommy had scolded Granddad, and resolved that the candy would not go to waste. Judy and I would eat it all. After several days, however, the sweet flavor grew sickening, and the coconut started to taste like soap. We were relieved when, one day, it simply disappeared.
Last year, on a trip to England, I related this incident to my mother’s brother George. He said Granddad had done the same thing in their household, and that each candy-making binge had caused them months of hardship during the war, when sugar was dearly rationed. Uncle George also remembered other things about his father: the wages he’d spent on a collection of silver tankards to decorate a kitchen without food; the times he’d treated pub patrons to one more round while his eight children waited on line at a soup kitchen; the cover of a piano keyboard smashed on my mother’s seven-year-old hands because she’d dared to play it.
Arden Hills, Minnesota
One morning, I boarded the packed Greyhound bus and took the only empty seat, next to a sweet-looking, disheveled, elderly nun. She smiled, peering at me through smudged bifocals that magnified her already large blue eyes. As we rode, she began to tell me how, when she was twelve years old, her mother had revealed that she was adopted. From that day forward, she said, she’d felt that she did not have the right to burden her adoptive mother, who, after all, had made such a great sacrifice for her. Perhaps, the nun admitted, her mother had encouraged her to feel this way. In any event, she’d joined the convent right out of high school, so that she would never again be a burden to anyone, and could spend her life serving others.
From time to time as she spoke, the nun blinked in surprise at her own words, smacking her lips and exclaiming, “Oh, my.” As we came to her stop, she leaned over and whispered, “You know, I’m eighty years old, and I’ve never told anyone this before. Bless you.”
She stood up and I helped her into her stained wool coat. “I want to give you something,” she said, rooting around in her pockets. “Here, a peppermint, something sweet.” She placed the candy in my hand and closed my fingers over it.
After she got off, I opened my hand. The candy wrapper was loose, the peppermint smeared red and pink. It had already been sucked.
Cassandra Sagan Bell
When I was eleven, I was given two cartons of jumbo chocolate bars to sell to raise money for my softball team. I was a shy kid, terrified at the thought of approaching anyone, let alone asking the person for a dollar. I would do anything to avoid knocking on doors or standing in front of grocery stores soliciting strangers.
One day, despairing over how I would ever get rid of the candy bars, I removed the foil wrapper from one and took a bite. I was in heaven.
I restricted myself to one bar a day, and before long I had emptied the first carton. I paid for them with my allowance and money I borrowed from my brother. By the time I’d worked up to two bars a day, I was no longer hungry for dinner. I lied when my parents asked who was buying all the candy, but that didn’t stop me from basking in their praise as they commended me for overcoming my shyness.
I was soon running out of candy bars — and money to buy them with — so I began to mete out the chocolate in smaller doses, and even hid a few bars under my mattress and in my shoes. To pay for them, I dipped into my father’s change dish, taking small amounts I thought he wouldn’t notice. Then one day I came home from school and found my candy bars were gone. As I tore apart my room in a panic, my mother confronted me. I was completely unprepared for the humiliation I felt.
I rarely eat chocolate now, and when I do it’s usually under the covers and behind closed doors.
Palos Verdes Estates, California
I grew up in a middle-class, largely Catholic suburb in New Jersey, where kids roamed freely from house to house. At the top of my hill lived a mailman named Kevin. He called me “Big Beautiful Brown Eyes” and lavished attention on me the way I wished my father would. I had a wicked crush on Kevin; sometimes, after school, I would walk by his house, hoping that he would notice me and invite me in, where he kept a battered old suitcase full of candy bars. I’d sit happily on his lap and enjoy my treat, feeling loved.
Kevin never touched me inappropriately. I don’t know whether he was a child molester or not, but he taught me about kindness and made me feel that I was lovable.
Kim was a pale, bony girl with knee socks that sagged and bunched around her ankles. She wasn’t one of the popular girls; she wasn’t even unpopular. Most people just ignored her. But she smiled and laughed at my jokes, so when she asked me over to her house after school, I agreed.
Kim’s house was big but sort of worn out, with a wide porch that wrapped around the front. Inside, her living room had two fat couches covered by white sheets that smelled like bleach and summertime. Her mother was in the kitchen, ironing and singing along with the radio. She gave us each a glass of Kool-Aid.
We took the blue plastic tumblers out to the back yard and sat down on a blistered, peeling picnic table in the shade of a weeping willow. Kim’s back yard was mostly weeds and dirt, but it was comfortable, like an old sock warm from the dryer. There was a rope swing, a horseshoe pit, and a cellar door just like the one in The Wizard of Oz. It was nothing like my back yard, where the green carpet of grass edged up against the patio, as neat and trim as my Uncle Larry’s crew cut.
Kim and I left our tumblers on the table and walked down the road to a store with a handwritten sign above the screen door that actually said MOM AND POP. “Mom” sat behind the counter wearing a housedress and slippers. The store was tiny, dimly lit, and crammed tighter than my grandmother’s attic. Right in front, under Mom’s watchful eye, was the candy display: rows and rows of Slo-pokes and hot-dog bubble gum and wax lips and pastel-colored candy necklaces. I was trying to decide between the flying-saucer wafers that reminded me of Communion and a tiny cloth sack of bubble-gum nuggets when Kim held up a cellophane bag full of little white rocks.
“This is the best candy in the whole world,” she whispered to me.
We bought a bag of rock candy to share. As we walked back to her house, I broke off a piece and held it on my tongue, then swirled it around, tasting all its sweetness, feeling the warm breeze blowing through the weeping willows along the road. I was happy.
The following Saturday, Kim asked me to spend the night at her house, and I told her yes. But then Sue Anne invited me to a sleep-over party that same night at her big white house on the hill. Sue Anne’s blond hair did a perfect flip, like Marlo Thomas’s on That Girl. I never even called Kim to say I wasn’t coming.
Later, I was able to find rock candy at the dime store near my Aunt Virgie’s house, and at the Family Mart where my mother bought our gym shoes. But every time I ate those foggy little rocks, they tasted flat, like cubes of sugar, nothing more.
Jeanne T. Jordan
Villa Park, Illinois
My brothers no longer wanted their kid sister tagging along when they went trick-or-treating. I was sorely disappointed, and decided to accumulate the biggest bag of candy ever, so they would regret not having me with them. Even without my brothers to take care of me, I insisted I was old enough to trick-or-treat with friends, and didn’t need my father following me from door to door. My father pretended to agree, but throughout the night, I would see cigarette smoke coming from behind a tree about twenty paces behind us.
My friends and I had been out for a half-hour, the smoking trees ever on our trail, when we rang the bell of a house that was completely dark inside, and an old woman answered the door; I groaned inwardly, knowing that old people gave the worst treats. The woman exclaimed about our costumes and asked if we would like to come inside. Suddenly, my father was on the porch accepting for us. Now I’d never get enough candy.
The woman had set up a small puppet theater in her basement. About a dozen kids were already there. We found a place to sit, the woman disappeared, and the lights dimmed. In a moment, an angel marionette descended onto the little stage. A soldier soon followed, and a princess, and a devil, and a cowboy. Though we all knew the woman was operating the puppets and providing the voices, the show was riveting. No one cared that, by the time it was all over, we’d been sitting there for more than an hour.
As I was leaving, the old woman asked me which marionette I had liked the best. I told her the soldier, and she gave him to me. She had made all the puppets herself.
My pillowcase had only a handful of candy in it when I got home, but I was anxious to show my brothers the marionette. They said they couldn’t believe I had wasted Halloween “sitting in some old lady’s basement.” I tried to laugh along with them, but I felt sad. I didn’t even want to see their candy; instead, I couldn’t wait to get upstairs by myself and try my hand at making the soldier move.
As a girl, I wasn’t very loved by my mother, and was always trying to please her, at least for a few minutes. For Mother’s Day one year, I went to Murphy’s five-and-ten to look for a gift. I found a small, shallow bowl that I thought was pretty. It was beige with green trim and had a ceramic acorn and two leaves attached to the inside edge. Also, the price would leave me with enough money to buy some chocolate.
I had learned at a young age how comforting chocolate was. The store sold chocolate by the pound, breaking it off in pieces from huge slabs. The lady who weighed my ten cents’ worth was a family friend, and added a little extra to my bag. I suppose she felt sorry for me, the child of a shrew and a drunk. I ate a bit of the chocolate on my way home, planning to hide the rest for when I needed soothing.
On Mother’s Day, I gave the dish to my mother.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” she screamed. “What were you thinking?”
As soon as I could, I went to my hiding place and ate some chocolate.
My mother is ninety-three now. Recently, cleaning out an old cupboard in the basement of her house, I found the dish with the acorn. I asked my mother if I could have it, and she answered, “Of course. I never did like it anyway.” As she watched, I took the dish outside to the patio and, with a hammer, smashed it to dust.
Halloween night, my eight-year-old twins slam the front door and run into the kitchen. One carefully peels the spider legs from his costume and hangs them over a chair, then dumps his plastic pumpkin out on the kitchen table to line up and count the Kit-Kats, Reese’s cups, Butterfingers, and Almond Joys. He eats nothing, totally focused on counting and categorizing. When he’s done, he sits back to admire his tidy rows and absent-mindedly munches the apple I’ve put in front of him. “You know what?” he says. “Good-n-Plenties are actually bad-n-plenties.”
The other twin, his leopard costume still on, immediately begins opening wrappers and stuffing candy into his mouth. He is indiscriminate, his only goal to be eating something at all times.
Their eleven-year-old sister blows in, drops her coat and flashlight and mittens in a heap on the floor, and dramatically announces that her feet are tired, her pumpkin is heavy, and her ears are cold. Seeing the neat line of Almond Joys on the table, she shrieks, “No fair! Where did you go? Who gives those?” She stands over her brother as if about to shake him. “Tell me!”
Watching this scene, I wonder how much credit or blame I can take for my children’s behavior. Then I give up wondering and sneak a few of the Almond Joys.
During my first few years in elementary school, my mother had a hard time being a parent. Her own mother and father had recently died in a car accident, and she was often depressed. We kids (I was the youngest of four) had to fix our own lunches to take to school, and we frequently found the refrigerator bare. We weren’t poor, however; my mother and father just rarely bought us any food. I remember making sandwiches with peanut butter and mayonnaise, and sometimes, after school, I’d eat hamburger or bacon raw. Every few weeks my parents would have lavish cocktail parties, entertaining VIPs from my father’s work. For a day or two after these affairs, there would be exotic, tasty food to bring to school — and then nothing again.
One day, I was rummaging through the pantry when I spotted a canister hidden on the top shelf. Inside were a dozen Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars. I was stunned. I put the canister back and took candy from it only when I was alone and feeling particularly hungry. I never told my sisters or my brother about my discovery.
After that, I began exploring other parts of the house, finding greater treasures. I sneaked cigarettes from the silver box reserved for guests. I borrowed porn magazines from my brother’s closet. I stole coins from the change bin near the front door. Within a couple of years, I was pouring out glasses of liquor from the bottles in the dining-room cabinet.
My mother always used to say, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Until then, I never knew what she meant.
At the movie theater, waiting for the show to start, I asked my husband for some money to buy candy. “What are you going to get?” he said, handing me a five. “Swedish berries,” I replied. “I don’t think I like those,” he said. So at the concession stand I threw in a few peanut-butter cups for him. When I returned, he devoured most of the Swedish berries within a few minutes. I thought, That’s why I married this man.
San Francisco, California
I have vivid memories of Coach C.: stale-coffee breath, mousy brown mustache, sweat-stained polyester shirts that clung to his mesh bodysuits underneath. I can see him pushing his glasses up on his nose as he reaches in to spot a girl tumbling on the mat, and his gut hanging over his belt as he tells his eleven-year-old charges to lose weight. He would single me out in particular: poking my waist, squeezing my arms, commenting endlessly about my diet.
Every day after school, Coach C. would drive another girl and me to the high school for practice. One day the other girl couldn’t make it, so I climbed alone into his gray van, gym bag in one hand, book bag in the other, chewing a piece of gum.
“Gum has calories, you know,” he immediately informed me.
“It’s sugarless,” I said.
“Still,” he said, and he opened his ashtray for me to spit my gum into. “What did you have for lunch today?” he asked.
“A bologna sandwich.”
“One or two?”
“An apple,” I lied; no way was I going to tell him about the chocolate-chip cookie or the box of M&M’s.
At practice that day I was chewing on some ice, as my teammates and I often did.
“Is that on your diet?” Coach C. asked me.
“It’s ice!” I snapped, and I swallowed it, though I wanted to spit it at him. I wish I had.
My mother left us when I was four. She packed her suitcases, called a cab, and walked out the door. My father came home from work and found my sister, my baby brother, and me home by ourselves. We all got in his big bed and cried.
Just after I turned nine, my father remarried. Because he left for work early and arrived home late seven days a week, he didn’t realize that our stepmother fed us oatmeal for breakfast and rice for dinner every day, with nothing in between, and kept all food under lock and key. Once, feeling daring, my little brother sneaked several spoonfuls of Coffeemate. He was found out, and his cries echoed through the house.
Our stepmother brought us along for the ride one day while she ran errands. At each stop, we waited in the car silently. On the way home, to our surprise, she offered us a treat — coconut bonbons she’d bought at the five-and-dime. I was starving, but I hated coconut, so I declined. Furious, she stopped the car and grabbed me in a tight headlock. One by one, she forced the entire box of bonbons into my mouth, pushing hard on my throat to make me swallow them, all the while screaming, “If I buy you candy, you will eat candy!”
Finally, she released her grip and wiped my mouth, smiling sweetly. Then she calmly drove home. As I climbed out of the back seat, I looked up at her smiling face and then threw up pink, yellow, and chocolate bonbons all over her shoes.
For most of my childhood, my sister and I were not allowed to eat sugar, processed foods, milk, eggs, or meat. My mom would grind up almonds and make almond milk, which we would pour over homemade granola. I longed for Rice Krispies and Lucky Charms. The dishes she cooked from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest cookbook seemed, to a candy-crazed seven-year-old, less than magical. Elementary-school lunches were a pleasure by comparison. She let us buy lunch once a week. It was so good: peanut butter and jelly on white bread, hamburgers, and cookies. The rest of the time I sat at the long table under the fluorescent lights, drinking soy milk and nibbling at my blue corn chips or all-natural cheese puffs.
Our mother usually supported any interest we had in crafts, so my sister and I decided to make gummy-bear jewelry as a hobby. “It’s the new fashion,” we told her. She fell for it — for a while. Then she noticed how, one by one, the gummy bears disappeared until we were left with bare pieces of wire hanging from our wrists, ears, and necks.
One day at a friend’s house, we went scrounging for candy, looking everywhere: under carpets, beneath couches, in all the nooks and crannies. In her parents’ bedroom we decided to lift up their futon and found, not candy, but dozens of used condoms.
When I was about eight, a country gas station and grocery store opened at the end of our gravel road. During the summer, after our chores, our mother would send us down to the store to buy all-natural fruit popsicles — “Sugar-free and no preservatives,” read the plastic wrapper. Instead, we would save our pennies and nickels and dimes and use them to buy as much candy as we could. On the walk home, we’d stash our candy in the bushes and come back for it later.
Nowadays, I never feel more devious than when I eat French fries, chocolate sundaes, and greasy fast food. My mother, however, has decided of late that the frozen dinners in my refrigerator are less than sinful. Maybe one day we’ll sit down together and bond over a hamburger at Wendy’s.
Boone, North Carolina
Day 1: Easter Sunday. Mom comes through again this year; she sends thirteen and a half ounces of solid milk-chocolate bunny, nearly a pound. I announce loudly that I’m only going to eat the ears, and then I do so with enormous pleasure. Afterward, I hide the rest in my closet.
Day 2. I take two or three bites — big ones — then decide I’m eating it too fast. I resolve to slow down.
Day 3. Today I take one huge, slow bite and savor it, paying close attention to how it feels on my lips, teeth, and tongue.
Day 4. I’m considering throwing the rest away. It no longer even remotely resembles a bunny — just a big, thick slab of chocolate engraved with my teeth marks and discolored by my saliva. I know I’m going to get sick. (I do every year; it’s part of the tradition.) Actually, I’m already feeling pretty awful.
Day 5. My husband, Matt, comes up behind me while I’m gnawing on the block of chocolate, and I flip out: “Don’t come near me when I’m eating my bunny!” Even as the words leave my lips, I realize it’s probably one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever said.
Day 6. No longer even trying to be sneaky, I walk into the bedroom right in front of Matt and head straight for my hiding place. Afterward, I feel like I’m going to throw up, but I don’t.
Day 7. I’m planning a meditation garden in our back yard, and spend quite a bit of time walking around back there. Today I carry my bunny with me and unconsciously nibble on it as I stroll.
Day 8. I read some advice from Krishnamurti: “To give up a habit, one must observe it in detail.” I observe the way I reach into the bottom of my underwear basket and pull out the plastic bag. I watch myself carefully open the bag, pull out a dark brown lump, and bite off a piece as large as my thumb.
Day 9. I bring my treasure with me to the office and eat it while I work, feeling my co-workers’ eyes on my back.
Day 10. I must end this. I decide to throw the hunk of chocolate into the trash, but first I’ll weigh it, so I can boast about how much was left (although it couldn’t be more than an ounce). When the time is right, I take the bunny-thing out and . . . jam it into my mouth.
Vickie Leonard Darnell
On his way over to my house to watch a video, my boyfriend stops at the convenience store next door, where twenty-two-ounce Budweisers are always on sale for ninety-nine cents. Halfway through the movie, he goes to get his second. As he heads downstairs, I almost ask him to get me something sweet, but then I change my mind. I play this little game with myself, not giving in to my craving right away. If I still want candy after he leaves, I will go and get it myself.
As soon as my boyfriend is gone, I am out the door, spare change in hand. At the store, I hover in the candy aisle, picking up candy bars and immediately putting them back down, scanning the bright wrappers hoping to spot the perfect treat — though I know I won’t find it; the convenience-store candy aisle is a land of no surprises. I wonder what the clerk must think of me, this disheveled girl, yawning and rubbing her eyes, coming in just before closing and then standing there forever, as if this were the toughest decision she’s ever made.
Once I’m home with my prize, grabbed in slight desperation as the store closed, I eat it in bed. The chocolate doesn’t quite satisfy me as it should. I think, I could have lived without this.
Susannah J. Felts
When I was fifteen I landed my first part-time job, working at a farm. It got me out of the house, away from the pain. My sister had been killed in a car accident several months earlier, and our home seemed so empty without her.
I sold fruits and vegetables, and watered flowers in the greenhouses. In the winter, I and the other part-timers made Christmas wreaths at a long table stocked with every possible type of ribbon and decoration, then priced them ourselves and hung them by the roadside in the delicately falling snow. I also got to sell Christmas trees on snowy, starlit evenings.
Every winter, the farm closed down from January to March. I dreaded those three months, and wondered what in the world I would do to fill the void. The thought of spending all that time at home was like a nightmare. In early January I stopped by the owner’s house to pick up my last paycheck. The fat, cheerful woman smiled sweetly as she handed me the envelope and my Christmas bonus: a five-pound box of chocolates.
That night, it began to snow, and it didn’t let up for three days. School was canceled, and local residents were told not to drive unless absolutely necessary. It was the Blizzard of ’78. I guess for some people being snowbound was like a cozy vacation, a time to lie around by the fire with the family, playing board games and drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows. But not for me.
I sat alone on the couch and opened my box of chocolates — layer after layer, separated by bubbled white paper. All the chocolates I could ever want: pastel pink ones with coconut inside; custard yellow with smooth fudge filling; light chocolate with caramel; dark chocolate with raspberry crème.
I’d been starving myself since my sister’s funeral, rebelling in my mixed-up teenage way against the adults who told me to “eat something, honey. Life goes on, you know.” I lived on coffee and cigarettes and, if I got to feeling especially faint, the occasional milkshake, though I could never finish a whole one.
Now I sat there eating my chocolates, one after the other. I felt numb, detached, almost high. Every twenty pieces or so, I’d head upstairs to the bathroom and close the door behind me. Then I’d turn on the water faucet to drown out the noise, lean over the toilet bowl, and vomit, hoping if I threw up enough, maybe all the horrible feelings would come up, too — those knots of fear and rage, the sense of abandonment, that heavy, bricklike despair. What a pleasure it would have been to flush all that pain away forever.
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
When I refuse to put sauce on my okonomiyaki (a Japanese pancake), the waitresses look incredulous. Friends implore me to try the special sauce; it’s oishee — tasty. But I genuinely prefer it plain. Whenever I eat chemical-laden, sugary foods, I awake at night with my heart beating strongly and can’t get back to sleep. It took a couple of years of struggle to quit sugar (including honey, maple syrup, and the like), but I can now say that simple and plain is not only easier — it’s better-tasting.
Some people see my diet as bleak and joyless, but they’re wrong. There’s nothing bleak about brown rice with tofu and sesame, or chicken with onions and mushrooms. I have viewed quitting sugar as a liberation of sorts. When I see people needing sodas, as I used to, I feel better off drinking water. Likewise, when a box of chocolates makes the rounds at work, and I’m teased for not wanting any, I want to scream, “You don’t need it! Liberate yourselves!”
Living in Japan has put a particular strain on my diet, as sugar is a major ingredient in Japanese cooking. Last summer, I spent some time with a woman I really liked. When I tried to go beyond friendship, she said she couldn’t envision us ever being together, because I didn’t eat sugar. It was too strange, she said. It would be too much trouble. She insisted this wasn’t just some excuse; it really mattered. While it hurt me at the time, I’m now thankful to have been spared loving a woman who prefers sugar to me.
Returning books to the library at the age of seven, I’m surprised to find the doors open past closing time. I go in and put my books on the counter. As I turn to leave, the janitor surprises me. I recognize him from story hour; he passes out the plates of Oreos. Now he says I can come in and take all the books I want. I think, This is wrong, but then greed gets the better of me; I love to read.
He follows me through the stacks. I am uncomfortable, but I don’t know why. Somehow we end up in the children’s section, and he is kissing me. I feel something hard under my hand. I think maybe it is a knife and he will kill me if I don’t do everything he says.
Then Rosemary appears. Rosemary is in my Girl Scout troop. She is a tall, loud girl with a penchant for brutal honesty: if she thinks your dress is ugly, she’ll tell you; if she thinks you are ugly, she’ll tell you. I’ve never liked her much — until this moment. The janitor tries to get rid of her by giving her some money for the candy machine downstairs. She starts to leave, and I realize this is my last chance. I twist away from him, grab Rosemary’s hand, and pull her down two flights of stairs, terrified that he is following us.
Having no idea what just happened, Rosemary stops at the candy machine. For a moment I am torn between letting her get some candy — she has just saved my life, after all — and the thought that the janitor might be coming to kill me. It’s no contest: I nearly dislocate her arm pulling her away. As we run down the hill, I tell her what happened and swear her to secrecy. Then I run home and tell my parents.
Nothing happened to the janitor; they took his word over mine. (They did transfer him out of the library, though.) Rosemary went home, went to bed, and wouldn’t speak to anyone until I told her it was OK. She was forever after my friend.
K. Elizabeth Patton
Fernandina Beach, Florida
I grew up in Decatur, Georgia, then a dowdy town outside Atlanta. Our street had houses along one side and wild blackberry bushes on the other. I loved to walk to the tiny filling station a half mile away, singing the latest hit tune to myself, waving at passing cars, and fingering the nickel in my pocket — my allowance for the week. At the station I’d watch Tim change a tire, inhale the tangy smell of gasoline, and buy penny packets of sugar flavored with lemon. I’d pour the gritty crystals into my palm and lick them off while I walked home, eating slowly, making it last.
Over time, the blackberry patch across the street gave way to muddy yards and ragged grass and small, boxy homes. Tacky apartment buildings appeared at the top of the hill, and a shopping center was built down the highway. As traffic multiplied, I had to walk facing the oncoming cars and keep a safe distance from the road. Engine noise drowned out my songs, the cars were full of unfamiliar faces, and the filling station had a new, impatient owner. But it still sold the packets of flavored sugar. And I still walked home slowly, licking the crystals from my palm and savoring the sweet-tart taste.
One afternoon, as I sauntered home with my candy, humming “Heartbreak Hotel” and imagining Elvis awaiting me at the bottom of the hill, ready to claim me as his true love, a rusted blue car slowed to a crawl beside me, and a young man with acne on his cheeks leaned out and said, “Hey, sweetheart, wish you’d lick my thing!” I stared at him, startled and flushed and a little afraid. Yet, at the same time, I felt the nipples of my small, new breasts harden. He laughed and honked his horn. I knew I should turn away, ignore him, head for home, but I felt the sweet, slow tug of desire in my belly. I grinned and poked out my tongue, wet and sticky — sweet and tart.
My parents used to fight over candy: my mother thought it was a waste of money, but my father always said, “Growing children need candy.” Every week, he would send two of us kids to the corner store to buy a dollar’s worth of spearmint leaves, sour drops, pinwheels, gum, candy dots on strips of paper, licorice whips, and Mary Janes. When we got home, my father would dump out the candy on the kitchen table and, while we all watched, make ten nearly identical piles. Then, starting with the youngest, we would each pick a pile, even my mother.
Every Christmas, my father insisted that we have ribbon candy in the house, and we always got a pack of gum and a candy bar in our stocking. On Halloween, we weren’t allowed to trade candy but instead had to give everything we didn’t like to my father. He also took all the Milky Ways and put them in the freezer.
My father died when I was thirteen. For lunch every day in high school, I would buy a carton of milk and two peanut-butter cups.
My father wasn’t always a grouch. When my brothers and I were little, he’d throw us up in the air and catch us, and make honking noises when we pressed on his nose. He’d take us to the park and hold our hands and laugh. But as we got older, he worked longer hours, and he became grouchier. It didn’t help that Mom subscribed to the “wait until your father gets home” school of discipline. It was not a happy time of day when Dad came home from work. He’d usually yell and spank one of us, and we’d all cry.
Still, we wanted to love him. One year we decided to buy him something special for his birthday. Dad loved sweets, so we pooled our allowances and bought him a box of chocolate-covered cherries. We wrapped it, hid it behind the hamper in my closet, and waited for his birthday, only a week away.
But Dad couldn’t go a whole week without getting mad about something. Maybe we weren’t practicing our instruments, or maybe one of us hit the other, or left the saw out, or talked back — it could have been any one of a million things. For whatever reason, Dad yelled and spanked us, and we went to my room and cried and pouted and said we hated him, and decided not to give him a birthday present, because he was so mean.
That night we unwrapped the chocolate-covered cherries and ate them all. The candy was sweet, but not nearly as sweet as it would have been to love my father the way I once had.
I grew up in a household where sugar was virtually taboo. My well-meaning parents could sometimes see their way through to letting me have an ice-cream cone or an oatmeal cookie, but these were momentary lapses. By age seven or eight the sweet promise of penny candy called so strongly that I was driven to steal change from the baby sitter. I was finally apprehended when I ventured to steal a whole dollar.
My craving for candy didn’t disappear with age. As an adult, I hid candy in the closet and would sneak it while carrying on a conversation with my husband in the other room. Late-night assaults on the candy aisle of the local supermarket were not uncommon.
Finally, in my midthirties, I stood eating candy one night in the dimly lit pantry and realized that no one else in the house cared that I ate it — I was sneaking candy from myself. After that, I resolved to eat candy whenever and wherever I want.