We thought nothing special of her at the time, as is the way of little kids, who’ve not yet seen how few and far apart are the genuinely heartfelt kindnesses of the world. We boys would be playing in the park or catching lizards, frogs and snakes, or chasing girls, or getting into whatever of the many forms of mischief we could manage, when one of us would pause, jingle his pocket pennies and say “Let’s go to Mary Myer’s!”
Mary lived in a house just down the street on the opposite side from the flower lady. There were a lot of such ladies who lived alone after the war. Mary’s was a regular house on the block, nothing special outside, no sign, nothing to hint of the cornucopia that awaited inside in the form of all the penny candy varieties that could be yours if you just walked down the empty concrete driveway and opened the wooden door on the side of the house at the back, went in and climbed the 2 or 3 steps to the inner door that was always open and waiting. That was the door to Mary Myers’ pantry, a kids’ version of heaven in the neighborhood.
Mary was the very image of her role in presiding over the sweet delights of all the neighborhood kids. A pleasant woman with granny glasses and graying hair, she was the greatest exemplar of patience I’ve ever seen: she was our Empress of Penny Candy. As befit that title, Mary was up to date on all the latest in sweet treats and tricks from around the civilized world, from bubble gum cigars and red wax lips (and mustaches) to jaw breakers with a coriander seed at the center that you’d reach after a few pleasantly exhausting hours.
We’d stand there for long times, eager eyes roving over the many dozens of tasty items laid out invitingly in that tiny room, on shelves that rose to a heaven only Mary could reach. We took our time, jingling our pennies in anticipation, pondering the meaning of our growing universe as expressed in the form of (all honorifics must be capitalized) Candy Buttons (on paper strips), BB Bats, Kits, Mary Janes, Marshmallow Peanuts, Mexican Hats, Root Beer Barrels, Maple Cremes, Popcorn Squares, Chocolate Babies, Sour Balls, Red and Black Licorice sticks, Peppermint Sticks and Whirls, Red Hot Dollars, Bolsters, Orange Wax Whistles, Candy Cigarettes, Fireballs, Spearmint Leaves, Tootsie rolls, Orange Slices, Nonpareils, Wax Soda Bottles, Bazooka Bubble Gum (and that arch-competitor Dubble-Bubble), Licorice Pipes and the many other penny candies that are enshrined up there in the Penny Candy Hall of Fame.
When one of us had at last made his mind up about an item, Mary would place the carefully chosen choice into that kid’s little paper bag among the many other little paper bags she held in one hand, one bag for each of us, while keeping track of all the 1-cent, 1-, 2-, 3- or 4-for-1-cent and 2-cent items in each bag and answering fastfire questions about prices and new stuff.
Sometimes there were 6 or 7 or even more of us crowded into that small space (not counting Mary), noisy with shared delight and the exchange of valuable information on the flavor, texture, duration, function, general value etc. of various items – all the high-tech candy parameters – each of us with anywhere from 2 to 12 cents to spend (what a rich day was a 12-cent day!) so we’d take longer than bankers to decide, till at last we’d choose, then often unchoose – then rechoose – without a thought for Mary standing there waiting.
Or we’d ask her questions or for a glass of water and then all go into Mary’s kitchen, Mary as patient and smiling as any of the highest saints, for saint she was and full of grace, and brought many sweet blessings upon us. She was our special mother in that neighborhood.
She’d stand for what must’ve been hours each day as our variously raucous hordes descended upon her home and interrupted whatever she was doing at the moment; she’d hover there among us with that Mary smile upon her face, all the more remarkable as I look back from all the world I’ve seen since.
That was in the late forties and early fifties. Many years later, long after we’d moved away and after I’d graduated from college, one of my new buddies happened to have also grown up in that neighborhood – though for some reason we’d never met when we were kids – and one day when our reminiscences turned to the old neighborhood, we both lit up at the name of Mary Myers and set off to visit those streets of long ago. On our walk, we strolled up the old familiar driveway, opened the old door—and Mary Myers was still there! Of course she remembered us. We bought some penny candy and talked about old times.
As all the paths of my subsequent life have led in other directions, I haven’t been back to the old neighborhood in the 35 years since that day. So from all this time away, thank you, Mary, from us all, for your candy store and all those lovingly presented choices, but far moreso for all those even sweeter and longerlasting memories of kindness.
The delight of your little store is with me even now.