Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A Little Taste of Heaven - A Short Story From My Childhood

April 12, 2018 - 10:30 am ET
By Rich Weissman, Palm Springs, California (www.richweissman.com)

“Mommy, can I really have anything I want and as much as I want in the candy store?”

For a three-year old boy, this was paradise. I had just been told by the couple who owned the local candy story in Queens, New York that they wanted me to pick out any candy I wanted. My mother nodded “yes.” I began to search through the shelves of candy for the perfect combination of sweets, all under the loving gaze from the store’s owners. They watched as I looked at each shelf, picking up an item and then putting it down, thinking there might be something even better if I looked further. My mother chatted with them. Although I didn’t know these people, my mother spoke with them on familiar terms, and it was clear that she knew this couple before our visit to the shop that day. I paid no attention to their conversation as I was far too engaged in the search for the perfect combination of goodies to take home.

At one point, I looked up, noticing that the couple and my mother were watching me. They all smiled in unison. “Take whatever you want, sweetheart,” the woman said. “Yes, whatever you want,” repeated the man. Their faces were glowing and could not hide the joy they felt in watching me thoughtfully make my selections. “Take your time; there’s no rush,” the woman added. The couple continued chatting with my mother as I went further down the aisle examining the contents displayed so deliciously on each shelf. Finally, I selected the perfect delicacies and brought them up to the couple. They exclaimed that I had chosen a fine assortment of treats, and they seemed genuinely delighted by my glee. They were an older couple, or at least according to my three-year old perspective. Their faces had a worn look, but their smiles were loving. These were nice people, and I found their generosity towards me comforting. Like a kid in a candy store, only this was the real thing.

They put my treats in a bag, and the woman reached out with her hand and cupped my chin. She turned to my mother. “What a sweet little boy.” She then said something in Yiddish. I was used to that. At family gatherings half of the conversations were in English and the other half in Yiddish. I could pick up some phrases and words. I understood that the woman had said “he should live and be well, such a sweet Jewish boy.” My mother thanked her. And then the man asked my mother if we would be back next week. “Of course,” my mother replied. The man looked at me and said, “Then you will have all week to think about what special candies you’ll want next time.” My eyes opened wide, amazed at the thought that this week’s trip was to be repeated.

My mother and I left the store. She spoke briefly about the couple – what lovely people they were and how I was always welcome in their shop and could have as much candy as I wanted. I could not believe my ears, and I began to survey the shop goodies in my mind, thinking about which candies I would select at the next trip. 

For the following year we would go back to the candy shop each week. My mother and the couple would chat, and I would spend my time slowly walking down the aisle, looking at the shelves, selecting the perfect set of treats for the week. Over time, they would engage more with me, asking questions about my week. They would nod their heads as I spoke and laugh at some of the things I would say. And always, I would end our time together with a bag of goodies. I can still see their faces, and most of all, their smiles as I would search the aisle for my candy prizes.

Then one day, my mother and I went to the shop, and she told them that we were moving. My parents had purchased their first house – on Long Island. The couple was so excited for my mother. “How wonderful! And your little boy will have a yard where he can play,” the woman said. My mother told her that we would get a cat and a dog. The couple was overjoyed. Although we would no longer have our weekly visits, they we so thrilled for us. They took the news well. We hugged, they kissed me, and we left with our final bag of candy.

As we walked home, I told my mother that I would miss them and the weekly visits, not to mention all the candy. They had been so generous, giving so much. I questioned why they were so kind to me all this time. My mother quietly explained. She began by asking me if I had noticed the numbers tattooed on their arms. I did notice, and I had seen those before on other people. She explained what those numbers meant.

I had heard of some of the horrors that my family and others had recently endured in Europe. At family gatherings, people would talk about “the war,” concentration camps, and other unimaginable atrocities well beyond my grasp at the time. And, of course, who survived and who didn’t. I knew that many people were killed, although the number six million was beyond comprehension at my young age. My mother explained that the couple had been in a concentration camp and that their children, along with the rest of their family, had all been murdered by the Nazis. And, the woman was no longer able to have children. I later came to understand that she had been part of the experimentations in which her reproductive system was destroyed. My mother continued. After the war, they came to America and opened the candy store. She said that nothing brought them more joy than to see little Jewish children come into the store and enjoy the experience of selecting some goodies. My mother said that I was not the only Jewish child with whom they share the sweets, and that they looked forward each week to many of the children’s visits, including mine. My mother explained that I was the one who was giving them joy, not the other way around. These visits weren’t about getting candy, they were about giving a moment of time with a happy Jewish child for this couple to savor. The gift wasn’t the bag of sweets for me; I was the gift for them – my happiness, my delight in selecting my weekly treasure, and my time with them. That was the gift. Although I was only four at that time, I had some level of understanding.

The years went by, and from time-to-time I have thought about the couple who owned the candy store. I regret that I did not ask my mother for their names, as I have long forgotten. I should have visited them. I should have told them that from the misery of their holocaust experiences and loss, that people like me carry the torch and will not allow the world to forget. I should have learned the names of their children who perished at the hands of those vile creatures called Nazis. I should have told them that I have two daughters, and that they, too will carry on for our people. But I didn’t.

I haven’t thought about the candy store for many years, but it came to consciousness last night while talking with a friend about my childhood as Jew, born shortly after “the war,” and the current evil environment of increased anti-Semitism and Nazism in America with the rise of Trumpism. I wish I believed in an afterlife – knowing that this wonderful couple is now finally, peacefully with their family and their children in some restful celestial place. But like most Jews, I don’t believe that. Instead, I know that these two human beings touched me and other Jewish children in their candy store, and that beautiful legacy lives on. The memories of the bags of weekly candy is all that remains. They live in my heart and I’m sure in the hearts of others who visited the shop each week, bringing joy to this wonderful couple who simply wanted and deserved to hear the voices and laughter, and see the excited faces, of happy children. No cosmic justice, no sacred rewards, no divine happily-ever-after. Instead, their heaven was in watching little Jewish children relish in the simple act of joyfully selecting candy.