Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Gift of Understanding

I was cleaning up our storage room last week and I managed to dig up some old textbooks which my mom has kept and stubbornly refuse to throw away.

A lot of memories came to mind when I saw the old pile of books. It seemed like I was instantly transported back to a time when big problems didn't seem to exist and the only things that occupied my then world was video games, tv shows and homework.

One textbook I opened was the one we used in English for our Reading class. It was full of short stories. One of the stories it featured was one written by Paul Villiard entitled "The Gift of Understanding". I read it again and this time, now that I've matured enough, I fully understand the impact the story communicated. I will post the text here to share with you all the beautiful story.

The Gift of Understanding
By: Paul Villiard

I must have been around four years old when I first entered Mr. Wigden’s candy shop, but the smell of that wonderful world of penny treasures still comes back to me clearly more than a half-century later. Whenever he heard the tiny tinkle of bell attached to the front door, Mr. Wigden quietly appeared, to take his stand behind the candy case. 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 savored 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 sack. Perhaps another kind would taste better? Or last longer? Mr. Wigden had a trick of scooping your selection into the sack, 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 sack irrevocably twisted shut and the moment of indecision ended.

Our house was two streets from the streetcar line, and you had to pass the shop going to and from the cars. Mother had taken me into town on some forgotten errand, and as we walked home from the trolley Mother 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 with him for a few minutes as I gazed rapturously at the display before my eyes. Finally Mother picked out something for me and paid Mr. Wigden.

When I was six or seven years old my family moved to a new community where I grew up, eventually married an established my own family. My wife and I opened a shop where we bred and sold exotic fish. The aquarium trade was then still in its infancy, and most of the fish were imported directly from Asia, Africa and South America. Few species sold for less than five dollars 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 old 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 traveling 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 duped three very small coins.

At that instant I sensed the full impact of the legacy Mr. Wigden gad given me so many years before. Only now did I recognize the challenge I had presented the old man, and realize how wonderfully he had met it.

I seemed to be standing again in the little candy 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, somehow, over the lump in my throat. “You have some change coming.” I rummaged around in the cash drawer, dropped two pennies into her open hand, then stood in the doorway watching the children go down the walk carefully carrying their treasure.

When I turned 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. “Mind telling me what that was all about?” she asked. “Do you know how many fish you gave them?”

“About 30dollars’ worth,” I answered, the lump still in my throat. “But I couldn’t have done anything else.”

When I’d 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 swabbed down the last tank.