Five Candy Bars and a Bite of Susan: Sin is Real.
Even as a child, honesty did not come naturally to me. From my earliest years, I had a tenuous relationship with reality. One of the punishments my mother whipped out only when circumstances seemed to her very dire was putting soap in our mouths. The few times I was sentenced to holding a piece of Fels-Naptha soap on my tongue were the result of lies that I told, usually lies that were completely optional. I was also a bit of a sneak. Some psychologists claim that lying and sneakiness are survival techniques developed by people who are powerless; perhaps that explanation accounts for my creative relationship with the truth, but Original Sin may have played a role, too. Whatever the cause, it seemed to me that lying had been my “go-to” strategy as far back as I could remember, despite overwhelming evidence that it was not a winning strategy for me. My first memory of getting into trouble involved telling a lie, and it wasn’t even a lie; it was a botched truth. I was a consistently terrible liar. Yet I kept doing it, a startling example of my stoic inability to learn from my mistakes. Albert Einstein defines insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results; according to Mr. Einstein, I was a three year old lunatic. My first lie revealed me as someone living in the worst of all possible worlds: not only was I willingly deceitful—I didn’t do it well. My first lie was a sorry attempt to escape certain punishment for something I did that I knew, even in the doing of it, was wrong.
My sister Susan and I were laying on our living room floor in Park Forest, Illinois, watching television. We were watching a comedy show featuring, I believe, someone named Andy Gump. I was three years old, which meant that Susan was eight. At some point in the program, Susan began to laugh heartily at whatever Mr. Gump was doing on the screen, but I didn’t understand why it was funny. I was watching the same scene, but I didn’t get the joke. Even at the age of three, I was utterly infuriated that this jolly moment of mirth was available to my sister but not to me. It struck me as deeply unfair, and I decided that if Anne isn’t laughing, then no one is laughing—sort of like a three-year-old Irish version of a Mafia Don.
I told Susan in no uncertain terms to stop laughing right now. Yet, Susan refused to stop laughing. She just kept right on going, and her hearty “Ha-Ha-Ha’s” so enraged me that I leaned over and bit her on the thigh. Hard. I drew blood; I can still recall the sight of little dots of Susan’s blood welling up where my tooth marks were. Those little dots of blood appearing out of nowhere intrigued me, and now that Susan was no longer laughing, I felt calmer. Susan, on the other hand, felt a good deal worse than she had just a moment before, and she howled. My mother came running, and when she saw a perfect semi-circle of blood shaped just like my three-year-old mouth, she yelled at me, “What did you do?” At three, I was still working out the details of language and what various word combinations meant. In response to my mother’s question, I wanted to say, “I did it by mistake,” because I was actively trying to get away with the bloody deed. Confused by the intricacies of phrasing, though, I got it exactly wrong and accidentally told the truth: “I did it on purpose.” The moment I said it, the expression on my mother’s face immediately told me that I had used the wrong words, as did the slap that followed. I had accidentally told the truth.
Fast forward two years, to our new home in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. One afternoon while my siblings were all in school, my mother announced that she was going to take a nap. This was a very unusual occurrence; in fact, I can’t remember even one other time when my mother napped during the day. Perhaps because I sensed this was new territory altogether and the laws of the universe might just have changed, I tested the waters by asking her if I could have a candy bar. My mother said yes, which proved to me that all bets were off for this particular day. A napping mother agreeing to random candy bars? We were off the map.
Even though I was only five, I could tell when I asked my mother for a candy bar that she assumed I was asking to eat a candy bar on the premises. Every now and then we did have a Milky Way in the freezer or a Hershey Bar with Almonds in the cookie cabinet. On that particular day, I neglected to mention to my mother that I was planning to obtain my own supply of candy bars from the drugstore across the street. Wacky as this “Napping Mom” universe was, there was no way my mother would ever have agreed to let her five year old daughter cross a busy street and purchase food on her own.
Nonetheless, her “permission” secured, I took a quarter out of my piggy bank and walked, all alone, to Hayward’s Drug Store, where I purchased not one, but five candy bars. (In the early 1960’s, candy bars were five cents apiece and they were either the same size as, or slightly bigger than, today’s candy bars.) The fact that I chose to buy not one but five candy bars in one trip didn’t trouble me in the slightest. In an attitude that would continue to bubble up throughout my life, I decided that if one candy bar is good, then five candy bars is a truly great thing. I pointed out the chosen bars to Randy, the Hayward’s clerk, and was deeply thrilled to see him choose the candy and put all of it into a brown paper bag. Happily imagining an afternoon of Candy Bar Heaven, I brought my bounty home with plans for a sugar-laced feast.
By the time I got back home, however, the laws of the universe had righted themselves. My mother was upright and back on task, and she was very unhappy to see my five year old self walking upstairs, carefully holding five candy bars. I didn’t even make it all the way up the stairs; taking in the scene before her, my mother ordered me to turn around, and she marched me right back to Hayward’s. None too pleased with an establishment that would sell a five year old a lap full of candy bars with no mother in sight, my mother accosted Randy and asked him what on earth he was thinking. Randy received a thorough scolding as my mother plopped all five bars down on the counter and demanded my quarter back.
This day surely could not have been a highlight of Randy’s life; he worked as the clerk at Hayward’s Drugstore for years, nearly always getting stuck behind the “penny candy” counter. Loathing used to seethe from his every pore as he stood there, an adult male, while legions of small children studied the shelves and gave him orders: “One piece of licorice, no not black, red—one chocolate kiss—one pixy stick—one sheet of candy buttons”—and on and on. How he must have hated his life in those moments. It was clear at all times that he was none too fond of children in general and especially us. I don’t think Randy was ever going to be a kind, avuncular presence in our childhood lives, but being dressed down by my mother didn’t help matters.
Later on in my life, I would sometimes hear people scoffing at the Catholic idea of Confession for children, saying that it was absurd to think that a child could sin. At such moments, I would just shake my head. I knew exactly what I was doing when I tried to lie about biting my sister for daring to be amused at something I didn’t understand. Two years after the Biting Incident in the Candy Bar Caper, I knew I was doing something that my mother had neither sanctioned nor approved. Walking over to Hayward’s Drugstore that day with my quarter clasped in my sweaty little hand, I felt excited. I felt anticipatory. I felt nervous. What I did not feel was innocent.