I was in the first grade when I brought the picture to show and tell
. It was a photograph of my father and another man standing behind a table with a huge mound of cash. My father was a lobbyist
for the state retail federation and the half a million in small bills represented the damage done by shoplifters every day in Minnesota
. I didn't understand what a lobbyist was but it was a cool picture and it made my father look awfully important.
He developed a campaign called S.T.E.M., Shoplifting Takes Everybody's Money, to call attention to the cost of petty theft to the consumer. It was a high profile endeavor and it resulted in my father being named one of the state's ten outstanding young men that year. It was, by terrible chance, about the same time that I was caught shoplifting.
I wasn't a happy little kid. My first sentient moments coincided with the melt down of my parent's marriage so every memory of early childhood has yelling in the background. My siblings and I were shielded from the fray for the most part but the muffled arguments made their way through the walls of my bedroom at night. At the age of six or seven mom and dad were at the center of my little world and the discord between them devastated me. I covered my head with the pillow but the echo of the bitter exchanges persisted.
One night I discovered that I could stop the arguments simply by making the scene. I'd wander into the living room in my pajamas and tell my mom I couldn't sleep and the debate would be quieted. I know now that she was relieved for the break in the battle when she comforted me and asked me if I thought some cocoa would help. As an adult I understand the terrible swirl of emotions in a spousal dispute but as a child I thought that if the bickering stopped everything would be all right.
She'd make me hot chocolate the old fashioned way, with powdered cocoa, sugar and milk. The preparation required standing over the stove and stirring the pot continuously to avoid scalding the milk, so the process happily separated the combatants long enough for tempers to cool. I'd linger over my cocoa as long as I possibly could.
My childish attempt at conflict resolution was inadequate and my parents ultimately found their way to divorce.
I had seven cents exactly in my hand, a nickel and two pennies. The grocery store was about ten blocks from our house and I held the sweaty coins in a death grip
the entire way. At the time, a penny would buy more than one piece of candy so great sacrifices were made in accumulating such a sum but I was driven. The packets of Swiss Miss
instant cocoa were in aisle four, next to the Ovaltine
, and they cost exactly seven cents each.
I cannot convey the hollowness I felt when I reached the instant beverage aisle and found that they had raised the price to eight cents. The commercials for the cocoa haunt a little corner of my mind to this day and remind me of my mother and the comforts she offered. A gentle maiden's voice sings "Swiss Miss instant cocoa will warm you up inside."
I looked at the nickel and two pennies in my hand and then at the price below the box of cocoa packets a half a dozen times before I finally grabbed one of the packets and stuffed it clumsily into my pocket. As I did so I fumbled the coins in my other hand and they scattered onto the linoleum aisle. I nervously collected them and made a hasty dash for the exit.
The store manager grabbed the back of my collar as I was walking through the second set of doors. He told me that he saw what I had done and that I was in a lot of trouble. How could this be? I looked both ways before I snatched the cocoa and was sure there was nobody in sight. I made a feeble denial and the manager told me that they had me on film. He asked me for my telephone number so he could call my parents to come and get me.
I think about that grocery store manager sometimes, decades later and wonder if he ever fully recovered from my wailing display. All of the sorrow over my mother's absence and the shame of my crime and the angst over the arbitrary price of cocoa fused into a storm of vocal grief. I literally spewed tears and mucus at the thought of my father finding out what I had done. He was, at that very moment riding the crest of a campaign to curb shoplifting and the embarrassment it would cause would be total.
The good news is that the store manager saw my willingness to pay yesterday's price for the cocoa as a mitigating factor and my pathetic theatrics pushed him over the edge. He let me off the hook with a stern warning and sold me the packet of cocoa for seven cents.
My secret is safe to this day unless my father reads this.