Twanna Barrett Permenter
Who knew that childhood experiences could come back around to you in the most unexpected ways? Some years ago, at forty-four, I bought my first house on a short narrow street in northwest D.C. It was a small, orange house that sat on the edge of an ally. The neighborhood was going through re-gentrification, and I was very proud of myself for finally achieving a lifetime goal that seemed to take forever coming. The neighborhood was quiet and uneventful at first, and I had visions of the dinner parties I would give in my formal dining room and the flower beds I would plant in my yards.
Eventually, the people who bought the newly built townhouses across the street started renting them out. One of the families renting had five kids and one on the way. Well, there went the peace and quiet. Bébé’s kids, as I started to call them, reminiscent of an old animated movie by the same name, would be out playing all day long. They would be playing in the streets along with other newly arrived kids on the block well past what I thought was an inappropriate time. Children should be in bed, or at least in the house getting ready for bed by 9 p.m. I was just a bit ticked off by all of the commotion they brought to the neighborhood. One of my neighbors went as far as to call the police on them. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one annoyed by all the noise and commotion.
One Saturday morning while I was working in my front yard, one of BéBé’s kids, a little girl with her hair all a mess, looking a bit frail and dirty, came up to me and asked if I had any candy that I could give her. I couldn’t believe the nerve, the audacity of this child to ask for candy from a complete stranger. That was the same as begging, and begging was definitely a no-no in my book. I looked at her with disbelief and told her in my best restrained pompous voice, “I do not!” I wanted my tone of voice to inform her that it was improper for her to come to a stranger asking for stuff, begging. She didn’t know me, nor had I ever offered her candy. Why would she expect me to have candy to give to her was beyond me. She couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, yet I was impressed with her fearlessness, her boldness. Her older sister had been asking me for a dollar whenever she saw me pull up on her side of the street, and now this. This little girl would not let it go. She wanted to know why I didn’t have any candy as if that was unbelievable. I didn’t know why I cared, maybe because I was mildly impressed, so I indulged her. I answered her question, “I just don’t keep candy around in my home.” I took the time to learn that her name was Sheba, at least that’s how I remember it. She turned and walked away and carried on with her activities as if the conversation never occurred. For her, our interaction that day was probably insignificant. But it stuck with me for the rest of the day.
Some weeks later, I remember it being August, I drove up and parked a few parking spaces away from Sheba’s house. There were a bunch of kids outside playing, making a ton of noise, and blocking the street as usual. After parking, I became pre-occupied with something in the car when I looked in the rear-view mirror and saw Sheba coming my way. This time, she was clean with a pretty dress on, and her hair combed neatly. Well, this was not the time to be asking me for anything, I was busy doing whatever. I pretended not to see her and even slouched down in my seat a little hoping that she would keep walking. Too late, she had already seen me and knocked on the window. I rolled the window down and was prepared to tell her, No, I don’t have anything to give you. Instead, she shoved her hand inside the car with a plastic bag in it. When I took the bag and looked inside, it was full of candy, all kinds of candy. Sheba told me that it was her birthday and she had gotten lots of candy. She remembered that I didn’t have any, so she bagged up some to give to me. Oh, my, God, did this child just offer to share her birthday candy with me, the snobbish, selfish old lady across the street? I was moved that Sheba wanted to share her gift with me. I managed to maintain my composure long enough to thank her, wish her a Happy Birthday, and compliment her on how very nice she looked. Sheba explained that her grandmother had given her the new outfit for her birthday and then turned and walked back to her party on the front steps of her house. It was her day, and she was basking in it.
The significance of what just happened filled me with tears of shame. Her generosity had melted my heart. I felt so humbled by this little girl who has just taught me a valuable lesson in compassion, sharing, generosity, acceptance, and abundance, all in one gesture of kindness. I sat in my living room and cried and prayed for that little girl and thanked God for this angel that was sent into my life to open my eyes and soften my heart. Who was I, to think myself better than anyone else, especially a child? And why couldn’t I give candy to a small child, if I had any? Candy for a child was a small thing to offer, and I certainly could afford to buy a couple of bags of inexpensive candy from time to time. I kept the candy that Sheba gave me that day in my car and over time ate every single piece of it.
The next day I went out and bought Sheba a birthday gift. When I went to deliver it, her mom was quick to inform me that she had another child, Sheba’s younger sister, with a birthday in August as well. Really? I also bought several bags of candy to keep in a special bowl on the T.V. cabinet. I thought of this bowl as my modern-day candy dish, reminiscent of Aunt Louise and her friend that I called the ‘candy lady.’ I explained to Sheba’s Mom that I had bought candy to give to the children from time to time but wondered if she wanted to keep it and dispense it herself. Sheba quickly interjected, “No, you should keep it because Momma would just eat it all.” Well, with that awkward moment hanging in the air, her Mom gave her permission for me to manage the dispensing of the candy. I went back to the store again and got Sheba’s younger sister a birthday gift as well. I couldn’t let her feel left out.
The following year my daughter gave me a tea party for Mother’s Day. She invited several of our friends and their moms. Sheba, her sisters, and brother were fascinated with all of the traffic at my house that day, The tables were dressed for high tea. They stood at my gate staring so I invited them in and served them flavored tea and cookies in my favorite English tea set. I don’t think they knew what to make of it all. Over time Sheba and I gradually developed a friendship.
Late one evening some child unknown to me knocked on my door and asked me if I was the Candy Lady. WOW! I have a reputation now. The memory of the Candy Lady from my childhood came rushing back to me. Yes, I thought. I guess I could be the candy lady. I was not offended by the title at all. Someone that I admired had once held this title and now, time has brought that experience back around full circle, and it was my turn to return the favor to the universe, to bring a little piece of happiness to some child as the Candy Lady. I could no longer say no to such a small request. So, with a few boundaries established, I accepted my role. This opportunity literally knocked on my door and presented itself to me. It was my turn to perform small kindness.
I continued to give candy out to Sheba and her family, and all of their neighborhood friends until they moved away the next year. I never saw her again. I had grown to admire this little person who was so spunky and brave, strong-willed, unashamed, and generous. She seemed to stand out from her siblings and the confidence that she exuded let me know that she would do well in life. This bond that was forged between Sheba and I also made it easier for the Mom to approach me one day when she needed help after a snowstorm. I don’t think she would have found me approachable if her daughter had not paved the way and graciously warmed my heart.
Some months after they moved, Sheba’s older sister stopped by my house to say hello. She didn’t come in but was in the neighborhood and remembered me. I was flattered that I had left a positive enough impression on this teenager for her to take the time to stop and say hello like I used to do with Aunt Louise. This was the type of impact I wanted to leave on people’s minds instead of one of a snobbish, cranky old lady.
I learned from this experience that the opportunity to be kind to others can present itself in the most unexpected ways. This experience for me wasn’t about just giving candy to neighborhood children. The child who sparked this event was obviously from a family with more needs than they could supply. Some would call that being “underprivileged,” but I know that being “privileged” or not, is a matter of perspective. Sheba had shown me more class than some children I’ve encountered from so-called “privileged” families.
I learned an old lesson over again; everything you say and do does matter. Our words and actions ripple out to all in our path and ultimately, life. One day I hope each one of those kids will pay it forward by being kind to others whenever the opportunity arises as I will continue to do.