Have you ever been the victim of a crime? If you haven’t been, you are most likely the “exception to the rule”. Crime seems to be running rampant in our nation. Crime also runs the spectrum of severity. There are crimes that are non-violent, as well as ones that are, sadly, very violent. Crime is something no one ever wants to be a victim of. Even more so, no self-respecting person ever wants to be regarded as a criminal. But if you think about it, to some extent, we are all probably criminals, mostly void of “intent to commit” a crime. Have you ever received a speeding ticket or traffic violation? If you speed, you violate the law. If you break the law, you are committing a crime. If you commit a crime, aren’t you a criminal? I guess we are all together in that high-membership club. But as we grow from childhood to adulthood, we learn along the way lessons of honesty that serve to keep us out of trouble. I remember very well the first lesson my parents ever taught me about taking things that didn’t belong to me.
I was raised in a small town in the Midwest. It was one of those towns with a Main Street, “Division Avenue”, frequented by local shoppers, long before shopping malls ever came into being. Most everyone in the community knew everyone else. On that main street was a “Five and Dime” store, much like a “Ben Franklin”, if you are old enough to remember those. A married couple that my family knew very well owned and operated the business. It was stacked floor-to-ceiling with every oddity and household need you could imagine. As a seven-year-old child roaming those narrow, brightly colored store aisles, it was very magical. And, it certainly was a tempting setting to see things you wanted.
I was there one morning with my mother, who was paying for some items at the store counter. As the cash register was making mechanical sounds until the final dinging that signaled the cash drawer sliding open, my eyes fixed on a candy-bar display. Open candy bar boxes were lined in perfect rows. The five-cent candy bars were at eyes-level and within reach. I took a Hershey bar in-hand and held it down to my side as Mom took her shopping bag, and said goodbye to Ruby Rushing, the store co-owner. Ruby was a smiling lady with dark, curly hair. I remember her as always enthusiastically chewing gum, with her bifocals slid forward on her nose, a chain around her neck to always keep track of her glasses. We walked out the door and down the street toward our car. Mom started the car and soon we were home.
As I stepped from the car, I held up my illegal-gain, chocolate prize, ready to open and enjoy it. Mom saw me and stopped. She said to me, “Where did you get that candy bar?” I didn’t answer her. I could tell by the look on her face that I was already in big trouble. I’m sure you remember that look from your parents. It was a combination of anger and disbelief that reaches into the depths of your immature conscience when you know you’ve been caught doing something wrong. “Did you take that from the Dime Store?” I replied with guilt written across my face, “Yes Mam”. She grabbed me by the collar of my shirt and pulled me back to the car as she reached for the door to open. “In the car young man”, she said. “We’re going to fix this right now!”
The ride was a silent one as Mom parked the car in the open parking space directly in front of the Dime Store. She opened the car door, drew me out by my now stretched shirt collar, and said, “Into the store, NOW!” Ruby was behind the counter and smiled at us as we entered. She asked if we had forgotten something. My mother looked at me and sternly said, “Tell her!” Tears welled-up in my eyes and started streaming from my cheeks as I held up the candy bar and sobbed my confession to Ruby. At first, I couldn’t speak, only cry. Mom kneeled to look directly to my eyes and said something that has stayed with me my entire life as one of the most important lessons I have ever learned. “What you did created this mess. Now, you have to fix it”. Gulping for air, I held the candy bar higher, told her I took it, and apologized. Ruby smiled and told me she appreciated me bringing it back and being honest with here. Then my mother lowered the second boom to make sure I learned the lesson. She asked where “Floyd” was, and if he could come to the front of the store.
Floyd was Ruby’s husband, and co-owner of the Dime Store. “You stole from him too. You owe him an apology”. From the top of her lungs Ruby yelled, “Floyd… Will you come up here a minute please?” As I stood waiting for Floyd to appear, I noticed a few other adults nearby, towering over me. They were standing quietly, a few feet away, watching, with smiles on their faces. What were they smiling about? Nothing about this was funny to me at all!
Floyd was an elderly gentleman. He approached us, stooping slightly, with his silver-gray hair combed back, wearing dark-rimmed glasses resting forward on his nose. He smiled and said hello to my mother, then looked to me, holding out his hand for me to shake it. “Tell him what you did and apologize to Mr. Rushing,” my mother said. The apology was repeated with more flowing tears and me gulping for breaths of needed air. He thanked me and shook my hand, saying he was sure it would never happen again. It never did.
As we left the store my Mom was silent. As we sat in the car I remember clearly, looking to my mother and saying, “Is it all fixed now, Mom?” Her reply brought up a consequence I had failed to even think of. “It will be fine…when you explain all this to your father”. “Father” …That was like a nail in my confession coffin. She never called him my “Father” unless I was in big trouble for something. I took care of that confession later that same afternoon, after being told by Mom when we arrived home to go sit in my room and think about what I had done. Dad watched as I walked by him, heading into my room. We spoke a few hours later. He sat quietly as I told him everything. Then he stood and said, “You made a bad mistake. I never want to ever hear of you doing anything like that again. You disappointed me and your mother by taking something that didn’t belong to you, but you made me proud by fixing the mistake you made. Don’t disappoint me and your mother that way ever again”. He walked away. The trauma of my day was over, but the memory and lesson would stay with me forever. I returned many times during my lifetime to Rushing’s Dime Store. The first Christmas presents I ever bought for the family when I was age 10, I put in “layaway” thereafter both Floyd and Ruby helped me pick the gifts. I faithfully made weekly payments for about six months until the $25 I spent on gifts was paid-off for me to bring them home to wrap. I’ve never been prouder of any gifts I’ve ever given anyone since. Floyd and Ruby often kidded me about the candy bar incident as I grew older. They remembered it fondly. Sadly, their store and both of them are no longer a part of my hometown. They are only fond memories.
We need a lot more parents like my Mom and Dad, and a lot more store owners like the Rushings. Many young people today don’t grow up with nearly as much caring, supervision, guidance, and love as I did. My bet is that if you are reading this, you are probably much like my mother and father were, and would have handled the situation in much the same way. I like to think that among the parenting-experience, mistakes I have made there have been shining moments like this one. I’ve tried to teach my own children, and now my grandchildren, about honesty and integrity. I’m fortunate I wasn’t allowed to lose mine over a five-cent candy bar back in 1957. One of the earliest lessons in life learned by everyone is that life is a series of decisions you make and the consequences of those decisions. Young people tend to think less about consequences than older, mature people. They live more in the present, thinking the distant future need not be worried about now. Parents and grandparents bear the scars of past, bad decisions. We do all in our power to make those we love to think about their decisions and consequences, to help them possibly avoid making the same mistakes we have in life and avoid bad consequences. We want them to plan, think, and act now, to deal with the present, and also prepare for the future.
You can’t plan for retirement needs when it’s time to retire. Those retirement protections need to be put in place when you are much younger, to best enjoy retirement years, and be able to afford those candy bars that have risen in price from a nickel to $1.50! Your children and grandchildren can benefit from your lifetime of lessons, mistakes, and great successes! Continue to be those kinds of parents and grandparents with your family members now. They will never get too old to need that from you. There is much out there that is evil today in the world trying to take everything you love away from you. Be their weapon in their everyday fight of making good choices, with the best consequences! No one in the family has more experience, or is better at providing that kind of love and guidance than you!