PHOTO COURTESY PEXELS
There are few things as unifying as a child’s primal drive to find and consume sugar and even decades after our childhood days are long gone, the topic of candy has the power to bring an entire eclectic group into the conversation.
So it was at a wake last weekend for a neighbour, the mother of a family I had grown up with who had recently passed after decades of smoking. We gathered at her home after the funeral parlour to support her son, talk, laugh, drink wine, and rehash the shared childhood memories, many of which centred around the corner store.
It was a regular pilgrimage for me to schlep down to Dépanneur l’Écuyer to purchase cigarettes for my neighbours back in the days when smoking was considered a benign pastime. For my troubles, I’d be allowed to keep a dime to spend on candy and while it may not sound like much by today’s standards, in the days of two-for-a-penny candy fixes, it wasn’t bad. And if more than one neighbour went through a few packs a week, that added up to some serious sugar money to feed my own addiction.
Considering our dépanneur was pretty tiny, sharing its premises with the owner’s home, it offered an impressive range of confectionery and frozen treats. Penny purchasing power extended to Mojos, Blackballs, and Buttons even though you inevitably got a wad of paper stuck to the underside of the latter. For a few cents more, you could get flying saucers, those tasteless round wafers (made out of the same stuff as the communion host doled out in the Catholic Church) filled with small multi-coloured sugar balls or a waxy tube partially filled with some fruity liquid. The wax was allegedly edible but that doesn’t mean it actually had any significant flavour. For roughly the same price, I favoured the Pixy Stix that eventually begat Lik-M-Aid and if I have to explain what this is, you’re probably a lot younger than me.
Mr. l’Écuyer’s shelves included spaghetti-skinny licorice in four flavours, three-coloured KooKoo taffy (made in Montreal by the Oscar company), and Kraft Softee Toffees but his impressive selection of gum was most likely the target of that skinny dime clutched tightly in my hand.
Never mind the basic rock-hard pink extruded Bazooka gum that came packaged with a lame comic. We also had our choice of tiny drawstring bags of nugget-shaped Gold Mine gum, Strawberry Shortcake Gumballs, soapy-flavoured Thrills gum, Black Cat bubble-gum, and packs of Ton ‘o Gum that included the disclaimer, ‘Not Actual Weight.’
It was at this same counter where years later, I would stop by for my own regular fix of cigarettes until I finally was able to kick the habit many years and many attempts later.
“Are you still smoking?” I asked the deceased’s son as the evening was winding down.
“I quit two years ago,” he answered. “Best thing I’ve ever done.”
I don’t know when l’Écuyer’s stopped being a dépanneur but when I drove by last Saturday, there were no more neon lights, the faded Export “A” ad was no longer in the window, and the overhanging Canada Dry sign was gone.
We’ll all gather again, possibly within the year, as another neighbour confided her mother’s lung and liver cancer, fueled by her lifetime of cigarette consumption, has been deemed terminal. I hugged her when I saw her, her tiny shoulder blades poking my arms through her sweater.
There were tears and laughter shared with the people who’d gathered in the home where I spent a good chunk of my childhood. We’re all a little heavier, greyer, and wiser but joined by the collective thread of the things that comprise most of the memories we hold onto and share – good people and dubious judgement.