For four years in the small town in Mississippi where Jenny Highland grew up there was no grocery store to feed the 700 people who lived there. The small grocery store on the corner of Elm and Filler Street, run by the Handshaw family, had stood open for forty years. Often Jenny’s mother would send her there with a dollar clutched in her small fist to get some milk or sugar or flour for her mother’s cooking. Jenny’s mother was a wonderful cook and renowned for her soft macaroon cookies tinged with just a bit of chocolate on their peaked tips.
Jenny loved going to the store. Whoever was behind the corner, Mr. or Mrs. Handshaw or sometimes their son Jimmy, would always greet Jenny with a big ‘Hello’ and a smile. No matter what Jenny needed, she always seemed to have enough money to pay for it, with at least a nickel left over where Jenny would choose a piece of candy from the long counter - a virtual smorgasbord of colors, flavors, and wonderful textures that would be enjoyed on the walk back home.
Her favorites were jawbreakers, because they lasted the longest and prolonged her pleasure. But Jenny would mix it up with gummy bears, fireballs, or pink wafer candies. She’d suck on the sweets all the way home, walking slowly so as to enjoy her candy without interruption so as not to miss one juicy slurp.
The store was small, but carried the essentials. Many people grew their own vegetables and had their own farms and people would share their excesses, so the grocery store served everyone’s needs just fine.
One day her mother was baking in the kitchen and Jenny found excuses to hover close by, hoping to get called to go to the store. Her father came home and after kissing her hello, went into the kitchen and began whispering with her mother. Words like “what will they do” and “tragedy” were overheard, but Jenny didn’t know what they were talking about.
“The store doors remained locked every day she walked home from school and the ‘CLOSED’ sign remained in the window for the next four years.”
The next day was Saturday, a day usually reserved for chores. Jenny woke up to help her mom and dad in the small farm they ran (her father was a salesman but worked the farm in the evenings and weekends). But this morning Jenny’s father asked her if she’d like to go for a ride into nearby Vicksburg, a much larger city than their own small town. Eagerly Jenny ran to the car and sat waiting.
They followed the signs to the city, about an hour’s drive away, and exited where they ran into a line of cars waiting to turn into a large building.
Piggly Wiggly read the sign. Piggly Wiggly - the name made Jenny giggle and she kept saying it over and over in her head and rolling the words around on her tongue. The line of cars finally snaked into the parking lot and they followed the steady stream of people going in under the “Grand Opening” sign that was strung over the large double doors.
Inside the store, Jenny and her parents stopped and stared, as they’d never seen anything like this. The store was huge, especially when compared to the little corner store that the Handshaws operated. Huge piles of canned foods stood almost to the ceiling. Rows of fresh produce and a meat counter made their eyes bulge.
Jenny’s mother was offered a shopping cart, and her father looked down at her smiling. He lifted his daughter up and stuck her in the cart where they pushed her up and down the aisles of food and goods. And the candy aisle! Suddenly the small row of candies at the Handshaw’s grocery store seemed small and boring compared to this. They had everything a child could possibly want and then some in this row of sugar. Her father allowed her to choose one type of candy and Jenny took her selection very seriously, as if afraid this store and its huge selections might disappear as in a dream at any minute. She choose some chewy caramels and clutched them to her chest.
Driving home they passed the corner store and suddenly Jenny had a feeling of being ashamed creep up on her. She could see old Mrs. Handshaw standing on a ladder to clean the shelves - and there was no one in the store.
When they got home and carried their bags of groceries into the house, she asked her father for a nickel so she could go see Mrs. Handshaw. She caught a look exchanged between her mother and father but he gave her the nickel. Jenny skipped down the street and tried to appear cheery as she opened the door.
“Hello Jenny! What can I get for you today?” called Mrs. Handshaw from her perch. Jenny nervously watched her climb back down. “Some flour, or butter? Fresh milk?”
Jenny again felt ashamed and the red rose to her face. “No, just some candy today, Mrs. Handshaw.”
She saw a dark cloud pass over the elderly woman’s face, but it quickly vanished. Jenny choose a jawbreaker and headed back home.
As the town people flocked to the large grocery store in the next town, the corner store faltered. Jenny overheard her father telling her mother that the Handshaw son, Jimmy, had come to his firm inquiring about a job, but all he had was retail experience and they couldn’t place him. Jenny registered the resignation in his voice with an ominous feeling.
Jenny’s mother sent her to the store as often as she could, but they found themselves relying on their weekly sojourns to the big store more and more often. The corner store slowly started to decay and its age and shabbiness reflected in the Handshaw’s eyes as they too seemed to age right before them.
One day Jenny was walking home from school when she saw the “CLOSED” sign in the door. The store had NEVER been closed and Jenny peered into the darkened windows, but no one was there.
The whole town turned out for the funeral. The preacher talked a lot about sin and unforgivable acts, although Jenny didn’t really understand what he meant. The store doors remained locked every day she walked home from school and the ‘CLOSED’ sign remained in the dirty window for the next four years. During this time Jenny only saw Mrs. Handshaw once. She was dressed in black from head to toe and seemed to have shrunk down to half her size. She patted Jenny on the head absent-mindedly as if looking right through her and beyond to something Jenny couldn’t see.
As Jenny grew into a teenager, the store was re-opened as a convenience store and had a make-over with lighted signs and rows of packaged foods and tiny little supplies.
She finally learned what had happened many years later. Distraught by losing the store and unable to keep his family afloat, Mr. Handshaw had taken his own life in a misguided hope that his family would be better off without him. But Mrs. Handshaw never recovered from the shock and died a few years later. Their son Jimmy left town, and no one ever saw him again.
Since then Jenny makes it a point to shop locally - the “mom and pop” stores upon which many families make their living. Plus, she says, “the quality is usually better.”
Thank you Jenny, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Kristen Kuhns and Story of My Life®