Sweets for the sweetest of all

The heroine hangs by her fingertips from the ledge of a high cliff. Her eyes, wide with fright, stare into the chasm below. Her long blond curls are blown about by the wind, and her mouth opens wide in a silent scream. Her little feet scrabble in vain against the granite rock, trying to find a foothold.

The hero, lying prone on the cliff top above her, reaches desperately toward her. "Hang on, Jenny, hang on!" he shouts silently. The words appear on the huge screen upon which our eyes are riveted. The first episode of our Sunday matinee serial has just ended.

The organ music, having built to a crescendo, stops, and "TO BE CONTINUED" appears. For a moment, Jean and I continue to munch on our candy bars, taking tiny bites to prolong the pleasure.

The theater lights go on. We sigh with the realization that we must wait a whole week to see if Jenny will, indeed, survive. Jean pokes me with her elbow and whispers, "Save the last bite for Mama."

Obediently, I wrap the remains of my treat in its crinkly paper and tuck it into my pocket. We had bought our candy with our Sunday nickels, which, with our 10 cents movie money, were our weekly allowances. The lights go on, and we prepare to walk home.

By the time we'd present our small sacrifices to our mother, they would be melted and mashed out of shape. But no matter, Mama would exclaim with delight, "Oh, you dear things! You remembered my sweet tooth."

I don't know how old I was when I began saving the last bite for Mama, but I learned it at an early age from my sister. She was a generous, loving girl, five years my senior, and the eldest.

In addition to the sweets we bought with our weekly candy allowance, there were three other times in the year when candy loomed large in our diets and our minds. One was Halloween, of course, with our trick-or-treat rewards. The other two were Easter and Christmas.

At these times, our Uncle Bud, who was the manager of the candy department at a store in St. Louis, became very dear to us. How eagerly we young Californians awaited the arrival at Easter of that woven hamper full of goodies. We never knew just what we'd find there.

Each year brought some new surprise. There were milk-chocolate bunnies and chickens wrapped in multicolored foils, cream-filled eggs, and a hollow egg for each with a cunning Easter scene inside. There were marshmallow eggs, yellow chicks, and other marvels, all nestled in shredded green wax-paper grass, sprinkled throughout with pastel Jordan almonds and jelly beans of every flavor.

We were the envy of all our friends on the block, and thus were made to share our bounty with them.

"Not every child is so fortunate as to have an Uncle Bud, you see," Mama said. "And with these hard times and all, we must share." She bit into the walnut-nougat egg we had saved for her.

Christmas was even better. When the elegant white box arrived, displaying in gold script the words: "Deluxe Bonbon Assortment, 10 lbs.," our excitement knew no bounds.

On Christmas Day the box was opened and placed on the dinner table after we had eaten. We gathered around, each of us hoping to get the first choice.

"Now, children, just take one," Mama cautioned, after it was decided that Eddie, the youngest, would be first. "I'd like to make this box last awhile."

We all were breathing down poor Eddie's neck, hoping he wouldn't take one of our favorites. My little brother plucked up a chocolate-covered sweet, poked a hole in the bottom of it, and quickly put it back into the box.

"Eddie, you have to take it! Once you've touched it, you can't put it back." Jean's voice was shrill.

"Aw, I hate vanilla! Mama, can't I?"

Mama shook her head, "No." And so it went until each of us had chosen and consumed our choice. We continued to hang over the box until our mother relented and suggested that we each could have just one more.

As she bit into her second piece, Mama would sigh, "I have a sweet tooth, I confess. I just love a nice piece of candy at the end of a meal."

Years later, on the day after Mothers' Day, I came by her apartment to take her out to a belated celebratory lunch. My father was no longer alive, my siblings all lived far away, and even I had been away on "her" day. I hoped to make it up to her.

We enjoyed both the lunch and a relaxed time together. Then, back at her home once more, I looked around. I saw three bouquets of flowers and two new books, but something was missing,

"Mama, where are the boxes of candy the kids and I always send you on Mothers' Day?"

She laughed. "You know, dear, I got three big boxes. Much too much for me."

"So what did you do?"

She looked a little guilty. "I ate one piece out of each box. Then I rearranged the candies so no one could tell. And I took all three boxes to the women's shelter just down the street. You see, Bets, they have so little...." her voice trailed off.

She looked thoughtful. "I'm sorry, dear, that I don't have anything sweet to offer you, after that wonderful luncheon."

I reached into my pocket and brought out several squares of chocolate in a crumpled wrapping. "That's all right." I unwrapped the candy. "As you can see, I saved the last bite for Mama, and for me."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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