Tinkling bells signaled our arrival as we entered the old corner grocery. It was small and dark and smelled like cardboard, but the penny candy and sunshine radiating through the front windowpanes made it warm and inviting.
As we walked, the worn cotton wood floor squeaked in protest of my grandpa’s heavy footfalls. It never did that when I walked on it, as if it thought I was too slight and insignificant to bother with. It wasn’t the first to feel that way or treat me like that. Except that day it didn’t matter what the floor or anyone else thought of me, because it was my birthday, and I was hitching a ride on grandpa’s hip.
I loved it when he carried me. He was a man of great stature (in both importance and height). He was well over six feet tall, and stocky and muscular, but he was also a bit paunchy around the middle, having succumbed to middle age, fatty food, and beer. He was the perfect mix of strong and soft. I was convinced his arms were made to carry me. In them, I felt safe and protected. I dreaded the moment when he would have to let me go.
The boisterous grocer (whom I desperately want to call Eugene, although I don’t remember his name) looked like the long lost cousin of Colonel Sanders and Orville Redenbacher. He had white hair and wire rim glasses, spoke kindly, and had never met a stranger. He called out to my grandpa, asking what he was looking for.
I felt my grandpa’s baritone answer rumbling about his chest before it left his mouth. “We are looking for cake,” he explained. “Today is her fourth birthday. We have to make a cake for a big girl. Not some baby cake.”
I smiled and bashfully hid my face in my grandpa’s neck. He smelled like cigarettes, greasy metal, Old Spice, and sweat. I am pretty sure that is the exact smell of heaven.
“Four years old!” exclaimed Eugene the grocer with an added whistle. “She will be driving before you know it.”
“She’s almost long enough to reach the pedals now!” my grandpa retorted.
I squeezed my bony legs around his belly and locked my ankles on the other side of him as proof of my burgeoning tallness. It was something I was just able to do having finally grown enough and I desperately hoped someone would notice. No one did.
Instead, Eugene pointed us in the right direction. We stopped in front of a colorful collection of boxes and pondered our choices. Then I saw it: the lonely box of yellow cake mix. It needed someone to love it, and I was just the girl. I let Grandpa know. He picked it up and then asked what kind of frosting I wanted.
Frosting? What kind of frosting goes with yellow cake? The box paired it with chocolate, but I noticed that most of the cakes had a frosting that clearly went with it. White cake had white frosting. Strawberry had strawberry. Chocolate had chocolate. German chocolate had that weird coconutty stuff. But there was no yellow frosting for my beloved yellow cake. Instead, they were trying to convince me it went with chocolate.
I became fretful.
“Grandpa, there is no match,” I whined. “There is nothing to go with yellow cake.”
Grandpa always had an uncanny ability to sense my moods and know what I was thinking, even if I didn’t.
“Who said they have to match?” asked Grandpa.
“But all the other cakes their own frosting. They all go together. Chocolate already goes with chocolate. It’s not supposed to go with yellow. Yellow is supposed to go with yellow,” I lamented as tears began to streak my dirty cheeks.
“Says who?” He asked.
“I want yellow frosting. Yellow should be with yellow,” I reasoned.
“Well baby, there isn’t any yellow frosting. Sure, chocolate taste good with chocolate, but who says chocolate can’t go with the yellow cake, too,” he consoled. “Anyway, look at us: we don’t match, but we go together good, I think. There is no yellow and your cake won’t match it’s frosting, but it doesn’t mean you still can’t have a good cake. Now, which one of these is your favorite?”
“Chocolate,” I whimpered.
“Well then, what are you waiting for? Get some chocolate! In fact, you better get two. Now that you are four you might decide you want extra.”
I grabbed two cans of Betty Crocker chocolate frosting and we made our way to the checkout. Eugene, anticipating our needs, had already switched aprons and abandoned the butcher’s counter for the cashier’s desk. He made small talk with Grandpa as he began to ring us up.
My memory fades as we are checking out. I don’t know where we went after that. I don’t remember what the cake actually looked like or how it tasted. I don’t even remember my TWIN sister. (She has to be part of this story. It was her birthday, too.) I just remember being held by my grandfather in the middle of the grocery store as he spoke some of the most epic words of my life. He communicated love and acceptance that transcended time. His wisdom was tailored to fit a four year old, but it is still resonating in my heart more than thirty years later.
That memory is my first. That is as far back as I can go. Yet, it does not escape me that the very first memory I have, as a child who was abandoned, is one of love and acceptance and explanation. That is the way God has worked my entire life.
I cannot count the number of times I have felt like that ridiculous box of yellow cake mix lumped with chocolate because I didn’t have frosting of my own. I felt like an intrusion. My parents weren’t really my parents; they were my grandparents who got stuck with us because no one else wanted us. My home wasn’t really my home; it was a place to wait for my mom to come back, except she never did. Not even my toys and clothes were truly mine; they were loans or second hand finds that I had to share with my sister. My life was defined by encroachment. Even now, there are still times where I feel like I don’t belong, like I am an interloper or a squatter in someone else’s space.
In those moments, I think of the words of my Grandpa. Who says? Am I missing something wonderful because I am too busy sobbing over the way things are supposed to be? What if I enjoyed what I have, even it isn’t the way I imagined it. What if I looked for unexpected joys (like the fact I got to have my favorite chocolate frosting on my yellow cake) instead of focusing on what was wrong (chocolate doesn’t match yellow)?
In a dusty grocery store on my fourth birthday, Grandpa taught me not to give convention the power to steal my joy and rob me of blessings. Maybe what I have doesn’t fit the pattern or look like the things other people have, but that doesn’t make it less. Sometimes, there is more beauty in the unique than the ordinary, and more value in the unprecedented than the expected.