One of the great pleasures of my small-town childhood was my almost daily walks to the neighborhood store. Through my next door neighbor’s backyard and the gate to grumpy old Mr. Boucher’s garden, up the steps built over a steep granite ledge, and onto the street above, it was but half a block to Theriault’s Grocery Store.
Narrow and dimly lit by its dusty plate glass window, the place was no show piece, but it was cozy and familiar and crammed with delights. To the left of the front door, the red Coca-Cola cooler bathed its bottles of Moxie and Orange Crush, 7-Up and Pepsi, and of course, its signature Coke in a deep pool of dark, frigid water. Adjacent to the cooler was the glass fronted case of penny candy jars, stacks of Hershey bars, Snickers, Almond Joys, Peanut Butter Cups, M&M’s, and Charleston Chews. And on the narrow shelf above, gum: Double Bubble, Juicy Fruit, Dentine…Writing this now, it’s a wonder I still have a tooth in my head.
There was another, larger, store located on the next corner with a deli counter and aisles stocked with canned goods, condiments, and snacks. There was a soda cooler and a candy counter and bags of chips aplenty. And then there was the proprietor, a large, gruff man in a blood-stained apron with little patience for the lengthy deliberations and paltry purchasing power of children.
Not surprisingly, the store I favored was overseen by the smiling visage of Mrs. Theriault. A woman in early middle age, she was friendly, endlessly patient, and unfailingly kind. Her voice was warm and her dark hair soft and wavy. She wore cardigans over her blouses and skirts and a clean, ruffled apron tied around her waist. When she took a can of condensed milk or baked beans off a high shelf, she invariably used a corner of her apron to wipe the dust off the top.
Mrs. Theriault genuinely seemed to like children and understood the need for careful consideration before parting with our small pile of grubby pennies or tightly clutched nickel. She’d ask after my grandparents or want to know how school was going. When my friend, Lulu, and I could only afford one Popsicle, she’d rap it sharply against the edge of the counter and present each of us with a tall, cool half.
Mr. Theriault was a town fireman — that’s what we called them back then — and worked part time in the store. He was a slim, compact fellow whose good temper mirrored that of his wife’s. When he was minding the store, I could expect a bit of good-natured teasing or a knock-knock joke. He was good at making kids laugh, but not so good at breaking Popsicles in half.
When I’d walk downtown on a summer day, I’d often see Mr. T sitting out in front of the firehouse with his co-workers. Tipped on the back legs of their wooden chairs, they leaned against the brick façade of the building next to their gleaming fire truck still spangled with water from its recent cleaning. Mr. T would call out a friendly hello and encourage his colleagues to do the same.
My grandmother used to say that the Theriaults’ “had neither chick nor child.” In a time when family norms included father, mother, and 2.5 children, their childlessness made them an object of some pity and much speculation. As an only child, I too, lived outside the standard family model. Only children were considered spoiled by some adults and envied by many children.
Perhaps our shared otherness accounted for my devotion to and appreciation of Mr. and Mrs. Theriault. More likely, though, I enjoyed my visits to the store because the Popsicles and peanut M&M’s, the Friday night Cokes and bags of chips always came with a kind word and a smile.