The candy aisle never looked as majestic as it did on the Fourth of July when I was a kid. Every year, my dad led my siblings and me to this section, tucked away behind the liquor aisle of the grocery store. With a grand flourish of his hefty, freckled arm, which glided over the colorful horizon, he'd say, "you can have whatever you want."
We'd then tear down the aisle like feral children and throw fist fulls of candy into the empty shopping cart my dad held. It was like Halloween with a lot less work and a lot more control. We didn't have to schlep a sagging pillowcase up and down the block, sweating in our princess costumes and singing for our supper, just to wind up with a pack of Smarties or a couple of dirty pennies. All we had to do was pick up candy in a well air-conditioned grocery store and toss it into the cart. And, unlike Halloween, there was no need to say thank you 800 times for candy we never would've picked out for ourselves.
The permutation of that ever-increasing mound was wild and unpredictable from year to year. One Fourth of July, we might've leaned heavily into the chocolate offerings and go for broke on Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, and Whatchamacallits. The next year, we might tend toward the sour and tart selections and stock up on Skittles, Sour Patch Kids, and Jelly Beans. There was nothing methodical about our choices. We'd rip apart the candy aisle, oblivious to the disdain directed at us by the high school employees who were responsible for cleaning up our chaos after we left to enjoy the sunshine and national holiday.
My dad would stand by and chuckle as he watched the bottom of the cart disappear under mounds of red, yellow, purple, green, and brown. The only rule enforced during these shopping trips was that we weren't allowed to leave the grocery store until the cart was at least half full of empty calories and limitless potential for hyperactivity. We were obligated to spend at least $300 on candy.
Once purchased, we'd spend the rest of the afternoon destroying the candy. Soon, we'd be in a euphoric sugar high that made our bodies vibrate with possibilities. The sweets commanded us to jump on our beds, scream as loud as we could, and laugh uncontrollably at fart jokes. Eventually, the room would begin to spin and twirl with mania. Next, we'd find ourselves hunched over with stabbing stomach pains as we forced ourselves to shove one more Rolo down our throats. We'd start twitching and begin picking fights with each other. The day would end with us pulling each other's hair out while our mom dutifully cleaned up the candy wrappers and scrubbed melted chocolate off of the couch cushions.
This was an extraordinary part of my childhood, one that others hear about with envy. Beyond the Fourth of July, my dad was more conservative with sweets and would divide up single donuts among twelve people. He would also rely heavily on his belt to keep us in line and shamed us for even being alive. With this candy madness, however, my dad was able to rise above the terrifying wreckage of his parental decisions. The supermarket candy-aisle sweep was so fantastic that, as we got older, sometimes the memories of the colorful frenzy would rise above that of the chaos and abuse. No one begrudges the candy man for his excesses. Even Charlie forgave Willy Wonka, the moralizing puppetmaster who played god with his destiny.
I want to be the parent who takes her kids into a grocery store and says, "The sky's the limit, kids. Go wild!" I want to watch with a smirk as my kids knock down shelves of candies as they pinwheel sweets into the shopping cart. I want to be the parent who gives her kids this memory.
Every time I get to the precipice of this experience, I stop myself. Just last week, while on vacation, my sister Kathy, Greg, and I brought Darla and Jude to a magical candy store stocked floor to ceiling with confections. Instead of walking in and letting the kids go nuts, I stopped them just inside the entrance and said, "You can have one candy each." I worried that allowing them to indulge would have some damning, long-term repercussion; as if I'm still working off the sugar high from a Fourth of July three decades earlier. Darla scoffed at me, spread out her arms as if she were begging me to behold the beauty that was around me.
"Aunt Kathy," Darla yelled across the store. "Can you believe this? My mom told me we could only have one candy from this huge candy store."
Everyone then had a good chuckle at my expense while I increasingly felt drab and uninspired against such a magnificent backdrop; I was ashamed I had preached moderation and abstinence in a hedonist's church. I wondered what my dad, who died four years ago, would think of me if he saw me at that moment. Would he look at my kids with pity? Would he feel sorry for them that they have the most boring mother?
Unlike my dad, I have never hit my kids. I show up for them every day and only get pushed to my limit every once in a while. I sit on the floor with them and play trucks or make-believe. I, sometimes, laugh more than I yell. I know in most ways I am a better parent than my dad was.
What I could improve on is the magic I allow into my kids' lives. I get very rigid and rule-driven, which can push my kids. They, in turn, get combative and fight back while they attempt to wriggle out from under my tight control. I don't allow myself to freefall into an experience with an excellent potential for bonding. I worry over schedules and whether we're all behaving like good citizens. I try to wrangle my kids every step of the way. It leaves me stressed, not present, and miserable.
While I know that 90% of what my dad did was destructive and had adverse effects on my siblings and me, there was that 10% that was glittery and dazzling; this was the part that created strong, unique memories that stand out in our minds. In anonymous recovery programs, there's a maxim that goes, "take what you like and leave the rest." In a way, my parenting feels like a sort of recovery from a crappy childhood with an abusive father. Most everything positive I've learned about being a parent has been from my mom, the person who quietly cleaned up after the chaos my dad unleashed. I want to try and take a part of what my dad offered the world as a parent, as well.
I like that my dad let us go wild in the candy aisle. I didn't like that he would spank us even when we did nothing more than sit quietly at the dinner table. I've done a pretty decent job of "leaving the rest." I'd like to try out the "take what you like" part. Maybe the next time I walk into a candy store with my kids while we're on vacation, I'll let them fill up a basket with too much candy while I stand off to the side and smile.