Peppermints by Walter Prichard Eaton

A boy looking at a candy cane in a store window on a promotional card by William B Steenberge image credit

Title: Peppermints
Author: Walter Prichard Eaton [More Titles by Eaton]

I have just purchased a little bag of peppermints, and returned with them to my rooms above the Square. I did not purchase them at the promptings of a sweet tooth, but of a hungry heart. They take me back into the forgotten Aprils of my life, where I often love to loiter, not from any resentment that I have been unable to emulate Peter Pan and remain a boy forever, but because this great town is drab and dusty and imprisoning, and it is sweet to escape down the green lanes of April, even if only in a memory. A physical sensation--the sound of a voice, a hand patting us to the rhythm of "Tell Aunt Rhody", an odor--can plunge us deeper and swifter down to the buried places of our memory than any process of deliberate recollection. No robin sings against my window of a morning here--only the noisy sparrows twitter and quarrel, reminding me of the curb market. No lilac sheds its perfume on the still air. I am perforce reduced to peppermints. The taste of peppermints on my tongue, the pungent fragrance of them in my nostrils, have the power, however, to transport me far from this maze of mortared canyons, back across the years, to a land where the robins sang against the spacious sky and a little boy dreamed great dreams.

So now I am sitting high up above the Square, with my little bag of peppermints before me (somewhat diminished in quantity already), and think, between slow, sipping nibbles, of that little boy.

In his day, in the land where he came from, peppermints were almost a symbol of life's best things--of grandmothers and other dear old ladies who kept cookies in cool stone crocks in sweet-smelling "butt'ries" (sometimes foolishly called pantries by those who put on airs); of Christmastides when to the joy of peppermint sticks was added the unspeakable delight of sucking barley toys,--red dogs, golden camels that lost their humps and elephants that lost their trunks as the tongue went succulently 'round and 'round them; of the wonderful village "notion" store, presided over by a terrible female person with a deep bass voice, who asked you over the counter as you entered, "Which side, young man?" It was bad enough to be called "Bubbie", but to be called "young man" in this ironic bass was almost insufferable. Yet you bore it nobly, for the sake of the pound of shot for your air-gun or the blood-alley or the great pink and white peppermints, two for a cent, that reposed in a glass jar on the left side of the shop. Was Miss Emily so terrible a person, I wonder now? She was always looked upon a little askance by the ladies of our village because she was "so masculine". But if she did not conceal a softness for children under her stern exterior why did she keep a stock of so many things dear to the childish heart, from paper soldiers (purchased by the yard) to sleds and shot? Perhaps that fantastic stock of hers was her curious expression of the Eternal Motherly. After she died, every year on the 30th of May the "Vet'rans," as they marched two by two in annually dwindling lines about the cemetery, placed a fresh print flag and a basket of geraniums on her grave, because she had sent a substitute to the War. To us youngsters this substitute used to explain why she kept shot for sale; she was by nature a bellicose person, and, we were sure, her great grief was her sex.

In my own family peppermints were directly connected, by legend, with feminine attractiveness. A great grandmother on my mother's side had been in her day a famous beauty. And when asked the secret of her charm, as she frequently was (to my infant imagination she appeared as a superhumanly radiant vision who walked about the streets in a hoop-skirt with an admiring throng in her wake, constantly being forced to explain why she was beautiful), she did not utter testimonials for anybody's soap, nor for a patent dietary system, nor even for outdoor exercise. She replied simply, "Peppermints". Great grandmamma died when my mother was a girl, and to mother fell the task of going through the old lady's possessions. She says it was a task; probably it was a privilege. At any rate, my mother records that she found peppermints everywhere, in every kind of wrapper, stowed in the different receptacles, in boxes, bags, trunks, in bureau drawers and writing desks and "secretaries". They were among letters and laces, in the folds of silk gowns and even the table linen. Some of the peppermints had crumbled and almost evaporated. Some had "ossified", as mother says. "And," she used to add, telling the tale to large-eyed, hungry-mouthed little me, "I have not seen so many peppermints outside a candy shop since that day."

"But did the peppermints really make great grandmamma beautiful?" I would ask.

"She always said so," my mother would reply, "and she was certainly very beautiful."

"Is that why you eat peppermints?" I then inquired, on a day when I had detected her with a bag of the confection.

At this point there was a masculine chuckle from the armchair by the bookcase. Also, a peppermint was promptly produced for my personal consumption. I had a great fondness for the memory of my beautiful ancestor.

Peppermints, too, are intimately connected with the religious experiences of my childhood; or, perhaps I should say, with the religious observances of my childhood. Our minister's whiskers always interested me more than his discourses. As I nibble a peppermint from the bag before me--lingeringly, for the supply is being fast depleted--and the frail yet pungent odor fills my nostrils, I am once more in that half-filled church, on a Sabbath morning in early Spring, dozing through the sermon, with my head tumbling sleepily now and then against my father's shoulder. Slowly the scene comes back, in every least detail, the smallest sights and sounds of that morning all here, but all thin and faint and frail, spun of the gossamer web of memory. Can I hold them till they are set down? I shall have to eat another precious white lozenge from my bag.

My cheek had bumped my father's shoulder again when I caught a sudden whiff of peppermint drops and raised my head just in time to see an old lady across the aisle whisk her dress down over her petticoat pocket. For a few moments I watched her in envy, for her mouth was moving ever so little and I could fancy the delicious taste. But how could she enjoy the candy and not make her mouth go more than that, I wondered. I did not shut my eyes again, but sat very still against my father's arm and let my eyes wander around the church.

Ours was one of the "new" churches. The beautiful old "meeting house" at the head of the village green, with its exquisite white spire and its pillard pulpit and windows of "common" glass, purpling with age, was the property of the Methodists--which in some manner I could not then understand (and do not clearly yet) was always a source of resentment in our congregation. Our church had stained windows, a chocolate brown field with white stars in the centre and around the edges tiny squares of many colors, atrocious reds, blues and yellows. These windows were opened a little at the top, and through the openings came soft sounds of Spring, the wind racing among the budding branches, the sudden call of a bird, and occasionally the crooning, sleepy cackle of hens from a distance. Now and then a cloud drifted by, across the sun, dimming the interior for a moment, so that the minister's voice seemed to come from farther off. The sunlight through the stained glass projected colored splotches here and there. I wondered if the people knew how homely they looked with those splotches on their faces, like great birth-marks. That suggested a pastime to relieve the monotony.

Starting with the choir (which consisted of four people, boxed in before the organ at the right of the pulpit) I began to count people with colored spots. First there was the tenor with a purple spot on his left cheek and on his sandy hair and beard. But the organist and soprano were splashed with scarlet. Then I forget to count, because I noticed that the 'alto had a new violet hat, which eclipsed the soprano's old green one. I wondered whether she had gone to Boston to buy it, or had "patronized home industries"--a phrase I had just discovered with pride in our local paper. The bass was nodding and letting his hymn book slip toward a fall. I hoped slily that it would fall, and braced my nerves for the crash. But he woke with a funny jerk, like my jack-in-the-box, just in time to catch it, and began listening intently to the sermon as if he had been awake all the while. The soprano smiled at someone in the congregation, whispered to the tenor, and then sat silent again.

My gaze wandered to the minister's pleasant face, with its great square-cut gray beard, which always suggested to me--why, I don't know--one of the minor prophets; and then past him to the gilded cross that was painted on the apsidal wall behind him. I knew that if I looked at this cross, with its gilded rays spreading out in all directions, long enough the rays would begin to melt together and then to turn 'round and 'round in a kind of dizzy dance. So I looked steadily, till I had to shake the sleep out of my eyes with a great effort. Then I fell to speculating on the tablets painted at the left of the pulpit, to balance the organ. These tablets were encased in a design that suggested a twin tombstone. On one of them were the words, "God is a spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth," a sentence which had always given me great difficulty. But this morning I interpreted it at last to my satisfaction. It meant, I decided, that a man must first die and become a ghost, a spirit, before he could tell what church he really ought to go to. I wondered if, in that spirit region, there would be any Methodists.

Directly below the tablets, in a front pew, sat Miss Emily, she of a bass voice and the "notion" store. Her Paisley shawl was folded tightly around her broad, bony shoulders, and made the lower half of a diamond down her back, the pattern exactly in the middle. If the pattern had not been exactly in the middle I am sure the service would have stopped automatically, till it was adjusted. She sat very straight and looked with partly turned head, showing her masculine profile, sternly at the minister, as if defying him to be unorthodox. I tried to picture her asking _him_, as he entered her shop, "Which side, old man?" Would she dare, I wondered? And what would he reply? A few pews behind Miss Emily sat "the spilled-over old lady". My sister had first called her the spilled-over old lady, because she seemed to have been crowded out by the six old ladies in the pew behind, and to have been permanently soured by the slight. Her hair was done up in a tight, emphatic pug, her profile suggested vinegar--or perhaps it was her complexion. At any rate, when I looked at her I thought of vinegar. I wondered if she ever ate peppermints, and if they tasted the same to her as to other people.

Presently I leaned forward and extracted a hymn book from the rack attached to the back of the pew in front. This rack contained, besides hymn books, a pair of old gloves done into a wad wrong side out, two fans, "leaflets" of all sorts, and little envelopes for the collection. Most of the "leaflets" were appeals for charity, I fancy. At any rate, many of them were full of pictures of poor little city children suffering from all sorts of diseases, and oppressed me horribly. But I could always rely on the hymn book. My first consciousness that there is any difference between prose and poetry except in the matter of rhyme came from reading the hymn book, from Whittier's,--

I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.

I had no idea what kind of a palm a fronded palm is, but I fancied it something much grander and taller than other palms; and the whole hymn filled my mind with a large, expansive imagery, breathed over my little spirit an ineffable serenity. This hymn I now read while the minister talked away behind his minor-prophet whiskers;--this, and Wesley's,--

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify;
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

This stanza always made me want to get up and shout. I read and re-read it, repeating it, with noiseless lips. The tune it went to seemed inadequate, the more so as in our church tunes were always dragged to the limit of non-conformist dolorousness. The stanza seemed to me, even then, happy, hopeful, staccato, jubilant. I wonder what I should have thought had I known its author was a Methodist? Could good come out of Nazareth, after all? Instead, I fell to wondering about the after life in the sky. Heaven I pictured as a city builded on a cloud. If, on a very clear day, the cloud should dry up what, I speculated, would the angels walk on? Then it occurred to me that they do not walk, they fly. So they would go flying about streets out of which the bottoms had dropped, and look right through far down to the earth, which to their sight would doubtless resemble the raised map of America in our school, that stood on a table in the corner and always had chalk dust, like snow, in the inch-deep ravines of the Rocky Mountains. I wondered if the lower stories of the houses would have any floors. The cellars wouldn't, anyway. What kept the furnaces in position? Perhaps they didn't need furnaces in heaven; it was the other place where the furnaces were. Then I dozed.

In our church Sunday School began at noon, immediately following the church service, in a large room at the rear, known as the vestry. The first small boy on his way to school stamped by on the walk outside, with what sounded like defiant aggressiveness. I roused from my doze in time to see the old man in front of me wake up with a start at the sound and reach quickly for his hymn book, as if he supposed the sermon were over. Then the stamping of other children was heard on the walk. The scholars passed in groups, talking shrilly. I knew it must be nearly twelve o'clock. In the congregation there was a rustle of gathering restlessness; women put on their gloves, tried to glance back at the clock without seeming to do so, stirred in their seats. The last vestige of sleep mysteriously yielded to this influence and left me. At last the minister came to the conclusion of his discourse, and instantly there was a sound all over the church as of waters released and hurrying over dead leaves. It was the congregation shifting their positions, expelling their breaths, and turning the pages of their hymn books. I listened curiously for the next sound. It was the clearing of a hundred throats, getting ready to sing. I too arose and in my tuneless treble made a joyful noise unto the Lord. Then church was over.

And my peppermints are all eaten, too, and the gossamer web of memory dissolves, the picture fades, and I see before me this room of mine, littered with some learned literature but more pipes and prints and miscellaneous rubbish, and I hear outside in the Square, not the spring wind racing among the budding branches, but the coughing of a consumptive motor car, the penetrating squeak of a trolley rounding a curve on a dry track, the irritating jolt of heavy drays, and a great, subdued, never-ceasing rumble and roar, the key-note of the giant city. Only the little bag remains. Shall I blow it up and "bust" it? That act, with a final pop, will bring back a flash of my childhood. Here goes....

It didn't pop nicely at all. It exploded in a kind of a spudgy collapse, with very little noise. Ah, well, you cannot eat your peppermints and have them too--nor the bag! But it has been very pleasant to eat them, to wake up with a whiff and a nibble the memory of those vanished days, those voices and peaceful paths of life very far from here and now. It may be true that we mount on our dead selves to higher things, but it is well to hold little Memorial Days now and then, and on the graves of our dead, especially of those who died young in the flower of innocence, to leave a peppermint, as the soldiers leave on the grave of Miss Emily a print flag and a basket of geraniums. A cemetery need not be a mournful place. Maids were wooed and won in _our_ cemetery, and the high school pupils ate their lunches out of collapsable tin boxes every noon on the tomb of Major Barton, he of Revolutionary fame, who horse-whipped the British captive when he refused to eat beans. Noble New Englander! And perhaps my own peppermint feasts are not so much memorial banquet, after all, as ceremonial rites in honor of my native land. For I cannot think of this great city of New York as my home, I cannot fit into the rushing, roaring cogs and grooves of its machinery without a protest, without a hope that some day I may hear the wheels no longer roar at their cruel revolutions. Thus my peppermints speak to me of home, of quiet, of certain green places and a lilac hedge; there is about them the taste and odor of the ideal. They are for the future as well as for the past. Perhaps in some subtle way they do after all have potency for beauty. I fancy that some day I too shall stow away bags of them amid my worthless precious junk, and when prying hands disturb the dust the nostrils of a youngster now unborn will be greeted by a frail yet pungent aroma. I can only trust that he will know well what it is.