In the 1930’s, when my mother was a girl in Kentish Town, her Gran would give her and each of her siblings a ha’penny every week, and Gran’s son, their Uncle Tich, would give them each a farthing. Clutching their coins, they would make a beeline for the sweetshop and eye the tempting displays on the counter, since the sweets sold by the ounce in the rows of glass jars on the wall were priced out of their reach. The sweetshop owner would not only set out an array of sweets for a penny each, but ha’penny and even farthing trays as well. As a child I loved listening to Mum’s descriptions of the astounding variety of sweets there were to choose from, and at prices that sounded fantastically cheap to me. Some children liked the toffees, others the mints, still others the black-and-white striped bull’s eyes. Mum’s favorites were the boiled sweets with soft fruit-flavored centers, while her elder sister Bette went for the Spanish licorice (“a nice bit of Spanish,” as she calls it to this day).
The siblings would make their purchases according to their personalities, some of them swift and decisive, others cautious and painstaking. Similarly, when it came to eating them, they either devoured them all at once or savored them slowly, one at a time, squirreling away a secret supply for later in the week. Bette favored the eat-’em-at-once approach, while Rene was a natural hoarder. According to Mum, Bette would eat all her sweets with relish and then start working on Rene, begging her not to be stingy and to share her hoard. Rene, who always had a soft heart, was also a soft touch, so Bette made out like a bandit, eating most of her own sweets and a good number of Rene’s as well. As the youngest, Mum made out best of all, because without much effort she was able to keep her own sweets and get still more, bestowed freely by both loving sisters on little “Bund” (short for “Bundle”).
Auntie Rene’s childhood generosity was a lifelong trait. We called her “Father Christmas” because every year her parcel arrived on schedule, and no one was forgotten. Throughout our childhood she spoiled us, and then she spoiled the next generation. Every year at Easter, Nikhil and Tyler received an egg carton in the mail from Great-Auntie Rene filled with Kinder Surprises, the little foil-wrapped chocolate eggs that break open to reveal parts and assembly instructions for ingenious little toys.
To be fair to Auntie Bette, in the three-quarter century since she fast-talked Auntie Rene out of her sweets, she has made up for them many times over with those that she has distributed to her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And as for eating them herself, well, it is a great pleasure to watch a connoisseur at work.