In hindsight, it was a creepy hiding place, and not my favorite one at all; just a small cement room built under our back porch. It was probably meant only for firewood and maybe coal; a perfect home for spiders and mice, with a small door accessible through the back yard. The light that poured through the small opening did little to dry out or brighten the place. I felt a little like a rodent myself whenever I sat in there, usually on some wet rotten firewood with one of my brothers, my skin on high alert for spiders or any other disgusting thing that would want to crawl on me. But it was the best place for Martha and I to hide.
I remember it was just another summer day when my neighbor, Martha Shaffer wandered across the street to my house, looking for me. She was a year or so younger than me, so I think that was one thing that compelled her to steal five dollars from her mother. We could go to Ada’s and buy all the candy in the world. And I would condescend to being her friend.
Ada’s was the corner candy/cigarette/newspaper store. It was a sore thumb in the upscale Connecticut neighborhood I grew up in. It was said she had been there before anyone else, at least the people that made snooty laws about how things looked. So Ada’s was grandfathered in, the only business for miles. The fading white paint and the chain link fence were conspicuous and out of place. Ada and her two sisters, Rita and Cheta, were from the other side of town, “across the post Road”, my mother would say with meaning. They were I-talians.
To a child, it was heaven. Two long wooden and glass cases to the right displayed every penny candy invented in one and then all the candy bars you could dream of in the other. The penny candy cost, well, one penny. And the candy bars were all a nickel. If you turned around, there was a display rack holding every Ding Dong, Devil Dog, Twinkie type cake that Hostess could churn out, for a dime. So for one quarter, which was my allowance, you could make out well: 25 pieces of candy or maybe a combo bag filled with Clark bars and Snowball cupcakes.
Behind the cupcakes there was a meat slicer, but we have conceded over the years that we never saw Ada make anything other than a bologna sandwich on Wonder bread. That being said, we heard they were amazing. Go figure. In the back was a small room with an old wood floor that creaked and sagged and was almost black with wear, and a huge cooler filled with Cokes and Yahoos that teenagers sat on while they read Archie comic books. If you behaved decently, Ada let you live there. But if things got rowdy, you were out, her little bony finger pointing the way.
Ada knew everything. Her sisters just watched the constant flow of traffic, but Ada ran the register while a Lucky Strike burned in the ashtray behind her, deftly scooping candy into little brown bags all day. She missed nothing. She knew when I got into trouble before my parents did; she knew what went on inside every closed door on Riverside Avenue. She seemed ancient to me back then, but she would live another 50 years.
She must’ve known something was up when Martha and I showed up with a five, and I remember starting to sweat as we picked out candy for what seemed a hellish eternity. We finally turned to the Twinkies to finish things up quickly, filling a large brown bag with goods and fleeing to the best hiding place we knew. It wasn’t fun at all, sitting in a moldy dark den, silently chewing on Ring Dings and Bit-O-Honey, our jaws beginning to ache.
Suddenly the small doorway darkened, and all I could see was an arm swiftly latching onto Martha and dragging her out of the door. Stunned, but perhaps a little relieved, I could hear Martha’s cry as her mother pulled her home. I knew she was in for it. She took the bag and I was glad.
Ada. I knew Ada had fingered us. I could see Cheta shaking her head after we left, her big jowls cascading into her neck. But you couldn’t get mad at Ada, because on some level you knew she cared. Years later, she tried to help me as I was sliding into drugs and truancy by setting up the back room for me to do homework. The soda cooler was my desk. She couldn’t help with the school work, but she tried to create a place of calm for me, pushing the teenagers outside, hoping to bring some order to my life which she knew was crumbling. Behind the beautiful stucco walls of my home around the corner there was chaos and darkness.
I left that neighborhood for good at age 15, but my mother stayed until I was 25, then I came home to help empty the house and close the doors forever. I wasn’t sad to leave the house but as the years moved by I would return to see Ada, first with one child then two more. Each time, she winked at me and grabbed a little paper bag, her fingers gnarled and arthritic, and scooped up the penny candy which was nowhere close to being a penny anymore, as my little boys pointed through the glass, their eyes wide with joy.
I don’t know where Martha went. I learned later her family had its own cache of skeletons behind the trimmed hedges and the large veranda, which covered another secret place for all the neighborhood kids. Ada could tell you the general direction everyone moved off too, and who died when. She outlived both of her sisters.
The last time I saw Ada I had my son Jake with me, who was about nine and so grateful for the little bag of candy she handed him as she asked how my brothers and sister were doing, remembering us all by our childhood nicknames. Children streamed through the store, and I felt the timelessness of life, and I wanted to stop the young mothers and say, “Pay attention, slow down, this will go by way too fast.” Kids still hung out on the dirty front porch. I don’t think she ever painted it once. She looked really old and had shrunk to about four foot ten but she had the same laugh ,and her eyes still sparked when she talked of the neighborhood.
“Things have changed, “she said looking towards the door. “Kids have changed.” I think Ada was probably glad to drive home to the wrong side of the Post Road every night.
Last year I stopped by Ada’s and like every time over the last 20 years that I walked in the door, I wondered if Ada would be there. This time she was gone. Behind the counter was a young woman with dirty blond hair and she looked tired and stressed. When I enquired about Ada she pointed to a large yellowing newspaper clipping taped to the window. “She died in 2008,” she said plainly and seemed relieved that she had the article to divert people towards.
Looking around before I left I realized that the store was still dirty and small, but it mattered now. A man on his way to the train station came in for a paper and threw a couple of bucks on the counter. No one talked or even made eye contact. I walked out onto the small porch, vacant now, and said goodbye to Ada’s, to Ada, who waited patiently for me to pick out 25 pieces of candy every Saturday when I was just a simple little girl, who cleared the back of her own store for me as a troubled teen. It wasn’t an act of love or valor to her. People were just people and she just knew the things that mattered most. I smiled, looking back one last time. Ada didn’t miss a thing.