Last summer I bought a candy dish in the shape of a rooster. It was a big ugly thing—all lurid blues and yellows, with a spindly red neck you had to grasp bloodthirstily if you wanted to remove the lid. I bought it for a lover, someone who would find it funny in the right way. But as these things go—especially, it seems, when you buy something like a ceramic rooster—the affair fizzled too quickly to merit pottery poultry of any sort.
I realized it was high time I became a lady in possession of a candy dish anyway.
When I was growing up, my grandmother Alice always had one. Made of turquoise glass, it sat prominently in her front room on a doily-covered stand that I thought of reverently as the candy dish table. Whenever we arrived at her house after our 30-mile drive north, I’d spring out of the car, hastily peck her cheek, and make a beeline for the dish, which she always, always kept stocked. Its contents varied, though she usually kept on hand at least one candy that I adored. Sometimes she put out Hershey Kisses, whose wrapping (silver paper! tiny ribbons!) I preferred to the homogeneity of its chalky chocolate. Sometimes she put out black licorice, which I regarded as forbiddingly medicinal, a last-resort candy if ever there were one. Sometimes she set out sheets of button candy, so beautiful in their orderly array of rainbow colors that I could almost will myself into finding them as delicious as they looked. But most appealing were the gumdrops, with their coarse grains of sugar and fascinatingly resistant gelatin. Of course within that category existed a wide range: I liked best the mint gumdrops, then lemon, then orange, then cherry (which even as a child I viewed as sickly sweet) and, then, at the absolute bottom of the barrel, the white and black ones, both flavored a nasty anise.
For me the visits were always centered on that dish. The first few pieces I ate freely. After that, lest anyone accuse me of being a Greedy Gus, I’d back off. While my mother and her sister vied for my grandmother’s attention and the other kids watched old sci-fi movies on Channel 56 with my Uncle Al I’d pace the house with a studied casualness. Sometimes I’d even affect to read whatever paperback I’d brought along with me. Only when I was certain no one was watching would I lift the lid and snatch another piece. And another. And another. By the time dinner was served—inevitably some tortured piece of meat floating in a dead-on-arrival gravy—I was far too full to even feign an appetite. Despite all my efforts at obfuscation, my family would laugh at me around the table.
In some ways I was an acutely observant child but in others I was remarkably dense. Certainly despite my grandmother’s two strokes and progressive heart and lung disease, I never registered the gravity of her ill health until one day I discovered the dish empty save a forlorn residual of sugar. That was the last time I ever visited while she was alive, and long after her death it is that dish which haunts me.
It was a sign that, though my grandmother rarely engaged with any of us kids in the family directly, she cared that we came around and she cared that we liked to do so. Though I didn’t admit it to myself at the time, I always felt her watching me as I snuck a paw into her candy dish, and I always relished the thrill of being seen. Which is why, despite the fact that my palette has otherwise greatly matured and despite the fact that I am painfully aware of its overall toxicity, I still harbor a great love for treacherous, treacherous sugar—especially candy.
So when last summer my beau became yet another Artist Formerly Known as My Beau, I eyed that candy dish contemplatively. Without really acknowledging anything to myself, I placed it prominently on the table between my two kitchen windows and began to fill it up. In the post-Halloween sales, I bought mini Snickers and peanut butter cups, and in the detritus of Valentines Day I bought half-price red and pink caramel-sea salt hearts. The Jolly Ranchers at the nail salon made me so glad that I bought a bag of them, weeding out the grape and blue lozenges to avoid a white gumdrop-style tragedy. A friend gave me lollypop rings, and I added those to what I’d come to fondly regard as The Rooster as well.
I realized the dish provided just the right punctuation point for my Ruby Intuition sessions, for which I’d been seeking an appropriate closing ritual. Being offered a simple pleasure of the body has proven a terrific way for my clients to return to terra firma. Now, as a joke but also as a shy gesture of love, I offer all my guests something from The Rooster upon their departure. No matter how some officially disapprove of desserts, no one can resist a brightly wrapped piece of candy, if only to slip in their pockets. As it turns out, candy just makes everyone happy.
But the true purpose of the candy dish became apparent when my 10-year-old goddaughter recently visited me for the first time from Boston. A notoriously difficult eater who eschews nearly everything, she does approve of all delivery systems of sugar—especially, as it happens, of candy. As she surreptitiously unwrapped piece after piece and cooed over The Rooster’s lolly rings, her mother sighed heavily while I pretended to look out the window. And I finally got it.
This is a child I love as much as I love any on the planet. She is precious to me because I witnessed her birth, because I have already shared with her countless secrets and jokes and joys and life passages and challenges, because she is the child of a woman who’s been a best friend since we were both six years old, and because I will never choose to be a parent myself. And she is also precious to me because she is a spiky, charismatic, wonderfully alive person in her own right. Of course, as one of the adults in her inner circle, my primary goal is to support her growth rather than to win her over. But I also labor to create a bond so strong that she will actively choose my company as she moves through her life.
For like my grandmother, who always seemed nonplussed by her role as matriarch much as she loved us, I value free will above everything. And like my goddaughter I am in all things a supertaster, an arguably too-sensitive person who discriminates carefully at all times, and who appreciates others who do so as well. To that end I have always viewed friendship to be the highest of human bonds, far above romantic or blood ties, as it is the most purely elective and the least driven by biological or legal imperatives. Only in friendship must we earn each other’s company rather than treat it as an unalienable right.
Admittedly, such free agency doesn’t exactly supply much of a social safety net. And so as I become ever more particular and less easily pluckable, I understand something I think sly-eyed, hard-to-impress Alice knew as well: If you’re going to be a hard sell, sometimes you’ve got to sweeten the deal.
You’ve got to have a candy dish.