Ode to Nellie

If you have a glass or cup of something handy, get it ready. At the end of this piece we’re going to raise a glass to a woman named Nellie. You might want to get a handful of penny candy too … you’ll see why.

Nellie and her husband (whose first name I never knew) ran a small corner store when I was a child. In my home town of Sioux Lookout, Ontario, there were three stores like hers, but the other two were on the “other side of the tracks,” and so, we, on the south side, all went to Nellie’s. The sign coming into Sioux always said “Population 2,300” (so you get an idea of the size of the place).

The store was called, simply, Nellie’s. All the kids in our neighbourhood knew exactly when she was open, and what kind of mood her husband was in at any given time. You did not want to be in the store when he was in a foul mood.

It’s only in my adult years that I have thought about Nellie and what she meant to us as children. She didn’t have kids of her own, and I don’t know how old she was at that time. She seemed ancient, but then so did my mom. A tight curly perm, her hair dyed some kind of red-blonde. An ever-present apron, and glasses that slid down her nose as she wiped our grimy handprints off the counter.

For kids, the big draw to Nellie’s was the candy counter. It was right there—the first thing you saw when you opened the door and walked in. I can still smell the place: fresh coffee, stale cigarette smoke (everyone smoked everywhere then) and cinnamon buns. But for us, it was all about the candy counter. So many kinds of penny candy: jawbreakers, licorice whips, double bubble, wax lips and little bottles made of wax with some sort of foul liquid inside. Spearmint leaves, marshmallow strawberries, cinnamon hearts, sponge toffee.

There were also some candies for which we had a name I will not repeat now (and shouldn’t have then, either). Today, we’d call them licorice babies. It was common wisdom among the neighbourhood kids that there were two kinds of licorice babies: boys and girls. Not only that, but what you wanted was the boys. Why? Well, everyone knew that way you got more candy. (Don’t ask.) They were all exactly the same, of course, but we believed you got more if you ordered the boys. Picture this: we’d go into the store, nickels in grubby hands, and say, “Licorice babies, please. All boys.” Nellie would make a show of picking through them, sorting the boys from the girls and, straight-faced, put them in the little paper bags.

Ice cream cones came in two sizes: the five-cent cone was small and pointed at the bottom. (I loved to bite the bottom off and suck the melting ice cream through the full length of the cone.) The ten-cent cone was a distant dream for us, but we knew what they looked like—larger and squat, with a flat bottom. Marilyn Johnson, a big girl, used to get one and set it flat on the tabletop (yellow mottled formica) in the café, letting it melt till the cream dripped down the side.

Nellie always had three kinds of ice cream in her freezer: vanilla, chocolate and one other. That third flavour changed every week. The truck came in on Tuesday morning. Word would spread through the neighbourhood like germs through a daycare—Nellie has rainbow! That’s the one that got us whining for a nickel at home, and running to the store. Banana was another favourite. Maple walnut elicited a groan from us all. Disgusting. A decidedly adult taste, apparently. Nellie probably ordered it for precisely that reason.

I was 10 years old in 1964, and the Beatles had just hit it big in North America. At 10, I didn’t know much about the music, but I did know that all the big girls were fans, so I was too. We didn’t have a television then, so I had to read movie magazines that were left on the tables at Nellie’s.

Nellie ordered in Beatles bubble gum cards. Two cards in a pack, featuring pictures of the Fab Four, and a slab of what was supposed to be “gum” on top. Mom said I was not allowed to waste money on that, and I assume my friends’ moms said the same, because we picked through fields and ditches and the yard behind the seaplane dock, looking for pop bottles. We took them in, not washed, to Nellie, who accepted them and gave us credit for them until we had enough for Beatles cards.

Susan, who lived at the foot of our hill, went through a stealing stage. She would wait until Nellie was distracted and, fast as anything, her arm would move into the case of chocolate bars. I was alternately awed and shocked. I know that Nellie quietly called her parents and they solved it somehow, without drawing unnecessary attention or embarrassing her in front of us and the others in the store.

To all the “Nellies” in the world, and especially our Nellie, I say thank you and thank you again … for good memories, for gentle understanding of little people, for a genuine service to our corner of the world, and even for more than my share of cavities. Wherever you are, may your life be as sweet as you helped make ours.

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