Unwrapping a memory

An old favorite flavor of bubble gum allows a student to recall a cherished childhood memory.

While standing in the checkout line at my local Target in Allentown, I was hypnotized by the movement of my soon-to-be purchases down the black conveyor belt.

When I was finally able break my gaze, I lifted my eyes to canvas the rows of chocolate candies, orange tic-tacs and assorted flavors of gum.

As the checkout lady, donned in the company’s signature red uniform, began scanning my last item, I couldn’t resist the temptation of something sweet and sugary.

With limited time, I chose my treat based merely on aesthetics.

A minute later, I was pulling a cupholder-sized container in purple wrapping from one of my plastic shopping bags.

I looked at it: tiny white cubes covered with purple specks beneath the words “Ice Cubes.”

“Arctic Grape,” I read off the label.

Suddenly, I was 12 years old again. I was sitting in the back of my grandmother’s silver RAV4, chewing a piece of grape Bubblicious bubble gum and unwrapping a new piece to add to the old just as the flavor began to fade.

Even my sixth-grade self knew this wasn’t very dignified, but it’s the way I like to chew gum.

Back then, I could be found practicing this unorthodox gum chewing ritual on any given afternoon in the back seat of my grandmother’s car.

I was always singing along to the radio as I stared out the window, stopping to tell my grandmother about my friends and any good grades I had gotten back that day. I was also simultaneously unwrapping one tiny, purple square after another with the intention of testing my jaw’s strength. This was my daily after-school ritual.

A ritual that began with my grandmother picking my sister Allison and I up from our school at 2:45 each afternoon.

Our only stop on the way home was the corner store at the intersection of 23rd and Liberty Streets. There I’d pick out a treat of my choosing. More times than not, it was grape bubble gum.

The tiny convenience store on the corner was called the Campus Shop, and it sat just on the outskirts of Allentown’s Muhlenberg College. Barbara and Gordy, an elderly Chinese couple who bought the store years after immigrating to the U.S., ran the Campus Shop.

My grandmother became a regular patron of their store, buying stamps, lottery tickets or candy for my sister and me almost daily.

“How was school today?” Barbara would ask me in her nasal but always-pleasant voice.

And I would fill her in on anything interesting that happened to me that day.

Meanwhile, my grandmother would purchase a Powerball ticket from Gordy, and the two of them would get wrapped up in discussions about politics, particularly George W. Bush’s latest slip-up.

I would walk over to my grandmother and wait for a break in their conversation.

“Grandma, can I have a dollar?” I would ask.

And my grandmother would look over at me with knowing eyes and hand me two dollars from her navy blue purse, one dollar for me and one for Allison.

I almost always spent my dollar on a five-count pack of grape Bubblicious bubble gum, while my sister alternated between spending her dollar on either Pixy Stix (if she could sneak them past my grandmother) or Sweet Tarts.

After we purchased our respective treats, the three of us would leave the Campus Shop, the tiny, silver bells on the door ringing as it fell shut behind us.

We’d retreat to our car and continue on our way home.

After I had taken my place in the back seat, I would begin unwrapping a piece of grape bubble gum. As I began chewing, I would ask my grandmother about what she and Gordy had talked about, and we’d eventually stumble into a conversation of our own.

“Did you get any grades back?” she might ask.

“Yeah. All hundreds,” I recall saying many times with the same self-satisfied giggle as my fingers fumbled with a growing pile of gum wrappers.

Over the past eight years, I had forgotten how much I used to like grape bubble gum. I had also forgotten the memory of my old after school ritual with my grandmother and sister.

The thing about memories, so I’ve heard, is that if we don’t think about them often enough our brains can’t hold onto them for very long. Then we lose them for good.

So as I left Target that day, I made the resolution that I would always take time to consciously scour the candy shelves at checkout lines, looking for grape bubble gum.

Whether I find a pack or not, it doesn’t matter. I’ll still look. And I’ll think of my grandma and the little bells on the door of the Campus Shop while I do.

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