Recently a friend gave me a box of Whitman’s Sampler. The yellow box with its vintage embroidered look triggered the following memory.

There lived a woman, many years ago, who was old when I was young. I met her briefly, never knew her name and never saw her again but she permanently changed my perception of the world. Greed, poverty, truth, passing judgement, compassion and reality, were all experienced in one vivid moment that I can never forget.

My parents and I were traveling on Grace Lines Santa Maria and had gone for a walk on the dock in Cartagena, Colombia. The Second Steward, a charming man named Sal Renzi, had offered to accompany us for safety sake when we decided to hand out candy to the young boys who’d been diving off the pier for quarters in the hot tropic sunshine. The children gathered quickly as soon as they saw us.

In the midst of this lively crowd, she appeared, black as tar, bent and withered from age, stretching forth knobby fingers and begging silently for candy.

“Children first,” my father told her.

The sea of waving, grasping hands, at first charming, quickly frightened me, as though Medusa had taken on the form of innocence. There’s a moment of fear when you are surrounded by people who have nothing and want desperately what you have. The climax arrives when you know your generosity will be exhausted before their needs are met.

Dad was trying to distribute the candy fairly and blocked the woman’s hand several times, but despite her age and frailty, she held her ground and remained insistent.

“Just wait!” he said, clearly annoyed.

“She only wants one of the brown papers,” Renzi told him and I saw Dad glance at him in confusion. “She’ll save it to smell.”

At the end, Renzi told the boys to move on and Dad gave the woman the two chocolates that remained, along with the crinkly cups and the box. She never said thank you, but her face declared it and, clutching her treasure protectively, she walked out of our lives.

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