Mother’s Day Eve:
When people tell me how much they admire the fact that I created a business around something that I love, I feel a little guilty. The truth is, when I dreamed up this job of making chocolate, I wasn’t really all that crazy about chocolate. Never had been. In actuality, my relationship to chocolate (prior to making a business of it) was visceral, associative, and very, very complicated. In short, it had everything to do with my mother.
I grew up in a single-parent household; dad hit the road when I was two, and I dimly remember only a handful of volatile, strained, uncomfortable visits with him before they stopped altogether by the time I reached my teens. I was the youngest kid—separated from my brother by four years, and my sister by eight—which meant mom struggled to make ends meet for three kids on a librarian’s salary. And though the financial strain in my childhood household was palpable, and often, stressful, I never felt lacking. My mom was a smart, fierce negotiator when it came to making a fair salary, and she was a wise investor. She sewed dresses for me and my sister, to augment a small clothing budget. We took annual summer vacations—a much-anticipated two-week camping trip somewhere in California mountains. She did not hesitate to use food stamps when needed so that we always had good, healthy food in our cupboards. There was always a birthday gift and a Christmas gift for all of us. And there was chocolate. In a home where the necessities were covered, but luxuries were rare, the appearance of satiny, beribboned box of chocolates on the coffee table was something special indeed.
The box would appear at Easter and at Christmas. We were each allowed one piece each day, until the box was empty but for the wrappers. This was done after dinner, and we would gather ceremonially around the box. We’d make our choices, and delight! Or, in some cases, pout because we got the cherry cordial, or the medicinal-tasting gummy. But what made these moments so special for me, was not the permission to indulge in the chocolate itself, but the opportunity to savor my mother’s momentary happiness. Chocolate induced the rare smile in my mom. I think she delighted in our negotiations around the box. And, of course, she truly loved chocolate. And when we allow ourselves to have something that we truly love, even just occasionally, and even if we are unhappy people, we are, in that moment, happy.
One spring, weeks after the Easter box of chocolates had disappeared, a kid in my neighborhood went door-to-door selling raffle tickets for a Little League fundraiser. I was home alone when he came to my door and explained what he was selling the tickets for. I didn’t care about baseball. What caught my attention was that first prize was a five-pound box of chocolates. Five pounds! That could easily win two weeks of happy mom moments! I bought a ticket for a dollar (from a stash in my musical jewelry box—my most recent Christmas gift), despite the kid trying to up-sell my odds if I bought more than one. One dollar may only buy one ticket, but it bought an unlimited amount of hope.
Hope is a funny thing. I had planned to keep my entry a secret from my mom, and then surprise her if I won. But I was giddy on hope! I gushed my story at the dinner table that night. I could win, I told my family. Five pounds of chocolate! As was their job as older siblings, my brother and sister duly reminded me that my chances were slim. In fact, they were nil. Mom agreed. But she suggested a strategy. She told me to focus on how much I wanted to win that box of chocolates, to ask myself why it was so important. And then she told me to picture it. To visualize winning the chocolate, opening it, and savoring the first bite. I took her suggestions to heart, and started that night. I asked my family to gather around the coffee table, and I mimed opening the box, offered a piece to each person. I asked them to act like they were actually eating a piece of chocolate. This got some eye-rolls from my brother, and some giggles from my teenaged sister, but it made my mom smile. And to my family’s credit, they went along with this charade for the week up until the raffle drawing. Every night, after dinner, just as if we had a real box of chocolates, we went through this ritual. If a friend or a neighbor came over, I would offer them a chocolate from the imaginary box, and promised, that if—no, when—I won, I would share the real thing with them.
A week later, a five-pound box of chocolates was delivered to my door by a representative of the Little League team. It was a ginormous, red foiled, heart-shaped number, and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Not so much because of what it held, or the fact that I had won it, but because of what it promised.
Looking back, it’s no wonder that my family, neighbors, and childhood friends were less surprised than I was when I went into the chocolate business. They must have thought I was obsessed with the stuff based on that one experience alone! They could have never guessed the real reason it was so important to me to win that box of chocolates.
As I write this, it occurs to me, alarmingly, that the reason for my career choice may have more to do with my mother than I care to admit. That it’s somehow tied to the latent, unrequited desire to make her happy. That I might be much less well-adjusted than I thought.
But does that make me so different than most people? Probably not. The truth is, I learned very young that I like to see people smile. That I like to see them in a moment of happiness, even if it’s just watching as they bite into something delicious. That moment is pure and visceral and real and unbreakable and contagious. Even if all the other moments before and after are the exact opposite. That moment lives…well, it lives in us forever. I learned that from my mother.