Why I Will Never Forget Henry

A few weeks ago, I came across these painted rocks in Colchester, CT. I’d stopped at Starbucks, thinking a caramel latte would cure my blues over the national news. But the rocks are what lifted my spirits. Thank you, anonymous artist, for reaching out to strangers. 

I think of these rocks often now, particularly when I’m working at the toy store, where sometimes children, teens and adults need something beyond a toy recommendation. Whether they are searching for a genuine smile, for someone to listen to their story, or to know they are not alone, I embrace these opportunities to spread kindness. And sometimes in making personal connections, a person unknowingly sheds light on my own unresolved issues, as Henry did on a muggy day in August.

Henry shuffles into the toy store and up to our wooden front counter. “I’m looking for WWI die cast planes, for someone who’ll be dead in two years.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that someone isn’t well,” I say.

“It’s not that I’m not well, I’m 84 years old, so I could die next week, or next month, you never know.” Henry offers me a playful smile that shows he enjoys teasing people.

I lead Henry to the room where we keep the collectible toy soldiers.  Henry seems familiar but I don’t connect the dots until he shares more about his life. A former history teacher, with a passion for WWI, he visited Toy Soldier for the first time a year ago. “Some nice lady helped me, but it wasn’t you,” he insists, handing me a note from his wallet. The words in neat cursive say Planes that Henry Bought.

“That’s not my handwriting,” I say.

“Of course not. I wrote that. It’s the handwriting of a soon-to-be-dead old man.” He pulls out another paper with the store’s address and phone number, along with a name. My name.

“I’m Betsy.”

“You poor thing. It was you. If it wasn’t for that exhausting honey-do list I would have come sooner.”

“Honey-do list?”

“Yes. The wife’s. She’s sitting on your bench outside, probably adding to the darn list. Maybe it’s a good thing I might die next week.”

I excuse myself and step away to help other customers. Twenty minutes later, Henry is still in our soldier room, his eyes fixed on a limited edition Fokker plane.

“Sure is a beauty, but it’s expensive, and Miss Holds the Purse Strings won’t let me get it.”

I offer to take the plane out of the case to show his wife.

“Oh, god, no. I’ll just describe it to her.” Henry shuffles to the porch while I help a woman select a doll for her two-year-old daughter. After ringing up the sale, I look through the window behind me. Henry is still talking, using his arms to demonstrate the size of the plane to a wife who now seems primed for a nap.

I step out to say hi. “Would you like to see a picture of the plane?”

“No. I don’t need to see it. What I need is for him to stop talking about the darn plane.” She glances up at her husband. “Do you want the plane, Henry?”

Henry looks at me, like I’m supposed to answer for him.

“Do you want the plane?” I ask Henry.

He nods, then shuffles after me. Back into the store, back to the glass case. I slide the heavy metal Fokker of its shelf and hand it to Henry. His eyes glisten. “Can you imagine flying a plane like that, without a cockpit cover?” He continues to chat as we walk to the front counter where I then carefully secure the plane in its limited edition box.

What looks like a five-year-old smile erases from Henry’s lined face. “God forgive me for what I’m about to do.” He pulls out a charge card from his wallet.

“Forgive you for what?”

“Buying the plane.” Henry’s eyes water. “I don’t deserve it.”

Henry’s words, the image of him cradling the plane in his arms, bring me back to my mother, back to her favorite brown leather shoes.

It was the last week in April, and my mother had just been admitted to Hospice. Rather than discuss what that meant, she wanted to talk about her shoes. “They’re almost worn out, I need to replace them. But they’re too expensive.” Even though she could no longer walk, we ordered replacements with expedited shipping. Two days later, my mother smiled, cradling the new shoes in her lap. “Just what I wanted,” she’d said before shifting her legs over the side of the hospital bed and asking for the shoes to be put on her feet. 

 And then she insisted the shoes be removed from her feet and returned to their box. “I’ll wear them when my old pair is completely worn out.”

My mother believed she would walk again.

 My mother believed she had longer to live.

 My mother thought she didn’t deserve a new pair of shoes.

 The box sat in the corner of her room until I shoved it in the closet so I wouldn’t see it when I visited her each day. Four weeks later, the shoes were sent back, the day after her assisted living apartment was emptied.

 And then I tried to forget about the shoes.

 And I tried to forget that my mother died two days before the first anniversary of my husband’s death from ALS.

 I tried to forget the memories and images that accompany watching loved ones suffer through unthinkable and cruel diseases.

But Henry unknowingly triggers these memories, and how I’ve avoided facing the truth of all that has happened these past two years. 

“If you were me, what would you do?” Henry is wrestling over whether to buy the plane or not.

I push back tears, wishing I’d made my mother wear the new shoes, when Henry locks eyes with me.

I am at a loss for words. Breathe, I tell myself, picturing the yellow letters on the purple rock.

“Put the plane back on the shelf,” he says. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

“You deserve the plane, Henry.”

A minute later, Henry inches toward our front door, a large shopping bag in his right hand. He is almost out of sight when I call him back. “Henry, can you promise me something? Can you promise to take the plane out of the box when you get home? Can you promise me you’ll enjoy having the plane?”

Across the display of card games he extends a shaky hand. I take it. “I promise,” he says with a squeeze.

Henry shuffles down our front path, his wife following behind. He stops and reaches back for her. She takes his left hand with a smile.

I do not know if I will ever see Henry again, but I will never forget him. I will never forget holding my husband’s hand when we’d walk through Olde Mistick Village. I will never forget holding my mother’s hand when she took her last breath on May 30th this year.

And I, too, will keep the promise I made to both of them.

I begin today.

I begin with writing this post.

A Bath For Big Bear

May - July 09 Norman 127For years, Norman the gorilla sat in front of the toy store. He posed with customers, listened to children tell stories, and he even let crying babies sit in his lap. 

But  then Norman began to wonder. Was there more to the world besides sitting on a bench, day after day after day?

So he asked to visit my house, where  he sat in our swing, climbed the Japanese maple tree, and then announced, “I’m going to publish a book. If you need me, I’ll be in your writing room.”

“You have to go back to work tomorrow,” I said.


DSC08344“I don’t think so,” said Norman. “I’ve decided to write my autobiography. It could take me years to find an agent.”

“Years? Agent? Then who will sit on the bench?” 

“Ask the giraffe,” said Norman, who when asked to reconsider, said, “My swinging days have only just begun.”

Norman, it seemed, had a new life.

DSC05038The bench empty, Gerdie the loves-to-gossip chicken spread rumors around the store. Soon, all the animals wanted to audition for the job. The giraffe was too tall; his head bumped the porch ceiling. The rhinoceros was too long; his bum exceeded the width of the wooden bench, three times over. The monkey was too unpredictable; he swung from the rafters and surprised customers by jumping on their heads.

Something had to be done.

We tried dogs. Big stuffed dogs. Small stuffed dogs. Even real dogs. They barked too much. And then there was the goat, but that story is for another day.

In utter desperation, we called a meeting of the village ducks. Might they take turns sitting on the bench? Even with the incentive of extra duck food, the ducks declined the offer. 

What was the toy store to do?

046_46Then one day a large box arrived. It had to be opened outside; it did not fit through the door. What was in the box? A parade of waddling ducks  stopped to see what was happening. “Quack,” said one. 

Finally, the sides of the box split open, and out fell Big Bear. 

Big Bear smiled at us. We smiled back, until . . . 

“Was Norman this big?” someone asked.

None of us could remember, so Norman agreed to set his writing aside for the afternoon, and drove to the store so we could compare the two.

Norman sat on the bench.

Bear tried to sit on the bench, but his Big Bear bum tipped him over.

After Norman offered sitting-on-a-bench tips, Big Bear accepted the job.

norman and big bearMonths went by. Years, even. Bear greeted people. He posed for pictures. And then he began to get dirty from being loved so much. Children shared their ice cream, cotton candy, and fried dough coated with powdered sugar. “A bear that big needs a lot of food,” said a kid with his plate at Big Bear’s mouth. 

After a DO NOT FEED BIG BEAR sign was put outside, kids jumped on him instead.

“I didn’t sign up for jumping,” said Big Bear after he asked for an early-retirement package and announced he planned to move in with with Norman.

“There’s no room for you at my house,” I said, helping Big Bear back onto his bench. “I’ll ask people to be more gentle.”  

And it worked for a while, until a child insisted that Big Bear had asked to finish his chocolate ice cream with sprinkles. 

It was time for Bear to have a  much-needed bath.

The next day it rained and rained. I came ready with a bucket, a scrub brush, and a hair dryer. 

I looked at bear. He looked at me. “Oh, dear, Big Bear, you are very, very large. This may take all day,” I said.

First, I showed Bear a yoga pose. (His feet were the dirtiest, and this was the only way for me to clean them.) Bear rolled over on his head. “Good Bear,” I told him. “Now stay like that while I fill your bucket.”

At the sink, I mixed soap with hot water. I carried the bucket back to Bear.

Bear was no longer alone. Bossy Frog’s babies, who are very, very curious about all that goes on in the store, had wandered over (or rather leaped) to see what I was doing. They stared at Bear. Why was he not on his bench? Why was he upside down? Did he want to join them in a game?

Bear stared back. Why were Bossy Baby Frogs sitting on his head?

After promising the frogs they could help, I began to scrub and scrub and scrub. Bear was patient as could be. Baby Bossy Frogs were not as patient. Besides being very, very curious about all activities in the store, they are also very, very chatty. “When was I going to be done?” asked one. “What do we get to do?” asked another.  “I want to be in charge,” said the most bossy in the bunch of bossy baby frogs.

“Try standing on your head, like Bear,” I told them. So they did. For a long, long time. As long as bossy baby frogs can stand on their heads.

“Am I done?” asked Bear.

“Are we done?” asked a frog. “Yes, my head hurts,” said another. “When can I be in charge?” asked the baby frog much bossier than the rest.

“Yes, Bear, you are almost done. And now, Bossy Frogs, it is time for you to help.”

“Hooray!” said one. “Me first!” said another. “I’m in charge!” said the bossiest of the bunch.

Big Bear waited patiently while the bossy baby frogs argued over who would do what. Finally, they came to an agreement.

And by the end of a very long day, Big Bear was finally clean and dry, ready to return to work in the morning. 

If you are in the Mystic area, stop by and say hello. Big Bear loves to give hugs, as long as you don’t offer him any food, or run into him at high speeds, thinking he’s a trampoline. 




What is Your Definition of Tons?

Now that school is back in session, the energy in the toy store has shifted. Fewer people come through the door, and I can actually hear which songs are playing on the radio. During school hours, the wee ones who frequent the store are generally in strollers.  And wearing diapers. Boxes arrive needing to be checked in, priced, and displayed in an appealing way. And while I  enjoy this task, I miss seeing the children, the young customers  I have come to know and enjoy. I miss talking to them, discussing what books they are reading, and listening to whatever they choose to reveal.

This past weekend, there were a  number of memorable customers: the seven-year-old girl who proudly announced to me that she was now a Junior Dinosaur Hunter; the girl who wants to be a giant bat for Halloween and needed help finding baby bats to be her babies; the boy who always wears a tie, and has a collection of over five hundred ties; the three-year-old girl who grabbed my hand and led me through the store showing me everything she liked; the two young brothers who negotiated for almost an hour in the stuffed animal room until one brother’s terms of repayment abruptly put an end to the negotiations; and the seven-year-old girl who came in yesterday, after school, to spend her savings.

At 3:30, she walked into the store with her grandmother, dressed in a plaid school uniform. She came to buy something. Anything. Whatever she could afford with what was in her change purse, or rather a long knitted sock with a brass clasp at the top.

Generally the accompanying adult or the child, or both, are aware of how much the child has to spend. They go back and forth, discussing which toys are affordable, and which would require that the child wait and save up more money. In most cases, the child chooses not to wait. They want to buy something now. Today.

I offered my assistance to the grandmother, hoping she knew the child’s spending limit. She didn’t. “Oh, she has her own money and has to choose herself. This could take a long time,” she said. “A very, very long time.”

After letting her know I would help, as needed, (and that I understood her predicament), I returned to the day’s shipments. I priced the new product “Find It” and began to make room on glass shelving to the left of our register. First I put away the school themed items: die-cast school bus, remote control school bus, a Ravensburger puzzle with a school bus and cats for students, and an assortment of back-to-school books. Shelves clean, I worked on displaying the new game, which is very intriguing and sounds like a lot of fun for all ages.

Behind me the girl continued to look and look and look. “You can’t afford that,” her grandmother said. (The two of them were standing in front of the glass cases where we keep the collectible dolls.) Ten minutes went by. “No, you can’t afford that, either.” After ten more minutes, and five more “You can’t afford that,” the grandmother sighed, and suggested they go home.Pleaded was more like it.  The girl refused.

This was my signal to assist, while following my Six Steps to Get a Child To Leave the Toy Store Smiling and With a Purchase They Will Enjoy.

1. Introduce yourself to the child and let them know you will help them.

2. Assure the adult involved that you are experienced in these type of situations, and with any luck, they should be able to leave the store within ten minutes.

3. Ask the child what they are interested in, or more importantly, what they are hoping to buy with their money. (Pray that the child is not set on taking home a Steiff or Madame Alexander doll, because if that is the case, you will have a challenge on your hands.)

4. Find out how much money they have with them.

5. Knowing their interests, show them a variety of items within their budget. If they keep going back to the collectibles, distract them before they even enter that area. (You can easily distract a child by asking them questions about their family, pets, siblings, etc.) Children love to talk about themselves.


In this case, steps 1 and 2 went smoothly. In step 3, I confirmed the challenge on hand. She wanted a doll. A $91.00 doll. I jumped to step 4 and asked, “How much money did you bring with you?” 

 “Lots.” She smiled and jingled her lavender and gray knitted sock, its contents clinking.

“How much is lots?”

“Tons.” Clink. Clink. Clinkety-clink.

I began to ask for her definition of tons when she sprang to step 5 on her own. “My brother has lots of money. He has millions of money. More than me.” Clink. Clink. Clink.

“I see,” I said and steered her away from the collectibles, in the direction of the games and puzzles.

“I have to sleep in a bunk bed.”

“Top or bottom?”

“Bottom. My brother–the one who has the millions–he sleeps on the top, cuz I have rules. Lots of rules.”

At this point, her grandmother sent me a distress signal. I needed to have this child out the door in less than five minutes. As a writer, I was intrigued by the girl’s conversation. What kind of rules did she have? Did the brother follow them? Did she make up the rules herself and  . . .

The grandmother was fading. Fast.

“How many dollars do you have with you?” I said, wishing to hear more about her rules.

“Don’t know. Let me see,” she said and shook her sock. Clink. Clink. Clink. “See. Told you. I have tons.” She held the sock closer to my ear so I could varify the tons of money.

“Why don’t we count what you have, just to be sure.” I walked her to the register, picked up the calculator, and asked her to empty the sock. There were wadded dollar bills–two of them, and coins. Tons of coins. Pennies and nickels and dimes and quarters and coins from other countries.

We counted. The grandmother sorted the nickels. I flattened the dollar bills. The girl made a stack of pennies. A very tall stack, which teetered precariously.

Money counted, she insisted on buying the $91 doll. Her sock contained $3.86 in American money. Two minutes remained before the deadline was up.

I rushed through the store, desperately seeking small items priced $3.00 and below. The girl dragged her feet, mumbling about the doll, and why was it that her baby brother had millions and she didn’t.

Nothing caught her interest. I had a basket filled with little Schleich animals, lanyard in different colors, coloring books, and temporary tattoos. (Silly bands were not allowed in her household.) The girl shuffled behind me, clinking her coins, and clinging to her dream of buying the doll. The grandmother announced  “Time is up.” The girl’s eyes flooded with tears.

“You said you like dolls, right?” I said.

She nodded, beginning to cry.

“What do you feed your babies?”

“Cheerios, jello, crackers . . .”

“How about a baby bottle?”

“Okay,” she said and wiped her eyes.

I leaned closer to her and whispered. “How about two baby bottles?”

She beamed and followed me to the register. Out dumped the money. We all shared in counting out  $3.17.  “You’re an angel,” her grandmother said as they left the store.

I wished them well, thinking, I am not an angel. I am a writer who is incredibly lucky to work at a toy store.

Our website is finally up and running. Most of the pictures were taken by me, which I hope reflect the true essence of The Toy Soldier. www.toysoldiermystic.com