My first paying job was checking for bad guys in Mrs. Meyers’ house when I was nine years old. Mrs. Meyers, a widow in her early sixties, lived beside us. Each Wednesday evening, after my family drove Mrs. Meyers home from church, my year-and-a-half older sister, Heather, and I ran inside to open closets and lift dust ruffles. I didn’t know why Mrs. Meyers was still scared of being alone; it had been years since she’d lost her husband, Johnny, whose portrait hung above a model ship and a pair of Dutch wooden clogs on the mantel.
She tended her jungle-like backyard, fearless against snakes and bugs, fighting the battle of weeds and leaves under a thick canopy of trees and vines. So why was she scared of the dark? And what did she expect us—two little girls—to do against whatever she feared might be hiding in that house?
Still, though I didn’t understand, when she unlocked the door, we bolted in ahead of her like two bobby-socked bodyguards while Mrs. Meyers screeched, “If there’s anyone in here, you’d better git.”
“If there’s anyone in here, you’d better git.”
There were many rooms for someone to hide in, each room opening into the next like a labyrinth. In each room, I tensed a bit, afraid that I might actually find someone lurking, that arms would grab me before I could jump back from the closet door, that eyes would stare back when I peeked beneath the bed. The back room was the scariest, the room where Mama Kitty, Mrs. Meyers’ calico cat, perpetually produced kittens like some kind of back-room business. Her kitten production room was an added-on bedroom with furniture against every inch of wall. My surveillance consisted of poking my head in and then running out, barely making enough movement to disturb Mama Kitty where she nursed a new litter in a corner box.
After inspecting each room, Heather and I rendezvoused in the kitchen where Mrs. Meyers distributed our payment of two Oreo-looking cookies that did not fool me: they were off-brand chocolate sandwich cookies.
Years of attending Vacation Bible School snack times had turned me into a cheap-cookie connoisseur. VBS programs operate under a simple mantra: “Jesus loves you kids, but by golly, you’re getting Rose Art crayons and the cheapest cookies money can buy.” I knew the difference between store-brand, grainy chocolate chip cookies that scattered crumbs on my lap and the Soft Bake cookies that melted in my mouth and came in the red re-sealable bag—the pièce de résistance of cookies.
I scoffed at the flower-shaped cookies (the ones I could wear like rings on my fingers) with brown smudges as the so-called chocolate chips. I could detect nuanced differences between real Nilla Wafers and the cardboard-textured off-brand discs. Animal crackers were the one cookie I could count on to always be the same, except for the pink-iced animal crackers, a level of decadence that I never once remember receiving in all my years of VBS.
The Oreo knock-offs were easy to detect. Oreos had a proper ratio of chocolate wafer to creamy center, blending into the perfect pasty pair on my tongue. The off-brand sandwich cookies crumbled with too much dry cookie to the less-sweet sticky cream. The cookies and cream clashed, each vying for attention in my mouth, strangers rather than partners.
My childish self-importance was insulted that Mrs. Meyers thought it okay to place those off-brand tokens of thanks into the same hands that she placed her safety. One night, done with the cheap payment, I blurted, “Next time you go to the store, will you get those soft chocolate chip cookies in the red bag?”
Mrs. Meyers chuckled and held out the fake Oreos.
The next Wednesday, she hobbled up her concrete walk alone, turning to wave after she’d flipped on the light. Strangely enough, she never employed us again.
I wonder if she really needed me at all.
Now as an adult, I understand Mrs. Meyers’ fear of the dark and the power of another human’s presence, even that of a little girl, to drive out fear. But looking back now, I also wonder if she really needed me at all. I wonder if, in addition to cheap cookies, she was simply giving me the chance to enjoy a sense of purpose and adventure every Wednesday night by allowing me to put aside my fear for someone else’s peace of mind. I’m thankful for Mrs. Meyers’ and every other person who ever fired my imagination, who put my energy to work and made me think of more than myself.
Still, she’d probably be happy to know that, after Heather’s report of my ingratitude, my parents insisted I curb my cookie snobbery so that today there’s hardly a cookie I’d turn away—brand name or not.