My Uncle Karl, more commonly referred to for the first decade of my life as my Uncle Chocolate, owned a chocolate shop in New Jersey by the name of Tulip Chocolate. As a consequence, good grades were celebrated with personalized chocolate-covered Oreos arriving after each grading quarter; our most frequent Eggo toppings were the cocoa-covered bits of excess chocolate he would send home in a big bag after every visit (unfortunately called “Bobbie drippings”, after my aunt); and a chocolate-cast pig stood watch over our kitchen for my entire childhood, after my mother refused to let us eat the Superbowl decoration after our Washington’s team indecorous loss in 1983.
The chocolate shop was filled with wonders far beyond the racks and racks of E.T. chocolate lollipops, daring women’s legs cast in chocolate, and “TIME Man of the Year” chocolate magazine covers. In the first room, that open to customers, yellow and red tulips were painted head-high around the room, springing from a green carpet. There were big picture windows lined with white benches meant for window displays, but also good for peering out at the street.
The next room back was the cooking area, all white walls and metal racks, bright and clean and ready for inspection. It was grounded at the center by a chocolate stirrer, a waist-high machine filled with satiny chocolate, stirring with a blade that was somewhere between terrifying and hypnotizing. Here, too, lived piles of molds for all sorts of shaped chocolates, and dozens of gold boxes waiting to be filled.
In the back, the storage room, the only room where my uncle smoked. As a consequence, the white cardboard boxes that would arrive home smelled faintly, pleasantly of cigarettes, and to this day chocolate feels a bit incomplete without that underlying flavor. Here too lived a Macintosh computer, perfect for playing Oregon Trail while the grownups helped with the Christmas rush, cutting truffles and loading boxes.
Somehow, most fascinating to me was the unexplained purple splotch on the tile floor just at the threshold between the two back rooms. It was clearly some sort of spilled dye or marker-gone-wrong, but it felt special, secret, something that no customer would get to see, and no adults remembered to notice anymore.
Once, at a family dinner, my father was carrying on about his memories from his own uncle’s toy store. Finally, his other uncle, Dick, interrupted, “But Chas didn’t have a toy store. He had a hardware store.”
My father was gobsmacked. “But, I… I can see it! Are you sure?” His father and uncle nodded and chuckled as my father shook his head in disbelief.
It seems to me, these are the enchantments of our youth – piles of gold ribbons, bins of literal nuts and bolts, the sweet smells of chocolate, or sawdust, all mixed up with ownership and secrecy. These little cast-off treasures which cast their net of perfect safety, contentment, belonging and bewitch the simple rooms they occupy into castles in our minds.
There are only so many of these enchanted spaces in our lives. If my memories be false, let me never know the truth.