Walk in Another Person’s Shoes, A Lesson Learned from Mom

[This personal essay was published in the April/May 2023 issue of Our Wisconsin. Last year and this year, the editors asked for submissions on the theme “Lessons Learned from Mom” in honor of Mother’s Day. Our Wisconsin is a print-only magazine. Happy Mother’s Day to everyone who mothers someone.]

Me (l) and my sister (r), circa 1963, about a year before our candy caper.

Mom taught us to think about how our actions affected other people. My sister and I were about 5 and 6 the first time I remember Mom delivering this lesson.

We lived in rural Franklin, Wisconsin, a mile north of the Racine County border. Sometimes Mom shopped at a small, independent grocery store. It was nearby, and she liked the store’s butcher shop.

On an autumn day around 1965, Mom loaded us into the car for a trip to the local store, which my sister and I relished. The vibrant-colored penny candy located by the checkout counter made our mouths water. Our pockets normally jingled with coins from our piggy banks, but Halloween was creeping up, so Mom had nixed buying sweets. “You’ll soon have plenty of candy,” she said. “Leave your money home.” We grumbled but left the house with empty pockets.

The store was old-fashioned compared to the supermarket where Mom usually shopped. At the supermarket, we had to stay with Mom, so we didn’t get lost. At the local store, we could roam. Mom could either see or hear us from anywhere in the store.

Mom walked to the back of the store to talk to the butcher. My sister and I remained near the candy. We yearned for Life Savers.

While Mom talked to the butcher, our chance arrived. The cashier left the counter while other shoppers browsed the aisles. I grabbed a roll of Life Savers and stuffed it into my pocket. “We’ll share them,” I whispered to my sister.

Mom finished shopping and paid the cashier. The pilfered goods rested in my pocket. My sister and I didn’t attempt to eat them in the backseat on the way home. Mom had something akin to eyes in the back of her head.

After returning home, Mom put groceries away in the kitchen, and my sister and I sat in the family room, opening the Life Savers. A debate about favorite flavors, eclipsed caution. Mom heard us arguing and appeared in the doorway connecting the kitchen to the family room.

“Where did you get those?” Her voice squashed our argument and dread rendered us speechless. We knew that she knew.

“Did you pay for those?” she asked.

We shook our heads. Lying to Mom wouldn’t work. She’d call the store to check.

“Get a nickel from your bank.” She glared at us. “You’re returning the candy, paying for it, and apologizing to the owner.”

The words, apologize to the owner, were the harshest part of the punishment. The butcher, a muscular man, owned the store. He wore a white apron splattered with blood. He chopped meat into chunks with sharp knives. Would he be holding a big knife when my sister and I had to stand before him and admit we robbed him? Would he yell at us?

Driving back to the store, Mom painted various scenarios, hoping we’d absorb what she said. She wanted us to understand the far-reaching effects our seemingly insignificant 5-cent theft might cause.

“You didn’t just steal from a store—you stole from the owner, a person.”

I hadn’t thought about that.

“He has a wife and children. If people steal from him, he can’t pay his bills. His family will go hungry.”

I pictured his starving children.

“He won’t be able to pay his employees, and their families will go hungry.”

I pictured more starving children. Guilt joined my apprehension.

“You stole from him, his family, his employees.”

I pictured a line of angry people.

“If he doesn’t make money, his store will close. His customers will be unhappy.”

Mom’s talk continued all the way to the store. I don’t remember what the butcher said to us, but he wasn’t holding a knife and he didn’t yell.

I never shoplifted again. When my 7th grade friends wanted to steal gum from a drugstore, I refused to go with them. I remembered Mom’s lesson—I wouldn’t just be stealing a pack of gum.

Mom applied this lesson to other situations, compelling us to be mindful of people’s feelings, explaining thoughtless behavior hurts people. But the hidden gem in her moral? We learned humanity.

[Essay appears here as it was submitted.]

7 thoughts on “Walk in Another Person’s Shoes, A Lesson Learned from Mom

  1. I love this. Hung on every word. When I stole candy, my mother focused on how mortified she was because her friend, Ginger, who worked in that store, would think badly of my mother. (I prefer the lesson you were given.) You learned humanity. Did I learn it wasn’t so important what I did as long as it didn’t reflect badly on my mother?

    Liked by 1 person

    • My mother was always big on how we she treat people and be respectful to them. She was always pointing out to us that we should be kind because we might not know what someone else was going through. You ask an interesting question about your mother’s approach, which I’m sure was the approach many parents would also take.


  2. This hits close to home. My dad owned a small grocery store, and when I was 12 or 13, a few of my “friends” asked me to get them some candy. I’d always told my dad when I took a candy bar (or Lifesavers), but that time, I didn’t. I still feel bad for not telling him, 47 years later.

    Liked by 1 person

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