Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Mouse That Roared

When I was a child, our family received a wonderful present every year from Dad’s sister in London, an aunt we children had never met.  A week or two before Christmas, something remarkable would happen.  A box full of luscious Belgian chocolates would travel all the way across the ocean, the same ocean, I was assured, that we’d go swimming in each summer, and that box would magically land at our door in NE Baltimore.  Somehow, my dad’s sister had access to the world’s best chocolates. These chocolates were related  to the Milky Way and Three Musketeer bars on our drug store shelves, in the same way that Baltimore’s jumbo lump crab cakes are related to the frozen hockey puck-like objects that Mrs. Paul sells---that is, in name only.  Aunt Money’s boxes included orange flavored bars, and strawberry flavored bars, white chocolates and dark chocolates, chocolates shaped like sea shells and chocolates shaped like tiny pyramids.
The fact that our benefactress was named “Aunt Money,” only added to her mystique.  I had never met anyone named Money before or since (or then for that matter). I pieced together the bits of information I had about this mystery woman, and concluded that people named Money could get hold of the world’s finest chocolates whenever they wished and lavish them on children they had never met.  The only other thing I was sure of about Aunt Money was that, based on my dad’s favorite adage, she most definitely did not grow on trees, or presumably, on any particular tree.  
I was about 10 or 11 and we had moved to rural Harford County, north of Baltimore, when Dad announced that his sister was coming for a visit.  By this time, I had learned that Aunt Money actually spelled her name Mani.  This made no sense to me.  If you are named after the most common word for currency, why not spell it correctly?   When Aunt Mani arrived, I found her not at all what I expected.  For all her prominence in the chocolate world, she was no imposing figure, but quite the opposite.  Dad was relatively short, but she was downright tiny. You might call her Mini-Mani.  I would say she was well under five feet in height, and despite her unprecedented access to the best chocolate, she probably weighed no more than a hundred pounds.  She had short dark hair, nicely styled (I later learned she was a hairdresser) and a lilting voice with an indeterminate accent that you might expect from someone with Persian origins born and raised in India and now living in England.  Most importantly for our story, she was also what you might call genteel, perhaps as a result of a proper boarding school upbringing.  The problem was, whatever adjective you might choose to describe the five children of Darius and Mildred Sukhia, unruly, undisciplined, unmannered, uncooperative, unkempt (any word with the prefix “un” seems to work), one word you would never consider would be genteel. 
So Aunt Mani, well-taught, well-mannered and well-groomed, found herself immersed for a week or two in the chaotic world of children who were not well-anything.  It must have caused her great distress to see the way we interacted with each other, and with our parents, because it seems clear now that she was slowly coming to a boil.  Unfortunately, when the water in that British teapot reached 212 degrees, I happened to be the one in the spill zone.  (This was ironic, because of all the children, I was generally the best behaved, as my siblings will no doubt testify even today---the honest ones, that is). 
The soup hit the proverbial fan sometime after we had all squeezed into our Plymouth station wagon for the two hour drive to introduce Aunt Mani to our nation’s capital.  Dad had promised each of us a dollar to spend on souvenirs if we were well-behaved on the trip.  I’m sure this plan was cooked up the night before in a desperate effort to prevent chaos from breaking out and ruining the day for my aunt. Come to think of it, she may have put up the $5. 
I don’t remember what he did to incur Dad’s wrath, but my younger brother Kenny must have ignored the traditional warnings, which usually included some version of the vague threat, “If I have to stop this car!”  It may be that Dad was not as generous with the warnings as usual, and that Kenny, at the age of 8 or 9, wasn’t cognizant of the new dynamic that the presence of a frustrated sister brought to Dad’s normal discipline patterns.  At some point, Dad must have felt backed into a corner, because he took action.  “Enough!  No money for souvenirs for you, Kenneth.  I warned you.  That’s it!”
The entire car was stunned into silence, with one exception.  Kenny was reduced to tears.  As a kid, where’s the fun in going to DC if you can’t bring home a pennant with an image of the Lincoln Memorial on it, or a plastic snow globe of the White House?   His day was ruined.
Then in a rare moment of compassion and magnanimity (which, I just verified, means nobility or high-mindedness, Pretty Boy) and perhaps under the influence of a Sunday School lesson on the golden rule, I said to my brother,
“That’s OK, Kenny, I’ll share with you some of my souvenir money.”
I had barely a second to bask in the warmth of having sacrificed a bit of my own pleasure to help a brother in need, when something happened that I could never have foreseen.  Out of the blue came someone’s hand, and I was slapped, hard on the cheek.  Imagine my shock when I perceived that the hand from nowhere was in fact attached to one of the arms of my diminutive aunt.
She had taken all she could take.  She had observed that on the Sukhia farm, the chicks seemed to rule the roost.  Until then, she had somehow held her peace.  Over the previous several days, her brother’s children had, in effect, piled her back high with straw.   I had just added one more---the final one.  The result was Mutiny in the Plymouth.  Aunt Mani was in the role of Fletcher Christian, and unfortunately, I was Captain Bligh.  The mouse was roaring, and unfortunately, she was roaring at me. 
“YOU ARE UNDERMINING YOUR FATHER’S AUTHORITY.”   Fifty years later, I can still hear her saying it.
I was shocked, hurt and confused.  It seemed to me at the time that I was doing something noble, and I was being persecuted for it.  From my vantage point now, of course, Aunt Mani’s Plymouth Rebellion makes perfect sense.   Dad had withdrawn the offer of souvenir money on account of Kenny’s behavior.  Promising Kenny some of my money was circumventing Dad’s attempted correction, and as my aunt said, undermining his authority.  She was quite right to teach me that lesson.  I only wish I had received it some other way, perhaps written on the wrapper of a Belgian chocolate bar. 
“Don’t give vat your fadder takes avay”
But I don’t suppose that would have left quite the same impression on my malleable mind, not to mention my malleable cheek.  No, in case you’re wondering, I didn’t turn to her the other cheek.  Maybe I thought the golden rule thing didn’t work out so well, so I’d better hold off on that other- cheek business.   More likely, I was just in shock.
That was the first time that I remember being punished for doing something that I thought was good—something that I even thought, at the time, was pleasing to the Lord.   
There are times when you may suffer for doing the right thing.  Your boss may ask you to put some inaccurate figures on a document.   Your refusal may result in retribution.   A friend may urge you to let him copy your homework; doing the right thing may cost you his friendship.  Of course you may be accused of a crime you didn’t commit (unlike Pretty Boy Humphrey, who probably committed all the crimes of which he’s been accused, and several others). 
The Bible says: “...this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully…when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.” (1 Peter 1:19-20)
I remember a Christian couple I knew in Florida many years ago.  Because the husband refused to falsify some figures, as ordered by a superior, he had lost his job with a tree-trimming/ tree-removal business.  Without his regular salary, they were in danger of losing their home.  They were enduring grief and suffering wrongfully because of conscience toward God.  I encouraged them to take it patiently, while the husband looked for another job.  Our small church also came alongside to help them.  But their road was not easy.  The temptation, when faced with a test such as theirs, is to take the path of least resistance, to consent to dishonesty, and to somehow justify it.  But that would be “UNDERMINING YOUR FATHER’S AUTHORITY,” and as I learned in the station wagon long ago, that is not a wise course of action.


  1. Apparently neither I nor Aunt Mani bore any grudge after that unfortunate incident. I spent three wonderful weeks with her in Britain after graduating from high school in 1968. My base of operations was the little flat above her hair salon. Yes, I tried not to undermine her authority, and no,I was never able to discover where she kept her stash of Belgian chocolates.

    1. You should have spent less time looking for chocolates and more time in the hair salon. PB

    2. We can't all be Pretty Boys, Pretty Boy.