PANAMA CITY — My parents taught me never to take candy from strangers. My children heard the same rule as they were growing up.
Monday, I broke that age-old imperative.
Entering the downtown Post Office, I joined a queue of people waiting for their chance to do business with one of the two clerks. Up ahead, I saw an older gentleman in a denim shirt and cap shaking a woman’s hand. She had a confused expression, and I saw him pass something to her during the handshake.
He moved on to the person ahead of her in line, and she opened her right palm to examine the mint candies he had given her. Little white-and-red swirls of sugar wrapped in cellophane.
I wondered then if she was leery of accepting candy from a stranger, and I counted myself lucky to be entering behind him so I didn’t have to make that same decision.
“May I shake your hand?” I heard him ask the person in front of her. They shook hands, and he passed some more candy in the handshake.
He continued in this way to the front of the line, then spoke to the clerks, who appeared to know him. He turned to a young man who had stepped out of the line when a third clerk appeared to ask if anyone was there for General Delivery. He asked if he could shake the young man’s hand, but the guy held up a mint and said, “You did already, thank you.”
I saw the old man notice me at the back of the line, then. He started my way, and I wondered what my response would be when he asked. I hoped nothing smart-alecky would erupt, unbidden, out of my mouth. I looked up at the boxes wrapped in shiny Christmas paper on the walls and part of me hoped he would just bypass me.
But he rounded the kiosk of Priority Mail envelopes and extended his right hand. I spotted the candy wrappers peeking out.
“May I shake your hand?” he asked in an accent from the woods where I grew up.
“Sure,” I said. He gave my right hand a friendly tug, pressing two pieces of candy into my palm as he did so. I said thank you, then I asked how he was doing.
He almost turned away, then he looked up at me from under the bill of his cap.
“Not so great, if I’m still here and not in heaven,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
I smiled as if I understood, but my true emotions were conflicted. I looked at the candy in my hand, then back at him as he opened the door and stepped through, shaking his head and repeating, “I am ready to go.”
It occurred to me to question if one should eat candy that came from a man who’s anticipating the afterlife so eagerly. But I unwrapped the cellophane and popped a piece in my mouth anyway.
It was sweet, and minty, and smelled like Christmas days visiting my great-grandfather. He always kept mints in the house — old-fashioned ones that melted in your mouth. And then I recalled this older fellow at Century First Baptist Church who would give the kids at the evening service mints or butterscotches when I was little. I hadn’t thought about that for a long time, and it was a sweet recollection.
I looked over my shoulder and saw the old man talking to someone in the main lobby, reaching out to shake hands.
Some days, like this old guy, I’m not doing so great. But I’m not yet ready to go. And so long as strangers can still offer a handshake, a smile, a gentle word — maybe even a candy mint — I’m not sure I should be in any great hurry.
Maybe, at my age, it’s okay to take candy from strangers. Maybe, in specific circumstances, we should be willing to take the chance.
Or maybe all of us in the Post Office that morning just got lucky and shared a little Christmas miracle.