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(Steven Hughes For The Globe and Mail)
(Steven Hughes For The Globe and Mail)

Remembrance of Coffee Crisps past Add to ...

After a particularly bad day at school, I stumbled off the metro into the nearest dépanneur desperately seeking a pick-me-up – anything to get me through the 10-minute walk to my apartment. It was 4:30 p.m., I had missed lunch, and I was not dressed for the uncommonly cold April weather. Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past sat heavily at the bottom of my backpack. I had been carrying it with me for seven months as supplementary reading for my course in 20th-century literature, but still wasn’t through the first volume. Now, scanning the dépanneur’s meagre selection of chocolate bars, the book’s weight on my shoulders seemed an unnecessary reminder of all my unfinished work. I decided on a Coffee Crisp, salivating while digging for change in my pocket. I was 50 cents short.

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Sympathetic to my situation, the clerk waived the fee with a flick of his hand. “You walk by here every day. Pay me tomorrow.” I love chocolate. Truly, I do. If you don’t believe me, check on top of the fridge. This is where I stash it – squares of Cadbury Burnt Almond stacked on top of Lindt Swiss Milk, and Belgian marzipan.

It’s not just the decadent stuff, either. My chocolate palate makes few distinctions, rejoicing equally with each mouthful, so long as it is chocolate. When we first met, 23 years ago, I spread chocolate all over my face in appreciation and, in the spirit of sharing, into my parents’ green shag carpet. I was completely infatuated.

We have been through a lot together since then, chocolate and I, and chocolate is still the one I run to in times of crisis. Some might call this addiction; I call it loyalty.

But I hold a special spot in my heart for the Coffee Crisp. This was my grandfather’s chocolate bar of choice. He, too, harboured a stash above the fridge: a cookie tin chock full of Coffee Crisps.

My cousins and I treated the tin reverentially. Every time we came to visit, my grandfather would emerge, cookie tin in hand: “You have any boyfriends yet? None? Are you sure? Good. Have a chocolate bar.”

On special occasions, the Coffee Crisp was accompanied by a five-dollar bill. It’s funny, even though five dollars had the potential to procure five chocolate bars, the Coffee Crisp remained the main event. Ours was a low-sugar household; I rarely had the chance to hold a whole chocolate bar in my hands, let alone consume one in a single sitting.

My grandfather was a survivor of the Great Depression. He was orphaned as an infant and forced to find a job at 14. He completed high school only by attending night school and worked hard to achieve a comfortable middle-class life in Montreal – the city where I now spend my days reading impractically large books. But he was proud, charming, quick-witted and a good dancer – on the surface, he was an expert at concealing a deeply rooted fear of poverty.

In retirement, he no longer needed to worry about money, but the impulse to save, reuse and check on his bank account persisted. Looking back, the Coffee Crisps were probably bargain-bin purchases – who knows how far past their expiration date. But they were as much a treat to him as they were to me.

While I burned through the sugar, my grandfather and I would dance to Bob Hope, giggle deviously at childhood pictures of my mother, and race each other to the communal shuffleboard downstairs. Sometimes he would let me try on his Air Canada captain’s hat, which had its own shelf in the bedroom. I would zoom around the living-room while he made liftoff noises. We were accomplices, linked more by our love of chocolate than by blood.

As I exit the dépanneur, I swing Proust’s life’s work over my shoulder. Like Proust, I am sure all of us can recognize certain objects in our lives that, despite all appearances, are actually time machines. For Proust, it is the madeleine dipped in tea that unexpectedly transports him to the idyllic French countryside of his youth (even I have read that far). For me, it is the Coffee Crisp.

My grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease four years ago at 94. After his move to an assisted-care home, the Coffee Crisps stopped emerging from behind the fridge. My memories from the period before his death are painful, and perhaps familiar to anyone who has experienced the strangeness of knowing someone with the disease. My mother’s face while explaining to him who she is. His shame at not remembering. His insistence, in the same deviant tone usually reserved for the consumption of chocolate, that I “get him out of this place full of crazies.” Later, the nurse tying a bib around his neck, feeding him spoonfuls of pea soup; him, infantile, slurping. My sulking in the rental car on what would be the last trip to see him before his death. The modest funeral held in the assisted-living home, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary playing on cassette. My guilt at not being able to shed a single tear. Technically, I never got to say goodbye. Alzheimer’s is a disease that robs you of such conclusive moments.

As I finally bite into the Coffee Crisp, I am transported to my grandfather’s old apartment. I smell his discount aftershave, the musty overtones of a room crowded with postwar-era furniture, and the distinct odour of a pair of runners my aunt has been lobbying to replace for 11 years. I hear Louis Armstrong crooning Hello, Dolly! and the familiar “pop” of a special cookie-tin lid.

Shannon Tien lives in Montreal.

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