September 13, 2016
When I was twelve years old and William “Pop” Noonan first invited me to operate his corner grocery store while he spent his Saturdays running errands, I quickly accepted the job—and then repeatedly botched it. I took so many missteps that I’m sure he would have fired me were it not for the fact that he was my grandfather.
For example, on the very first day at work, Mrs. O’Malley asked me for two pounds of cheese for the casserole she was making. I cut off a hunk from the bulk slab, weighed it, cut another chunk, weighed it, and continued whacking and weighing until there were two chunks and nine odd-shaped chips and clumps of cheese that came to exactly two pounds—just as requested.
Mrs. O’Malley took one look at the motley stack, shook her head and muttered, “Kids!” I was only a kid, so grandpa didn’t fire me simply because I didn’t know proper cheese-cutting protocol.
He probably should have fired me when I invited a couple of friends to visit me at the store one Saturday, and we produced and distributed our very own candy invention—chili powder gum. Noonan’s Grocery sold hollow gumballs and cans of chili powder, plus there were lots of kids coming and going. It was the perfect storm, and many a neighborhood kid was caught by surprise when he or she unsuspectingly bit into one of our concoctions. Despite the outcries of the neighborhood kids, Grandpa still didn’t dismiss me.
The biggest mistake I made came a couple of years later, when business for corner grocery stores had slowed to a trickle. Because of this, I agreed to help my friend Rick Eherenfield with his algebra during the long breaks between customers. I was a year ahead of Rick in math, and could be of some use to him. By my estimation, I was doing a nice thing.
Rick and I were in the back room noodling over his algebra assignment when the brass bell hanging over the front door rang. I jumped to my feet and ran through the swinging door that hung between the store and the back room and up to the counter. There stood Mrs. Kratz. Uh oh. Not Mrs. Kratz. She was one of those rare customers who still did all of her shopping at the corner store. One look at her resolve and I could tell that fetching and bagging her groceries was going to take a long time. Rick was waiting in the back room. We had algebra to do. And then there was the fact that Mrs. Kratz criticized my every move. The overall effect was to put me in a big hurry to finish the job and return to the back room where the meaning of X was still waiting to be discovered.
Mrs. Kratz was having none of it. “I’ll have a dozen slices of bologna,” she drawled. Next came a carton of cigarettes, needles for her sewing kit, and a package of Rit Dye for a faded shirt she was reclaiming. What did I prefer—dark purple or a slightly less dark purple? It plodded along like this for fifteen minutes.
Finally came the summing of the bill. I looked down on a paper bag that I had used to write the prices of her purchases, added them up, and pronounced the total: “Twelve seventy-three.” Mrs. Kratz made me sum it again. Then again. Eventually, she snatched up her two bags, I opened the front door for her, and the bell rang twice—Ding! Ding!—announcing my escape from her tyranny. I bolted to the back room and continued helping Rick with his algebra.
Three days later, Grandpa summoned Mom, Dad, and me to the store for a short visit. Once gathered, Grandpa explained that I had lost him his longest standing and most loyal customer—Mrs. Kratz. She complained that while serving her, I had been in such a hurry to get her out the front door that it was disrespectful. According to her, I kept looking at my watch and rapidly tapping a pencil. She had never seen such impertinence and would “never darken the door” of Grandpa’s store again. It was then that I learned that even though I had gone through all the motions and had helped a demanding customer, my intent toward her had been evident, and I had failed in my customer service duties. Even though I had been in a hurry because I wanted to help a friend with algebra (a nice thing), it didn’t matter. I would have to prove myself a worthy merchant once more.
The next Saturday, I set about the task of doing just that. First, I swept and cleaned the store—but that clearly wasn’t enough to tip the balance. Then I stumbled on a real opportunity to make amends. Sitting in the sink of the kitchenette was the filthiest frying pan in recorded culinary history. The pan wasn’t just stained; it was pitch black. Gunk and gook had been overheated and chemically bonded into an impenetrable layer that now covered the entire inner surface. Here was my chance to redeem myself. Restore this pan to its original shine, and surely I’d be forgiven for the Kratz disaster.
I grabbed a box of steel wool pads and feverishly scrubbed the pan until my fingers bled. Not to be denied, I donned rubber gloves and scrubbed until I finally uncovered a one-inch patch of shiny steel. Then, for six hours (between customers) I scrubbed the pan until the entire thing looked like it had just come out of its original box.
When grandpa returned from his errands I couldn’t wait to show him his good-as-new frying pan. He took one look at the shining pan, smiled broadly, and gave me a hug. “How did you get off all the black stuff?” He asked. I answered by pointing at a stack of used steel wool pads. Then Grandpa hugged me again.
Time passed, I went off to college, Mom and Dad moved to Phoenix, Grandpa passed away, and I hadn’t seen the frying pan for years until one day, I spotted it in Mom’s pantry. She saw me looking at the pan and came over and gave me a hug.
“I kept the pan as a keepsake,” she said.
“Of what?” I asked.
“Of love,” she explained.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
“The week before you cleaned this pan,” Mom explained, “I had given it to your grandpa as a gift. It was a new invention called a “non-stick” pan because it was covered with a special substance called Teflon that stuck to nothing. That’s what you scrubbed off the frying pan that day. Teflon, not gunk.”
“No!” I responded.
“Yes,” Mom explained. “Grandpa was so touched by the enormous effort you put in to redeem yourself that he wouldn’t let me tell you that you had ruined his brand new frying pan. Your intentions were pure and that’s all that mattered to him. He understood the importance of intent, so he honored your good intentions by not saying a word about the frying pan fiasco to another living soul.”
“Really?” I exclaimed. “I kept the pan,” Mom continued, “as a shiny reminder of his love for you.”
“And my love for him,” I added.
The pan itself had no real value. In fact, it’s actually been ruined past its value. But the intent behind my cleaning it, and the intent behind Grandpa’s keeping it have made it priceless to me.
Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Timesbestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more