Rounding the corner of the produce section in the local supermarket, I spied a $1 bill drifting down to the floor from the pocket of an elderly shopper just ahead of me. I leaned down, picked up the George Washington and returned it to her. As I did so, George seemed to give me a quick wink, and I remembered a lesson in honesty I learned in childhood from my parents.
A 3-year-old child can get into considerable trouble, and this day long ago was no exception. I tore the pages in one of my father's sports magazines. I didn't mean to do it; it was an accident.
I hurried to my mother to show her what I'd done. Almost in tears, I told her that I didn't do it on purpose. Then I asked hesitantly, "Daddy spank me?"
My mother smoothed out the magazine's torn pages and replied, "If you tell him the truth when he comes home from work, he won't spank you. But you must be honest and tell him what you did."
She reminded me of the story about George Washington, who told the truth about chopping down the cherry tree, and because he was honest, he received no punishment. "George couldn't tell a lie, and neither can you," she told me.
All day I worried about the torn magazine pages and what my father's response would be when he found out. My father really liked his magazines. I tried to play and forget about it, but I couldn't.
The hours seemed to drag by ever so slowly. In late afternoon, my mother started to prepare our dinner, and finally it was time for my father to come home from work. I listened intently for the front door to open.
We lived in a large, two-story house that had been converted into apartments. Ours was one of two on the second floor. Inside the front door was a small entryway, and many steps rose steeply up to our landing.
Finally, I heard the sound of the front door opening. I ran to the landing with the torn magazine clutched in my hand. Before my father's foot hit the first step, I held the ragged pages out for him to see and began my well-rehearsed confession.
"I tore your magazine, Daddy, but I didn't mean to." He looked up at me and began climbing. "I didn't do it on purpose."
By this time, my father had reached the landing. He stooped down, examined the pages of his magazine and scooped me up in his arms.
"You did something you shouldn't have, but it was an accident," my father said. "Even more important, you told Daddy the truth about it, so I won't punish you."
I breathed a sigh of relief and gave him a big hug as he carried me inside. My mother smiled, and told us to get ready for dinner. As my father took me into the bathroom so we could wash our hands, I couldn't help wondering how my mother knew my father wouldn't punish me if I told the truth.
Maybe she also told Daddy about George Washington and that cherry tree. When we sat down at the table and said our prayer before dinner, I said a silent thank you for George and honesty.
Today I am thankful for my parents and the values they taught me. Honesty truly is the best policy, and you feel good inside when you do the right thing, whether it's telling the truth or giving back a $1 bill to its rightful owner.
GLORIA HEINEMANN is a sociologist, gerontologist and former nurse.