Helen Chappell - September 2008
The Memory of Ice Cream
When you’re a kid, summer seems endless. Time, which seems to slip away with frightening ease these days, was once a vast open vista, stretching past the horizon.
When I was a kid, and dinosaurs still roamed the earth, most people didn’t have air conditioning. Businesses lured in customers with signs on the door saying “Come In! It’s COOL Inside!” with blue and white icicles hanging from the front.
People went to the movies just to get cooled off at night. Or, at least that was my mother and aunt’s excuse for going to see every Mario Lanza film that rolled through town. Mario was quite the housewife’s heartbreaker in the early ’50s; I can still sing “Be My Love” in a bad karaoke style from being subjected to his music during my formative years.
But when you came out of the theater or the store, it was still hot out there. The humidity of an Eastern Shore summer was legendary; I’ve often compared it to breathing raspberry Jell-O, so thick you can cut it with a knife.
Every morning, the sun would come up, and there might be a window of an hour or so where, if you really hustled, you could get some basic things done before the thermometer on the tin 7-Up sign blasted skyward.
Another hot, humid summer day, so still and yellow that the very birds seemed to struggle to fly. You knew how hot the day would be by the shrill whining of the locusts, rising and falling in the close air, the reminder no one needed that this would be another scorcher.
My father was raising Herefords back then, and the sound of their lonesome bellows in the field across from the house sounded as if they too were hot and crabby, although they were basically a docile breed spending most of their summers grazing back to front, next to each other, switching away the horse flies with their long tasseled tails, lifting their big heads to gaze at you incuriously with enormous brown eyes as you walked past them.
The flies were everywhere, huge and angry green things with a sharp sting and an angry buzz. I hated and feared them, because they just loved to bite me. Probably for the same reason my big brother liked to tease me: I fell for it every single time, whining and swatting at them as they tangled up in my hair and took a bite out of my legs.
By ten, you were pretty much fried. Not a breath of air would stir the leaves or the marsh grass. Not a cloud marred the sullen gray-blue skies. Hot settled in like an unwelcome house guest.
My mother would alight in a chair with a book on the Tudor dynasty or the latest best seller, already exhausted by her morning routine. She would prop her feet up on the big circular floor fan, hoping to catch whatever breeze it could put out, drinking glasses of Coke and ice, and you knew better than to bother her, because everyone knows heat makes grown-ups cranky if disturbed.
Whatever happened to those big floor fans? They moved air around, sure, but you had to be right on top of them to feel any benefit, and the whole time your parents would be telling you not to put your fingers in there or you’d get them cut off. And they’d tell you about the Little Boy Who Stuck His Fingers in the Fan and Had Them All Lopped Off. And maybe you would, but I wouldn’t know; I still keep my fingers away from fans.
My father would be off somewhere, tending to his spread, driving up and down the farm roads in his Ford. At that point in time, all doctors drove Fords. I have no idea why; maybe when they took their Hippocratic Oath they also swore allegiance to Henry Ford’s creations. My father’s cars were always coated with dust, inside and out, the hallmark of the landed gentleman farmer, I guess.
Around noon he’d come in for lunch, and my mother would feed us all, drink another Coke, then retire back to her chair and the wives of Henry VIII because it was too hot to do anything else.
Sometimes I would go out and lie on the pier, spending hours staring into the muddy water. You couldn’t swim, because there were eight million jellyfish out there, just waiting to sting you, but you could lie there and watch their watery world. Sometimes a fish, a perch or a sunnie, would flicker by, or a whole school of minnows, flashing in the sunlight as they moved like one being.
If that got boring I could roll over and look at the sky and try to make shapes from the clouds, if there were any clouds. Mostly, I just read and listened to the tide sloshing at the pilings, a gently hypnotic lullaby. Even the smallest breeze would keep the flies away.
Then it would be time for dinner. Tomatoes, corn on the cob, maybe some of my mother’s fried chicken, if she was in the mood.
After dinner it was time for ice cream. This is one of the great memories of my childhood. Everyone would pile in the car, and as the sun set and the long shadows stretched across the fields and forests, we drove down the road to John Lewis’s store for ice cream. Everyone was in a good mood, which was great, and we always watched for deer grazing at the back of the fields, at the edge of the woods, stopping to watch them as they watched us back. They seemed magical, like unicorns, back in those days. As we drove along we’d wave to other drivers and my parents would point out hawks and other fauna to us. Little nature lessons.
Even after all these years, John Lewis’s store is still a legend. It was where all the farmers and watermen gathered in those evenings before television came to us. The store probably hadn’t been painted since World War I, and the parking lot around the gas pump was paved with discarded soda bottle caps that were a source of never-ending fascination to me, if a hazard to my bare feet.
Mr. Lewis sold everything you can imagine, from bait to ladies’ stockings, to meat to cans of lard. It was all behind the counter, so you had to ask Mr. Lewis or Mrs. Lewis to get it for you. I was fascinated by the long pole they used to get things down from the higher shelves. I’d give anything to hear that squeaky old screen door with its tin Nehi Orange and Salada Tea signs close behind me one more time.
If we were lucky, Mrs. Lewis would scoop our ice cream. She was fond of children, and always gave us just a little more than Mr. Lewis, who scared me a little bit with his huge bushy eyebrows like caterpillars. Your choices were simple. Chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. I always got a double dip of chocolate and vanilla on a waffle cone, then struggled to lick around the sides, lest the melting ice cream dribble all over my hand and my clothes, which it always did.
After my father had done his visiting with the farmers and watermen, we all piled back into the car and drove home again, happy and stained with ice cream.
On the way back, as the sun was setting and darkness stretched over the flat landscape, my father would tell us scary stories. At least they were scary to me. As a surgeon he was inured to blood and guts and would cheerfully tell my mother that he’d removed fourteen feet of intestine from a patient that day. And how he’d once been taken to the mausoleum of a patient’s widow to view the corpse beneath glass, noting that the deceased’s hair and nails seemed to continue growing even after death. Of course, this stuff scared the daylights out of me, which I would never admit, and I had terrible fantasies about skeletons coming to get me in the middle of the night.
The run from the car to the house left my brother and me covered with mosquito bites. After dark, the huge monsters, the size of B-52’s, swarmed up out of the marshes in black clouds, seeking out our tender young legs and arms. If we didn’t run, we got chewed to pieces. We used to keep a bottle of alcohol by the back door, so we could routinely rub it all over our arms and legs whenever we came inside.
I’m serious. The mosquitoes were huge and hungry!
Night might have dropped the temperature a little, but it was still airless and hot. We dragged the fans upstairs to the bedrooms and slept with our heads at the foot of the bed, hoping to catch a breeze, any breeze, from the open windows. It took forever to finally fall asleep because you were so hot.
Then, when you finally did get to sleep, it seemed that another summer day dawned, dry and sullen and gasping for air, until finally, there might be a squall that cooled things off, thunder rattling the windows, lightning casting terrifying shadows, rain pelting the roof. I was more terrified with each rolling explosion until, finally, the storm rolled away, replaced, for a moment anyway, by a fresh cool breeze before the heat started all over again.
I’ve eaten a lot of ice cream in the intervening years, some of it quite gourmet and exotic. These days, it’s a rare treat for me, a forbidden and guilty pleasure. But I don’t think any ice cream I’ve eaten since tasted quite as good as the ice creams of those summer family outings.