It was usually during the high heat of summer, when humidity swelled and sanctuary windows sat propped, begging a breeze, as women fanned themselves through the sermon, sweat trickling to their neckline, that someone mercifully planned the annual Ice Cream Social.
My childhood church, located in the heart of New England, did not have a gazillion potlucks, as do churches in the south. We held a yearly Sunday School picnic, in early September, checkered blankets scattered on the lawn, ushering in autumn’s splendor while bidding farewell to summer.
But July was the month for ice cream in the church basement, where the air settled cool and damp and musty.
To understand New England’s culture, it is important to know that going out for a cone, partaking in the rich, creamy goodness of Black Raspberry, Vanilla Swiss Almond, Pistachio, or Coffee Heath Bar, actually translates: Come along, my friend. Let’s slow and spend some time together enjoying life. We can sit on picnic benches or lawn chairs, or walk and eat.
One particular year, a man named George was placed in charge of the organizing and scooping of ice cream at our church social. I thought he was a nice man but very old, which is humorous because he was probably in his late forties, my age now. George was a distance runner, and held to his own fashion standard: a short-sleeved dress shirt and shoestring necktie paired with athletic shorts, ankle socks, and running shoes. He was beyond slim, and sported a chin beard plus sideburns, bereft of mustache. George was in the habit of concocting green smoothies ages before anyone else even knew what they were, and was also prone to sharing health strategies that benefited him in all of the ways, to anyone who had the stamina to listen. He was known far and wide for his frugality, which made him an all-around horrible candidate for doling out ice cream.
Children were sweaty, squirmy and hungry, and exhausted parents were discussing the heat wave as they formed a line in the church basement. Heat waves in New England are short-lived, but back in the day few people had air-conditioned homes and cars, making for an uncomfortable stretch until the humidity broke. As our family neared the serving table, George scooped out the tiniest bit of ice cream I had ever seen into our styrofoam bowls. The amount would not have sufficed even a toddler. Folks were irritated, and jabbed at George, complaining about the miniscule portions, plus the no-name brand of ice cream.
George had certainly muddied the waters with his thrifty ways. He mentioned how much he had been able to shave from the church budget with his cheap brand, and if he scooped evenly, there might even be some left over. This was not the typical Ice Cream Social; in years past a friendly face would serve generously, even granting seconds. George remained unfazed, impervious to any criticism, lost in his own world, so it seemed, of pennies and nickels and green health drinks.
I thought of Grandpa, and how he would not approve of this Ice Cream Social one tiny bit. In fact, he was unlike George in every way.
Seattle has its coffee, Texas delights in barbeque, and the Deep South boasts sweet tea, but ice cream is New England’s love affair, the Rosetta Stone of the northeast. You haven’t tasted real ice cream until you have stepped out for a cone in that region of the United States. Quality ingredients and flavor reign. Cheap brands will never do.
It is astounding how many of my childhood memories are based around ice cream plus Grandpa, who treated his grandchildren as often as our parents would allow, sometimes sneaking it for us, regardless. Only as an adult did I learn that he had confessed these excursions to our parents, only because he did not want us to be tempted to lie.
Grandpa opened the jingly door to the ice cream parlor, and with a grand sweep of his hand, ushered me in with: Ladies first! then introduced my brother and me with pride to our grinning server: These are my grandchildren! Every server seemed to know my grandfather, which was no surprise. People always flocked to him. He made time for everyone and held the gift of easy conversation. It was a magical sort of gifting, and I was proud. He was not clever with tools, or repairs, or lawncare or cooking. He was simply excellent with people, which is pretty much the best gift of all.
We were encouraged to order anything we wanted, which often meant a fizzy Lime Rickey and grilled cheese followed by an ice-cream cone with jimmies. Grandpa then purchased a five gallon tub of vanilla, to haul home and stash in the basement freezer for later. Later was usually after dinner, which meant on those most special days, sprinkled throughout the year, we would have an afternoon cone and enjoy another dish of ice cream for dessert.
I remember sitting in the backseat of his Volvo (always a Volvo) eating my ice cream, swinging my legs, and listening to Grandpa sing Because He Lives along with the Bill and Gloria Gaither cassette tape. I studied his face in the rearview mirror, watching his round eyes pool with tears. I looked away, aching with the privacy of that moment. He would sometimes tell us that the goodness of God was wider than we could even imagine. It was a short conversation, which oddly enough strengthened the impact. His words fell softly upon a tender place in my heart.
I remember one weekend my brother and I were staying overnight at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. They treated us to a cone before taking us to the movie theatre, which was a big deal back then. The night was unexpectedly cool, and we were chilly after our ice cream. On the way to the theatre, Grandpa turned onto a different road, despite our grandmother’s protests: Bob, we will miss the movie!
No grandchildren of mine will be cold if I can help it, he said and we giggled. He parked the car at Jordan Marsh where he then purchased the nicest sweatshirts the store offered, telling us that quality always mattered; it was good to buy things that would last.
I was probably six or seven at the time, and I still remember that warm feeling inside, which had nothing to do with the sweatshirt I pulled over my head. Grandpa loved us, and it dazzled brilliantly…fireworks lighting up my world. I peeked at his profile as we stepped into the theatre, and it was not so hard to imagine the very face of God.
The beauty of Grandpa was that he was full of kindness, grandeur, and authority. One long weekend, he and Grandma invited my brother and me, as well as our two cousins, for an overnight at their home on Washington Street. These cousins of ours were known to bicker endlessly, and this weekend proved no exception.
Grandma scooped ice cream for each of us to enjoy as we sat on their wide front porch. One cousin complained that his portion was smaller than his brother’s, and suddenly a fist-fight erupted. My brother and I stood, horrified, as Grandma tried to peel the two apart. One was so angry that he turned and punched Grandma in the stomach, just as Grandpa appeared.
Grandpa’s eyes widened. He grabbed his grandson’s arm, and propelled him upstairs where he received a solid bit of discipline, on the seat of his pants.
No one ever lays a hand on your Grandma, he told us a bit later, when things had settled. We understood quite clearly.
The offender was not permitted any dessert that weekend, and that was the only time I ever saw Grandpa withhold ice cream; the only time he spanked a grandchild. The boundaries were firm: he meant business, and we knew it.
Sometimes I sit quietly and think of those childhood days spent with my grandfather, those moments that sparkled, and why his legacy still stirs. I believe it is this: I never wondered if he loved me, and I never had to earn his love.
He loved me simply because I was his granddaughter. Nothing more could be gained; nothing lost. His worn Bible was a testimony to his first love. He had been rescued by the grace of God, and he knew it; he beheld his salvation, and lived it, happily.
One day I will see him again, and I imagine we will take a stroll together, enjoying some ice cream, for old times’ sake.