When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, happy memories are few and far between. It’s easy to dredge up the pain and sorrow, to recall the angry words and the punishments that followed, but difficult to find just one that didn’t hurt.
Today my husband and I went out for ice cream. After enjoying my delicious treat, as we were driving home, a sudden flash appeared: my sitting on a stool at a Walgreen’s counter.
We seldom ate out. When you’re low income, money is tight and not spent on restaurant meals.
When I was in fourth grade, we lived in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio. My mom had just learned to drive, which really made life better when all our doctor appointments were in the city.
I don’t remember why I was the only one with my mother. That rarely happened. My mother must have left my brother with someone, a relative probably, as she had no friends in the neighborhood. I don’t recall taking him somewhere, but we must have.
I’m not sure why we were in town. It was around the time the principal of my elementary school told my father that I could not return without glasses. That’s the most logical reason for our outing.
I knew, even then, that when my mother left home at thirteen, she moved to Cincinnati to live with an older sister. She helped my mom get a job at a Woolworth’s Department Store. I don’t know what she did there as she was so young.
Anyway, here we were, sitting on stools in a Woolworth’s in downtown Dayton. A bunch of colorful balloons floated above our heads, all tied to a long string so as not to float away.
Like any kid, I loved balloons. The colors, the way they flew about my head, the feeling of owning something that was just mine. Until my brother popped mine. Every last balloon I possessed he popped. Probably out of meanness. Maybe out of jealousy.
Anyway, here was a bright, colorful, happy-looking array of balloons. I wanted one so badly that all thoughts were erased from my head except for the one of owning a balloon.
The person behind the ice cream counter told me I could have any balloon I wanted. I recall looking at my mother to see if this were true. Possible. I remember holding my breath as I waited for her response.
When the clerk said the balloons held surprises, that each one had a slip of paper inside that would reveal what ice cream treat I could have. I think she said that a few balloons awarded a free treat. A completely free ice cream treat!
Even at that young age I understood that nothing was free. If something good came my way it would be immediately followed by something bad. But I was a kid and kids hope.
When my mother nodded that I cold pick a balloon, I was shocked. I. Got. To. Pick.
I am sure my eyes were wide in disbelief. I am positive that I knew I’d never win. But, like any kid, I imagined that my balloon would give me something free. Maybe an ice cream soda, or if I was really lucky, a banana split.
But there was a really good chance that all I’d get was a cheap sucker. One of those wrapped in cheap plastic that doctor’s give after a shot. There was a glass jar of suckers on the counter right in front of the clerk.
I liked suckers. Any color, any flavor. We seldom had them, so winning a sucker wouldn’t be a bad thing. Just not the thing I wanted most of all: a banana split.
My mother grew impatient as I stared up at the balloons, trying to see through, to read the slip so as to ensure that I got that banana split.
The clerk asked what I was hoping to win. I looked first to my mother, then when she nodded, I said, loud and clear (something unusual for me), that I wanted a banana split.
My mother laughed. Not a happy laugh, but a mocking laugh. You’ll never win that, she said. Or I seem to recall her saying.
It seems as if my shoulders must have slumped. I bet my whole body slumped.
I think the clerk told me to take a chance. That she thought I’d be a winner. Just point and tell her which one I wanted.
Back then, as now, blue was my favorite color. Except for the years when my Catholic school uniform was blue. But I loved blue t-shirts, blue socks, blue shorts and really, really wanted a pair of blue tennis shoes I’d seen in the bargain store where we shopped. I’d never gotten the shoes.
There were several blue balloons. One way up high, one to the right, one to the left, and one right on front of me, so close I could have touched it. I thought about that one. It was so close, so it must be the lucky one, right? But that would have been too easy.
I nodded. The only balloon that might be lucky was the blue one so close to the ceiling that it brushed the tiles when the fan’s blades came near. I pointed with my right hand, my middle finger extended.
Are you sure the clerk asked. It’s pretty far away.
She made me question my choice. Did she know something that I didn’t? Did she know that one held a worthless slip of paper? Or was she trying to steer me away from a sure winner? The one with the biggest prize?
It made sense that she’d trick me into making a poor choice. After all, my life had been one poor choice after another. Why should this be any different?
By now my mother was getting impatient. I could tell by the way her eyebrows scrunched up and wrinkles formed around her eyes. If I didn’t make a choice soon, there’d be trouble later on.
I changed my mind and went for the blue balloon right in front of me.
The clerk popped it, a noise that always made me cringe.
She handed me the slip of paper. My reading skills weren’t so good back then, so my mom had to read it to me.
I’d gotten a discount on a cone of ice cream. Unsure what a discount was, I’d asked. All it meant was that it would be a bit cheaper.
The clerk must have been clever at reading faces, for mine registered intense disappointment. My eyes filled with tears.
Don’t you want an ice cream cone she asked.
I shook my head.
My mother grabbed my hand and pulled me off the stool. Sorry, she said, we don’t have enough money even with the discount.
Choose another balloon, the clerk said.
I turned to my mother and saw frustration and anger. She wanted to leave. I knew then that she had never intended to buy me an ice cream. She took me there for the free sucker in cheap plastic.
The clerk repeated that I got to choose another balloon.
I decided to take a risk and go for a red balloon. Red was not my color. I’d never liked it. But I had nothing to lose. So I pointed to a red balloon off to the right.
The clerk pulled it out of the bunch and popped it. She didn’t give the slip of paper to my mom. She read it aloud. I had won a free banana split!
I didn’t know what that was, but based upon the happy look on the clerk’s face, I understood that it was special. A rare treat.
My mom said I could have it.
The clerk peeled a banana and then split if down the middle. She placed the pieces on either sides of a glass bowl. She added scoops of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream. Not the tiny scoops I’d get whenever we were lucky enough to have ice cream at home, but huge, huge scoops.
She added toppings. Pineapple, Strawberries. Marshmallows. The tiny kind.
Over that she poured chocolate sauce. Not my favorite, but glorious in its brown gooiness. On top went huge fluffy swirls of whipped cream with a bright red cherry on each mound.
When she placed it before me, I was in shock. It was more ice cream than I’d ever had in my whole life if you added up all the tiny bowls I’d eaten before. And this was all for me.
Or so I thought.
The clerk handed me a spoon. Then gave one to my mother.
I really didn’t want her to have any. This was mine. I’d won it fair and square. I understood fairness at that point. Fair things seldom happened to me. To my brother, yes, if my mom was the one in charge. But never to me.
My mother told me to get started eating before the ice cream melted. That we had to hurry because I’d taken so long to choose. That if we didn’t get home soon my dad would be angry.
My dad’s anger was terrifying. He shouted words I didn’t know but felt that they registered disapproval. He hit hard, so hard it left bruises. He shook me until it felt like my head was going to topple off. And his spankings left belt marks on my backside.
I picked up my spoon and got to work, shoveling in the gooey combination so fast that my nose froze. I scooped faster and faster, taking very little time to relish and enjoy.
My mother worked from the other side, eating slower, but still chipping away at my treat.
I didn’t get to finish it.
When there was still more than half left, my mother announced that we had to leave. She stood, buttoned her jacket, then lifted me off the stool.
I bet my eyes filled with tears. I am pretty sure that my body registered my disappointed anger, something I had perfected.
It’s funny how some memories stay hidden for a gazillion years while others stay fresh year after year.
I can remember the punishments my dad dished out as if they happened yesterday. But this one happy moment, this one time when I got a very special treat has remained hidden for well over sixty years.
So many perfect details here!
And that was one nice clerk.
I actually want to say more here. You write exquisitely about the mindset of a traumatized or abused child; the lack of trust in the world, a world view that slowly strangles hope. I love that this story lets the little girl (you) re-ignite the spark of hope–and I’m glad you retrieved this valuable memory.