Colorado schools let out mid June. Fourth of July signaled summer was in full swing. We celebrated at each other’s throats.
Waking up at the crack of dawn was habit for those of us on the summer swim team.
On this holiday we were awake, with no place to go. Dad doubled the chore list to promote a relaxing day, just he and Mom plus five children. My parents were hopeful idealists on holidays.
Already bored we wandered to the kitchen. Crisp sunshine cast a glow on lemon yellow walls. Four or five bangs of the screen door later, the entire herd of cats was accounted for. Friskies crunched, water lapped, they retreated to sleep spots. Their schedule uninterrupted, ours was missing.
Lethargic with free time, we moped. Maybe someone would whip up a batch of Bisquick pancakes topped with sweet and tacky Log Cabin syrup. Not a chance.
One by one the boxes of cereal tipped off the refrigerator and cluttered the table; all but Dad’s Shredded Wheat. That stuff was meant for horses.
A creek in the wood floor signaled Mom was up. She walked at an unmistakable pace, with a plan.
“Okay Mike, make sure the grill has charcoal in it.”
“Dennis, ask your dad where the grill basket is and get that set up. Use an extension cord. Barbecued chicken today.”
“Jerry, where’s Jerry?” She lunged over the dog and peered out the window. He had slipped out of earshot. He was a smart one.
“Patty, hose down the lounge cushions. Use a cleaner. Start now so they dry.”
“Peggi, pick up sticks in the backyard so Dennis can mow.”
No one moved. An inch.
“Oh, we’re going to make ice cream for dessert.”
Bowls filled, jaws crunched the sugary cereals. I wondered what other families did on holidays. We spent ours miserable and hungry.
Mom hauled a bag of chicken quarters and a package of drumsticks from the frig. She grabbed a bottle of barbecue sauce. A little salt and pepper and the recipe was complete. Potato salad came unglued from a tall plastic deli container. Potato chips were dug out of hiding.
“Nobody open those ‘til I say so.”
Corn sat in a paper bag near the side door. I avoided that area. The silk made my forearms itch like crazy! Husked ears would be dropped in a Dutch oven to boil for an hour, or so. No chance of hurting our teeth popping buttery kernels into our mouths.
I put my empty bowl of Sugar Crisp in the dishwasher and padded out the back door to the patio.
Four redwood pots planted with geraniums and some spiky plant in the middle were spaced around the perimeter. The rickety blue grill with its second wheel borrowed from the rickety old black grill was pulled away from the wall. An extension cord ran outside through an open window and dangled against the brick.
I filled a bucket with Mr. Clean and scrubbed the dirty cushions with some ancient Fuller brush Mom used to clean potatoes with. I rinsed them off and looked around at the other worker bees.
Peggi had abandoned the wheel barrow holding three twigs for the sandbox. She flicked out the cat poop with an old plastic shovel to build a cabin out of the real Lincoln Logs that had migrated from the playroom.
My oldest brother overfilled the grill with charcoal anticipating the long cooking time. He was back in the garage giving the workbench serious looks.
Dennis retrieved the grill basket from some dark corner of the garage, left it on the picnic table, and retreated to who-knows-where.
And where was Jerry? I lugged the bucket to the dirt driveway and dumped murky water on the hearty crabgrass.
Mom stuck her head out the back door.
“Whoever’s out in the garage bring up the ice cream maker so Patty can wash it.”
Was it my imagination or was I the only one doing anything? Mom saw everything. She must have noticed my little sister playing- not collecting sticks. She must have noticed the grill basket unattached. I’m not sure she knew if her youngest son was still on the planet. I was in plain view. Doomed.
The sun announced it would be a hot one. Dennis delivered the old crank ice cream maker and plunked it on a flagstone step. Avoiding contact with dead insects accumulated over the past 365 days I tipped the bucket and shot water at it full blast before scrubbing. Mom banged out the back door to lift the hand crank and slipped out the metal cylinder. That and the dasher insider would get a thorough cleaning at the kitchen sink. She was on a schedule.
My second big job finished, I dragged the hose off the walkway.
Stepping into shade, I noticed my sister had now abandoned the sandbox. The wheelbarrow was still there, but no Peggi. A milisecond of sibling responsibility squeezed my gut. I rushed inside.
“Mom, Peggi isn’t outside. I don’t know where she is!”
Ivory suds up to her elbows she exhaled “She’s out front riding her trike on the driveway trying to pull Trixie behind in the wagon.”
I let the door bang and ran around to the front. There was Peggi, the wagon, and the cat. How did Mom do that?
The sun was straight up when Dad pulled the car into the driveway.
He had collected the last provisions at King Soopers: heavy cream, two bags of ice, and a hefty bag of rock salt. One or two secret ingredients Mom had stashed plus an unlimited supply of child labor meant we would enjoy ice cream to top off the holiday.
“Mike, bring a couple of burlap bags from the garage,” Mom hollered through the window cranked opened above the sink.
Dad and Dennis arranged the bags. Mom produced the concoction sealed inside the cylinder. Dad inserted the tube, attached the hand crank over the top and poured the ice and salt. Let the cranking begin. I couldn’t budge the handle. Dennis flashed a toothy grin and took the first shift. I would wait my turn.
Dad got the charcoal lit. “It’s about time,” Mom reminded, “We’re running behind. Get that chicken cooking.”
“Mike, go husk the corn. Bring the ears in when you’re done.”
Seemed we had been moving at good pace. I wondered what the rush was about. I heaved a sigh and went looking for a cat to pet.
An hour later I sensed a lull. Mom had shuffled the refrigerator innards to make room for some red white and blue jell-o jiggling in a pan. The rotisserie droned. Every fifteen minutes Mom scooped the bowl of barbecue sauce off the picnic table and slathered the spinning poultry. Most dripped through and sizzled on the mound of gray coals below.
It was time for my turn at the crank. Surprise. Jerry was at the handle. Where had he been? Peggi sat on top stabilizing the whole operation. She laughed and held on for life while the bucket jerked side to side. Dad zoomed in, lifted the burlap and added more ice and salt. Hour two was in full crank.
Dennis fired up the pull cord mower and started out back. Dad shouted, “Patty, go move the wheelbarrow to the front of the garage, but not where the dog will knock it over.”
Mom dashed out waving her arms. The towels hanging from the clothesline were plastered with clippings flying in the breeze. Peggi was called off her perch to fetch a laundry basket for the towels.
The mower drowned out the rotisserie spinning overcooked chicken. The ice tumbled in the bucket. It was hot. We were hungry.
Should I tell on him? An expanding conscious was sometimes a burden.
I skipped carefree into the kitchen. Mom was opening a can of frozen strawberries over the sink.
“May I throw that can out for you Mom?” My best, best-child act. Tossing it in the flip top trash can I smiled and walked to the playroom. Alone with the chest freezer I lifted the lid and stared. Hostess cupcakes. I snatched a pack and lowered the lid. Unnoticed. Putting a side door at one end of a long ranch house, best idea ever. I walked outside and held my breath until I reached the tree garden at the other end of the house. Glued to the kitchen sink, Mom couldn’t have seen me. Sitting in shade with heaven on my lips- it was like a holiday.
Every one of us over five swiped packs of frozen snacks from that freezer. In between sweet stolen happiness we took turns cranking and dreamt of ice cream later.
By 6:00 we were cooked, the chicken was cooked, the corn was cooked. Tablecloth fastened by plastic clips, paper plates shoved into plastic picnic holders we sat down to the meal. We muttered grace in unison. Mom smiled, content to watch us dig in. But we didn’t- except for Peggi. The sugar ingested had rendered us woozy. Mom looked confused. She stared Dennis down. “You’re not hungry? What’s the matter with you?”
One breath in, “What have you been eating?” We bowed our heads in prayer, this time for mercy.”
Two seconds later she was gone. Two more seconds she reappeared waving the freezer key.
“Ok, who got into the freezer and ate one pack of Twinkies and three packs of cupcakes?”
How did she do that?
We chewed our holiday picnic without words. All energy was drained by heat and guilt. Cleanup was not routine. Everyone pitched in.
Then we scattered to avoid Mom.
Separation and digestion brought peace, for a while.
“Time for ice cream!” Recovery and forgiveness in the same sentence. Everyone grabbed a spoon from the drawer. Eating right off the paddle was allowed.
Circled around the bucket we watched Dad fold back the burlap and hoist the cylinder. We poked each other and giggled, tickling our tongues for the best treat ever.
The paddle was lifted.
The white foam dripped.
This was it, Thompson Ice Cream.
Once a year that bucket gave us hope, and once a year we were disappointed. Hours of cranking, sunburned noses, ice melting everywhere. A sweet soupy liquid was all we got.
No one looked at Mom. Each of us took a polite scoop and swallowed it down. “Better than last year,” fibbed Dennis. “Mmmmm,” echoed Jerry. Mike walked back inside to catch the end of a ballgame. Peggi reached in with five fingers and licked them clean down to her elbow. Dad scratched his head. Mom zinged the I-blame-you-for-all-of-this look and heel-toed to the kitchen.
Darkness cooled the air inside and out. The pump n’ klunk from the portable dishwasher signaled Mom was done with cleanup. Another Fourth of July behind us.
Or was it?
Mom and Dad popped out of the den covered in smirks. Ten eyes froze on the duo.
Dad held out three empty coke bottles in one hand and three boxes of bottle rockets in the other. Mom held up 2 boxes of sparklers. Stampede to the driveway.