The kids were still damp in their bathing suits, legs dangling from the red bench under the ice cream shop’s striped awning. They were happy in a subdued way, displaying the kind of excellent behavior that results from a great output of energy in good clean fun at the public pool. They deserved ice cream. Their visiting Florida grandparents seemed delighted to be surrounded by their four curly heads and pleased with how the day was unfolding.
We had considered undertaking an elaborate outing to an amusement park, but this simpler plan had proved the better choice—the perfect way to fill a postcard summer day that comes only so often to Illinois. The warmth of the air moving softly around my bare shoulders was as delicious as the cool of my coffee ice cream cone, single scoop. Who could ask for more?
I savored every lick. At my right hand, my son Tommy was having a tough time negotiating his cone. So I began schooling him on proper ice cream cone maintenance and consumption: the slight head-tilt combined with the deft wrist-twist, applying the side of the scoop at its juncture with the cake wafer to your tongue and rotating to form a clean slope. It takes some finesse. Tommy admired my carefully sculpted, trim peak of ice cream and tried, with great difficulty, to learn such efficient enjoyment. It’s hard to teach, and it was even harder to witness the sad waste of melted deliciousness as it trailed over and between his small fingers, sliding toward his elbow and crying down onto his swim trunks. What a shame. He had selected a fine chocolate chip mint, which, at age 5, is something of a bold departure from the rainbow sherbet temptation that always beckons and still triumphs over better epicurean sensibilities in Tommy’s twin brother, Peter. The mere prettiness of a fresh-dipped cone handed over the glass case does not always match the expectation of the wide-eyed child who ordered it. I’ve tried to teach them this lesson, too: Don’t choose a thing for its looks.
I carefully dispatched my own perfectly chosen cone, considering its goodness and holding it up as an example. I soon wound down to the adjunct lessons on nibbling the cone’s rim, preserving a good dairy-to-cone ratio per bite, and avoiding bottom blowout or its equally unpleasant alternative, a dry and empty last mouthful. It would soon be a pleasant memory, this Platonic ideal of an ice cream cone. I knew and accepted it. But the last bite is always laced with the taste of regret. Maybe I could have licked more slowly.
My mother-in-law, who had likewise thoroughly enjoyed her single scoop of cookies-’n-cream, scraped her cow-patterned paper cup with her plastic spoon. She sighed. I wish now that I had looked up to see her face at that precise moment. Had a flash shown suddenly in her eye, or had a brief inner struggle played out on her features? I didn’t see her expression as she said it, but I heard her groan a gutteral laugh, nearly indecent, as she asked the children a remarkable question: “Who wants another cone?” I looked up then, astonished. What had she just said?
The children’s faces were a mixture of confusion, disbelief and glee. Did they hear her correctly? Was she joking? Here was a woman, a grown woman, their own grandmother, who was seriously going back to the counter for Round Two. So profound was their puzzlement that they didn’t even consider an actual answer. She rose resolutely and fixed her shorts that had stuck awkwardly over her wet bathing suit. She readied her wallet. “I’m going in!” she declared after a moment, triumphant. Four heads mutely turned to watch her as she disappeared into the store, sticky smiles spreading over the tops of their unfinished cones.
A few moments later she emerged with not one, but two more scoops: chocolate chip and peanut butter chocolate. Incredible. The kids cheered. And although she spoon-fed her grandchildren like a mother bird supplies her clamoring hatchlings, she polished off most of those encore scoops herself, and with tremendous satisfaction.
I was in awe of her. What might life be like if I could even recognize the mere possibility of that second scoop? I was amused but also a little appalled. My childhood was filled with love and ice cream, but there were obvious limits to pleasure. I sometimes hear myself employing my own mother’s infamous phrase: “You’ve had enough fun for one day.” Once you’d had your reasonable quota of a good thing, you were done. And you had better be grateful for it. This is not a bad way of raising kids; I deem it important—and difficult—to protect my children from the excesses with which they are conditioned outside of my jurisdiction. They are growing up in a time of great ease and privilege. It is tricky to manufacture boundaries and foster satiety in a world saturated with messages of indulgence.
I want my children to learn to recognize the virtues of moderation and the unpopular merits of self-denial. I want them to understand that money doesn’t grow on trees. That they should count their blessings. As a parent I am focused on these elusive lessons, conscious of how easy it is to misappropriate time, effort and funds catering to children in the name of bettering them, of giving them every advantage. I don’t want my children to expect the world to be served up to them with a side of fries.
But looking back at that summer day with the grandparents, I am uneasy. My children were so dumbstruck by the surprise of unexpected opportunity that they let it pass them by. They should have chased their crazy grandma to the glass case, jockeying for position to look down at the frosty-colored circles and choose another one. Here is an equally important lesson I must impart to them, and one I must take greedily for myself: Seize special chances with enthusiasm. Don’t be afraid to take something offered with love.
That Sunday afternoon in June was an idyll. We were caught up in a Rockwellian tableau too perfect to let end; these were the far-away grandparents and grandbabies bound blissfully in a rare, simple rapture. And my mother-in-law, who neither regularly spoils my children nor frequently gets what she wants, felt that she—that this moment—merited a little bit more sweetness. A second scoop is sometimes an option, kids. Oh! We should be ready to cheer when the chance comes calling, thrusting our hands into the air. Oh! I do! Me!
Gina Pribaz Vozenilek is a writer in Park Ridge, Illinois, where she and her husband and four children live just a short walk from the ice cream parlor.