The Joy Menu #20: Remodeling
Your author remembers a season’s worth of ice cream, despite having to settle for donuts.
Last night, we went out for ice cream and came home with donuts. The ice cream place closed early — perhaps because of winter, or the fact that it had been gray and rainy all day, or maybe just because of COVID. The walk-up window was shut; a hand-written sign on it read “Closed for Today.” The donut place, open 24/7, had a line out the door.
During the year that my parents lived in Beachwood, Ohio, while my father was being treated at the Cleveland Clinic, and my sister’s house was being remodeled to accommodate them outside of town, my father became enchanted by a brand of ice cream sold around the corner.
The shop itself was average — white, glassy, clean, its most noticeable feature a toy train that ran around the high periphery of one wall (the store logo emblazoned on the engine door). Not that such a thing mattered to my dad; I don’t know if he actually ever went there himself. When I visited, I’d go, driving over every few days to grab an assortment of flavors from the “to-go” freezer by the shop’s front entrance. When my sister came by on her way home from work, it’d be her turn to buy a few quarts on her way up to the flat.
Then, after dinner, before TV, always with his mischievous bearded grin, my father would invite us all: “Who wants ice cream?”
Who could say no?
When someone dies after a long illness, we often say “now they are free” — of suffering, of pain, of the need to fight, the heaviness of struggle, the absurd burden of dying. But in those moments, my father was already free. Free of the accrued guilt of binging on treats, of consuming limitless sugar, of enjoying overconsumption. Free of concern for his own fading mortality, his own uncertain body, his own existential dread about living, or dying, or both. I’d often seen my father swallow entire loaves of bread, slice by toasted slice, covered in thick pads of butter, or knife-cut slabs of cheese (cheddar or gouda or mozzarella; any would do), but I’d never seen him do so with the gleeful freedom with which he scooped up that ice cream, night after night, on those long, cold evenings in Beachwood. Nights when a cocktail of toxic chemicals worked to slow his vascular system and constrict tumor regrowth in the folds of his already-trimmed brain.
Words like “childlike,” words like “pure,” words like “joyful” do not express the radiant simplicity of that scooping.
It brings me joy to recount such scenes. In making it real for myself, to render it here, to imagine it real for you — in your mind, reading it across town, across time, across the country, across the world.
But what parts, what histories, what realities are true and what are fictions — remembered, but fictitious, invented by my mind to rework, or relive, or repurpose this piece of the past?
How much of remembering is therapeutic, and how much is theft?
Drake has a line: “Some nights, I wish I could go back in life / Not to change shit, just to feel a couple things twice.”
Scoop, after scoop, after scoop.
An Ethics of Remembering
Who gives us the right to remember? Who grants us permission to write the past down? And why does reclaiming what’s happened feel within the bounds, while projecting a desired future feel risky, rude, presumptuous?
Are they both equally fraudulent? Equally hubristic? Though one soothes, and the other feels like a cocky challenge to the gods?
I think about what happened: those things I’ve witnessed and those things I can’t possibly have seen (the scooping, and then behind that scooping, the feelings that that scooping belied). I think about what will happen: imagine it now and it surely can’t come to be. (But why not?)
The past is passed, safe to hold, and mold, and play with; to reanimate, taxidermy or trick out; to entirely reimagine or use and reuse and share. But the future?
I see my father: on the green leather couch, seated between my mother and myself, blissfully unaware of anything more than the sweet sensation of ice cream on his tongue, against the walls of his mouth, cold down his throat; aware only of the pleasure it triggers in his changinging (but still limitless, still miraculous) brain. It’s enough for me to render his simple joy here to bring me my own version of its comfort and delight. To be in a human body, to be indoors and safe, flanked by love, by family, filled and fulfilled for a moment in time. Just to remember it. Just to write it down.
But to remember it is to envision it, to recreate it, to create it. This is one experience in a series of experiences, one moment in a series of moments, one layer in a cake of many layers; a story I’ve carried from then until now, told by and to myself, and now written down in the present moment, for you, here and now.
Maybe another Sunday, I will write it another way; perhaps in an unimagined future, it will be a differently imagined past.
Maybe last night, instead of donuts, I’ll eat ice cream.
Perhaps in this unimagined future, the ice cream shop isn’t shuttered and the memory it triggers isn’t this one, or isn’t understood this way.
The last time I visited the apartment in Beachwood, before my mother and father moved to the house in the country with my sister and her family and my father began his last months — that quick descent and swift release — the ice cream shop was closed.
The ice cream, in smaller sizes, was still available in the supermarket. But it was not the same. The building, wrapped in scaffolds, bloated with tenting, separated from the street by a line of construction cones, no longer housed that unnecessary train, no longer glowed glassy and white, clean and inviting.
We went by to pick up some flavors, but could not get in. Rather, a sign on the door read, “Closed for Remodeling.”
Isn’t that metaphor a bit too on the nose?
Hoping you're safe and warm today, and have some time for ice cream after dinner.
Onward to creative joy,