Friday, October 02, 2020

Old Fashioned Lime-Vanilla Ice

I suppose that nostalgia can be a kind of lie we tell ourselves. It can't have been as good, as perfect, as our sepia toned memories would make it, but at the same time we're drawn to it because it's also true.

In Ray Bradbury's classic nostalgic novel, Dandelion Wine, he writes:

And out there in the middle of the first day of August, just getting into his car was Bill Forrester, who shouted he was going downtown for some extraordinary ice cream or other and would anyone join him? So, not five minutes later, jiggled and steamed into a better mood, Douglas found himself stepping in off the fiery pavements and moving through the grotto of soda-scented air, of vanilla freshness at the drugstore, to sit at the snow-marble fountain with Bill Forrester. They then asked for a recital of the most unusual ices when the fountain man said, "Old fashioned lime-vanilla ice . . ."  

Bill Forrester is a middle-aged man, a neighbor and friend of Douglas, a ten-year-old boy. It's a moment of nostalgia wrapped in nostalgia, a place from an idealized small town America in which the lime-vanilla ice has always been old fashioned. In Bradbury's past, the children and adults can have friendships without the intervention of parents, where adults can offer, and children can spontaneously accept, invitations to jump in the car. It wasn't like that when I was a boy, I would have been suspicious of any adult who didn't expect me to ask mom, but Bradbury was born the better part of four decades before me so maybe it's not a lie. I suppose I believe it was largely true for him, at least in outline, because his novel is full of friendships between children and adults, ones about which their parents knew little.

I grew up in a middle class suburb in Columbia, South Carolina. We knew most of our neighbors, at least those with kids, because that's what mom did. She knocked on doors, baked, and helped organize. She went out of her way to make friends with several of the families on our cul-de-sac. In fact, it was our family ethic. My brother and I were often likewise out knocking on doors to ask if this friend or that friend could play and since their mothers were generally the ones answering the doors, we did tend to create relationships with our friend's parents that were off our own parent's radar. I think this is a good thing. I'm wary of nostalgia as I think of this, but I knew Mrs. Beale as something other than my mother's friend or Johnny's mother. I was several years younger than Douglas when she offered me the paid job of feeding their dog J.B. any time they were away for a few days. She instructed me and entrusted me with a key to her house and with the well-being of a beloved family pet. We made a "deal" with one another, agreeing to a mutual project, like deciding to take a car ride to the ice cream parlor. 

Mr. Sain was retired military. He once called me into his garage to show me a rattlesnake he'd killed with a hoe. I remember feeling that he was treating me like a young man even though I was a little kid. He then asked me to carry the shovel out into his backyard where we buried the body and the head. As he dug and I watched, he cautioned me at length about rattlesnakes, a lecture I remember to this day. Another time, when I was a little older, we were teamed up on a roadside trash clean-up crew, a volunteer effort organized through our church. We spent the afternoon chatting, the way Bill Forrester and Douglas did over that shared ice cream.

For more than two decades, I worked in a cooperative preschool, first as a parent, then as a teacher. It's a model in which the parents work with the teachers in the classroom as assistants so our children had plenty of opportunities to build their own relationships with adults. Children are often as motivated to hang out with their adult friends as with their kid friends. My own daughter definitely had her favorite cooperative preschool adults and they were often people I didn't know beyond nodding to them in the parking lot.

As we get older, the opportunities to create these child-adult friendships become greater. I forged those sorts bonds with teachers in middle and high school, and then there were all those coaches, youth leaders, and babysitters, but our youngest children need them too. It's how we begin to know that there are other adults in the world, who are different than our parents, but who we can also trust and even love.

I once knew a girl who could not get enough tea party. One day, she had worn her friends out with it, so she turned to the nearest adult. It so happened that this was a mother of three rowdy boys and the idea of playing tea party delighted her. It wasn't a game her boys were inclined to play. For months, the two of them hosted tea parties whenever they were together. That was a real friendship, one based upon mutual interest, rather than obligation. 

We've become more cautious today about these kinds of friendships. Children have far less freedom to roam for one thing, always being supervised by a parent or adult who has been vetted and who is often being paid to do it. Indeed, it is rare for an adult who is not a family member or paid caretaker to get through our defenses, and those few who do are also under supervision. I can't help but wonder what our children are missing because people under supervision, children or adults, are not themselves, or at least a different self, a less complete self, than when they are simply engaged in creating a relationship. When I look back on my kitchen chats with Mrs. Cozart who would hand me a dishtowel as I waited for Ralph to finish his piano lessons, or holding tools for Mr. Weibel as he worked on his car engine, or helping Ms. Azar pull pine needles out of a storm drain, I remember these adults as friends, separate from their children and my own parents.

In turn, I wonder about adults of today who do not have any of these friendships with children, who also have far less freedom because of our fears. I pity them because they largely come to experience children as obligations or nuisances. And I particularly pity them because they really can't even approach children in friendship without becoming instantly suspect. 

In Ray Bradbury's childhood, at least the version he shares with us in his writing, kids dropped by the village shops, stopped to watch adults at work, were given odd jobs to do or errands to run, or were invited for ice cream, not unlike our little cooperative school where children and adults live and play together.

I started this post with a caution about nostalgia. When I think a little harder, I also remember those adults who frightened me when they said or did things that caused me to run like the wind, an option we had because of our freedom. There were some neighbors we all knew to avoid because they were "mean," which was our way of honoring our instincts, instincts we had, at least in part, because we had adult friends and knew that this adult was not one of them.

We can never go back to the way things were, that's not in the nature of life, but we can and do remember. I treasure those unsupervised friendships, no matter how short-lived, with those adults and know that I am, in part, who I am today because of them. And as an adult who has had many, many child friends, I find myself pining for the days when we all had that much freedom, when we could sit down together, unsupervised, and share, as friends, a little old fashioned lime-vanilla ice.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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