What Happened Here

by Leslie Pietrzyk | It was just ice cream.

What Happened Here

What happened here was simple: my mother bought ice cream for the twenty little girls of the Robert Lucas Elementary School first grade, the girls whose moms had called in to say yes to attending my June birthday party in 1969. This was the only birthday party I got as a child because summer was all wrong for birthday parties. June, in those days, was a month of laziness and family car trips to visit Grandma.

What happened was I only had one grandma because my mother’s mother had died when my mother was only thirteen and her youngest sibling was only three. My mother grew up on a hardscrabble farm, the oldest child of six. If there were birthday parties in her family, I didn’t hear about them because she didn’t talk about those difficult growing-up years, or about her mother, my missing grandma. I didn’t know I could ask.

What happened was the day before the birthday party my mother drove the station wagon to Baskin-Robbins to pick up her ice cream order. Baskin-Robbins, famous for its rotation of thirty-one flavors, a different flavor for each day of even the longest month, mailed kids a postcard, good for a free single scoop, on their birthday; they called it a club. Anyone could join. On Sunday afternoons, Baskin-Robbins was jammed with fathers ferrying kids and their friends out of the house for a treat, splurging on double dips, forgetting to grab napkins, driving fast down the hills so our stomachs lurched the tiniest bit. Baskin-Robbins on Sunday afternoon was my favorite place in the world.

What happened was my mother returned home from Baskin-Robbins using both hands to balance a pink-and-brown hinged box the size of a bakery cake. Inside were four rows of five individual scoops of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, each scoop nestled in a fluted paper wrapper, each wrapper placed on its own doily. Twenty precious scoops of ice cream, glistening creamy white and fudgy brown and pink and orange and other crayon colors. A box of so pretty. A box of so expensive. A box of twenty already-made scoops of ice cream in twenty different flavors. Not what my friends’ mothers dragged out for their birthday parties: a rectangular slab of Hy-Vee chocolate, vanilla if there was a new sofa, Neapolitan to show off or to serve to adults.

What happened was singing and birthday cake and then twenty little girls who all wanted the pink scoop or the orange one or the chocolate chip and who didn’t understand that ice cream might be green or might be called daiquiri ice or rum raisin and who hated nuts or loved nuts. One girl immediately dropped hers on the hot brick of the patio and needed another, and a different girl refused to trade her chocolate, “not even for a zillion-trillion-million dollars.” Twenty little girls in party dresses and frilly socks who had started the afternoon being as polite as their mothers had commanded in the car on the way over, but who now just wanted the ice cream, the goddamn ice cream that was the contractual promise of any birthday party. Twenty teary little girls clamoring around my mother, who was forced to lift the pretty pink-and-brown box high above their needy, anxious, grasping, grubby hands. My mother, maybe thinking none of these savage little girls deserved this pretty ice cream. Can I blame her? The box, the ice cream, the party, all a crumpled, melted mess.

What happened was that this did not turn into a funny story, the kind of story recited annually at the end of a satisfying Thanksgiving dinner or after blowing out birthday candles or while tucked around a crackling fire at the end of a vacation day; it did not become the kind of story a family hears so many times that the words become litany, code, lore, strong and silvery and as invisible as a spider’s web. Someone easily could have turned this into that kind of story. Easily. Remember when? That’s how those stories start. 

But what happened here, what happened, oh. It was so simple. She wasn’t ever going to be that kind of mother, the kind filled with funny stories and compassion for children’s careless greed. And I wasn’t ever going to understand that, at least not for a long, long time.

Leslie Pietrzyk’s collection of linked stories set in DC, Admit This to No One, was published in 2021 by Unnamed Press. Her first collection of stories, This Angel on My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Short fiction and essays have appeared in the Sun, Ploughshares, the Hudson Review, the Southern Review, the Iowa Review, and the Washington Post Magazine. More at lesliepietrzyk.com.

This essay is a Short Reads original.

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