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On Those Ice Cream-Making Days


(by Celeste Miller)



In the early 1920s, my maternal grandmother, who had married my grandfather at 17, began traveling from their home in New Jersey to rehearsals with the Folksbiene, the Yiddish theater, in New York City. Family lore has it that my grandfather, a tyrannical and work-obsessed individual, was adamantly opposed to having a wife who was an actress, and, on her arrival home one day, she found herself locked out of the house. She turned around and went back to the city, never to return. Whether or not that’s the way it actually occurred, my mother and uncle, aged five and three years old at the time, grew up without their mother in the home and, therefore, without a model for a marriage of any sort.

My mother, too, married young, I assume to escape from her father’s house and, perhaps, also as an attempt to get someone to take care of her. From the start, my parent’s marriage was a disaster. Though a talented artist, my mother stayed home, as women did in the 1950s, to care for the house and the children. On a physical level, my brothers and I were well nurtured, but we could feel her deep well of unhappiness. Neither of our parents, underdeveloped emotionally, had the slightest idea of how to navigate the complexities of marriage.


It was clear, early in my childhood, that something was wrong in my parents’ marriage. Loud arguments were commonplace. I would frequently sleep-walk to our stairway landing, waking there crying as I listened to my parents yelling viciously at each other downstairs. Later, asking my mother if all married people fought as much as they did, she assured me that “All couples argue a lot.” I held onto her words as they battled their way through my childhood, my brothers and I cowering in the background. I would remind myself, “This is what it's like to be a grown-up.” I tried not to worry.


I can’t begin to imagine a conversation in which my parents would have decided, together, to purchase a hand-cranked ice cream maker. I knew, even then, that there were parents who had such conversations. I’d seen them on those early TV comedies we watched in the 1950s, and I had seen parents who seemed to like each other at some of my friends’ houses as well. But for my parents to converse civilly and productively enough to make a fun and ultimately unnecessary purchase of this sort? That continues to be something of a mystery to me.


I have to assume that, at some point, one of my parents must have had a vision of ice cream-making as a wholesome family activity, perhaps suggested by the group therapy my mother attended twice a week, a group where she met the man for whom she eventually left my father, trading one unhappy marriage for another.


Our White Mountain Ice Cream Freezer consisted of a heavy-duty hand crank, a dasher for churning the ice cream, and a stainless-steel lidded canister that fit inside the large blue wooden bucket. As summer approached, my father and older brother hauled the ice cream maker up the stairs from the basement, stowing it in the kitchen pantry.


The ice cream recipe we used consisted of milk, cream, sugar, and a flavoring of choice—in our case, strawberries. Sugar was strictly forbidden in our household except on special occasions—Halloween, birthdays, and for this ice cream. So, as our Dad gathered the tools and ingredients, we looked around surreptitiously, then, moistening our fingers, we plunged our hands into the large bag of sugar on the counter, licking off what stuck.


The strawberries came from our mother’s organic garden. In early spring, she would dig up the earth and mix it with compost from her compost heap. Working barefoot, she would tell us how she enjoyed the feel of the earth under her feet and squishing between her toes. She encouraged my brothers and me to take off our shoes and join her in the garden. I recognized even then that she was a beautiful woman, but was nonetheless repulsed by her feet, which, even without the dirt, seemed far too large and monstrously misshapen.


So I stayed away from the garden until late summer, when I could no longer resist plunging into the forest of plants, berries, and vegetables that engulfed me in warm solitude, pierced here and there by streaks of sunlight. I moved through the wilderness of eggplants, Kirby cucumbers, and the lacy greenery of carrot tops, dropping strawberries into the metal pail my mother had outfitted me with, enjoying the ping! they made as they hit bottom. As I foraged for strawberries, I stayed alert to the bright orange of ripe cherry tomatoes, warm from the sun, that distinctive tomato smell calling to me, absentmindedly plucking and eating the tomatoes straight from the vine, the burst of flavor always a surprise, the sweet/tart taste flooding my mouth.


Milk and cream, too, were needed for the ice cream, and, like many families of that time, milk was delivered to our front door. In my bedroom upstairs, I would wake early to the sound of the milkman coming up our front walk, swinging his metal basket, milk bottles clinking. At the front stoop, he would remove the “empties” from the wooden milk box emblazoned with Walker Gordon Dairy Farm, replacing them with full bottles of raw certified milk. Unlike the milk I drank at friends’ houses, our mother insisted this was far healthier than those “inexpensive store brands,” so the cost of milk, too, became a point of contention between Mom and Dad.


Once the ingredients were assembled, the ice cream-making process was straightforward. My father would fill the area around the steel canister with alternating layers of ice and rock salt. Then the ice cream mixture was poured into the canister. One person would hold the bucket still while another turned the crank. My brothers and I begged for turns, only giving up our turn when our dad insisted, until, 30 or 40 minutes later, he would stop whoever was turning the crank and slowly, carefully, lift the dasher, all of us holding our breath until the pink, creamy ice cream emerged, and we could all breathe again.


On ice cream-making days, disagreements were left behind. For the moment, all was forgiven. We shared the same goals, wanting to enjoy making the ice cream together, and for this to be the best strawberry ice cream we had ever eaten, which it always was.

It didn’t last, of course. We eventually moved away, and all the family baggage came along with us. The good stuff—the garden, the milk box, the wooden ice cream maker—all got left behind. And our parent’s marriage, always shaky, finally split apart—a relief in certain ways. But for those brief and shining moments, on those ice cream-making days, we stood together as one, and, though short-lived, we experienced the possibility. And that, at least, was something.


Epilogue


When my mother told me that “All couples fight a lot,” she actually might have believed that to be true. After all, it had been her experience in her family of origin and in the marriages she was hearing about in her group therapy group. But perhaps she thought saying that would be reassuring to the shy, sensitive child I was; that telling me that would somehow “normalize” the harsh reality of the household in which I was growing up. It didn’t work, though. Battered by the incessant arguing in my home, I decided early on that if that was what marriage was about, I wanted none of it.


After moving away from New Jersey, my parents finally divorced and, in my later teens, both remarried. My mother’s second marriage was, again, fraught, and ultimately unsuccessful. Though she and her second husband had an interesting and adventurous life, she remained frustrated and unhappy. Supportive of her as he tried to be, she had little tolerance for his idiosyncrasies.


My father’s new wife, on the other hand, knew how to manage his temper and, without a sparring partner for him to bounce off, they developed a loving and happy partnership. A relief for me to experience, I enjoyed spending time in their company. My father’s brother and his wife, too, were well matched—a happy couple—and the four became great friends, spending much time together. Had I not been privy to seeing those two marriages, I believe it’s likely I never would have given marriage a chance.


Throughout my 20s and 30s, I dated many men, arguing my way through relationship after relationship. Despite minimal interest in marriage, I did want to have a child, and I didn’t feel I wanted to do that on my own. In my later 30s, realizing it was pretty much now or never, I got married, choosing someone who, because of his own emotional issues, was as clueless about marriage as I was and, like me, always ready for a fight. The arguing continued throughout my pregnancy and on from there but, for better or for worse, we stuck with it. Though I tried, generally unsuccessfully, to protect our son from the battles, parental arguing was woven throughout his childhood, too.


My mother died when my son was seven years old. She never did express, to me at least, guilt or remorse for her inability to model, for her children, a healthy relationship with a partner. In fact, I remember only one short thing she ever said to me about marriage. Four or five years into my own marriage, she must have sensed something was amiss, as I remember her saying to me one day, quite out of the blue, “You know, Celeste, you can always get divorced.”

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Celeste Miller is a special ed teacher and college counselor in a wonderful public performing arts school, just off Times Square in midtown Manhattan. Her work can be found in the anthologies Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teacher Stories and Cardinal Points Literary Journal, and in the New York Teacher magazine. She can be found at celestemiller99@gmail.com.



Strawberry Ice Cream

(using a hand-cranked ice cream freezer)


2 c. mashed fresh strawberries

2 c. whole milk

2 c. heavy cream

1 c. white sugar


Combine all ingredients thoroughly, and pour into the can, leaving a couple of inches of air space at the top

Place beaters in position, and close lid.

Put the can in the wooden bucket and secure the crank.

Pour ice around can to fill bucket.

Start turning crank in clockwise direction. Don’t stop until ice cream is finished.

Pour salt (any kind) onto the ice to start the melting process.

Add cold water to the ice/salt mixture, making it level just below the drain hole.

Keep cranking, and add ice and salt as needed. Do not add any more water.  

It will probably take about 20 - 30 minutes of cranking to finish the ice cream. 

Stop when it gets too hard to crank—that’s how you’ll know the ice cream is ready. 


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