When you only have a dollar, buy an ice cream cone. I believe in the power of whimsy, caprice and momentary lapses in good judgment. Though my mother would be loath to admit it, she taught me this – that sometimes, usually fear-laced times, risk is your only currency.
When I was nine, my mother packed up her kids and fled a comfortable home, financial security and, after 25 years, my father’s tyranny. It was the late 1970s in a small town in Georgia, a place riddled with backyard gossip and unfriendly divorce laws. School was out for summer and we headed even deeper south to live near my mother’s large extended family, until, well, we just didn’t know. My mother had stayed home to raise her five children for the last 20 years and having not held a formal job during that time, had few marketable skills to provide for my sister and me, the youngest two still living at home. My mother’s family was not well off, but they were generous with all they had and helped my mother find a place to live rent-free, temporarily, while my grandmother’s overstocked kitchen would never let us starve. This communal spirit was new to me, as later would be public school, taking a bus, and wearing pants a hem too short after a rapid growth spurt. It would only take my mother a few years to safety pin the folds of her life into something she could live with, but in that time, I realized I’d been born to privilege, that poverty is shame, and that the best thrills in life arrive on impulse.
But it was that first hot hot summer of our departure that pinched us the hardest. I remember one Saturday in august and all we had in our cupboards was a box of Chef Boyardee Pizza mix and six potatoes. My mother had a lonesome $5 bill to her name, a half a tank of gas, and a flimsy promise of a check in the mail. Though she tried desperately to hide it, I saw that day that my mother was scared, the lump in her throat so tight her voice shook. But my mother knew that fear and prudence cannot share the same house. Fear will inevitably take center stage – bully its way to the limelight. In a panic, she set out to chase it away, as if she’d found a wild animal in her kitchen. So she made that box of pizza and a pan of home fries in one of my grandmother’s cast iron skillets, packed it in the backseat of our red Chrysler and drove us ten miles to Walker Park for a picnic. And for that one afternoon, we were frivolous and bold, eating our cupboards bare, burning gas needlessly, and with utter recklessness, spending half of those five precious dollars on ice cream, which was nothing if not restorative, whimsical and magic.
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