Queen Grandmommy and the Ice-cream Store

Laid off, I have time and energy for writing assignments:  Write a story of unexpected betrayal.  When possible, describe emotion as a feeling on the body.  What does betrayal feel like on the body?  Somewhere in your story, include a little dirt. (Thanks for this one, Ariel.)

My solution:

The most special thing about Grandmommy and Granddaddy’s was waking up each morning.  They lived in a townhouse with a staircase that paused at a window and pivoted before landing.  When I descended for breakfast, I felt like a princess in a turreted castle.  Queen Grandmommy would give me a good morning kiss.  It smelled like Estee Lauder face cream. Then we ate oatmeal with one teaspoon of sugar on top.

When I was little, my parents would send me to Fort Worth, TX to stay with Grandmommy and Granddaddy for two weeks.  Some of my earliest memories are of these visits.

Grandmommy would drive me to the store in her yellow Mustang with black seats.  She’d park under the sign with the big pink and brown polka dots.  The store smelled of sugar cones.  I’d skip past the 31 flavors of ice cream, towards the backroom, where I’d find little drawers of plastic cake decorations: a basketball, ice-skates, a pony.  With my bare fingers, I’d take out all the charms, play with them, and put them back.

icecream cake 1

Grandmommy and Granddaddy in their ice-cream store

I’d watch Sesame Street on the little black and white TV on a desk.  Grandmommy would make me a French Vanilla milkshake, with a banana to make it “healthy.”

Grandmommy was in her mid 40s and petite and pretty, with perfectly coifed hair—high in the back and flipped up over her shoulders—like she could be on daytime TV.  And she read about nutrition in Prevention magazine. She liked her kitchen and ice cream store to be perfect and sanitary.  She was thrifty and disapproved of letting anything go to waste.  (My mom claims Grandmommy counts exactly 4 toilet paper squares before wiping.)

In Grandmommy and Granddaddy’s store, there were unarticulated rules for ice-cream tasting, rules that were virtually unobservable to a child.

I grew tall enough to reach into the buckets of ice cream and saw how Grandmommy and Granddaddy did it.  You lifted a sliding glass freezer door with one hand, and with the other, dipped a pink plastic tasting spoon into the flavor you desired.  I went for pure creaminess– strawberry, chocolate, or vanilla—and ignored the other 28 concoctions.  Butter Pecan and Rocky Road were for Granddaddy.

I had spent enough time around Grandmommy to know I should be thrifty as well as clean, so after I dipped a tasting spoon into the chocolate, then put it in my mouth, I used the same spoon to try the vanilla. I felt the adults glaring at me disapprovingly—not just Grandmommy and Granddaddy, but a man on the other side of the case, a customer.  He had said something—something about what I did.  It was not “sanitary.”

In the queen’s refusal to come to my defense, she betrayed my innocent yearning for approval. I was too ashamed to enjoy the sample, but I put the plastic spoon full of germy ice cream in my mouth, anyway—I didn’t want to be accused of being wasteful as well unsanitary.

icecream cake

Years later, for my 7th birthday, Grandmommy made me an ice-cream cake, packed it with dry ice, and brought it to our house in Okeene, OK.

My cheeks were so hot that I did not feel the icy vanilla on my tongue.

Griefs and Grievances

I have chronicled my grievance hearings; however, I omitted the context of grief and numbness that seeped through my first hearing: on top of losing my career, I lost my sister-in-law.

Most of Laura’s life had revolved around WIU:  she was a faculty brat, she had attended WIU’s lab school and summer musical theatre, her friends and husband earned degrees and worked at WIU, and she loved her new office in Simpkins Hall.

WIU was at war with itself and Laura was disgusted.

Laura and I had gone to lunch the Thursday before she died from the cancer we knew nothing of.  Laura was witty, and I hoped she’d be able to relieve me of my ruminations.

A decade earlier, she had returned to Macomb right after I did, but we had not had lunch, just the two of us, until that day.

The Yummy Chin host sat us in a booth behind my dean and her assistant deans.  Laura ordered the sweet and sour chicken.  I thought little of the fact that she didn’t order her favorite drink, Mountain Dew.  I had the sweet potato tempura roll.

I was leaning over the table towards Laura so the deans would not overhear me complain about the people who laid me off.

“How are the kids?” asked Laura, who had seen and talked to them just 3 days before.

“Um.  Fine.” I didn’t know what to add, so I continued to trash talk WIU.

“How are the kids?” Her voice was weak and urgent.  Now I wonder if she was pleading–maybe for some tender images to ease her pain.

In the parking lot, her steps were slow.  I assumed she was enjoying the sun and drove us back to Simpkins hall.

That Saturday I was happy, but  Sunday after the sun reached its highest point in the south, my heart darkened with with dread.  My layoff was so discouraging–how would I teach?

Monday , I woke up at 4:30 a.m.  My chest ached with the loss of my job, fear for my future, and the pressure of anger.  I told myself that if I could just dress warmly,  I would handle my longest weekly teaching day just fine.  I put on a thick hoodie with a hounds-tooth pattern and zipped it up all the way to my chin.  This hoodie hugged my body all day.  I had read that the hounds-tooth pattern signified courage.

I taught four classes, and then brought home a stack of essay exams on 20th-Century women’s protest novels, but that evening, before I read them, Laura died of cancer.

Looking back, I know that in the weeks after WIU launched shocks onto the faculty, Laura’s skin turned green.


A week before she died, Laura did her best to celebrate her niece’s birthday. Only looking back did we notice she wasn’t herself.

Unlike me, Laura refused to fight—not against WIU, not against her cancer.  After a winter of pain in her shoulders, back, stomach, and head, she finally took one sick day.  The cancer, it seems, had already occupied Laura from every angle and positioned itself to send a fatal shock through her entire body.

By the time I met Tom and Grandma at the ER, Laura showed no signs of consciousness or pain.  Standing behind Laura was a nurse, the mother of one of my daughter’s friends.  What a comfort.  I touched Laura’s cold, rubbery arm.  “Goodby dear Laura,” I murmured.  Something had moved on her EKG and they couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a pulse, so they waited, but before the med-vac arrived, the doctor called the time of death.

Five days later, at my grievance hearing,  anger and shock covered my pain and fear.

Dr. Eva Eger (The Choice) says there is no hierarchy of suffering.  I suffered from grief and grievance, and there was no point ranking one as worse than the other.

After the hearing in Sherman Hall, the assistant provost said he was sorry about Laura.