It was a summertime ritual: after dinner on a hot, humid evening, we’d pile into the Buick and wind our way up the road and down a hill to the Dairy Queen, the backs of our skinny, shorts-clad legs sticking to the vinyl seat.
Once we arrived, I’d wait in line with my mom while my dad and brothers scouted out some territory on one of the benches next to the parking lot. As the items came up – a large cone for my dad, a Coke float for my older brother, a small dish of vanilla for the younger one – I would ferry them from my mom at the counter to the boys waiting for their treats.
And then it was my turn.
I’d had lots of favorites over the years: the Heath Bar Blizzard, the Dilly Bar, the Mr. Misty. But that year, the year I was eight, I usually ordered an ice cream cone: a perfect chocolate soft-serve minaret with a shell of chocolate dip on top.
That evening, the sun insistent despite the late hour, I attacked my ice cream the way I always did: I bit into the not-yet-hard chocolate shell and slurped up a mouthful of ice cream. I then dismantled the shell, bite by bite, its crunch the perfect appetizer for the smoothness of the ice cream to come.
And then, just as I dislodged the last shard of dip, I noticed the smallest rivulet of chocolate dripping down the cone and onto the fronts of my fingers. I started to eat faster then, trying to stem the tide of melted ice cream. But my efforts were in vain: as I ate the ice cream at the top of the cone, the stream coming from the bottom turned into a torrent and my hand, my pink jelly shoes, and the pavement nearby were drowning in chocolate.
“Kris, you’ve got to lick around,” my mom offered.
She took my cone from me then, not afraid of the sticky mess it had become – she had three kids; she’d seen worse – and handed me an extra napkin. She then showed me how she rotated her hand to lick the part where ice cream met cone to keep the drips from turning into rivers.
My mom held onto my cone while I used the napkin to clean my hands and the tops of my feet, the scratchy yellow paper clinging stubbornly to the sticky parts in the webs between my fingers. After I’d tidied up, she gave me back my cone, as neat now as it had been the moment the teenager behind the counter first handed it to me.
“Okay,” she said, “you try.”
I imitated her movements then, alternating delicate bites from the top with housekeeping licks around the bottom.
“It looks like you’ve got it,” she smiled down at me as I beamed up at her.
And I did get it: even the very best things need tending to.