By Cathy Sky
One September, during the bad years between my mother and father, Mom put makeup over cheeks usually red from crying, fixed her hair, and took a job in the glove department at Shepard’s department store in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. By December she had a position in Gifts and Specialties, a status my sister and I found awesome. She spent all day among items from all over the world: German Advent calendars, Ozarks’ lumber jacks carved from oak, starry Swedish candle chimes.
During school vacation for the holidays, Sis and I took the bus into the city to meet Mom for lunch. I was impressed: this was a grown-up affair. We waited for our mother to punch out her timecard, and then she led us through an Employees Only exit at the back of the store. We stepped into a dim alleyway where trucks idled, loading and being unloaded from tall platforms. Across the passage were stairs and a hanging sign, black with gold writing: Shepard Company Tea Room.
Inside the long room was a row of leatherette booths, each with its own wooden pillar that turned out to be a coat rack with brass hooks. Light had a different quality, a suffused yellow. I have a lasting impression of dark mahogany, a high, tiled ceiling, and a polished lunch bar running parallel to the booths. I can almost put out my hand and touch one of the bar stools. They sat on a raised area covered with linoleum and were tempting to spin, the painted grooves on their sides whirling into unbroken lines of motion.
Newness was the order of the day, from the croquettes my mother ordered for us to the feeling that the three of us were a unit of our own, separate and safe, snug in that booth. For dessert we had hot fudge sundaes. I may have had ice cream with cold Hershey’s syrup at home before, but this was different.
Each sundae arrived on a white china plate covered with a lace paper doily. The fluted sundae cup seemed both silver and gold, small beads of sweat dotting its sides. When you ran your finger through the dew, the water condensed and dripped onto the doily like tears.
All along the edges of the chalice were thick puddles of hot fudge, quivering, and ready to pour down the sides once you dipped in your long stemmed spoon. Under the maraschino cherry, beneath the airy blob of whipped cream, the fudge made rivulets across the top of the vanilla ice cream, like snow on the mountain tops seen in negative – black where there was white.
Our eating was a plunging, an overflow, a slow dripping. A rescuing of the fudge that spilled over the lips of the silvery dish with the edge of my spoon. In my mouth, the vanilla ice cream and the hot fudge made cold and hot sugary soup, always changing texture, always begging me to reach for more to keep the sensations going.
The last drops of fudge scraped from the doily. The regret that it was over. The sips of water from the compact but elegant water glasses with the slightly, bulging top and the crunching of small square ice cubes that floated, partially melted, on the water’s surface. I was twelve years old and had no idea that I had just experienced a ritual that would have meaning throughout my life.
When I worked the counter at Brigham’s creamery in Harvard Square during the 1960s, I used to hear ladies urge one another, “Gladys, go ahead and have the sundae. You deserve it. Come on, let go and splurge. Life is short. Go ahead.” I liked to ladle in extra fudge for my customers when the manager wasn’t looking. Just so there was that luxurious dripping-of-plenty. I didn’t do it to make extra tips. The smiles, the giggles, the intakes of breath when I delivered the cut glass goblets, Brigham’s special sundae dishes, rewarded me.
What does a hot fudge sundae offer the psyche? If it could talk it might say, “This is our secret. Life is really fine. It may look otherwise. But savor it, savor this moment.”
The Irish word solas is related to our English word solace and means much more than consolation or comfort. Solas implies an altered state, a kind of walking in the glow of spirit, attuned to life.
When I think of my decades-long relationship with hot fudge sundaes, my memories are not of guilty pigouts, though I’ve had my share of those. Instead, I see faces across that sweet counter: lovers, friends, family. This simple act of shared pleasure is profound in retrospect, transcendent. Life, love, and friendship may seem like confusing labyrinths, but these kind memories remain.
Now in my sixties, the child within me insistently knows when to play the sundae card.
It may be stylish to call the urge a sugar addiction. A band aid in times of stress. Must we call everything that brings solas a problem? I would rather think in terms of healing magic.
In 2009, my husband Patrick and I attended a gathering, a memorial service at Jubilee Hall, in the center of Asheville for a young man we had loved since childhood, the son of our closest friends. I don’t think anyone could describe the currents of loss, the love and grief in that hall. When we emerged onto the day-lit street I felt almost a physical pull, an urge to turn right. “Where are you going?” my husband wanted to know, following me. I was walking at a good clip toward the ice cream parlor. I’d been on a diet for a couple of months. You know what I was going to order, and did order. Sundaes are a crossroads’ ritual. They say something about reclaiming joy.
One more instance, before I remind myself that I really must lose that twenty extra post-menopausal pounds: On September 25, 2001, our plane to Raleigh-Durham was rerouted from a small Catskills airport to LaGuardia, putting us directly above downtown Manhattan. We had decided to defy fear by traveling to the festival we’d booked months in advance of 9/11, but our original flight was to connect in Newark. Now, as we flew directly above the twin columns of smoke still rising from Ground Zero, Patrick and I held hands across the aisle of our Economy flight. The anxiety shared by everyone on the airplane was palpable. I longed for terra firma and our then-hometown, Chapel Hill.
“If we land safely,” I whispered, leaning toward Pat, “let’s drive directly to Elmo’s and have a hot fudge sundae.”
“Deal,” he said, nodding.
We did. And we did. Elmo’s, with its comfy red booths and its oak and stainless steel coat racks, was waiting for us. Pat had decaf coffee and I had tea as our libations to accompany the ritual. And it occurs to me that I forgot to tell you this: we had hot fudge sundaes on our first date.
Cathy Larson Sky writes novels, poems and freelance articles and holds an MA in Folklore from UNC Chapel Hill. A performer and teacher of Irish traditional fiddling, she currently lives in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Visit her at: cathylarsonsky.blogspot.com.