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Ice Cream with the Dead

How far back would I go? On this eve of my orphanhood perhaps I would just ask for a family gathering at the home place out of town on the prairie, a summer evening under that crooked mulberry tree between the house and machine shed, the usual spot for churning homemade ice cream.

Mom, in transition as she is, could choose what form to take, but shows up solid and real, walking easily across the grass. My brother Darin, gone now only 2 years this summer, swings in on his battered yellow ten-speed, no helmet, tongue in his cheek, fine hair sweeping back. Dad, a little stiffer and unused to the atmosphere after 20 years, has further to come but looks more peaceful than the rest of us. He just appears, at one as always with this piece of land.

The sun is already dropping behind the house, and the cicadas are warming up, just a few of them now, but their families will join in soon and fill our ears. The swallows swoop like boomerangs over the yard, clearing the air of mosquitos. I smell dirt and tractor oil, and a puff of dust rises from the road as a neighbor drives by in a pickup, one arm raised out the window in acknowledgement.

We haven’t, any of us, said anything. Dad seats himself on the ground in his loose-limbed way, back against the mulberry tree and one leg drawn up, his wrist resting on his knee with his long fingers hanging. He’s sporting one of his greasy old work shirts, a dress shirt in another life, now ripped with buttons missing, and his thick hair swoops over his forehead, too long in front. Mom’s roundness strains the old webbed lawn chaise; her love handles, covered in tan polyester shorts, poke out under the aluminum arms. She’s barefoot and wriggling her left foot up down and in a circle in her usual punctuated pattern, sweet iced tea in a jelly glass in her hand. Darin, looking so much better than the last time I saw him—the bloating and redness of alcohol are gone and his incredible blue eyes take in everything quickly—perches atop the ice cream freezer on a towel to keep it from moving while I begin to crank from the wooden footstool, my hair in a ponytail and red Keds planted in the dust, extra rock salt and ice close at hand.

What is there to say? We are perhaps each of us remembering our own version of our 25 years together in this spot, mesmerized by the sound of tumbling ice and meshing gears. Have we ever sat here like this before, completely at peace together? The rotation of the crank counts out the days and months and years together and apart as I gradually turn more slowly and with more effort. The ice cream takes long enough to freeze that we have time to think of many things, to stare at the far horizon beyond the shed, breathe the warm air, and finally look at each other with forgiving eyes. It is enough to have this one evening. None of us want to come back home to stay.

The ice cream will be perfect though, pure and unblemished. When Mom lifts the lid of the canister, the smell of cream and vanilla will waft on cool air into our hovering faces, over our hair, like a hand in blessing. We will all lick the beaters clean, together.

Michelle Goering has been writing forever, but only for herself until recently. She is a musician with a professional background in publishing, married and the mother of twin college-age sons. A resident of San Diego, Michelle grew up on a Kansas farm. She is a member of the Bahá’í Faith.