Cool Memories

when a sno-cone isn't just a sno-cone

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Beth Czech

When I was growing up on Eau Claire’s west side, my house was within walking/ BMX stunt-biking distance of not one, but two different corner grocery stores. I probably only visited them a handful of times, but when I imagine my childhood, especially in the summertime, it feels like I went to one of those stores every other day to buy candy and the odd matchbox car. 

But when I imagine my childhood, I also remember living under a staircase until I was suddenly whisked off to Wizard School where I saved the world from dark magiks at least once a year until I graduated. So maybe you should take my recollections with a grain or two of salt.

They look so good at first, and as you unwrap them, you feel pretty confident about what you’re doing. Cool, refreshing, sweet ... what could go wrong? Everything.

One summertime trip to the corner store stands out in particular, and until recently, I had no idea why. My older sister and I walked up to one of the stores, we bought sno-cones from a chest freezer, and we ate them on the way home. That’s it. But along with potions class, it’s one of my more vivid memories.

Getting to the store was a bit of a hike, so like I said, we only made the trek once in a while. The name hanging on the outside of the store belonged to the old guy behind the counter. I remember him wearing a bow tie and smiling a lot, but I might have him mixed up with Orville Redenbacher ... Yep, I’m thinking of Orville Redenbacher. Man, I used to watch a lot of TV.

Anyway, the sno-cones we got weren’t anything special – just your everyday, average, run of the mill chunk of frozen sugar water with an insane amount of food coloring thrown in for good measure. I have no idea why anyone eats these things. 

“Shaved ice” I can get behind, but these straight-from-the-freezer deals were just a big lump of icy disappointment. They look so good at first, and as you unwrap them, you feel pretty confident about what you’re doing. Cool, refreshing, sweet ... what could go wrong?

Everything. After the first few licks, your mouth gets all numb, and before you know it, you’re 20 or 30 licks in and you’ve shredded your tongue into a raw, bloody mess on what’s become a tasteless ice cube with many sharp edges. Searching for the FLAVOR you were promised by the packaging, you bite into the thing and immediately shudder as ice cold pain shoots through the nerve endings in your teeth. And all the while, sticky melted sno-cone solution has been dripping from the bottom of the cheap cardboard holder – right down your arm and all over your favorite Darth Vader t-shirt. 

But hey, kids love ‘em, and I was no exception. So we bought a couple of sno-cones and “ate” them as we walked home. I’m assuming this little excursion was my mom’s idea – a last ditch effort to get the kids out of the house so she could regain some amount of sanity and find a few quiet moments in which to pray for the sweet, sweet return of the school year. Mostly, I just recall walking down 14th Street and sucking on my little sphere of sugar ice.

I’ve always remembered this trip with much fondness and nostalgia, but like I said, I’ve only just recently understood why. It wasn’t the old corner store with the owner right behind the counter, it wasn’t the sno-cone, and it wasn’t the infinite freedom of summer break.

It was my sister.

She was with me the whole time, watching for cars as we crossed the street, handling the money at the store, helping me open my cone, and a dozen other things I took for granted and have completely forgotten about. She took care of me. She made me feel safe.

This entire concept pretty much crashed into my mind all at once the other day as I helped my daughter open up the screen door while keeping the cat inside. As the door slammed shut and she ran off to play with our neighbor’s kids, I said, “Stay out of the street, take care of your brother!”

And boom, there it was. How many of my childhood memories feel the way they do – happy and secure – because I had my sister’s eyes watching over me? I’d estimate the number to be somewhere between “a lot” and “a whole big butt load.” 

We fought all the time, and I’m sure she didn’t enjoy looking after me most days, but now, all grown up, I am filled with gratitude. Sisters are awesome. And I’m lucky to have one.

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