Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hold the Sprinkles

Jack was six years old when the ice cream shop opened its doors down the street. He thought a piece of heaven had descended into his backyard. It became almost impossible to walk past the thick aroma of sugar and cream without succumbing to its intoxicating sweetness. Like most folks in our neighborhood, I fell thrall to the ice cream shop's oh-so-Mayberrry appeal.
   One day after school, we popped in for a cone. As Jack pondered the abundance beyond the glass freezer case, the man behind the counter doled out ice cream to a nice family of four. Each received a scoop or two of their favorite flavor and then chose toppings. I watched in awe at the ease in which the mother paid for her family's treats. She didn't once wince at the selections being made. She didn't tell her children to only order one scoop or limit their toppings, nor did she grumble and argue when the man behind the counter tallied up her total. She seemed almost—dare I say—happy to shell out almost $25 for their treats.
Jack still enjoys a good cone of Superman.
  As the family lapped at their confections, Jack stepped up to the counter and chose a flavor called Superman—which is actually less of a flavor and more of a color combination (red, blue and yellow.) The man behind the counter scooped up a mound of the sweet, frozen stuff and pushed it into a sugar cone.
   "What do you want on top?" he asked.
    "Ah ... I don't know ... " I said.
    I swallowed hard as Jack eyed the mounds of cookie crumbs, gummy worms, M&Ms and almond brickle available to top his cone. I glanced up at the menu on the wall. Of course I wasn't surprised to see that a single scoop cost $2.50. Going out for ice cream at a locally owned sweet shop has it's own merit, so I tried to set aside my usual "I can buy a half-gallon for the same price" mentality. But realizing that a spoonful of the bright-colored candy would set me back another dollar—the retail price of an entire container—triggered a deep-seated response that I hadn't touched on in a while. My distress at the over-priced non-pareils was so palatable that the nice family of four surely heard my pocketbook squeak as it tightened.
    I admit my aversion to overpriced treats is—no matter how righteous—not an enlightened response in this day and age, but it's one that's hard for me to shake. I was raised by parents who grew up in the Depression. When I was a kid, we rarely went out to dinner because my Mom insisted "we could make it at home for so much less—and it will taste better"—which was pretty much true. (And BTW, my Mom worked full-time, so it would have been a lot more convenient for her to go through the drive-thru at Wendy's.) On rare and special occasions we stopped for McDonalds or Kentucky Fried Chicken or to get a soft-serve cone from the Taste-T-Freeze. To my recollection we never sat down at a "nice" restaurant as a family when I was a kid.
   Of course, all childhood experiences are shaped by our own limited perception. I can appreciate now that my parents—wisely—decided not to spend their hard-earned money on eating out. Going to dinner at a restaurant wasn't a priority for them. They chose to spend their money on other things, such as sending their four daughters to parochial school. We were a family of six and the economic benefit of dining at home was significant.
   Today, I admire my parents' mindful spending habits. In fact, something about that frugality must have seeped into my DNA. I'm the woman whose oversized handbag is rattling with contraband candy as she climbs the steps to take her seat at the cineplex. It's not that I can't afford to buy that over-priced candy bar, soda or snack. I'm just wired to not overspend to the point of compulsion. (There are those who are worse. I know a man who carries his own individually-wrapped slice of American cheese in his pocket so he can save a quarter when he dines at Hamburger Heaven.)
   You might think my thriftiness an admirable trait, but in fact this inability to part with my money can be debilitating. My neurosis can rob me of enjoyment of a pleasant moment. I often wonder what it feels like to be one of those blissed-out, spend-thrift moms who dole out dollars for sprinkles and jimmies without a second thought. I admire people who freely and happily shell out $25 for candy, popcorn and a coke at the movie theatre without imagining all the popcorn and Cokes and candy—and yes, gallons of ice cream— that same money could buy at the grocery store. There are a lot of benefits to being mindful, but when it comes to spending money, I often wish I could just turn off my overzealous mental analysis, kick back, order the jumbo popcorn combo and enjoy the show.

   That day, standing before the ice cream counter my palms began to sweat. I wanted to say, "Yes! Load us up with sprinkles!" and watch Jack's delight, but I just couldn't. I was willing to pay $2.50 for an ice cream cone and even throw the extra fifty-cents into the tip jar, but to spend a dollar on sprinkles undid me.  Jack, oblivious to my affliction, awaited an answer, his blue eyes dancing in the glow of the sneeze guard.
   "That'll be all," I said to the man behind the counter.
    "But I wanted sprinkles!" Jack wailed.
    I sighed. What should I do? It was just a dollar! A dollar ... that could buy a lot more ...
    "Just a minute," I said to the man.
     I turned to Jack, leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Jack, those sprinkles cost a dollar. You can have the sprinkles, or you can have a dollar."
   Jack's eyes widened.
   "I'll take the dollar!" he said.
   I smiled and turned back to the ice cream shop man.
   "That'll be all," I said.
   Outside the ice cream shop as red, blue and yellow cream dripped down the front of his t-shirt, Jack proudly tucked the dollar in his pocket with sticky fingers. I wish I could say I taught my son a valuable lesson. I wish I could tell you that he took that dollar to Regions Bank and deposited it post-haste, then sat there and watched the .0002 interest turn it into ... $1.0002, but that was not the case. My inspired solution didn't do a lot to heal my over-priced-candy-aversion either, but maybe someday Jack will remember what I did and appreciate his thrifty mom—just as I appreciate mine today.


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