Norbert didn’t like ice cream. When Uncle Bill Sykes picked him up from school he would take Norbert’s small hand into his large one and they would walk from the school to the store where the ice cream was and he would buy Norbert ice cream. Uncle Bill Sykes was a tall man whose head reached as high as the sky and whose name sounded a bit like sky, a new word, so Norbert thought Uncle Bill had something to do with that place.
Uncle Bill Sykes was a kind Canadian, one of the types of people who were helping Norbert’s family live in a new country. Canada. Uncle Bill sang or hummed a tune when he walked, and Norbert liked that. The two walked along and in between the singing and whistling Uncle Bill said things that Norbert could not understand. He would try to say something back, but the words didn’t get past his throat, and his thoughts made wrong sounds with themselves. Norbert was sad about this and could have cried but he didn’t because he didn’t want to make Uncle Bill sad and confuse a kind Canadian.
At the store, a bell tinkles when Uncle Bill Sykes opens the door. The bell hangs from a metal spring attached to the ceiling above the door, and the door strikes it. It speaks to the school teacher who lives in the store. She is not a school teacher but Norbert doesn’t know the name of this kind of person, who is tall and wide and smiles at them from behind her desk (it’s not a desk, it’s a counter) and he thinks she’s a bit like Mrs. Anderson, his Grade One teacher. She might be a sister or a cousin, or at least a relative.
Uncle Bill Sykes talks in his sky language—his voice comes from deep in his chest, like God’s does—to the lady who might be Mrs. Anderson’s cousin or sister, and the two Canadian adults smile at each other, and then Mrs. Anderson’s cousin or sister goes to a cupboard behind her and takes out a cookie that’s rolled up into a cone. Mrs. Anderson’s sister or cousin then reaches into the chest behind her with a round spoon that looks like a crescent-moon and comes out with a ball of milk. It looks hard. Mrs. Anderson’s cousin or sister squeezes the hard milk ball onto the top of the rolled up cookie and she pushes it down, and then smiles and turns and looks at him. Uncle Bill looks at him too, and gestures. Norbert’s supposed to take the ice cream cookie now that Mrs. Anderson’s cousin or sister is holding out to him, and he should say the Canadian words “thank you.” He does so.
There is a spark of terror when his hand touches the ice cream—“cone,” as Uncle Bill is now calling the rolled up cookie—and there is terror in his voice when he says the thank you. He sounds false. His face won’t smile and his voice is a wrong sound. He watches Uncle Bill give some coins to Mrs. Anderson’s sister or cousin—she has become less like Mrs. Anderson’s cousin or sister than before—and then he and Norbert go out the door where the little bell tinkles. It just misses the top of Uncle Bill’s head.
Now they are out in the street. Uncle Bill looks down and smiles at Norbert, who is holding the “cone” with the hard milk ball in his right hand, well away from his body while Uncle Bill holds his left hand. Uncle Bill looks down and smiles and raises his left hand to his mouth and sticks out his tongue and licks the air above his hand. Norbert knows what this means. He raises the cone to his mouth, sticks his tongue out and touches the hard milk ball. It is cold; it is also sweet. He pulls it away from his mouth.
Uncle Bill laughs, and makes the Canadian movement with his hand and his tongue again, and nods. Norbert looks at him, and then at the icy and sweet milk ball. White gooey drips are starting to run down the side of the cone. Uncle Bill nods again. He says some things in sky language, and Norbert worries that he is disappointing Uncle Bill and maybe God, both of whom want him to lick the ice milk ball. He moves the cone toward his face once more, sticks his tongue out and licks. The cold and the sweetness slide onto his tongue, drip into his throat and rush into his stomach. It knows where it wants to go. Uncle Bill laughs and rubs his tummy and says “yumm.” Norbert hangs his head.
Why does Norbert not like ice cream? Because it’s too cold. Something sweet, he tells himself, should not be this cold. The cold sweetness of Edmonton and Canada is foreign for an immigrant German boy’s body. The cold will hurt him and the sweetness is there to fool him. Is Uncle Bill tricking him?
Let’s do some history. In Norbert’s country there was no such thing as candy, cold or warm. His country lost a war, and the stores were broken by bombs, and the people were hungry. There was not enough food, let alone candy. Is ice cream food or candy? Norbert can’t tell. It has something to do with milk. But milk is not food, it’s for drinking. It comes from cows and mothers. You don’t eat it. Norbert feels the ice tighten his throat and thoughts. It stops his speech, like English does.
They walk. More ice cream is now running in slimy droplets down the side of the cone, and onto Norbert’s hand. He feels the cold on his skin. It is punishing him for not liking Uncle Bill’s gift. Uncle Bill looks and laughs again as Norbert holds the cone well away from him so it does not drip on the rest of his body. In this way a Canadian sky uncle, and a small foreign boy walk on an Edmonton street.
When they arrive at Mr. Curry’s, Norbert’s and his family’s landlord’s house, Uncle Bill opens the door and lets Norbert in. His parents and Mr. Curry are away. Uncle Bill makes the licking movement once again and grins, and Norbert looks at him and doesn’t do the licking. He is a bad weak boy. Uncle Bill chuckles and turns, closes the door and walks away.
Now we are alone in the kitchen with Norbert, and the ice cream is running out over his hand and down his arm to the elbow. Norbert stands with both arms stretched away from his body. He wants to put the ice cream cone down so that it will stop punishing him for not loving Uncle Bill. Where will he put it? The cone’s pointed at the bottom and won’t stand up in the table or kitchen counter. Norbert looks around, thinks, walks then into his parents’ bedroom where a brown dresser stands against one wall. On top of the dresser is his mother’s jewelry box with shiny things inside. The box has six corners.
Norbert takes the lid off—it has six corners, too, and fits on the box, a little miracle—and he sets the ice cream cone into the jewelry box. It falls to one side and leans against it. The ice cream drips onto the dresser and the milk ball gets smaller. Norbert stands and watches the dripping for a few seconds, then turns and walks back to the kitchen.
The crazy idea going through my head at the time (along with all of the above) was that I would give the ice cream cone as a gift to my mother. I knew she liked sweets, thought she would know how to eat Canadian ice cream and understand its contradictory attributes. She would solve the riddle of how something so cold could be both food and candy and not be dangerous. She was a woman and would know something about milk. With this bit of six-year-old logic I solved the double problem of where to put the cone, and, as a bonus, the problem, an on-going one in my life, of how to please my mother. The gift idea cinched it. I would pass the gift on—like anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ hau, a gift so powerful that it can’t be resisted and that gains power each time it is passed on. I was proud of my cleverness (didn’t know who Marcel Mauss was, of course, at the time) and hummed as I walked through the empty house, checked out my wood blocks, looked up at the clock, and waited for my family to come home.
The ice cream, of course, kept melting. It ran down the side of the jewelry box—I don’t remember what I did with the jewelry—made a creamy pond on the glass dresser surface, rappelled in long droops down the front of the dresser, partially leaking into some of the drawers, and then onto the floor, where it made another puddle. When my mother came home—I’d watched none of the above—I said I have something for you. It’s in the bedroom. I made it a bit of a mystery, which of course it was. She walked into the bedroom and saw the mess and said Gott im Himmel, wass ist den in Dich gefahren? That’s our language for “what in heaven’s name’s gotten into you?” I tried to tell her about Uncle Bill Sykes, and the sky, and the sound of his name, and his closeness to God, and about Mrs. Anderson’s cousin or sister. I told her about uncle Bill Syke’s kindness and my unthankfullness and fear about a cold Canadian thing that was sweet but made of ice milk and was a foreign thing trying to inhabit my body and was therefore a risk for immigrant children. It might steal them. I talked about how I had thought up the clever plan of giving it to her as a gift because she was the most wise and important and beautiful person in my life, next to maybe God, who was not a woman, and whom one couldn’t see (and might not be beautiful) and that I often missed her and that I didn’t often enough give her presents which might encourage her to love me. Words to that effect. When I had finished my speech my mother stood there for a while and looked at the ice cream drips and puddles and then at me, and then at the ice cream again, and then she laughed.
She laughed for quite a while and I laughed with her, in great relief. I didn’t, in fact, know why she was laughing, because I thought this was a serious situation, full of confessions and strong reckonings, in which gifts were exchanged and trust was sealed by an object/spirit. Etc. But I thought I should go along with the laughing because she might be tempted, in spite of the gift aspect, to punish me for making a mess with a Canadian object, and perhaps, on a more serious level, for having disappointed Uncle Bill Sykes, a new and important kind Canadian who was helping our family live here. You can never fully tell, as a boy, what a mother is thinking and going to do next. You have to take chances.
The story, of course, was a hit: it became an instant favourite in our family’s F.O.B immigrant blooper set of New World accountings, made the rounds in the circle of kind Canadians, and various elaborations, comic sidebars, motivational explanations, sweet and chilling details etc. were appended. How could a child not like ice cream?! cried the adults. Norbert, tell them, parents would answer. Details went into the letters back home: when we visited in 1958, and I was twelve, my grandparents and aunt recalled the story. Germany by this time had adopted ice cream, an Italian Konfekt, as they called it (food, or candy or drink?) albeit my grandmother, in her truth-cum-myth-making way, confided that I was right in rejecting this cold Italian substance that indeed wasn’t right for German boys, especially when purchased and eaten in America. The story surfaced again, polished by time and false memory, and furbished with new details, when I visited my various relatives for the first time as an adult in 1965. Is that really how it was? they asked, after telling me their versions of the tale. Is that how life in Nord Amerika was? Is it still like that? Yes, I would say, and nod and smile, like Uncle Bill Sykes.