The Styrofoam Cooler

It all started with five pats of butter; my awareness that we were not like everybody else.
I liked toast. I had simple tastes. But I wasn’t a robot. I liked butter on my toast. My mother would help me make the toast when I was younger, beginning with the toaster that burned our kitchen down. When the toast was done and sitting expectantly on a plate, Mom would reach for the butter from the fridge. With an actual butter knife, she placed five pats of butter on that dry piece of bread. One pat in each corner and a tiny one in the middle. I don’t know when it dawned on me to question this ritual. But one random day as I was watching those five tiny butter blobs melt into only a 6th of my toast, I wished for more. I wished for a slather. I wished my toast could take a bath in that butter. Jump into the deep end. Put it on like a down jacket.

I think I even asked about it. The answer was no. We are five-pat-butter-people. We don’t slather. That stick of butter would take us all the way to high school graduation.

Other clues in the puzzle came in the form of 4 inches of bath water. We filled our tubs with 4 inches. Not an inch more. When you sat your naked self down in the water, you displaced 2 or 3 more, giving the illusion of maybe 7 inches of warm water. I think I was a married adult before I realized that some people fill the tub UP with hot water. All the way up to that second little drain that I didn’t know existed. I thought that thing was cosmetic until I was 25.

Then there was the cardboard box sled. We all know how that went. I mean.
Disposable silverware that wasn’t ever disposed of. Always washed, stored in a gallon size ziplock, and reused.
Styrofoam ice chests with pimento cheese sandwiches and rest area picnics on long road trips.
Putting $2 worth of gas in our tank, only to drive a few miles down the road to fill up where the gas was cheaper.
Guess Jeans? Please. Jordache? If you don’t get six pats of butter, you aren’t getting Jordache.

My parents were frugal. And I get it. They were children of the depression. Well, not exactly. Maybe a little. According to my mom, my dad wasn’t raised that way. We can’t even trace his back to anything.

I grew up on a nice street in Tallahassee, FL. There were two doctors and a lawyer within a child’s stone throw of my own yard. It was a nice street. I’m told it was a stretch when we bought it, but a stretch my parents gladly made without regret. What we suffered in mortgage payments, we saved on butter blobs and air conditioning. In the summertime, daytime temperatures were in the 90s, depending on whatever front was passing through. At night, it was a humid 78. We ran our AC. In the daytime. We did not run our AC at night. Almost never. Most summer nights, after darkness settled in hues of navy and gray, my mom would walk through our bedrooms and open the windows. I would watch that process like the buttering of the toast and sigh in my soul as the window unstuck itself with a groan and opened to the stale night air under duress. There was never a discussion about this. We didn’t pay the electric bills. We didn’t make electric bill decisions. But two or three times a summer, on rare occasions of extreme heat, Mom would walk through again and lower the window. And my eyes would brighten as I heard the AC kick on for the night. This was going to be a sleep to remember. I was going to get to wear clothes. And use sheets. I don’t know if there was a set of parameters or a temperature chart in place that prompted those few closed-window nights. I just knew it made me happy. And cool.

The week of Christmas, 2008, the Snapp in me collided with the White in them on a joint vacation to Gatlinburg. I knew what I was getting into with that trip. It’s not like I didn’t know. And yet, somehow I didn’t know. Somehow I entered surprising new territory. Or saw the same old territory with fresh eyes. That old white Styrofoam ice chest was a key player in the trip that week. When it wasn’t squeaking, it was somehow dictating our meals, our leftovers, or our next 30 minutes. Don’t ask me how an ice chest can have that kind of power. I don’t have a real answer to that question. Except that my mother gave it that power.

After 6 days of crowds, events, activities, and mishaps that I could write entire chapters about, that week came down to an early morning mad dash to pack up and go home. Besides packing our own bags and having them sitting by the front door, we each had a couple of community tasks to get the house ready to leave. Oddly enough, Todd and I were assigned Cooler Duty. And no one was supervising our methods or our progress. The whole thing was laced with irony. I crouched down in the tiny dim-lit kitchen and looked up at my mother, who delivered the instructions without fanfare or room for interpretation. She opened the refrigerator and waved her arm over the contents.

“This is the stuff we are taking home,” she said. “Make it fit.”

She walked away before my eyes took their fullest shape of shock. She didn’t see me questioning. She also didn’t see Todd and I look at each other. There was a manifesto in that one glance. But she didn’t read it, so we got to work. For about 36 seconds, we tried to make some Tetris magic and find creative ways to stuff that refrigerator into that cooler. We were still thinking about this when I heard my mom call out from the hall bathroom, “Make sure you get the hot dogs.” I looked at Todd again. Oh, the hot dogs. I had a mostly empty jug of milk in my left hand and a gallon sized baggie of browning iceberg lettuce in my right. I could have killed a homeless man with what I held in my hands that moment. The hot dogs were still sitting in a bag on a refrigerator shelf.

Nothing was fitting.
My mom had gotten caught up in another task.
The trash can was  a duck waddle away. Todd and I had the same thought at the same moment. I grabbed the trash can and before either of us could say “leftover hot dogs” we were chucking food into the trash with wild abandon. We had to be careful and place the food we were trashing under dirty paper towels or discarded paper plates. We had to be covert. No one could know. If our methods were discovered before we were firmly down the mountain, we’d lose our jobs and those hot dogs would be buckled into an air conditioned bucket seat of somebody’s van.

When it was all over, there was enough spare room inside that cooler to host a small dinner party. I think we even got praised for that. It really was our finest hour.

But 12 hours later, we pulled into our driveway with my parents in tow. And because we had some things in the cooler, too, that cooler came out of the back of the van with the rest of our luggage. My dad plopped it onto our kitchen counter and my mom opened it up for the first time since Todd’s and my little heist that morning. My mom put the lid aside and peered into the contents of the cooler. Her eyes darkened with confusion. Then she began moving things around. Finally, she looked over at me.

“So, where are the hot dogs?”

I made a little face that brought out all the bones in my neck and replied,

“Um, did you check under the butter?”