Social class and memories at a lemonade stand

_MG_4135Yesterday afternoon I was finishing a run when I passed what looked like a mom and her daughter selling lemonade.  They were sitting at a small plastic bench in the shade of a tree, on the front lawn of a house a few doors up from ours.  After I finished running, I went inside, got a dollar, and walked back up the street.

The house where the mom and her daughter were sitting is split into a pair of townhouses, both of which are among the few rental homes in our neighborhood.  My family has lived in South Freeport for more than twenty years and in that time I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with anyone who’s lived in one of the townhomes.  My brother and sister report the same.  It’s an indication, I think, of how those particular buildings exist towards the periphery of what is otherwise a well-to-do part of town.

I introduced myself to the mom and her daughter, and remarked that a few weeks earlier I’d seen balloons flying at the end of their driveway.  I asked the girl if it had been her birthday.  She smiled, looked shyly at her shoulder, and, with prompting, reported that she is now five-years-old.  With her mom’s help, she poured me a cup of pink lemonade from a plastic pitcher.  We talked some more while I drank it, and when I asked, the mom told me they’d been living there for seven years.  I had one more cup of lemonade, then we said goodbye, and I walked home.

Later, I thought about my mom and what it had been like when we’d moved in twenty years earlier.  It was right after my parents had divorced, and in every way our new situation in life felt strange and scary.  There was the fact of my mom being single, on her own, and appearing more vulnerable in my ten-year-old eyes than my dad ever did, though I know now that those days were terrifying for him, too.  There was also the fact of our new house, which was the smallest on the street, and flagrantly conspicuous—at least to me—in a neighborhood of Volvos, yacht club decals, and venerable white capes with ocean views.

That class anxiety was a big part of my childhood, and what I didn’t feel directly, I felt through my mom.  She expressed her own awareness of social class most strongly through the energy she put into raising me and my brother and sister, and through the satisfaction she felt before she died, that we’d all grown into adults with a lot of opportunity in life.  It’s always been a mystery to me why my mom, after the divorce, chose to move to a part of town where she’d feel out of step with her neighbors.  It occurs to me now that her choice was deliberate, made so that her kids could see up close the kinds of lives we might lead for ourselves one day.

So, when I saw that mom and her daughter selling lemonade, I thought first of my own family twenty years earlier.  I thought about how, as a kid, I would have been mortified to be selling anything on such public display in front of our house, filled in my own mind with the appearance of grasping at our wealthy neighbors’ quarters.  And, while I have no idea how that mom feels about living in this neighborhood, I hoped that by walking over to say hello, I could make a potentially forbidding place feel a little less so. 

I thought about my mom, too, and the way she might have bounced across the street to buy a cup of lemonade herself, and how she would have talked to that little girl, who is just a year older than Jay.

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2 thoughts on “Social class and memories at a lemonade stand

  1. It amazes me how early in life we pick up the material cues and symbols of social standing or status–they’re among my earliest memories.

    • So true. My family was quite poor when I was young and I vividly remember other kids mocking the part of town I was from, how meager our means were. It was very polarizing even in the 3rd or 4th grade.

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