Reconciling a Legacy: The Gifford’s Ice Cream Memoir Project part 2

Update January 2016: We All Scream, a memoir about the rise and fall of Gifford’s Ice cream and the family behind it, will be released in January of 2017. You can keep up to date by visiting the Gifford’s Ice Cream Facebook group, following me on Twitter, and signing up for the newsletter.

I wrote the article below two years ago. It, and the articles that followed, were written during the early stages of writing. Since then, I’ve put in hundreds of hours of research, I’ve interviewed dozens of people who knew my family and the company, and many more individuals have come forward with revelations – the whos, whats, wheres, and whys. Consequently, some of the conclusions in these early articles may be inaccurate. They may not line up with what’s in the memoir, or what I’ve said in later blog posts. I keep these entries live as a sort of archive – an “anatomy of a memoir,” if you will. As I wrote, revised, edited, and researched, I tried to capture my mindset at the time with these posts.

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I’ve been trying to write about Gifford’s Ice Cream since 1990. Back then I was a high school sophomore at Bethesda-Chevy Chase and full of angst and bitterness. My dad had abandoned us, cleaned out the bank accounts, and left all of the Gifford’s employees high and dry in 1985. Our world came crashing down and I went from being the heir apparent of one of the Washington area’s most beloved institutions to huddling in an unheated house, watching my mother begin her long, drunken road to suicide.

I didn’t know much in 1990. I didn’t know why all of this had happened. Ours was not a close family. We didn’t comfort each other, we didn’t talk about our problems, nobody tried to explain anything to me. I was ushered to a clandestine meeting one Friday night in 1985 where my dad told me that he was going to Charlottesville, VA, and he would return on the following Monday. Then he was gone. Not just skipped town gone, not just shacked up with some floozy gone. The man vanished entirely for 15 years. The police couldn’t find him, the courts couldn’t find him, and we entered into a holding pattern of semi-poverty. One month, we were worth countless millions. The next month, we were on food stamps. With dad, the entirety of the Gifford’s fortune also vanished.

In 1986, I was bounced out of private school and went to Westland Junior High on Mass Ave in Maryland. Mom withdrew into alcohol and drugs, my maternal grandparents made the Spartans look like a troupe of clowns, and my mother’s siblings had long ago fled the area and the oppressive suffocation that my family seemed to embrace. At 12 years old, I was alone. I was forced to raise myself, surviving at first on a diet of buttered noodles and Mama Celeste pizzas until my grandmother taught me how to cook.

With no one around to really talk me through what had happened, and why my father had left me, I turned to writing. I scribbled little diaries full of hatred and anger for years until, finally, in high school, those scribblings coalesced into a “memoir” that I called “Ice Cream Dreams.”

It was awful. I was writing because I knew that I had to put my story down into words and try to get it out of my head or else madness would follow. The paper — and, later, computer screens — were the only things I could talk to. The only things I could ask questions of. Why, oh, why, 80-286 chip did my dad leave? And don’t give me that “parity error” response again!

In my early 20s, with what I then assumed was a bit more maturity, I tried to write the memoir again. Then, again, after mom killed herself in 1999. And, again, after dad died in 2007. Hundreds of pages from a very broken, troubled soul sit now in the deep archives of a clunky external hard drive in my closet. The purpose of the memoir was to heal myself and, yet, every word tore at my heart. It couldn’t be done.

Though, in reality, dealing with the legacy of my parents and Gifford’s Ice Cream was far from my mind between 1995-2007. While all the shit swirled around me with the death of my parents, and the ongoing madness of Gifford’s Ice Cream (bought at auction for $1500 and always seemingly changing hands and struggling), there was only one focal point in my life — Trigeminal Neuralgia. The star of my sad story as told by Laura Wexler in 2008 for the Washington Post Magazine.

Simply describing the pain of Trigeminal Neuralgia is hard to do. They call it the “suicide disease,” and it earns that name. It is an extraordinary, white-hot electric pain in your face, sometimes timed to your heart beat or, in cases like mine, it’s just constant. A pain that drugs can’t touch. Ultimately, it took highly invasive brain surgery to cure me in 2008.  Afterwards, for the first time in my adult life, I was awake and aware of the world once again.

It took me till around 2012, though, to really understand this. The cure in 2008 didn’t come with relief and celebration. I had been prescribed a crazy cocktail of painkillers by a neurologist in 2002. While they barely touched the pain, they were addictive. It took me a year to get off of those and shake that minor addiction. It took me another year or so of simply being stunned that I had been cured and, of course, dreading that the cure was only temporary. That the pain would return.

Free of pain, I lived in fear of pain till around 2013 when it finally started to dawn on me that the pain was gone. That I was alive. That it would be okay.

Out from under that great weight that had kept me at a distance from the world – and my past – I started to look again at the Gifford’s legacy. I had the ice cream recipes, I had boxes of memorabilia, and I had my mom’s storage unit. When she died in 1999, I stuffed her entire two-floor townhouse into cardboard boxes and then into a lonely storage unit out in Gaithersburg, MD. That unit became her tomb, to the tune of $1000 a year, until I finally built up the courage to unearth it in 2013.

Mom had kept everything. Childhood drawings, baby teeth, first clothes, first toys, etc. She had also kept all correspondence. Every letter she received starting in 1989 had been neatly arranged in decaying manila folders.

I went through the letters and I was able to build a picture of this strange woman, my mother, in the late 80s and into the 90s. I had left home, never to look back, in 1992. My mother and I never got along, and our conflicts would often become violent. I left home an abused, neglected child and, when next I entered my mother’s life, it was to deal with her death in 1999. Her life in the 90s was a mystery to me, and what I discovered as I went through her correspondence was… Well, it’s sort of the whole story. The missing pieces slowly came together and gave me what I needed most, in terms of storytelling – a beginning, and an end.

I started the memoir again, building off of the false start in 2007 after my dad died. By 2013, I had put 14 books into production for SFWP. I had been hosting the Literary Awards Program for 13 years – processing each entry and reading them over before I passed them along to the judges. A rough estimate of the number of manuscripts that have crossed my desk since 2001 is 8,200, with maybe 60% of them being memoir. Through a sort of osmosis, I knew what worked and what didn’t work when you sat down to write your memoir. There’s a lot that doesn’t work. Especially when you’re a 40 year old white boy from the most affluent of DC suburbs. Stepping back from the pain and internalization of the story, the question became “what is the story?” And this approach to writing dovetailed perfectly with the shocking revelations unearthed from mom’s storage unit.

It took me seven months to write a draft that I was happy with. I’ll be re-drafting it for the next year. It’s going to be short…but not so sweet. It’s the tale of a small DC family. Of the boy wounded by them. Of a fortune built on the back of sugar and butterfat. Of betrayal, bitterness, abuse, and suicide. It’s the story of the family behind the Gifford’s Ice Cream and Candy Company. My purpose in telling the story is to expose (and, hopefully, destroy) the demons that still dance around the company’s legacy.

3 Comments

  1. Richard Sutton

    Andrew, Your work is anxiously awaited, despite the amount of pain and anger you’ve hinted at. Children are often the collateral damage when conflicting dreams collide. My own parents, from an older generation, are still complete mysteries to me. Writing has been useful for the therapy that’s in it. Your surviving all this, clear-headed and motivated, is inspiration to the rest of us!

  2. Kit Slitor

    Andrew,

    Thanks for getting in touch with me. Being age 62, I remember Gifford’s Ice Cream. People rave about it to this day, on Facebook and elsewhere. I loved the Swiss Chocolate and Mint Chip flavors. My wife is a vegan. A great boon for animals, human health and the environment would be to have a vegan variant of the old Gifford’s recipes. One could use Soy Milk, Almond Milk, or Rice Milk as an alternative to dairy and butterfat. I will be happy to tell other folks about your memoirs and tell your side of the tale. There may be yet a happier ending yet. An Andrew Gifford’s SOY SOFT ICE CREAM stand would be a marvelous mini-legacy. Anyhow, I look forward to future installments. My prayers and thoughts are with you, good soul.

  3. Sara C.

    Hi, Andrew. My dad disowned me in the early 1980s because I dropped out of college, and the several million dollars he retained went to charity. When I start feeling sorry for myself, I think of you. What I experienced was a walk in the park in comparison to you. Now your story is an inspiration to me. We Washingtonians love you.