The Dead Box: The Gifford’s Ice Cream Memoir Project part 3

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.

I left home in 1992 when I turned 18. I had tried to leave sooner, running away several times between 1989 and 1992. Mom would always call the cops and, sooner or later, they’d find me. Sometimes I just gave up and returned on my own. I would sometimes seek shelter with friends, but was uncomfortable talking about why I was seeking shelter. My family’s first tenet is to never show weakness, never let anyone know your true feelings, and never complain. I blindly followed that rule.

I wanted nothing but escape for years. I wanted to escape my family, and the legacy of Gifford’s Ice Cream. I figured, with distance, I would be free of all the bad things that seemed to have corrupted and broken every single member of my family.

When I finally could legally run away in 92, I only made it as far as Elkins, WV, where I put myself through college at Davis & Elkins, at first on a grant and then by working six jobs and taking out loans that I’m still paying off today.

One of those multiple jobs, which began in 1991, was at the Audubon Naturalist Society’s stately mansion in Chevy Chase, MD, as one of their venue managers for the rental events. I would drive the 250 miles between Elkins and Chevy Chase on many weekends to work back-to-back 12 hour shifts. The job was simple — monitor weddings and other events and make sure no one burned the house down, and that the caterers cleaned up after themselves. The pay was atrociously low, but the tips were good. This job not only filled weekends, but all of my holidays and summers. With that and my other jobs in the DC area, I found myself only 20 miles from the home I wanted to run away from, living in my maternal grandparent’s basement and kicking myself for not getting as far away as possible from the shadow of Gifford’s.

Of all the jobs I had in the 90s, though, the Audubon job was always the fallback. I stayed at it till the beginning of 2013, when my girlfriend made me quit. Working became something of an addiction, and it’s taken me until just recently to shake it. When you leave the gate running at 18 and your only financial aid comes from your own work ethic, you develop a fear of failure. Losing a job when you’re an idiot 20-something living paycheck-to-paycheck is just not an option and, eventually, you stop thinking about moving beyond that lifestyle. Even if you don’t have to live paycheck-to-paycheck, when you live that way long enough it becomes habit. So I worked at my high school job at the Audubon until I was almost 40, and I worked normal gigs that varied from writing for the Associated Press to call center work. Eventually I added SFWP to my list of jobs, and consulting work for other publishers. To help flesh everything out, I took on freelance business writing gigs for magazines. Looking back now, I can’t believe that I didn’t crack…

In the memoir, I talk a lot about trying to find moments of peace. I was always trying to find myself, to try and parse what had happened in my childhood. Even though the rentals job often found me sleeping under the desk at 3am since there was so little time between shifts, it was also “alone time.” Yes, during the shift there were always about a hundred guests to worry about, and an endless stream of Bridezillas, and needy caterers, and strangely corrupt photographers… But my boss wasn’t around. I spoke for the house, and I answered to no one. Luckily, my job rarely involved much interaction. I would spend each 12 hour shift reading a book, watching TV, or standing on the fringe of the wild party contemplating my place in the world. The surreal multiple layers of a wedding lead to such reflection. The clients are drinking and partying in a pool of glittering light while we, the help, scurry through the shadows trying to keep everything running.

This, of course, leads to some resentment between the help and the clients. At the end of the evening, we’re the ones wiping up their vomit, and putting up with the drunken privileged class (the average wedding I oversaw – and I’ve been to more than 400 of them – clocks in at $50,000).

I always think of Fight Club when it comes to pissing off the vendors at a wedding or special event. Specifically, I think of that scene where they pin down the official in the bathroom and Tyler Durden says: We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep.

Pissing off the caterers and the vendors means that we steal your food, your liquor, and we go through your coat pockets. We don’t return your cell phones and your wallets when you leave them behind.

Part of my job, of course, was to try and enforce some sense of decency in the naturally corrupt world of catering. I would dutifully add forgotten items to the lost and found, but, even if not pillaged, the lost and found would usually just wind up in the basement of the old mansion, in a room a few of us referred to as “the dead box.” It was a room not only filled with the detritus of unclaimed items from countless rental events, but also donated items willed to the Society whenever members died. It, literally, held everything up to and including two kitchen sinks.

Every once in a while, the dead box would be plundered by staff but, mainly, it acted as a sort of creepy tomb. The knick-knacks and household items of the lost, the dead, moldering away in the unfinished basement of a house built in the 1920s.

When mom died in 1999, I threw her entire life into a storage unit in Gaithersburg, MD. This became my own personal “dead box.” Along with all of her shit, I kept all of my own toys and childhood memories, some furniture that I had purloined from the old Gifford house, boxes and boxes of books, and old computers.

The one thing that everything in our family has in common, when it comes to telling the Gifford’s Ice Cream saga, is that we all sort of stopped in 1985. We all died when dad left, the company fell apart, and the money vanished. We all held on to the tarnished reminders of life before 1985. Weirdly, we didn’t worship these reminders. We didn’t become a family of Dicksonian widows, moving through the creepy, rotting tableau of their wedding night. We jammed all this shit into boxes and we sealed them up and we forgot what was inside. For the rest of our lives, we all traveled with these boxes, or paid to store them somewhere. What remains of mom’s storage shed sits in a closet in my office, my uncle rents a 10×10 storage shed in Wheaton, MD, filled to the gills. My aunt has a storage shed in her backyard that’s about 400 square feet filled to the rafters with boxes, my grandfather’s two car garage is full of boxes. All memorabilia from our lost past, and none of it inventoried. Ask any of us what’s in those boxes, and the answer is that we don’t know, nor have we even thought about them for 20 years or more.

When I opened my dead box in 2013, with the intention of purging mom, dad, and the legacy of Gifford’s Ice Cream once and for all, I found the bones of the memoir I’d been struggling to write. I found the star of the story. I rediscovered my mother, and I learned some of her darker secrets.

Gifford044 What happened to this young girl? She had a troubled youth, running away at 16 and entering a world of drugs and alcohol. She returned home and never, really, pulled herself back together. Always at odds with her father, tales of their battles are epic and, infamously, my grandfather once threw her against a wall. She terrorized her sister and brother. She carved her own path, and it was a path of anger and fire.

Mom was brilliant. She got all the brains, my family says. But something was wrong in there… My grandmother called it “the squiggle,” and mom would be compared to other members of the family, past and present, who were tragically broken.

A waitress at Gifford’s, mom fell prey to my father, Robert Gifford. He’d worked his way through all the waitresses at the Silver Spring store, and there are countless stories of abortions and illegitimate children.

In late October of 1973, my maternal grandfather literally held a shotgun marriage and forced my dad to marry mom. I was born in May of 74. Mom had recently turned 21, dad was 36.

To think that mom was some foolish housewife or victim after that is a mistake. In fact, everything we assumed about mom turned out to be wrong. The dead box is a place of memories, yes, but also a place of secrets. Even with the dead box at the Audubon, full of the memorabilia of complete strangers, you can wander for hours through the stacks and put together little snippets of these people’s lives. To go through the dead box of a major player in the Gifford’s Ice Cream saga is simply asking for trouble. Mom’s dead box became a Pandora’s box, and trying to boil her life down into a memoir became my greatest challenge.