30 March 2006

My Cup Is Empty

These cups should be filled with the sweet summer goodness that can only be had in New Orleans.

But they're not. And they never will be again.

I'm not talking about the snowballs. I'm talking about the feeling of love and community that came from the family store that made them, run by three generations of the finest folks I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. These cups were filled with that love. The best snowball money can buy... well, that was merely a garnish.

Ernest Hansen, the pleasant old guy on the cup, helped his wife Mary found the snowball stand back in 1939. He designed, built, and patented the machine that made her treats. And, he stood by her side until she passed on September 8, 2005, just nine days post-Katrina. Last night, a mere seven months later, Ernest passed on. He may very well have died of a broken heart.

He was the one with "the touch." When the machine acted up and nobody could get anything but chunks from its fickle blade, he'd make his way over, holding onto the counter the whole way, and he'd take the handle, and make the finest snow you'd ever seen outside of Colorado.

Ernest was very frail in late years. He would shuffle around the snowball shop (we called it a stand, but it was a whole walk-in building.), making those seemingly gruff comments about his protege's performance at the sno-bliz machine that only a man of his advanced age can make and get away with. If you didn't know better, you'd think he was simply getting a little senile and a lot crotchety. But it was really just his bent-over look that made him appear that way. When you got to talk to him, he'd look up at you through Coke-bottle glasses, start telling stories and just laugh the afternoon away with you.

It used to make me cringe when people would come to him, and speak loudly and as if they were speaking to a child. He seemed to tolerate it well. Especially so, since I have the good fortune to know that behind the failing eyes, and controlling the hands that shook as he reached to steady himself was a mind as sharp as anyone I know. Ernest just never missed a trick.

One summer, as the stand closed for the final time of the season, he was in the middle of telling me a story about a bear he'd seen at a hotel in Alaska. "Twenty feet tall," he'd said, holding his shaky hand high over his head. Now, at that time, I didn't see much of him off-season. So, the next time I saw him was the following May, on opening day. He got a look at me when I walked into the stand, and called me over.

"I know you don't believe me. But, I've got a picture I'll bring. Damn thing was twenty feet tall!" And again with the hand. Nine months, and he just picked it right up.

Like I said. He didn't miss a trick.

I'm not sure what it was about me that appealed to him... I'm not the easiest guy to get along with. Although, as I think of it now, perhaps that was why we got along. Whatever the reason, ever since the first time I came in the shop, he'd call me over and start talking about his travels around the world (which he actually did) or his time in The War (which he did not... at least not in the capacity that he always protrayed). Sometimes he'd show me a poem he'd written for Mary. Sometimes, it was a song. But he always made a point in using the brief time we had to share something of himself with me.

As I sit here typing, I can't help wondering how it is that I am going to enjoy summer afternoons in that sacred place without him. To this, I have no answer. All I know for sure is that I am thankful and honored to have been counted among his friends.


Blogger Mary Anne said...

I hadn't thought it was possible that I could feel a deeper longing for this tradition than I did on the day I found out Ernest had passed away. Yet, reading your post made me miss the ritual of a late afternoon helping the Hansen's close the shop with the Judge asking "Who's got the door?" even more. It will never be the same again. And, thanks to the Hansen family, neither will a lot of us.

5:39 PM  

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