Sweetness

Every Halloween, my dad conducted a trick-or-treating candy roundup of our pillowcase hauls and shipped it to Iowa, giving my grandpa Earl a healthy supply of chocolate for the year to come, which he kept in the freezer. He especially liked Snickers. He did not practice moderation when it came to sweetness.

Earl put sugar on everything. If it was not already candy, it would be made so. He would fix us bowls of strawberries, cut sharp against his rough thumb and dusted with a generous layer of sweetness. He made us milkshakes by hand, carefully mixing until reaching the perfect consistency. He would spend hours in the driveway churning ice cream. Any amount of effort was worth it for the sugary reward. When he owned an auto body, he made Christmas baskets full of oranges and gave them out in his small Iowa community. This was all his infinite kindness.

Earl came from a family that farmed for larger outfits. Born in 1924, he grew up in what must have been a long strand of near-deprivation. His father worked constantly, and did not let the family go hungry, but there was not room for much else, let alone pleasurable tastes. Earl worked for the family, too. The first time he would have had reliable access to any form of sugar was once he joined the Army Air Corps in 1943. Rations of humble Hershey bars introduced a new palate and a new sense of possibility.

young EB
Earl, mid- to late 1930s

Earl never lost that sense of wonder about sugar. It brought out his own sweetness, and he kept his hand outstretched, always with a pile of sugar cubes. He had seen wartorn Europe from the air in 1945, and knew what death looked and smelled like. His war was unprecedented in American aviation, and the destruction he witnessed could have turned him against people forever. But he found that sugar was its own kind of language, one he quickly learned how to speak. It was a frosting for all the things he couldn’t forget.

Everything Earl built was tinged with this sweetness, too – little cars that could really be driven, for his kids and grandkids to race around, model airplanes that called back to his time in the air, even a riding mower and a back porch. He was always creating something. There was nothing this man couldn’t make, and his creations were full of kindness. All of it – the slow-churned ice cream, the contraptions – could have been produced in other forms without as much effort on his part, but that didn’t matter to him. He was putting a little sugar into his people. He was a giving tree with a cherry on top.

After he died, people showered his family with sugar. I remember a kitchen full of other people’s baking dishes, cakes and pies, and a Willy Wonka factory of chocolate. Someone brought monkey bread, and there was ice cream at his funeral reception. Sugar was really a form of love. Once he discovered the possibility of sweetness, Earl decided it belonged everywhere.

Building w:TJ
Earl with grandson TJ, early 1990s

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