(Originally published on newsworks.org, the online news source for WHYY (NPR) in Philadelphia on 7/20/2012.)
Their voices drift through the thick heat of a mid-summer day. “Lemonade for sale… Ice cold lemonade…”
From my strategic point in the family room, where I can surreptitiously keep an eye on proceedings, I am reassured by that chorus of voices. My daughter’s forceful and shrill adolescent cry, and the echo of her two younger neighborhood friends. Also, my son and his friend, calling out intermittently to strangers from the comfort of an old quilt in the shade of a towering oak tree.
They got the idea for the lemonade stand when they realized that summer was only half over, and their parents weren’t going to be an unlimited source of cash for baseball cards, video games and candy. Too young for babysitting, and not inclined toward hard manual labor like housework or pulling weeds, the lemonade stand seemed the perfect way to make a few bucks.
Little did they realize that they were participating in a great American tradition than spans generations and geography. I’ve spotted lemonade stands in posh neighborhoods, Beaver Cleaver suburbs, on gritty urban streets and scenic rural roads. My own sisters and I participated in this summer ritual many times, on the side of a winding mountain road in the foothills above Golden, Colorado. As the oldest of seven, I was in charge of thinking up brilliant ideas to make the long, lazy summer days more exciting. We didn’t have a television, and the Bookmobile only came every other week, so we learned to be very creative in filling our time.
One of our favorite and most profitable ways to pass a summer day was to set up a lemonade stand. Luckily our home was located on a road that led to Buffalo Bill’s grave, a popular tourist attraction, so there was always a fair amount of traffic. Not satisfied with the paltry profits that a few gallons of lemonade brought in, we expanded our merchandise. We sold bags of pine cones gathered from the ground of an adjoining forest that people bought for fifty cents. We sold homemade cookies and brownies. And we sold pyrites and odd rocks and minerals that my father would give us from his rock collecting business.
Each of us had a job to do, and we all shared in the profits and the fun. One sister was the salesman and two were the legmen, running to replenish our stock. One was in charge of the cash; another did tricks and goofed off, but kept us entertained. My mother provided lemonade and encouragement.
So when my own children ran to me with excitement and optimism I knew the drill. I went to the grocery store and bought frozen lemonade and paper cups. The kids set up a small table and chairs and a quilt. They made signs on poster board, used a doll’s lunch box for money and they were in business.
The operation expanded in scope quickly. The girls decided to weave friendship bracelets out of embroidery thread and sell them for twenty cents each. The boys brought out their baseball cards and priced the ones they could part with. The lemonade was reasonably priced at twenty-five cents a cup. My job was to provide fresh lemonade, ice, lunch, encouragement, popsicles and supervision. But mostly I stayed out of the way, stationed at my observation post, ostensibly catching up on some reading.
There was a fairly steady stream of customers, trapped in their cars at the stop sign on our corner with five angelic faces peering in at them. I imagined the drivers, hot and sweaty from driving around in the humid stickiness of summer, suddenly coming upon our lemonade stand like a mirage on the suburban streets.
The day was not uneventful. A policeman stopped his squad car, lights flashing, and looked at the baseball cards. He declined our offer of free lemonade, paying full price, with a tip. But mostly there were just friendly passers-by. Neighbors, strangers, senior citizens, toddlers in strollers, bicyclists, people in fancy cars, people in junk cars. They all seemed to have one thing in common though. They had a smile for the children, and appeared to welcome the brief respite in whatever small journey they were on.
After five hours we ran out of lemonade and energy. Money was spread out on the sidewalk and counted into piles of sticky coins and limp, sweaty bills. Each child made about five dollars. They asked if I could take them to town so they could spend their money. Isn’t that what makes our economy work?
So, get your ice-cold lemonade. And make someone’s day. Maybe even your own.