It was the worst heat wave of the summer and our new house had no air conditioning. The air was dense and humid. We had been wilting at home for days, trying to find excuses to head out to air conditioned stores. The slightest pretext was sufficient. “Oh it looks like someone ate our banana. Better head to the store and buy another one.” Or: “I think I’d like to go look at the bandsaws again, see if they have any new models since last Wednesday.” We’d all pile into the van, all six of us, and relish the cool air conditioned drive and the cool air conditioned store for whatever amount of time we could. Having done a number of these short-distance, brief-duration trips, we needed something more.
That is how we came upon the idea of going to that megalithic monument of the modern world, the pride of Sweden, that den of suspiciously inexpensive meatballs: IKEA.
Going to IKEA used to be a blast for families with a bunch of kids. But now their free kid daycare, Småland, is shut down indefinitely because of the pandemic. Our little Emma, now 5 years old, waited for years to be tall enough to be allowed in with her older brother and sister. She got to go just one time before the gates were shut. But has anyone thought about the serious repercussions of this policy? Where are our kids going to get their immune systems boosted by being exposed to every pathogen known to man? How now will they get to watch Kung Fu Panda 7 (by far the best of the series) standing slack-jawed and silent? When will they ever get to play in that giant pit filled with plastic balls and feel the excitement of being buried alive in them? By the time they reopen this magical land of germs and mediocre supervision, Emma will probably have children of her own! Maladjusted and melancholic children to be sure, what with a mother whose childhood was so bleak and miserable as to have only gone to Småland one time.
Yes, IKEA is a store that, more than any other, thinks intentionally about appealing to families with kids. I suspect that they may even have sat down a couple of such families and had them answer questions on a clipboard. How do I know this? Well for one thing they put complimentary diapers in the family washrooms in case you forget one or run out. Brilliant. By going there every day on my way home from work, I didn’t have to buy diapers for two years! (Just kidding – I only stopped once a week.)
Aside from the diapers, they always have little stools for the kids to use in the bathrooms so they can wash their hands for a change. Not only that, there are also specially-furnished, dimly-lit rooms for nursing mothers. Whether the mothers nurse their babies in there or just lay down for naps or play scrabble, who can know? But at least they have a room to do it in. The food is pretty affordable too. Eating out when you’re a crew of six can be a financially traumatic experience requiring months of free online therapy and DIY acupuncture. So an affordable family meal is always nice. Sure, it is more like eating at a strange cafeteria, and you often get that regret-filled indigestion first pioneered by McDonalds, but in the moment it is always a nice option to have.
Well all of that is gone, my friends. Chalk it up as another casualty of this pandemic we’ve all been stumbling through. IKEA – it’s just not the same.
To return to our ill-fated plan that very hot day, we parked the van in the closest available parking spot and stepped out into the angry blaze of the summer sun in all its fury. You know what it’s like when the humidity is 100% and the temperature is approaching the melting point of human flesh, it feels like as soon as you step out of the air conditioning someone drops a heavy wet towel on your head and points three hair dryers at you. If you have glasses, as I do, you get treated to instant fog on your lenses, adding temporary blindness to the experience. After an approximately 14-kilometer walk, we reach the front door, where we realize one of our children has forgotten their mask. That is a tough moment, when you realize you have no choice but to abandon your child to its cruel fate. Just kidding – I went back with the child and got the mask. After making that walk three times, that first blast of air conditioning on my skin was a rapturous experience, let me tell you.
But far from the joyous raucous scene that usually greets us when entering IKEA, with the little screams and squeals of children playing and chasing each other and sharing communicable diseases, we came upon a scene more reminiscent of your favorite post-apocalyptic zombie movie. This grim aura was maintained throughout our wandering, for that is what you do when you go to IKEA.
Aside from the few insiders and veterans who have memorized or learned to decipher the maps in that labyrinthian place, every poor soul who enters the front door will not be able to find the exit until they have walked a total of 17 kilometers. It is not unusual to see the older folks laying down for a nap in the bedding section or to see people with the soles of their shoes completely worn away desperately strapping pillows to their feet with hair elastics just to have a chance at reaching the exit. One time, a wide-eyed customer, weak with dehydration and leg cramps, offered me $500 and a Billy bookcase if I’d let him clamber into my cart and push him to the exit.
And so we wander through the endless kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms and offices – hour upon hour, mile after mile. While the air conditioning is lovely, the fact that we have three masked children and a fussy baby catches up with us approximately 10% of the way through the maze. By the time we reach the checkout, everyone is on edge. If we don’t figure something out, this shopping trip might turn out as badly as that time we went to Target.
It seems like a good idea to get ice cream cones as we prepare to return to the inferno. My wife has the cart – yes that special IKEA cart with the four wheels that spin and is therefore about as easy to steer as an ocean liner – and I have two ice cream cones: mine and hers. Each child has one ice cream cone, with a thin napkin wrapped around the cone. You’ll see in a minute why I’m setting the scene so carefully here.
As we are about to head out the door, my daughter Emma announces that she needed to go potty. We quickly devise a plan: I will take her to the washroom while my wife and the two older kids set off for the van. This will give her a head start on starting the van and loading up our goods. What could go wrong? In fact, it does not escape my calculating mind that this will mean I have to eat a bit of my wife’s ice cream in order to keep it from dripping. Oh but if only I had known.
After Emma is done in the washroom, we step through the exterior doors, are hit by a furnace blast, and set out at a good clip towards the van. Approximately ten seconds after leaving the cool air, I feel what seems like a raindrop on my hand. I glance up but the sky is clear and blue and the sun is blazing. I glance down and see to my shock and dismay that rivulets of ice cream are pouring down over the cone and onto my hands. Even considering the heat, this is not normal ice cream behavior. It dawns on me in that instant that this is not actually ice cream — it is ice cream’s ugly step-brother frozen yogurt, which apparently can’t keep itself together nearly as well when the heat is on. With a cone in each hand, I start frantically licking the drips to try and avert a complete meltdown. I glance over at Emma and notice that her hand is covered in white rivers of frozen yogurt as drops freely fall to the pavement.
“Emma! Lick your ice cream!”
But she’s useless. I mean, I love her, but she’s useless. She makes every rookie mistake in the book: she licks one side while the other drips, or she licks the very top but the part below that, just above the cone, is collapsing and flowing right down over her hand. By this point the drips are coming so fast from her cone that an uninterrupted stream of frozen yogurt threatens to connect her cone to the pavement like a tornado about to touch down. Unable to watch this train wreck any longer, I hand her one of my cones and grab hers to give it a proper cleanup.
With all of this drama, I’ve lost track of my position in the parking lot, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island. I look around, trying to find my bearings. Suddenly I see in the distance a silver colored van like ours with the back open. It might be ours, or it might not be – how can I tell? If Emma and I walk all the way there and we end up being wrong, we could be lost for days. That is when – like the captain of a lost ship sighting the beacon of a lighthouse or the pilot of a stalled airplane spotting the bright runway lights below – I notice on the pavement two clear lines of wet liquid going from our very position to that silver van: the frozen yogurt road of hope. I feel a wave of relief wash over me: we’re going to make it.
A few minutes later, with everyone safely in the van and the air conditioning turned to ultra maximum, we pass out baby wipes for everyone to start wiping down their hands and forearms and elbows and legs. We all solemnly agree on three things:
1. We’ll wait for the pandemic to be over before making another family trip to IKEA.
2. We don’t like frozen yogurt.
3. We’re buying an air conditioner tomorrow.
And that’s exactly what we did.