At Thelma's, a Double Dip of Nostalgia

By Bravetta Hassell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The plain plastic foam cups that hold Thelma's ice cream can detract from just how good it is -- the way the lemon sits on your tongue light and minty, and the vanilla glides down smooth.

Those cups hold the ice cream the way the brown, white-trimmed shop where it's sold holds the story of one of those forever friendships. Already it sounds almost too sugary, too nostalgic, but Doris Carpenter knows the power of a promise and memory. She knows the way they can churn days into months and months into years.

A couple of times a week you can find Carpenter, who's in her seventies now, at Thelma's Ice Cream and Deli in Great Falls, serving up the special ice cream her friend used to make, the ice cream that she now churns herself. In five-gallon batches.

"We spent a lifetime in this store," Carpenter says of herself and Thelma Feighery.

Feighery -- everyone called her Thelma -- owned the store for 51 years, becoming the "Ice Cream Queen." She lived right next door, close enough to keep an eye on her family and an eye on the mom-and-pop gas station she and husband Frank bought in 1950.

They worked the store together until Frank died in 1988. Then it was Thelma's place to run. And she did until five summers ago, when she died at the age of 86.

"I guess I'm hoping that by helping out, it will stay open," Carpenter says of the store. "Thelma would always say she never saw a day when she didn't want to go to work."

The one-story frame building with peeling brick-patterned siding is tucked behind a grassy, rolling stretch of Route 7 and sits a quarter-mile past the historic Colvin Run Mill, a late-19th-century general store that distributed supplies to the farm community.

For years, Carpenter says, her friend stared a transforming region dead in its face, determined not to become too commercialized, too modernized. She wanted to keep everything as it had always been. She'd had a time reckoning with the new electric cash register, Carpenter recalls.

What would she think now of the cappuccino machine and hot dog roaster that have replaced her once popular candy case full of bonbons and jumbo lollipops?

Or this: Next door, where the cow pasture used to be, sits a business park filled with doctors' offices, and a parking lot of sparkly sedans and SUVs. Not far down Colvin Run Road, young children play in the front yards of the million-dollar homes arranged snugly around freshly paved cul-de-sacs.

Time churning.

Inside Thelma's, the beverage cooler stocked with canned sodas and juice hums a few notches higher than the soft-rock station playing in the background.

Carpenter walks in shortly after Kevin Salek, 45, the store's new manager, arrives to open up at 9 a.m. The two mill around opposite ends of the store: Salek cranking up the cappuccino machine, Carpenter wiping down the old-fashioned ice cream cooler that sits under a huge picture of Thelma. It's one of many such images around the shop.

The photograph shows her in a black-and-white dress with a loose red bow around her white collar, and holding out a cake cone of two scoops. And then here, above a counter, a handsome Thelma has just graduated -- the cap and gown she wears tells you so. The young woman passes us a pleasant glance over her shoulder. Her gaze is endearing.

Carpenter briefly digests the picture.

Her friend's life was the store, but it hadn't been her entire life.

Thelma, who'd grown up in the District and southern Virginia, graduated from George Washington University with a master's degree in sociology.

She returned to the Washington area in 1950 after doing social work in prisons in Massachusetts and Virginia in the 1930s, and starting a family in Alabama in the 1940s. The Feigherys had two children: Frank Jr. and Susan. Susan, who had cerebral palsy, died at the age of 23 in 1968.

Carpenter was a homemaker, a wife and mother of eight children who'd come from North Carolina to Virginia to attend school. Now the closest one of her children lives is Warrenton.

The two women met at church in 1963, when Carpenter's two oldest daughters had joined the junior choir at Great Falls United Methodist. Thelma, who directed the junior and adult choirs for 25 years, would coax the singers into attending rehearsal with the pastel candy necklaces she brought from her store.

But sweets weren't the only reason people came to practice. It was the way Thelma made you discover your love for music, the way Carpenter said her four daughters had. "Thelma had a way with children," she says.

She was a woman who had been out in the world and had settled in a little frame building in Northern Virginia.

She loved to talk, and, says Carpenter, "I loved to listen."

It didn't hurt that both women were from the South.

Carpenter the homemaker on occasion did amateur photography, but with eight kids, there wasn't much time for anything else. She began working in the store in the mid-1980s after Thelma needed help while recovering from surgery. Thelma taught only a few others how to make the ice cream recipe.

"She didn't want someone who'd go around making Thelma's ice cream for someone else," Carpenter says.

One day, after one of those ice cream makers left, Thelma asked Carpenter to help.

"'You want me to make the ice cream?'" Carpenter remembers asking her friend. That was ages ago. She's been churning it now for more than 20 years .

You look for a certain consistency, a certain color when making the ice cream, Carpenter says. She rubs her fingers together as if testing a swatch of silk. Thelma, she says, knew when her ice cream wasn't right.

"I'm happy that as much of it has been kept," says Carpenter, of the store's character.

Salek could have modernized everything, but hasn't, and for that Carpenter gives him credit. "We are planning to take it back to its roots as a country store," Salek says. When he arrived last August, Thelma's was run-down, he says. He restored the old refrigerators and replaced the plumbing and wiring. He had the linoleum-tiled floor pulled up for treated wooden slabs and introduced a pizza oven and hot dog roaster.

Carpenter still misses the clank of the 1920s Burroughs cash register, and the way the front door would swing out and bump the customers as they left. And she misses her friend.

"I wish I could record all the things people have said about Thelma," Carpenter says.

John Lappin, 80, has been stopping by for Thelma's ice cream, mostly on Fridays, for more than 45 years. He remembers teasing Thelma about taking her dancing as soon as she had recovered from her hip surgery. The two would laugh. Thelma was on a walker then, he says.

" 'I'll be seeing you, we'll dance the night away,' Thelma would say," he recalls, chuckling.

Carpenter, who still works as a circulation aide 20 hours a week at Great Falls Public Library, wanted to buy the store after Thelma died but couldn't afford it.

Salek says he's leasing the store from its current owner, Nest Estates LLC. (The company did not return calls seeking comment.)

Nowadays, Carpenter comes in because she wants to, because her presence, she believes, helps Thelma's Country Store remain a little more genuine. It's why giggly children and their parents still visit the store of a fading era when the shopkeeper knew you by name, knew your youngest was just getting over hay fever, and knew exactly what you wanted before you said a word.

"You here for ice cream?" Carpenter asks David Lentine, 40, and his 3-year-old son who've just walked in. Absolutely.

Tyler, Lentine says, likes a lot of colors. He hoists the little boy up to look into the cooler filled with gallon-size containers of ice cream. Tyler samples black raspberry and insists on more tasting before making his decision.

When she agreed, back all those years, to make the ice cream, she didn't realize she'd be making it as long as she has.

"I guess," Carpenter says, "you could call me loyal."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company