(Obligatory disclaimer acknowledging how long it has been since I blogged.)
So I love grocery stores. I always have. As a child, I didn’t just have the plastic shopping cart and fake food; my mother made me an entire mock-supermarket in the garage. An old bookcase became my store shelves, stocked with taped-up empty food boxes and cans she had carefully opened from the bottom. I even had a “conveyor belt” leading up to my cash register – in the form of those low, flat topped headboards that were so popular in the 1970’s.
Of course, even better than playing store was going to the actual store – always Fry’s Food and Drug. We were a seven-person- two-cart family in those days, full, heavy carts that even my big brother strained to push.
Generics had just come out in those days and while I imagine my mother could have used the savings, she refused to purchase them. I don’t know if it was the packaging – the original generic products came in plain white containers with the product name in stark black type – or simply extreme brand loyalty. Either way, our carts always had Best Foods Mayonnaise, Skippy Peanut Butter, Premium Saltines, Cheerios.
My parents threw lots of parties in those days, and I always knew when one was forthcoming, because cocktail rye bread, a tub of pimento cheese, and Sociables crackers would appear in the cart. Chex cereal, peanuts, and Worcestershire sauce meant the holidays – and my mother’s famous Cheerio-Pretzel Snack – were on the way.
Then my parents got divorced. We moved (every year it seemed) and my older siblings started moving out. Sometimes my oldest sister would take me for the weekend, and we’d visit her grocery store of choice – the locally owned Basha’s. Basha’s had two qualities I found fascinating: shallow grocery carts with enough room for me to sit underneath, and an in-store restaurant that was reached by climbing up a narrow staircase. You could look out at the whole store from that restaurant and I loved to watch the other shoppers, what they bought, how long it took them to weigh the qualities of one cantaloupe over another.
I still went to the grocery store with my mother, but I didn’t pay attention to the food. Fry’s ran a promotion – a set of dishware you could earn through saving stickers. They were ugly dishes, beige with brown trim, but I wanted them all: the serving bowls, the butter dish, the platter.
In college, my grocery store was a Safeway that I reached by bus, a task infinitely easier on the way there than the way back. As a broke student, I had no problem buying generic or store brand foods, but was always thrilled when my mother would come for a visit and buy me decent quality toilet paper.
As a young mother, I shopped at Smith’s. Since I was living in Nevada at the time, my local store had slot machines tucked between the Rug Doctor rental kiosk and the water cooler bottle exchange. In Newport News, Virginia, I found my grocery store zenith. I alternated shopping between the Hannaford’s and the Harris Teeter. Both were clean and bright, with smiling, helpful aproned staff, and appealed to longing for a mid-century existence (minus the institutionalized racism and sexism.)
Unfortunately, this all-too-brief period was followed by my grocery store nadir. My husband was in the Army at the time, and the Army dumped us in a small town an hour outside Richmond. There were no options but the post commissary. The commissary wasn’t there to turn a profit and had no need for marketing. There were no endcaps, no displays, no free samples. Just one harshly lit, grungy-floored aisle after another.
Then we came to Texas, where they inexplicably call shopping carts “buggies” For the next ten years I had stability, the same address, and the same grocery store, an Albertson’s.
We spent a lot of time together, Albertson’s and I. Sometimes I would stop by early in the morning – nothing like realizing you don’t have sandwich baggies while you’re packing lunch! Sometimes I’d run in late a night for Popsicles and Tylenol, because a child’s favorite time to spark a fever is after eleven p.m. The bakery offered free samples, but son’s favorite treat was a box of animal crackers, and I can still see his fat, dimpled hands hanging on to the string. It was where we bought diapers and school supplies and Halloween candy and ingredients for baking Christmas cookies.
I walked there once, after a freak ice storm left the roads undriveable. I cried there twice.
The first time was my first outing after my youngest was born, when I realized that after I put the baby’s carrier in the body of the cart, and my toddler in the seat, I didn’t have anywhere to put the actual groceries. The second time was when I found out the store was closing.
Look, it doesn’t take much psychological insight to figure out that my fondness for grocery stores comes from the same place as my fascination with Disneyland and my longing for a house with a dining room. Buying groceries every week is a thing that Normal Families do. and I have never wanted anything more in life than to be part of a Normal Family.
For a while, I had it. Or at least I pretended I did.
The year my Albertson’s closed, I was turning forty. I was separated from my husband, my business was going bankrupt, my oldest was a teenager and we fought all the time. Something had to change. But I couldn’t do it – I couldn’t even admit to myself it was necessary – until I had to find a new grocery store, and realized I should get a new life to go with it.
For the first few years after the closing, both the Albertson’s and I just sat around, empty and deteriorating. Turns out though, even abandoned properties have some value. I taught my daughter to drive in the store’s now-empty parking lot, and my son used the old loading zone as a skateboarding ramp. Eventually, investors bought the property, and now that space is occupied by a Tuesday Morning and an indoor trampoline facility. Right around the same time, I settled in to a new career, and even started dating again.
I never did pick a new grocery store. I go to Target sometimes, or Tom Thumb. Trader Joe’s if I’m feeling fancy, Walgreen’s if I’m in a hurry. I don’t throw parties or collect dishes. I barely speak to most of my siblings, and have only been “home” for the holidays once in the last decade. My kids and I live in an apartment that has no dining room, we may never go to Disneyland again, and we are not a Normal Family.
And that’s okay. After years of chasing a life I was never going to have, I have finally accepted that’s okay.
We get what we need when we need it, wherever we happen to be at the time.
That’s good enough.