Continuity, caring, and connection in the freezer aisle

Continuity, caring, and connection in the freezer aisle

‘I didn’t realize that the chore of food shopping could be the background on which life is painted and marked, or that it could be a framework for watching ourselves grow, or that even the supermarket can be a place of revelation’

BRATTLEBORO — I remember the moment that food shopping became a chore, a burden, something to just be gotten through. The scene is etched into my memory.

I was in the Pathmark supermarket on Route 1 South in North Brunswick, N.J. It was the frozen food aisle, to be exact.

In my mind, the scene exists as a still photograph. I am standing in the top quarter of the aisle. My right hand is on the edge of one of those older-style open frozen-food bins; to my left, the glass doors of the upright freezers. I face the front of the store with my cart in front of me.

It is August, the midday sun reflecting off the cars in the parking lot illuminates the windows beyond the cash registers, and I am wearing the plaid, drop-waist sundress that I wore the bulk of that hot, sticky, New Jersey summer.

I am very pregnant.

* * *

Looking back now, I can see the pregnancy was the biggest factor that led up to that moment.

I had someone else to provide for, someone to whom I was supposed to be responsible. I was on the young side, just 23, and about to become a single mother. I was probably browsing the frozen foods, trying to decide how to use my limited options in spending the food subsidy for pregnant women I was already receiving from the state.

Once the baby was born, I could apply for welfare and get food stamps as well. Oh, joy.

The child's father was very recently gone at this point, and a year ago at this time I had barely even known he existed. When I found myself pregnant, I decided to have the baby, knowing I'd be alone sooner or later. It was looking like it would be sooner, so it would be just me doing the providing.

So there I was, perched on the cusp of motherhood, young and alone and taking handouts from the state, standing stock-still among the frozen peas and fried chicken in suspended animation thinking about the act of food shopping.

I had enjoyed it in the past and, being so young, it hadn't had time yet for it to get old on its own. In that moment, the realization came to me that I had to do this thing pretty much every week or so for the rest of my days, and there was no reasonable way out of it.

* * *

In the recent past, I had worked at a factory that turned paper into things nobody really needed: stuff like the order forms with the envelopes attached that went in the middle of catalogs, or game pieces that you would get at a fast-food restaurant.

The printing presses there were about 100 feet long, and the paper came off a huge roll and ran through the many different components of the machines. The paper would be printed, folded, perforated, glued, and cut into whatever was being made that week.

The din of the machinery obliterated any kind of conversation, and the last song you heard on the way in that morning could play in your head so clearly you'd think you had a receiver implanted in your brain. The giant fans in the summer and the heaters under the conveyor belts in the winter added to the din and the paper dust that always lingered in the air.

The pressmen in blue work pants and shirts - their arms always stained with ink, grease, and scars from their run-ins with the presses - would stand and watch the machines intently as my packing partner and I would scoop the finished product off the belt and into boxes.

There was an overhead vacuum system there, with flexible tubing coming down at intervals from the ductwork above. These tubes could be affixed alongside a trimming blade or to the edge of a waste bin, and the scraps of paper would be sucked up and away to be baled for recycling.

On the aged wooden posts that held up the ceiling, which seemed a thousand miles away, there were heavy-duty switches that could turn on or off a particular section of the vacuum tubing.

As I stood there in the Pathmark that day, it was as if someone had positioned one of those tubes just over my head, flipped the switch, and sucked every last bit of enjoyment out of the process or even the idea of food shopping.

In hindsight, I can only hope it all got baled up and recycled into some other part of life, but at that point in time I could see that enjoyment was clearly not going to show up in a supermarket for me again.

* * *

My child was born a few weeks later, and I found myself engaged in the process of learning just how much I could love. Along with that came all the challenges of parenting and those of single parenting as well.

I continued to force myself to go food shopping as usual since, in those days, there were no alternatives that even remotely could be considered sensible.

When I look back on all those years of buying groceries and household items for my son and myself, the stores all blend together. There is a homogeneous nature to supermarkets and that, in its way, it is a blessing.

By the time he graduated high school Cal and I had moved about a dozen times, and even though I know I had shopped in countless stores, in my memory the supermarkets are all the same one.

There is only one grocery store in my memory; though I realize it is an aggregate of countless different stores, it is in that store I bought the very first item for my child who was not yet born. With some trepidation, I picked out a rubbery, pink elephant posed sitting back on its haunches and only about 3 inches high at the most.

To buy a gift for this child of mine that I had not yet met made the surreal situation more tangible, and I remember amusing myself by seeing the pink elephant - in part, as an homage to the unpredictability and tension of family alcoholism that had so shaped my childhood. It was a legacy that I intended to impart to my child only in the form of a toy that he could safely teethe on.

* * *

There, in that supermarket, I discovered that shopping with even a small baby creates the opportunity to get away with talking to yourself as you work through your shopping choices.

There, in that supermarket, I discovered that Cal, as soon as he was able to sit up in the little metal seat and look around, was fascinated with anyone smaller than he was.

There, too, we created a novel way for my son to climb into the big basket part of the cart where he would reside throughout the trip, playing or chatting as he slowly became obscured by the groceries.

There I would occasionally need to abandon an almost-full cart mid-store and stalk out with a kicking and screaming 3-year-old under one arm, only to need to return the next day to make another attempt.

A couple of years later, in that same store, Cal took to going from aisle to aisle on his own, picking up armfuls of staples and regular purchases and bringing them back to wherever I was and dumping them in the cart.

There, he and I would plan meals, figure out what he could pack for lunches, talk about his interests and plans, and just be a little bit goofy sometimes.

Having company and getting to spend time with my son made the chore of food shopping tolerable and, yes, even pleasant.

Yeah, there were the usual squabbles over fluorescent-colored cereal or some crappy toy the store merchandisers would hang up next to the toilet paper, but plenty of sharing and learning about each other went on there as well.

* * *

During those preteen and teen years when mom becomes the vehicle that just gets a kid out of the house to someplace better, I would take secret delight in the days when I just couldn't get the food shopping done while he was at some function and we would have to do it on the way home.

On those days, I insisted that he not just sit in the car but come in with me to help, declaring that it was “his food, too.” I really wanted to just hear about his day while we executed the most mundane of chores together.

* * *

Now, somehow, decades have passed since that realization in the Pathmark. That still photo in my mind of the moment when food shopping lost all its joy was with me as I faced my last trip to the supermarket before my son moved into his own place.

Part of me realized that the upside was that I could go much less frequently now that I wouldn't have to be feeding the 6-foot-3-inch young man who had sprung up from that baby who used to lie on his blanket, nestled sideways in the child's seat of the cart. Another part of me was terrified at the blank spot that loomed in my future.

I saw how the experience of food shopping had so neatly bookended the first long stage of parenting my son, and I brought that realization with me.

I resolved on that trip that I would shop as if it were any other week, despite the fact that he would be leaving to create a home of his own in just a few days. I decided I would send all the extra groceries with him as he went.

They would be a small manifestation of my love for him, and of my wish that he be nourished by this new experience of doing for himself. Doing the full shopping with all this on my mind was a way for me to meditate on this passage for myself as well.

* * *

While the joy was somehow stolen, and grocery shopping, in itself, never became fun for me again, it held many other treasures.

I didn't realize that the chore of food shopping could be the background on which life is painted and marked, or that it could be a framework for watching ourselves grow, or that even the supermarket can be a place of revelation.

I didn't know then that the future act of buying groceries over and over and over again held the promise of continuity, caring, and a way to connect, and that nothing could ever take that away.

* * *

I drove down Route 1 this past summer on my way to visit my sister and her family. I was on the lookout for the Pathmark as I made my way down the river of unnaturally shiny cars that is a central Jersey highway, and I was amazed to see it was still there. It looked somewhat squat and a tad neglected to me.

This was in high contrast to the shrine-like status it held in my mind. It should have been larger and brighter, and it should have invoked at least a touch of awe.

Despite what it was lacking, as I passed by I took a moment to honor the place in my heart, as it so well deserved.

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