I was standing in line at the grocery store the other day, behind a guy in his seventies who had a walker. He had two items to purchase: A container of hot soup and twelve hot dog buns, the kind the kids like. In his right hand he carried a fistful of coins. Toonies, loonies and all sorts of silver. Probably about fifteen bucks or so. Every time it was his turn to move up a step, he’d nudge his walker and would subsequently drop a couple of coins. The first time it was a dollar and a quarter and I quickly bent down to scoop it up for him. He was very gracious. A few seconds later, he dropped a nickel and as I was about to get it, he said, “oh don’t worry about it, it’s only a nickel”. I got him his nickel. I don’t remember how much it was that fell the third time but he was so embarrassed and then he started telling me about when his knee went and how he’d felt so useless since.
He wasn’t poor. He had nice, new running shoes and a fancy walker. He was just getting older and could no longer do so many of the mundane things that the healthier of us don’t think twice about. As we left the store together, he thanked me again and it was more than I deserved.
And it made me think of my mother.
When I was a kid, my mum would come home from work on Fridays and pick up my brother and me to go grocery shopping. She was single and we didn’t have a car so we would take the city bus a short distance to the store. But first we’d eat at McDonald’s so my mum wouldn’t have to cook that night after a long work week. My brother and I would gobble down our meals as kids do and we were always anxious to leave once we were finished. My mum (who only ever mildly swore and only when she was at her wit’s end) usually had one of two things to say. Can I finish my friggin’ coffee? Or, Can I finish my friggin’ smoke? I don’t think she finished either of them very often.
Then it was to the grocery store. I don’t really remember the details of the shopping. Maybe we got to choose between pudding cups or Wagon Wheels for our lunch snacks or what kind of Chef Boyardee we wanted. But I do remember we always had to call a taxi from the payphone outside the store and we would often have to wait with our groceries, in paper bags, for half an hour or more. Sometimes it was snowing and sometimes it was raining. But it was always dark. A thirty-three year old woman and her nine and four year old sons.
It is this memory that I take with me to the grocery store.
As we cross paths with strangers, up and down the aisles, we unknowingly reveal so much about ourselves. We show people what we eat, we show them how we dress in unguarded moments. We speak to our family members aloud in front of any number of strangers about our daily routines, our likes and dislikes. When we’re having trouble with our kids, it’s there for every one to see. If money’s tight, one glance at the contents of our cart will shout it out to the world.
For older people who have mobility issues, a trip to the grocery store might be the most challenging part of the week. There’s the lady who goes down the soup aisle in her Scooter and hopes they haven’t moved her favourite flavour to the top shelf where she can’t reach it. This once fiercely independent woman will have to ask a stranger for an act of kindness. And there’s the single mum who has to leave a luxury item, a treat, at the cash because she miscalculated how much she could afford. There’s the old guy who is frustrated that he can’t find the canned beef stew he used to like to share with his wife, forgetting that he’s in the wrong store.
Oh I know I should look at the prices more often. Pay closer attention to nutritional values and sodium content. But I’m too busy. I can’t take my eyes off the drama. The little stories. My mum and my brother and I used to be a little story in a grocery store and while I may be mostly invisible today, I may yet become a little story in a grocery store again one day. And I may need your help to get me my damn soup.