Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Front Steps

I’ve always loved grocery stores.  As a kid, I jumped at any chance to tag along—not because I thought I’d get a treat, but because I genuinely loved wandering the aisles of neat, ordered rows of items, all organized and new and full of potential.

I grew up in a small rural area where there were only three options for grocery shopping.  The first was QuickMart, which existed primarily to keep folks stocked up with milk, eggs, Natural Light, and Skoal.  They had Reece’s cups, though, and Twizzlers, so I was perfectly happy when we ran out of milk and had to “run to town.” 

Down the street and around the corner was Troyer’s IGA.   It fit the mold of every other IGA on this globe; it was small, unassuming, and carried simple, basic foodstuffs and toiletries.  There were two of each item at Schecks:  a brand name or the ValuTime brand.  Kellogg’s or ValuTime.  Stouffers or ValuTime.  Campbell’s or ValuTime.  Eggos or ValuTime.  Pert or ValuTime.

We always got ValuTime.

And then, thirty miles away in Wooster, there was Buehler’s.  To me, going to Buehler’s was akin to going to Disney.  We didn’t go much, because it was too expensive, and besides it took a good half hour to get there.  But when we did­—?  Ohhhhhh

… ‘Cause, see, they had everything.  Every. Thing.  And there wasn’t ValuTime, because Buehler’s was too fancy for such shenanigans.  The options and choices were mind-bending.  The potato-chips alone! Lays and Fritos and Tostitos and Cheet-os and Doritos and popcorn and Corn-nuts, kettle-cooked and Classic and Ruffled and Wavy and cheesy and nacho-y and oh my god so many options.  And there were olives and cheese, kiwi and mangos, prepared pizza, a salad bar the length of a pickup truck.  There was a lobster tank, a full bakery, and a flower store, even, and a little bank, and aisles of coffee beans that people could grind up on their own.  I’d stand still and just breathe deep, deep, deep.

My friend’s Bethy’s mother was a career cashier at Buehler’s, having started way back at 18, straight out of high school. She was always there, swiping and clicking and taking money and giving change, working in that fabulous store all day long, getting to see all the cool stuff people picked up to bring home.

I was jealous as hell. 

When I first got to know Bethy, I imagined her house must be chock-full of various potato chips, complex deli meat, sweetened cereal (Corn Pops!  Captain Crunch!  Frosted Flakes!  Froot Loops! Cocoa Krispies!) and, of course, piles of things from the bakery:  Cinnamon rolls, for sure, and cookies, pies, sweet cakes and donuts.  I imagined her kitchen overflowing with the Delicious and the Fancy.

And then I started going to her house after school.  My mother was asked to teach a class at our local art center, so, rather than have me at home alone, my mother wrote me a note to get off the bus with Bethy for a few months.  We felt so free and grown-up, there in her house, just the two of us, skipping down the sidewalk and guessing what might happen that afternoon on “General Hospital.”

We’d be starving.  “We need fooooooood,” we’d moan.  Bethy would go to the kitchen and rummage around a while.  Usually, she pulled out a crumpled bag of ValuTime cheese puffs and poured them into a bowl.  Sometimes she’d come back with saltines, or a couple spoons stuck into a jar of peanut butter.  One day, she made us ketchup sandwiches out of hot dog buns; another, she opened a can of baked beans and we ate them, cold, out of coffee mugs.  Sometimes she’d say, “There’s nothing to eat,” and we’d settle in on the couch without a snack, or we’d look for quarters in her father’s jeans pockets, and, if we found some, we’d hustle down to the Quick Mart for a bag of Muchos, which cost us only $ .69. 

I was confused, though.  And disappointed.  Why was Bethy’s kitchen so sparse?   Her mother worked at Buehler’s, for cryin’ out loud. 

I didn’t say anything for a long time.  Then, finally, on a day there was no food and we couldn’t find any quarters, I blurted, “How come you don’t have any food in your house?”

Her eyebrow lifted.

“I mean, your Mom!  Doesn’t she pick up a whole bunch of stuff?  After work, I mean?  Doesn’t she shop?  For food, and snacks?”  Her mouth turned into a firm straight line.  My voice trailed.  “No, like, shopping?  For food?  After work….?”

She didn’t say anything for a long time.  Then, she said, “No.”  Then, she said, “She’s tired.  She doesn’t want to think about groceries after work.”  Then, she her voice strong and steady, “Besides, have you taken a look at the front steps at your house?”

My skin flushed.  Yes, I’d taken a look at our front steps.

My father was a carpenter.  He built houses for other people, three or four a year, beautiful structures with every detail accounted for.  But our farmhouse had front steps made of stacked concrete cinder blocks.  They were ugly.  An eyesore.  They looked like the front steps of a transient, a nomad, a mobile home or camper.  They did not look like the front steps of a talented and skilled carpenter, just like Bethy’s kitchen cabinets did not look like those of a mother who spent her days surrounded by groceries.

And she’d noticed something, about her mother, and my father, and about people who work hard, and are good at their jobs—people who are doing their best, and sometimes can’t do everything.  

The cobbler's children had no shoes, after all.  

After working on someone else’s house all day, my father didn’t have the energy to build us a beautiful front porch.  Our cinderblock steps were just fine.  Functional and fine.

After hours on her feet filling grocery bags for other people, Bethy’s mother didn’t give hot damn about groceries anymore.  Baked beans and hot dogs were just fine.

It happens to me, now.  After work, I don’t want to talk.  I don’t want to make any decisions or check email or be in charge of anything.  My deep and dirty little secret?  I don’t even want to sit down and read a story with my children. Because just like Bethy’s mom, or my father, at the end of a day, I’m freakin’ tired.  I’ve spent my day thinking about reading, thinking, explaining.  I’ve been patient and interested and I’ve had an opinion.  And when I go home, I don’t want to do those things anymore.

I try—of course I do.  I am a perfectly functional parent and spouse, I think.  But there are certainly days that my performance is on par with cinderblock steps and ketchup sandwiches.  Days where I just can’t.  And I feel a little bad about that, sometimes, but then I remember.  It’s okay.  We are all doing our best.  Cinder block steps were perfectly fine; ketchup sandwiches were perfectly filling; and my family is fine and functional and perfectly, deeply loved.  

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