Generation Sandwich

“How’s your mum?” asks the sunny checkout woman.

My heart does a loop-de-loop. Hanging in there, I almost say, a grapefruit in one hand and a pack of sponges in the other. For so long, this was my stock response to this stock question from this kind-eyed Pakistani woman with the sprawling memory. This isn’t my usual grocery. Close enough to my house, it’s closer to my mother’s, or to the house that was my mother’s, and my father’s, mine, for half a century. In the years after we took away Mom’s keys and before her get-up-and-go got-up-and-went, we did her shopping here.

“Oh, she passed away,” I manage, cheeks flushing with heat as I do a quick calculation in my head. “Um, a year—no fifteen months now.” Can she have been gone that long? And why this need to pin it down, to date her death for a stranger?

“So sweet,” the woman says, her soft features sagging. “Your mum … such a sweet lady.”

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In my mother’s sandwich days, she sometimes included my grandmother on family trips to Fernandina Beach, Florida. Here, with my sister, she glows.

With this, she gives a wan smile and we all grin and nod like eager Labradors, even my daughter. Yes, my daughter is there at the far end of the cart, home from college for the holidays. Leaning in for the dish detergent, she smiles broadly for the checkout woman then glances at me. They were close, Emma and my mother. They shared a love of fashion, things that sparkle, a petite stature. She misses her grandmother, her “Joe,” but there’s more. Already, at twenty-one, Emma’s smooth pearly skin gives off a curious vibe, a blend of sorrow and unease I’m all too familiar with. She’s as concerned about me in this awkward moment as she is mourning our shared loss.

I finger the sugar snaps in their crackly bag, straighten the box of microwave bacon on the belt because, well, who knows why. When on the spot, I am an aligner, cutlery on a spread table, the floor mat at the door, bacon on the belt.

“She shopped here?” asks the bag boy. “Your mother?”

Our rescuer! He’s young, Emma’s age, maybe younger, and a pleaser. I can see this in the easy way he puffs out my recyclable bags and hands in the heavy items first, the eggs on top, the meat in its own plastic.

“She did,” I say. “All her life! She was ninety-five …”

“Oh yes!” The checkout woman, keying in the zucchini. “She shopped here each week …”

She sweeps a hand in the direction of the produce, the condiments aisle, the canned goods. A knot has risen at the base of my neck. Enough, I think, but still I track the woman’s wave and who is that, just there? A small bent white-haired figure struggles to read the label on a jar of jam. She fumbles for her glasses, shakes her head, purses her lips. Something is not right and she reaches, a tremor in her hand, to reshelve the jar. It doesn’t fit. Where is that patch of free space she pulled it from? With a sigh, she drops it in her buggy anyway then scans the shelves again, squints at the creased scrap of a list between her gnarled fingers.

Marmalade. Maybe if I think it hard enough, she will remember … It’s the orange marmalade you want, the one with the red gingham cinched over the lid.

“Oh, how I remember her …” The checkout woman again, on a roll. “She walked like this …”

The bag boy pauses, his chin tilted up with interest, a pound of sugar balanced in one hand. We watch as the woman drops her arms to her sides and shuffles her feet—my mother’s signature walk in her last fretful years. Like a penguin, my young grandnephew once said, nailing it. The woman flicks her eyes at me and quickly away—has she gone too far? Yes, and no. Emma smiles again, not so broadly. I follow her lead. After all, how often have I mimicked the penguin walk myself, in Mom’s presence and otherwise? We only tease the ones we love …

“I used to help her outside, to wait.” The woman can’t be stopped. She meets my gaze, her eyes less kind. In her household no doubt, the elderly are revered.

“To wait for you,” she continues, gesturing again, through the plate glass window . “On the bench.”

The bag boy glances over his shoulder, past the Lotto machine and the ice cooler to the empty bench on the far side of the glass. It’s true, on very busy days I sometimes dropped Mom to do her shopping alone while I scooted off on some other errand, to pick up a child from baseball or gym practice, maybe to grab a cappuccino. There were times Mom had to wait on me. She didn’t mind, usually. In fact, she liked it! I expect I can do my own shopping … she would say with a toss of her head. She needed it, my mother, this small dose of independence.

Andshe was not ninety-five then! I want to cry it out. She was late eighties, maybe ninety-one at the most! Boy, does my head hurt.

“Ninety-five!” the bagboy exclaims. He too meets my gaze, yet with nothing but good cheer. “What a life. I’d take that any day.”

I grin fiercely, more Pit Bull now than Lab.

“Yes,” Emma says. “Ninety-five!” She settles a bag, then another, into our cart. I swipe my card, say my thank you’s, and we turn to go.

“She was nice,” Emma says on our way to the car. “That lady. She must have really liked Joe.”

“Yes, she’s worked there a long time. I used to …”

“I know, Mom. You did everything for Joe.”

She doesn’t mention the bench, or the penguin shuffle, or the fact that in those feverish wonderful days when she and her brothers lived at home and their widowed grandmother lived half a mile away, I may have let things slide a bit, that on those last visits to this grocery Joe might have been too rickety on her feet, too forgetful, to be left to her own devices. Emma doesn’t say that maybe Joe needed her daughter there to pull down the marmalade and help her out to the bench.

She doesn’t mention it, but like she says, she already knows.

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Our happy sandwich, May 2010.

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