Earlier this year, in the spring:
I am standing at the check-out line at the Whole Foods - the big one, on North Main. I am looking at my list - hastily scrawled on a slip of paper with orange ducks on it - and the young man behind the register asks: “Did you find everything ok?”
The answer, of course, should be: “Yes, yes thank you.”
But, today, I take the bait: “Actually, I was looking for fresh pea shoots, and I wasn’t able to find any.”
“Oh, I can help you with that.”
The moving belt that takes my items closer to their waiting bags, stops.
He’s on the phone, calling the produce department. (“Produce,” he says, shaking his head. “Those guys are the hardest to get.”)
“I’ve got a customer looking for pea shoots.”
He nods, hangs up the phone.
“They’re going to check in the back, but he thinks that’s it for today. There will be a delivery tomorrow morning, if you want to come back? After 10?”
I smile, thank him. “OK, I’ll do that.” And I think, yes, tomorrow, before I pick up the wine and flowers, I’ll swing by for the pea shoots.
He carries on, dragging my items one by one across the scanner, and I think about my mother, what she would think of me, standing here with my micro greens, my sheep’s milk cheeses.
My mother passed on to me her grocery shopping tips: Think about the layout of the store. When you make your list, group all the similar items together, and in the order they appear in the aisles - produce all together, and at the top of the list, then meats, then canned and boxed items together, then frozen foods, and last, dairy. This one I still do. It amuses M. to see my list - a bunch of items at the top of a sheet of paper and then a handful more at the very bottom with big spaces between.
The other tip she swore by - bringing a small calculator with her and entering the price of each item you put in the cart - I have long since given up.
My bags are overflowing. I have not thought about cost. We are entertaining guests this weekend and in the life I have now - so far from that of my mother and her pocket calculator - I am excessive:
Arugula to be dressed with cippollini onion vinaigrette; fresh ricotta to be spread on crusty bread with a drizzle of local honey and a sprinkling of sea salt.
Anjou pears so ripe and beautiful they make you want to cry when you bite into them - their flesh so tender, so white, the juice filling your mouth, running down your chin. The word luscious was invented for this.
Fresh English peas, fiddlehead ferns, artisanal cheeses shaped like tiny inverted thimbles.
A parcel of chocolates so pricey that watching the young man scan it makes me blush.
For a time, my mother worked as a grocery store cashier. There were years that she had trouble finding the work that she was trained to do - secretarial - and took instead, whatever assignments the temporary agency required, whether it was telemarketing or childcare, or late-shift grocery story check-out. And on most afternoons, when my sister and I would arrive home from school, we’d lie on the living room rug, watching MTV, eating tootsie rolls and “american” cheese slices until our stomachs ached.
The transformation happens slowly, over time, from that first moment when you realize that the world you grew up in is not the world in its entirety. And you start to understand desires, aspirations, ambitions. Hunger. And you begin moving in the directions that your hunger dictates. But you don’t always feel it happening.
Instead, you see yourself one day, as if looking down from a great height, fussing over pea shoots at an overpriced grocery store, in an expensive haircut and vintage-store jeans. You’re holding the keys to your hybrid. At home, in your overpriced house, your family waits for you. There are rose bushes lining your walkway. A purple clematis climbs up your back fence. And without warning, you think of your mother and her pocket calculator. You think of her hands, when she places them over yours as you sit beside her hospital bed. When she tells you, tears in her eyes, that there is not much money to leave you. When she hands you a small black booklet, shaped like a passport, that has recorded each transaction, each deposit into a savings account, for the last nineteen years, for as long as you have been her daughter. When she says that it is not much to show for a lifetime, but that it is for you.
I tell this little incident - about the pea shoots - to my friends, to our guests over wine later that weekend, and to anyone who will listen. Not the part about my mother, just about wanting the pea shoots. About that moment of thinking “Who am I? And when did I start caring about pea shoots?” And we laugh, each for our own reasons, each with our own stories to tell.