I am now on a first name basis with two grocery clerks at Fry’s and a guy at Ace Hardware, in a city I don’t live in.
I spent last week in Arizona, visiting my mother. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations – I was there to clean and repair things, to encourage her to eat, to hold her hand and make her smile, even if that moment would be forgotten in the time it takes a hummingbird to bat a wing.
Walt at Ace Hardware down the block had helpful hints for the cleaning and repair part. I stopped in every morning at 7:00 with a new list. Thin wire and a patch kit to repair the screen door. A brightly painted toilet roll bar so she’d see it and not throw it out when she changed the roll. A real drop-the-slice-in-toaster instead of a toaster oven so she wouldn’t mistake it for a microwave. Oven cleaner for the pots she had inadvertently burned up.
By the fifth day, he was making suggestions for things I hadn’t even thought to repair. A hook and eye, set high up on the door, so she couldn’t wander. A flow limiter added to the hoses so she won’t flood the yard. Thank you, Walt.
Socorro and Natalie at Fry’s did the same. My mother, now in her ninth decade in Tucson, has decided that life is too short to eat anything but pasta. Spaghetti and meatballs one night. Shrimp and cream sauced fettuccine the next. “How about Beef Stroganoff tomorrow?” Natalie suggested. “With ground beef so she can chew it.” Socorro voted for albondigas soup with orzo added to the recipe so she’d still think it was a pasta dish. In the land of hard-shelled tacos and tortilla chips, I made soft food.
It was soft weather as well. Only a couple of days over a hundred, and evenings full of star-studded skies. My mother wore a sweatshirt and a lap blanket.
My daily visits to Fry’s were a diary of the Tucson I’d left behind thirty years ago, its aisles full of the memories of my childhood. An herb mix for menudo. Mexican oregano, chili de arbol, and safflower on the spice rack. Dried corn husks and fresh masa dough for tamale making. An entire aisle dedicated to varieties of refried beans.
There were new additions to the offered fare since I’d left town. Fenugreek, berbere, and niter kibbeh to satisfy the spice-loving community of Ethiopians that that moved into the neighborhood in the last several years. Gumbo and creole fixings for the Katrina victims who had taken over the apartment complex on Seneca.
The only better way to take the pulse of a community than the local grocery store is the yellow pages. Flip through the phone book next time you visit a new city. Is there a listing for “Churches – Satanic” (page 301 in the San Francisco phone book)? Do they offer Anger Management Services as well as gun retailers? Is there a category for “Water Witches/Dowsers” to help you site your well (page 476 in the Tucson book)?
One aisle of the supermarket hadn’t changed: the offertory candles. Fry’s dedicates one entire aisle to the eight-inch votive candles. Three for three bucks. Now that’s a deal.
Sometimes there’s an image and a prayer. Chango Macho, the Spirit of Good Luck. Chuparrosa, with a hummingbird’s picture, to bring you a relationship that is honest and true. Justo Juez, for a favorable ruling from a judge.
Sometimes it’s the color of the wax that counts. Brown wax for luck in court cases. Green for luck in gambling. Black when you’re conducting business in private and to keep your enemies away.
And one green wax La Suerte de la Loteria in hopes of supplementing my advance from St. Martin’s.
All important issues covered now. Peace found for three bucks plus tax.
All in all, the visit was a good one. My mother’s mind was so much better than I expected. “I can still think,” she said. “It just takes a little more time and doesn’t hang around as long.” She laughs easily and still gets all the jokes. And the only times she got stuck on those ten-second loop tapes I’d come to expect was when she first got up in the morning.
“I’m not having any fun,” she’d call from the living room if I was wrapped up in a project for too long.
I wrote “Louise was here” across the first ten days in her June calendar and added hearts and exclamation points. Maybe she’ll glance at that page sometime and remember.
Random thought while making smoked salmon bowtie pasta in Tucson: If the lyrics to “Home on the Range,” say “and the skies are not cloudy all day,” does that mean that the clouds did arrive for part of the day?
What about your childhood grocery stores, my friends? What would you have found on those shelves that truly let you know you were home?