Back Home on the Range

By Louise

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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I bought three. A blue wax Milagrosa candle to bring my mother comfort, healing and rest. An orange wax Road Opener for myself to clear up old messes, setbacks and slow downs and start new projects.

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?

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What about your childhood grocery stores, my friends? What would you have found on those shelves that truly let you know you were home?

25 thoughts on “Back Home on the Range

  1. Robin Burcell

    At the “little store” we used to walk to, jars of giant dills for a nickel, nickel candy bars and nickel Jolly Rancher bars (not the little bitty candies.) Penny licorice, which meant if you had a quarter, you were coming home with a fistful.

    At the grocery store? The stacks of Blue Chip stamp books and catalogs as you walked in the door. I loved looking inside the catalogs, hoping and hoping.

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  2. pari

    S & H green stamps

    chiles (green, red, poblano)

    penny candies — pixie stix, candy necklaces, bit o’ honeys, super bubble

    locally made beef jerky — regular and chile coated

    not a single piece of produce in plastic.

    beautiful post, Louise.

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  3. Sharon Wheeler

    Lovely post, Louise!

    Even allowing for cultural differences between the UK and the US, I associate those shops with the el cheapo sweets — you used to get a handful of garish-coloured ones which tasted deeply weird for a few pence.

    Your post made me think of my great-aunt’s shop, which she ran until she was over 80. She was most miffed when the doctor insisted she gave it up. It was one of those old-fashioned ‘stock everything for the ladies’ shop, with clothes, hats, undergarments and knitting and sewing supplies. I always remember the rather dusty hats which looked like elaborate cake decorations, or the sort of bras that would have stopped the Titanic from sinking!

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  4. Louise Ure

    Robin, what wonderful images! I remember those stamp catalogs, too, although like Pari, we were saving green stamps. And the first thing we redeemed them for was a shiny silver tea kettle.

    Shaz, I would love to have seen your aunt’s shop. Armor-piercing bras and feathered hats you could have used as dusters!

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  5. Patty Smiley

    The penny candy aisle. Anybody remember those wax milk bottles filled with Cool-aid or the wax mustaches in black and the red lips, also made of wax?

    You’re not only a wonderful friend, you are a loving daughter. Kudos.

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  6. billie

    Here in the south it was only the little market that had the Icee machine. Cola or cherry mostly, and now and then lime or orange as an alternate.

    And the yoyo-sized sweet-tarts, not the chewy kind they have now, but those rock-solid ones you’d chip away at all day long.

    Outside were the fishing worms and crickets for bait.

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  7. JT Ellison

    **SIGH**

    I remember the stamps for the blue and tan pottery plates and cookware set from Safeway (that we still have.)

    The nearest store was a gas station ten miles away. So trips to the grocery thirty miles away were always fun — loading up on EVERYTHING imaginable. We had a huge freezer and bought the side of beef from the guy who came door to door in the late summer, enough to last us through the harsh Colorado winter.

    And Mum made homemade cocoa. I need that recipe.

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  8. louise ure

    God, you guys, what wonderful memories!

    Patty, I adored those milk bottles. They came in their own little cardboard four pack (six pack?). I’d bite the top off and guzzle the liquid. Kind of reminds me now of the stuff I put in hummingbird feeders.

    And Billie, that image of worms and crickets for bait has told me more about the store than a whole paragraph of description could.

    I’ve always lived in a city, JT, so the notion of buying a whole side of beef from a guy who came to the door seems wonderfully exotic to me. And, oh yeah, I remember those plates.

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  9. B.G. Ritts

    Louise — you are a terrific daughter!

    We had three ‘corner’ stores within two blocks — two on corners and one in the middle of a block. One had candy, pop, dry goods; one was a real grocery; one was a butcher shop. The one closest was the candy store where a dime would fill one of those smallest of brown bags — about 2 x 3-4 x 5-6 inches. A bit further than these three was the little store that had ice cream for a nickel a scoop — the big sized scoops.

    Let me see: Circus peanuts, 5 cent candy bars bigger that today’s 75 cent ones, red licorice (the long strings), Beeman’s pepsin chewing gum, the wax bottles, lips and teeth, Fizzies, Necco wafers, Boston Baked Beans, pumpkin seeds, the individually wrapped blocks of bubble gum … all behind that slanted glass front of the candy case.

    The local ‘supermarkets’, and some other stores, gave S&H Green, Plaid and TV (yellow) stamps. We all (although I suspect it was my brother, sister and I who really got to pick) looked at the catalogs when we had filled some books with stamps.

    What lovely memories. Thank you!

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  10. Louise Ure

    Beeg, your memories are so specific. You clearly have a diarist’s eye. Circus peanuts and Necco wafers, ah yeah. And I would have been in that ice cream palace every time I had my hand wrapped around a hot nickel.

    Cornelia, my dear, you can borrow that Road Opener candle any time you want. It’s a good thing to have around for Book Three.

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  11. Rae

    What a beautiful post, Louise….

    I did most of my growing up in The Land of the Bland, food-wise. Generic everything, and all out of either cans or the frozen food aisle.

    What I remember about my childhood grocery stores is getting to them. My best friend and I would spend hours roaming the streets of our little town, having the kind of heart-to-heart talks that are so special during your growing-up years. At a point, we’d need candy and soda (no stinkin’ healthy eating for us – no siree 😉 and would stop at the local market to supply ourselves.

    And now that I’ve begun to spend a fair amount of time in my home town, I can go to that same store, run by the same family, and stock up on – Ruffles and French onion dip.

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  12. Louise Ure

    Oh, the allure of Ruffles and French Onion dip!

    I can relate to The Land of the Bland, too, Rae. Lettuce was iceberg. I thought fish came breaded and shaped like fingers.

    I hope your best friend is still around.

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  13. B.G. Ritts

    ” … ice cream palace … “

    Actually, it was a long, narrow, relatively dark store with cigarettes, some magazines and miscellaneous munchies along with just a handful of flavors of ice cream. Looking back now, I also suspect it was one of the local bookie joints.

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  14. Naomi

    From the local Japanese market in Pasadena:

    Wooden vats of long pickled daikon radishes circled around each other like snakes. They were soaked in smelly miso. But cleaned off and sliced, it tasted sweet and crisp like candy!

    And yes, the S&H green stamps.

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  15. louise ure

    Of course, Naomi, you would have the most exotic of local grocers! Curling daikon radishes, indeed.

    And B.G., I guess I classed up that ice cream store in my imagination, huh? As a kid, I wouldn’t have recognized the local bookie parlor any more than I would have been able to identify the local pederast. I was a pretty naiive kid.

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  16. toni mcgee causey

    Oh, yes, the S & H green stamps. Does anyone else remember the yellow Top Value stamps, too? I was in charge of putting the stamps in the booklet and keeping count of them all; I think I had the catalog memorized.

    I remember a small store, crowded with a hodgepodge of items; fishing tackle one aisle over from rock salt and condensed milk (for homemade ice cream). Fresh seafood in the back. Momma buying the stuff to put up the canned goods (tomatoes, pickles, plus peas, snap beans). I used to wonder why on earth she went to all that trouble when there were cans of the stuff sitting right there on the shelves in the store. Now, I look back and marvel–my parents had the income of a truck driver and a secretary and yet, I had every lesson a child’s heart could want (and I loved them all)… and I know now why they put up those summer pickings.

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  17. louise ure

    Toni, it sounds like you had a wonderful upbringing. It wasn’t till I moved to California that I realized all those canned things could also be purchased (or grown) fresh.

    And Santa Tom! How nice to see you show up in June! Hope you’re get a well deserved rest from all the gift distributing. Your “visiting” memories are wonderful, especially the creamsicles and the portrait Dixie cups. My era was to enjoy the first television on the block — a massive piece of furniture with a small rounded picture window.

    And Elaine, forget the childhood grocery stores. I was counting on you for thoughts of grocery stores in Hawaii! Tako poke by the gallon?

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  18. Elaine Flinn

    Oh, that’s what you wanted? Okay – how’s this – no artichokes or mushrooms. Looonnngggg counters of every fish in the sea, huge sections of pork, but never, ever any lamb. Tako poke? Ah, very ono! But by the gallon? Oh, yeah, sistah! And da kine rice? 50-100 pound bags…no puny packages allowed. Mo bettah you stock up on Passion Fruit so can make Lilikoi pie. And never cross a bridge when buying pork! Very bad luck.

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  19. Alex Sokoloff

    Growing up in North Berkeley (blocks from campus) my grocery shopping memories are about the Farmer’s Market across from the Co-op on Shattuck.

    Hippies in tents, selling organic produce and whole grain everything. The Co-op is gone but the Farmer’s Market is still the same, weekends, today.

    The flowers are still spectacular. Longhaired girls in gypsy skirts are still high. I mean, happy.

    I got that they were somewhat more than happy when I was six, too.

    I still have a pottery eagle on a leather band that I got at that market when I was six or seven. I love that piece.

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  20. Mike MacLean

    I grew up in Tempe Arizona in the 80s, so my Mom & Pop store was a 7-11. My siblings, too lazy to walk two blocks, would pay me a quarter to make a Slurpee run. I’d rifle through the comics—Sgt. Rock, Star Wars, the X-men—waiting my turn to play Joust or Mrs. Pac-Man. The jr. high stoners always hogged the games, their cigarettes leaving brown burns on the consol. Older guys sat outside on the curb, drinking out of brown paper bags and laughing at jokes I didn’t get. Kind of seedy now that I think about it.

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  21. Robin Burcell

    Well, now I can’t remember which came first, Blue Chip or S&H Green stamps. But one of them went out of business, and we were left with books and books of useless stamps. I think the Green went out first?

    But now that I’m walking down memory lane, I remember next to the “little store” (which was on the corner) was the “liquor store.” A true den of iniquity if there ever was one, according to my grandmother, who told us not to go in there. We did anyway, usually to laugh and giggle at a certain liquor bottle on the top shelf behind the register, said bottle in the shape of a cherub who was rather naked and, er, urinating. It was all quite risque, especially because we couldn’t figure out what was in all those bottles.

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  22. Louise Ure

    Elaine, with a store like that around, I never would have left Hawaii. Passion fruit and hundred pound bags of rice, oh yeah. But I’m stumped by the “no bridges when you buy pork” legend. Can’t make sense of that one no how.

    And Alex, whole grain and hippies. What a picture of local shopping that is.

    Mike, I guess my corner store was a Circle K, not a Seven-11. And aside from the fact that they had little that resembled food there, I don’t have many memories of it because the guy would kick the kids out so we wouldn’t read the adult magazines.

    Robin, Google Images has let me down. I tried to find a picture of your cherub bottle so we could figure out what the liquor was, but no luck!

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  23. sarai

    Lessee..

    There was the fruit market in Rose Corners, which was a bit of a drive from our house waaaay in the country. My mom would load all us kids in the car, go to the fruit market, fill the cooler with ice, watermelon, and soda. We’d add sandwitches from home (I like Jif peanut butter and grape jelly, with sliced cheddar cheese in mind.) and go to the gravel pit to go swimming. They haven’t taken any gravel out of it since before I was born. They hit water and it filled in and became a lake but I can’t remember the name of it now. I thought it was as big as Lake Michigan, but I was home a few years ago and I could swim across it. I remember the scent of watermelons and strawberries in the fruit market, and those funny caramel sheets that you were supposed to wrap around apples to make caramel apples, and fighting with my sisters in the back seat for the window seats. I usually lost, being the smallest and youngest. Oh! and sucking coke through red twizzlers.

    We went shopping at the corner store, too, which was called Errol’s, but now it’s a chain store/gas station. Errol’s had the old fashioned pumps that looked like little old men in red overalls with their bald heads flush to their shoulders. One of my sisters thought they were space men. The other one would huff “GOD! you are so weird!” and return to her Nancy Drew books. It smelled like gas and dust and something else that I always associate with little gas stations that don’t actually have a garage. Errol’s just sold gas, munchies, beer and booze, lottery tickets and other weird stuff like that. My mom says they sold some bread and cereal and milk too, but I don’t remember that. Now that it’s a Chev-Union-Shell station it sells slushies and pre-historic looking hot dogs and nachos with that glowing orange cheeze. We call it Chernobyl cheeze. Errol’s was our corner store, but it was actually about 11 miles from our house.

    When we actually went into town to shop, we went to Krogers. It was a bit dingy and cold looking inside, and it had these odd pictures on the walls around the perimeter of people in uniforms. You had a guy in a white jacket over the butcher counter and a guy in a green apron over the produce department, and this weird French looking baker dude over the bread and stuff. I don’t know how I knew he was supposed to be French, but I think it had something to do with the skinny pointy mustache (like the bad guy in an Old West Movie who tied the girl to railroad tracks.) and rosy cheeks. The pictures were just faces and upper torso, and were several feet across. The fact that they had no bodies below the sternum still bothers me today. I was deathly afraid of the butcher, as he was holding a cleaver in a big hand, complete with hairy knuckles. But as frightened as I was of the butcher, I was even more afraid of the French Baker Torso, with his maniacal grin. I just knew that the butcher may kill me, but it was the Evil French Baker Torso who was going to bake me into pies and sell the Sara Pies for $2.99 a piece.

    Yes, I’ve always had an over-active imagination. Now if I could just use this power for good instead of evil! (But I’d settle for writing a sellable book!)

    Later I moved to Tucson, too, and I have one of the Virgen of Guadalupe candles on my dresser. My neighbor makes KILLER tamales.

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