Grocery Shopping

2 01 2008

When I was little, my dad was always that last one out of church. I can remember lying on the orange velvet (velour?) covered benches in the front foyer well after noon as my dad shared stories with everyone that passed through those large double doors. “He’s as bad as the old ladies,” my mom would say to everyone whom she encountered. She would roll her eyes and drag us to the van to wait for him. My dad has a heightened sense of his own connectedness to other human beings, and so if he is not telling a story, he is listening to one. Either way, he is fundamentally driven by the desire to make connections with people–a desire that is hard to articulate since it manifests itself on the feeling level and is generally language-less. I suppose I have inherited that quality of being particularly tuned in to and affected by the people around me.

Today, I was swinging by the grocery store on my way home from Target (the penultimate American consumerism experience). There is a big, beautiful Kroger out in Opelika (a city-ish place with lots of new houses and the hospital), but I decided I would just pop into the one by our house. This particular Kroger has really, really small aisles and lots of elderly people if you catch it on the right night… a recipe for lots of waiting and cringing. So I’m cruising the Spices and Baking Needs aisle when I encounter an old man with one leg that remains straight when he walks (resulting in a lopsided stride). As I passed him, I yawned and smiled at the same time–a strange looking combination that I think caused me to look as though I was eating an invisible sandwich. He laughed and said, “Party too much for New Years?” I was a bit taken aback by his assumption, since most of the elderly people I’ve met in Auburn are strange academics and rigid Baptists (huge over generalization, I know, but it feels true). I replied that I had a two year old, so no. Then I added, “I wish!” And as he turned his back to me, I caught, “Yeah, me too.” over his shoulder.

Since he walked slow and I tend to shop out of order (running back and forth across the store), I saw him several other times and we exchanged smiles like old friends. I saw him look at the milk and then walk away. I almost offered to help him, but I didn’t know if he simply didn’t want any milk or if he couldn’t see to read the labels. Then I saw him open the frozen food section long enough to generate a significant draft before he pulled one from the very back. Again, I watched him wondering if I should help. He looked up again and we smiled at each other. Finally, when I went to check out, he got in the line next to me and made a comment about the weather (it’s like 22 degrees, which is suicidal for Alabamians). I chuckled (as you do when an older person talks to you) and then it was my turn to check out. When I left, I looked for him and he waved good-bye.

As a member of a generation that is always plugged in and rushing to be somewhere else, it was nice to have someone meet my gaze with a smile. I left the store wishing that I had introduced myself and carried his groceries to his car. We might have become friends, and he would have told me stories, and I would have cooked him food. There is something about old people that makes my heart hurt in a way that painfully assures me of my own humanity.

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