If You’re Grocery Shopping for One, Get a Basket. If You’re Shopping for Kids, Get a Cart, an Essay by Rachel Anne Warren

Rachel Anne Warren | Essay, Parenting

The biggest difference, so far and from what I can tell, has to do with the grocery store. Up until now, I’ve always used a basket when I shop for groceries— usually once a week, totaling twenty-seven dollars worth of goods. I’ve always looked at people who go for the Walmart-sized wheeled cart as gluttonous or perhaps lazy.

“Do you just not like to shop? Do you really need all that food at once? Are you unable to control your spending?” I’d wonder. “How many of those veggies will wilt and brown and eventually get chucked in the bin, never a leaf cut from the stem, never a chop-chop.”

But now, after a month and more than a few pathetic attempts at carrying a family-sized load in a bitty basket while looking a fool, I have given in to the shopping cart—usually the small half-sized one when available. I don’t like feeling like a Hummer in the city when I’m in the market. I like to cruise, rarely stopping to consider my choices. I stick to the perimeters. I buy fresh vegetables and lots of the leafy green ones like collards and kale. I like how they taste sautéed with garlic and a protein I’ve bought one serving of, and when I get home from the market that week, I make a bachelor stew and it serves as my base food, with the occasional addition of an egg in the morning to go with a scoop of the stuff I never get sick of. Also acceptable are white chocolate and macadamia nut Clif Bars and Trilogy flavored Kombucha, and that’s my diet.

But kids, generally, do not like vegetables. Or bachelor stew when it comes with sausage that apparently tastes of mint. I never tasted mint in that sausage before. I think mint is the imaginary monster under the bed of Mild Italian Organic and Fair-Trade Sausage. Or maybe these smaller folks are more attentive than I am. They notice every detail of the texture and taste. The youngest will hold a teaspoon of old-fashioned oatmeal with a single fresh blueberry perched atop for fifteen minutes. He won’t eat it. There is something instinctively untrustworthy about this blue-gray marble. Eating around the thing is no option—despite having remained self-contained, no juices infecting the rest of the matter, it has still existed in the same bowl, and so it will not be eaten.

All three of them, these boys: one, nine; one, twelve; one, thirty-eight— they want things that come in boxes and containers from the mostly middle aisles. Familiar things. I suddenly remember these things. Perhaps I never ate them myself, but I know of them in that nostalgic way. I can taste them at the mere sight, and it’s overwhelming. The fruit snacks in the little plastic packets that are chewy but not too chewy. The boxed mac and cheese. The deli meat. The family-sized, clear and disposable, tupperware of perfectly sliced provolone. Individually wrapped snack packs of Oreos and Pringles. You always know exactly what you’re getting.

“Is that your mom?” one kid on the playground asked the older kid I am housed with.

“Sort of,” he said.

The younger kid I’m living with says it’s easier to say I’m their stepmom. I see what he means.

“Dad’s girlfriend who lives with us” is complicated. Dad’s girlfriend who lives with them is sometimes cool in a she-gets-Instagram kind of way. But I’m also “cringey” in other ways, apparently. Like when I do fake accents in public, or when I ask the Chipotle lady, once I’m already down the line, if I could get some different Barbacoa since I got the soupy bottom of the tub when I went through and a fresh batch has just arrived.

“They haven’t put, like, the toppings or salsa on, yet. It’s OK to ask,” I explained this once I saw the grown and not-as-grown boys step feet away, hiding their faces in embarrassment.

I don’t want to be a lone Maude with no Harold or repurposed train house in sight—it’s not as fun. I don’t want to be an embarrassment. But I don’t want to be insincere, either. I wear joggers! I like the books you people read and the movies you watch, and I never grew up, really, and I’m not actually your step mom, I just happen to sometimes need to wake you up for school, or ask you to pick up your laundry from the bathroom floor, or ask you if you have homework, and press when you say no, and ask you to take the dog out. Otherwise, I’m just like you, littler humans.

“Right?” I constantly check in with myself.

When I started Googling recipes, the week we moved in together, I honestly didn’t mean to. I’m not great at following directions. It just sort of happened. I’d gotten swept up by the cookies and cream of it all. The yesterday. And I can’t help it, really, that although I have never had an adult interest in carving pumpkins, putting ornaments on a Christmas tree, or building a billowy birthday cake—I want it. All of it. For the younger ones, yes. But, I guess also for me.

When I remember the food of my childhood, I remember a few things.

  1. The jars of icing I hid under my bed and would paw at in secret every night after I brushed my teeth, looking out of the window to the moon where sometimes I could find an owl sitting perched on a tree limb. Our neighbor would stick frozen chicks out on a post for the owl to tear off with.
  2. The stuffed peppers my mother made. I didn’t care for the brassy bell pepper at all, but I liked how self-contained it was. The seasoned beef and rice with the melty mozzarella cheese on top. Bagels with cheese melted on, too—I was sure my mother had invented those and preached the gospel throughout the neighborhood only to find it wasn’t so much an innovation.
  3. Salad served in well-worn plastic cereal bowls. Us girls got Italian dressing, but our brother got Lorenzo’s Oil. The movie with the same name came out that year, and we had boxes and boxes of the precious stuff that was our only hope to slow down our brother Robbie’s disease.

Adrenoleukodystrophy is a rare neurological disorder that takes a boy of about age five from normal to gone over one to some long years. While he could still eat, when he could still mostly hold a fork and swallow the stuff, before he was “vegetative” and before he was gone, we would eat salads together. His topped with a 4:1 mix of oleic acid and erucic acid, extracted from rapeseed oil and olive oil. But it looks like plain, old olive oil.

I don’t remember many specific foods after Robbie was gone. I’d kept down the secret icing track, adding fast-food and sneaking extra sugar into the Koolaide until I was 17 years old and out on my own. Food has, since, been a need-based sort of situation. It has been sustenance and background. It has had no real, or emotional, meaning.

And so now that I have moved in with my beloved and his dumplings, and because I have a flexible work schedule and can be home when the boys are during the week, I want to make things. Spaghetti with MEATBALLS. Teriyaki Turkey and Rice Chili, breakfast feast for dinner, Taco Tuesday. And real Ramen from the Korean food market across the street. And slushies from the food truck by the skate park after school on Fridays. And cider the night before the first day of school. I want stuff we can look forward to, and count on, and stories. Lots of stories. New ones. The old stories don’t have to go away or get smaller, but I want to make more space. I want to even it out so my heart isn’t so consistently lopsided at the sight of Marshmallow Fluff and what my childhood could have been.

I guess I’d been content, albeit a tad lonely, living on my own with my relatively clear-cut creative life for so long, most recently in an artist residence in downtown Baltimore. Dating men who lived in other cities or traveled constantly for work. Men I’d never live with. Men who would never take me seriously. Men who I’d never help tidy up behind because we never spent that kind of time together. I’d never do their laundry or scrub our shared toilet. They would certainly never have done my laundry. I’d never move out to the ‘burbs with the mountain view with those guys.

By some miracle or mistake, I managed to avoid all traditional life path stuff until I was 35 years old, and the constant stream of friends and Facebook friends getting married and having babies never bothered me over this decade or so. It just never occurred to me that I would, one day, run into those people at the grocery store, in line with our shopping carts equally packed with dozens of family-sized boxes of groceries that would dwindle and disappear in a blink. I still throw the weird sausage and leafy greens in for good measure, though.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army Garrison, Japan, photographer Honey E. Nixon. Via DVIDS.