Cleanup, Aisle Three

A woman embarks on a nostalgia-fueled shopping trip before her college-bound brood vacates the nest. New story by Carol Harada.

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After weeks of staring at the calendar and trying to ignore the late August date circled aggressively in red, Clara grabbed her keys and jumped in the car. Here, now, in the middle of the grocery store, she was finally taking action. Clara knew that staying on task was what would save her. She clutched her shopping list a little too tightly, exhaled loudly, and pushed her cart onward.

David had made his early decision last fall, something to celebrate at Thanksgiving, and sailed through the rest of his senior year. But now that he was actually going to school seven states away from home, their one and only home together, Clara was close to losing it, losing him.

This, she could do as the good mom. She pulled the toilet paper onto the lower ledge of the cart, a wall of softness for the precious butt she had diapered so long ago. The toothpaste she chose was non-fluoride, non-Day-Glo, made in the wilds of Maine. Probably by some old hippies with savvy marketing skills. In her timeless mother mind, David’s first tooth was falling over and over, landing with a plop — almost bloodless — into her palm after his last tongue wiggle. Everything here relating to her boy’s body. The razor blades and best shaving gel for his face, grown even more handsome than the memory of his father. She would leave hair products up to him.

Clara knew very well her son could do his own shopping, but this was a last chance before Christmas to exert a benevolent influence. She zoomed over to the healthy snack aisle and grabbed too many packets. Nut bars, runner’s energy goo packs, superfood bars with chia seeds and dried exotic fruits, and bags of baked veggie chips formed a mound in front of her. No empty carbs. She didn’t care if it took four cartfuls; she was going to send him off with daily reminders of home.

In aisle three, she stood staring at the organic baby food, considering the wisdom of the rounded jars. Carrot mash, sweet pea puree, yam almost soup. Without thinking, she picked up a carrot jar, opened it with that satisfying pressure and pop. She stuck her finger in and tasted it. Sweet and simple.

“Hey, Clar.” It was Jeannie, her cart similarly loaded with anxiety for her youngest, Amber. They looked at each other’s massed supplies.

“Doesn’t it get any better?” Clara grateful and/or sorry she had to do this only once. This was Jeannie’s third time around.

“Give me that,” was Jeannie’s answer. The tennis doubles partners took turns emptying the carrot mash into their mouths and empty gullets and remembered. Pangs of loss came at each of them so fast. It was like that one time the tennis ball machine went haywire and repeatedly fired serves without giving them time to respond.

Soothed somewhat after sharing memories of their kids, from David’s early fascination with hummingbirds to Amber’s latest piano composition, Clara and Jeannie headed for checkout number four. Jeannie first. She grabbed the three empty baby food jars and put them on the conveyor belt. The cashier looked a little puzzled at their emptiness, but then blipped them through after sensing the air of despair of these two moms. It had been filling the store this week with parents having a sentimental shop before college started.

“My treat,” Jeannie winked.

“Thanks,” Clara mumbled.

When Jeannie was ready and packed, she squared her shoulders. Clara whispered in her ear, “Amber will do great.” Something relaxed in Jeannie’s stance, just like when her perfect backhand sent the ball spinning to land just over the net.

Clara meanwhile zombied through the packing up and gratefully received the bagger’s help to get the unwieldy load to her car. She got in the driver’s seat and sat there texting David. Waiting for his reply, she held the receipt up to the late summer light. It unfurled out the open window and trailed from her hand, the white flag of surrender.

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