My mother died a few years ago at the age of 93. She lived alone right up to the end when we finally convinced her it was time to move to an Assisted Living Center but the first of 3 strokes intervened on the day I was taking her to inspect her new home.
Over the objections of both my brother and me, she kept her own car until the age of 80 when an unplanned encounter with a neighborhood tree finally convinced her to let go. At that point, I took up the duties of taking her grocery shopping. In the early days, the trips were long but bearable. But as she aged and did fewer and fewer other things outside her beloved condominium, the shopping trips became more and more painful.
She always was a smart shopper, comparing prices and recognizing unit pricing before it became a required part of labeling. I remember her teaching me as a very young boy how you could not compare the prices of two products of different sizes.
At about the age of 85 reading labels became an obsession for her. It seemed to me she would read every label of every product in every aisle of the entire store, if I allowed her to. At first, I addressed the issue by doing my own shopping while she was doing hers. Even that left me impatiently trudging behind her in the never-ending label quest.
Gradually I convinced her to make a shopping list for me and let me do the shopping for her. She resisted at first so as I recall we compromised and we would go together one week and the following week she would have a list ready for me. Eventually she stopped asking to go along, even though I could see she would have liked to. I told myself I would make it up to her in other ways by spending more time with her doing other things, which I never did.
I recently started shopping at a family owned grocery store that has been serving Chicago’s Italian community since the owner started the business right after the Second World War. Shopping there is an experience beyond description. Being semi-retired, I go there during the daytime and it was my third or fourth visit before I noticed something unique about that store.
The aisles were filled with very old woman trudging along reading labels, daughters trailing close behind. I even saw a few sons accompanying their aging mothers as they studied, read, and debated the merits of one ingredient over another.
How did these people do what I could not bring myself to do? I gathered up my courage and walked up to one of the daughters who looked like she would not scold me too hard for being such an insensitive oaf. I briefly spun my tale of my own mother and told her how much I admired her patience in allowing her own mother to indulge her passion.
She dutifully laughed at my tale and she sheepishly admitted the experience drove her crazy as well but she had learned to endure it. I asked her how and she told me to take a long look at her mother about her task. I did and I saw something in that old woman I had never taken the time to see in my own mother – sheer joy. The daughter was willing to sacrifice of her time and herself to allow her mother the pleasures of that shopping experience. I wish I had taken the time back then to do the same.