The other night, my wife and I returned from doing “big” shopping at one of those big-as-an-indoor -football-stadium warehouse stores where you have to buy Kleenex in quantities that could have kept the Army of Northern Virginia in the field for six weeks.
After dropping off a check in the mid-triple digits to this establishment, we loaded up and headed for home. Once there, we pulled into the driveway. We didn’t pull into the garage, not because we don’t have a garage, but because there’s so much junk in the garage you couldn’t park an anorexic Yugo in this space.
Actually, one might look into our garage and conclude quite logically that there is some on-going experiment in Newtonian physics about time and space and how much stuff can occupy a space and how much time does it take for the husband to clear it out.
So we parked in the driveway … and waited. Lurking inside the house were our children, left behind with the thinking that our 16-year-old was old enough to hold down the fort until we got back. Usually, I would have exited the mini-van, opened the door to the house and, in a calm but assertive voice, explained to my children about the wonder of exercise found in getting groceries out of a car.
But this time I didn’t. Instead, we just sat in the mini-van and waited.
I don’t really know how long this interlude lasted — a minute, five minutes; I couldn’t tell for sure. But for a brief moment in time we breathed in the peace and quiet.
Some people breathe deep at sunsets over the Grand Canyon or the sun’s first rays dancing off the Eiffel Tower in angles and colors that inspire expatriate watercolorists on the banks of the Seine. My wife and I had to settle for the interior of a Japanese made mini-van parked in the driveway of a suburban home in the very un-French-like Van Nuys, Calif. But we were almost beside ourselves in the blissful solitude.
And then I understood.
I can’t speak for my older brothers and sisters, because like a lot these articles that I have written about my American Catholic family, many of the memories are mine and seen through my prism. Others may have seen it differently, but then they can write their own articles.
But as far as I know, when I was a kid growing up in our house, Wednesday night was “shopping night.” That was the night when our mom and dad would go out to a supermarket and buy a week’s worth of food stores for the family.
Now, as I have mentioned in this column before, our dad was a grocer. But since he worked in a small, neighborhood market, he knew that better prices were to be had at supermarkets, and he had an expert’s eye of what was a bargain and what was not. And when you are buying for a household of double-digit occupancy, and all you’ve got is a solitary grocer’s paycheck, you’d better know how to shop.
Keep in mind this was before the day of the membership mega-stores that seem to swallow families whole between walls of three-ton boxes of laundry detergent and 10-gallon jars of extra-virgin olive oil.
Also keep in mind this was an era where a grocer could keep his family in the staples of hamburger meat, spaghetti and Nestlé Quik as long as he forsook trivial expenditures such as more than one pair of shoes for himself, a new car or a personal retirement account.
The appeal of “shopping night” always escaped me, other than our own excitement of having an hour to an hour and a half without parental supervision, of course. Though some of these nights ended up with someone, usually me, sitting in the waiting room of the hospital, the thrill of un-tethered freedom at the house when our mom and dad were out was palpable.
The roughhousing and general monkey business that ensued in our parents’ absence usually entailed the male siblings.
Our sister Fran was almost always at a novena on Wednesday, our oldest sister was married by this time, and Helen Mary never much cared for re-enactments of the Battle of Waterloo in our living room anyway. But when that unmistakable sound of tires on gravel was heard, we seemed to have the hearing of Ozark Mountain big-eared bats: We knew it was time to give peace a chance.
We knew it was time to put the house back together in some facsimile of antebellum orientation. We knew we had a window of opportunity as our parents never seemed to immediately get out of the station wagon.
This was good news indeed, as couch cushions that had served as barricades could be put back where they belonged, chairs turned on their sides to cover your right flank were up-righted, and a quick assessment of collateral damage was made to determine if there was anything that needed to be hidden behind the “jungle curtains” in the living room, or, God forbid, there was substantial enough collateral damage to a chandelier, lamp, vase or piece of furniture that was going to require somebody taking the fall for it.
A lookout would oftentimes be posted on the back porch between the washing machine and second refrigerator to observe parental movements in the station wagon. That heavy responsibility would sometimes fall on my shoulders.
I remember watching my parents just sitting there in the front bench seat of the station wagon, talking. Seriously, what could they possibly have to say to one another that hadn’t already been said? At the time, it made no sense to me at all.
Now it does.
My parents were doing what my wife and I were doing: stealing a moment away from the hectic and sometimes chaotic rhythms of family life. I confess, my parents might have been in more urgent need of “quiet time” then either my wife or I are due, but in many respects it’s the same thing. Family life truly is a 24-hour-a-day job, with no vacation time, sick time or time off for good behavior.
As my wife and I sat in the car I told her about it all coming back to me, about “shopping night,” about how I was unconsciously “re-enacting” the movements of my parents. And it felt good. It felt like I was connected to them. We gave it another minute or two and then thought we better go inside and check to see if anybody was bleeding.
Robert Brennan writes
from Los Angeles.